Today I am looking back on where I was FIVE years ago in my travel story. At that time I was living in the desert of Northern, Chile and planting English programs in schools through a United Nations Initiative Project. On that very weekend I escaped my seaside town, Antofagasta, to explore the Atacama desert. To recap I am pulling up an expert from my travel diaries…Enjoy!
November 2010- San Pedro Atacama
Wow! I have been blessed with two extremely unbelievable weekends the last two weeks. I have a lot to fill you all in on. Two weeks ago my roommate, Jeanina, and I made our way to San Pedro Atacama. San Pedro is a very small town located in the heart of a nature park. The park is HUGE and there are so many places to see including salt flats with flamingos, geysers, and an active volcano. For our first trip, we were able to take two tours, and they were both extremely amazing! But I am getting ahead of myself, so first things first.
Friday afternoon Jeanina and I hopped on a bus and made our way to a town located three hours inland towards the desert called Calema. A handful of volunteers in our program live in Calema, two of them being our good friends. We were really excited to have a reunion with them so quickly after getting here. For the first night we decided to stay in Calema because the elevation is much higher both there and in San Pedro. It is recommended to gradually go up in altitude.
Jeanina and I stayed with our friend Sara. Before we went to Calema, whenever we heard about the city, we were told two words – (pardon my French) “shit hole.” It literally says that in the Lonely Planet book when describing this city. Calema is a mining town located in the middle of the desert. People really only live there because of the mines. It is also known for prostitutes, drugs and a lot of dogs. So with that said we were not expecting a great night there.
We started our drive around 1:00. It was a pretty interesting drive through the desert. Sandy hills lined the side of the roads with simply nothingness for miles and miles. To our surprise there was quite a deal of trash scattered throughout the desert during the first leg of our journey. We later asked about this and were given this explanation. Antofagasta paid a company to collect trash and install new trash receptacles throughout the city. Chile is still developing in some ways and many businesses still suffer from corruption. The business responsible for trash pick up took the money and ran. For three months in Antofagasta there was no trash pick up. It took a cholera outbreak for the situation to finally get taken care of. Prior to that some people were taking their trash and putting it in the desert, but hey can you blame them? I am happy that I wasn’t here to witness that, and I am still taking some precautions like peeling the skin off of my tomatoes. Ha ha!
Back to Calema though. Beyond the trash, the desert was beautiful! The sun was setting as we made our way into the city, and beautiful shadows and tints danced around the desert. My eyes were glued to the views outside the bus. We drove past a small abandoned town with buildings in ruins. Apparently there are a handful of “ghost towns” in the area surrounding Antofagasta. It was pretty neat to see!
Finally, after three hours, we made it! We pulled into the bus station and saw Sara smiling and waving in our direction. We held our breath and hopped off the bus. As we made our way into the city, however, we were very presently surprised! The town was very clean. There were fewer dogs than Antofagasta, and there were no bad smells. We were set!
Sara’s host home was amazing! I guess this a good time to touch on where I am living a little bit more with that said. I really am enjoying Antofagasta for the many challenges it comes in living in a dry desert mining town. I am living in a poor area of the city. My street begins at the ocean and runs into the hills of the desert. It could be considered the lifeline of the city. As you walk from the sea many of the major stores and shops line the edges of it. As you go higher up it gets dustier and becomes mostly residential. About a block from my residence is an all male prison that we walk past each day, with prisoners shouting out their windows. Like most cities, Antofagasta has some problems with drugs and crime. The majority of the problem is located in the North of the city. There are also some issues in the center (closer to my home). I have to be honest when saying I don’t live in the safest area, but my home is situated further from where there is crime, drug problems and violence. As I learn the city, my friends are filling me in more and more about what streets to avoid and how to find my way around. Collectivos (their taxi system here) run all night long and are about two dollars to get anywhere in the city. So this is a safe option. We try to avoid going out at night as much as possible and, when we do, we take as many precautions as possible. When my roommate went out to work tonight, I armed her with pepper spray and my cell phone (hers wasn’t letting her make outgoing calls at the moment). I wanted to make sure that she would be okay walking alone.
Back to my travels, Calema was a pleasant surprise for me. After getting settled, the three of us hopped into a collectivo and explored the town. The center was similar to Antofagasta and a typical northern Chilean town I would say (from my little experience). We ate dinner at a place called Shop Dogs. It is a chain here in Chile. We ate one of the ‘healthiest’ Chilean dishes that you can get here, Chorillano. It is a plate of French fries with Meat, Cheese and Eggs on top. DELICIOUS, but I spent the rest of the night in full regret for my decision to eat it.
After dinner we walked through the streets of Calema a bit. There were street performers drawing a crowd and playing drums in a circle. It was really neat! At 8:00 Sara´s host mom called and told us there was a performance in town. We walked to the local theater and found ourselves at a very festive Chilean dance performance. People from age 10 to 70 were dancing, playing instruments and singing. Everyone was in full costume. It was really an amazing thing to witness. We stayed at the performance for about two hours and then decided to call it a night. We had to be up early for San Pedro! Sara had a really big bed so we all slept in it together. There was an extra bedroom upstairs but we were not sure we were welcome to sleep in it. There was plenty of room in the bed and we all slept well. However, in the morning Sara´s host mom was cracking up! She could not believe that we all shared a bed. She said she had two extra beds for us. I tell this story because it is a good example of common confusion that occurs on a pretty regular basis. With the language barriers I am always scratching my head, hoping I understand and generally just agree to everything. I hope that this strategy for general agreement never causes me to get into any trouble! Ha ha. It does cause me to eat a lot of food though. Yum! The Chileans just laugh at the ¨crazy gringos¨ while we are just trying to be polite and adapt to their culture. Ha ha!
So on Saturday morning we woke up around 8:00 and took the short trip to the bus station. The bus, we were told, was leaving right when we got there. Our co-volunteers and friends Matt (who also lives in Calema) and Kevin (who made the trek from Arica) also came along with us. We ran to the bus only to end up waiting for it for an hour and a half. Chilean time….is something else. Being flexible here is definitely a necessity or you probably won’t make it.
So finally, after a lot of waiting, we made our way to San Pedro. We arrived around noon and hopped off the bus to find ourselves in the most charming little town. It looked like a set from the wild west. There were dirt roads lined with stucco homes and walls. People rode down the streets on horseback. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had booked a hostel the night before and we walked through the city searching for it. It took a little bit of time to figure out the winding streets. After a stop for an empanada, we eventually got there!
The hostel was very simple. It was open to the elements everywhere but in the bedrooms. With the lack of rain (or so I had thought), buildings are constructed with little concern for protection. We spent a short time in the hostel and made our way back into the heart of the city. When we got there, we explored a small church in the center. The roof of the church was constructed entirely from cacti. It was absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately the church took a bit of a hit from the last earthquake, but it still was very nice. As we continued walking, we stumbled upon a man with two baby llamas. He walked right up to me and handed me both of the ropes they were tied to and then took a seat. I was a little confused at first but then very amused. The llamas ran around and I tried my best not to lose them. They came up to me and started trying to eat my shirt and purse. Sara and Jeanina came over and helped me keep the little guys under control. After a few minutes and a lot of photos the man came back for his llamas. We had a lot of fun with the little guys! After exploring the city a little more, we were on our way to find a tour. Our first San Pedro tour we booked was a trip to a place called Valley de Luna. (I will put pictures up as soon as possible. Sorry, but the internet isn’t very cooperative here.) Before leaving on the tour, Matt and Kevin bought some coca leaves. They sell them here to help with the altitude. We would be going pretty high up, so I decided to give them a try. You are supposed to put them on the side of your mouth and leave them there for about a half hour. For that half hour the only reaction I got was a very dry mouth, and the feeling that I was sucking on a tea bag. I am not sure if they actually helped me get adjusted to the altitude, but my guess is probably not.
The tour was around four hours, and we stopped throughout the park to explore natural caves, a canyon, a rock formation that resembled the Virgin Mary and finally the Valley itself. Each stop of the bus blew me away. We would hop off each time to find sites more exciting than the last. My heart was full, and I don’t think a smile left my face during the entire trip. The many colors of the rocks with the sun dancing off of it and creating stunning shadows was an unbelievable site to see. We got to Valley de Luna just in time for the sun to set. Many of us from the tour climbed up a sand mountain and witnessed it from there. In Valley de Luna the moon can be seen almost all day and, as we watched the sun set, the moon stayed high in the sky. It was breathtaking.
Our tour bus was filled with wonderful people. We have been told that San Pedro is the most beautiful location in all of Northern Chile and I can absolutely see why. We were surrounded by other tourists from all around the world. It was really fun and exciting to talk to these people as we made our way on the bus. I met a wonderful couple from the Netherlands who had been traveling through South America for about eight months. It was unbelievable to hear their experiences!
We made it back to San Pedro to pitch black. I had bought groceries before going to San Pedro, and we started back to the hostel so I could cook dinner. The boys were starving so we stopped for empanadas along the way. They were delicious and freshly baked. As we walked back to the hostel, our eyes could not believe the night sky. Stars stretched for miles. We decide to find ourselves a field and we spent the next hour lying in it with our eyes glued upwards. Shooting stars flew through the air. It was stunning.
After looking at the stars, we finally ate dinner at the hostel. Sara, Jeanina and I booked a tour to see the geysers the next morning. The geysers are most active in the morning so we were scheduled to be picked up at our hostel at 3:30am. I went to bed nervous about waking up so early and the high altitude that people continually warned us about. The geysers were in an area of extremely high elevation and people often get sick at them.
At 3:30 we stumbled out of bed very groggy and hopped onto our tour bus. The bus was quickly filled with other people, and we got cozy for a two hour trip through the desert and up to the geysers. Because of the high elevation and the lack of sun this early, the temperature was around -20 degrees Celsius. We were all freezing. Jeanina is from California and she did not take to the extreme cold very easily. Luckily I had brought my entire backpack with me for the trip. Before I got off the bus I put on 6 layers of shirts and four layers of pants. To top off my new wardrobe I got out my sleeping bag and wrapped it around myself. Everyone else on the bus cracked up as they saw me walking around with a giant red sleeping bag draped around me, but hey I was warm!
The first thing we did when we got to the geysers was have breakfast. It was simple with bread, jam, tea and coffee. The tea was coca tea to help those that were feeling the altitude. Luckily none of us ended up getting sick at all on our tour. We had been told earlier to drink a lot of water the day before and the advice helped us.
The geysers were like walking on another planet. After about 45 minutes of being there, the sun started to rise and the geysers began to bubble. Steam and hot water shot through the rocky earth. Puffs of smoke flew everywhere. It was unreal. We walked around looking at the geysers and freezing for a while when the tour guide asked me first if I wanted to wear his coat instead of wearing my ridiculous sleeping bag. I told him I would keep the sleeping bag. Second he told me that I had to go swimming in the hot springs of the geysers. I looked down at the layers and layers of clothing I was wearing and questioned if it was worth possibly getting pneumonia if I put my bathing suit on. He told me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So Sara, Jeanina and I headed back to the bus, took off layers and layers and headed to the hot springs with our bathing suits and towels. It was freezing outside! It was getting a bit warmer by the time we got back outside since the sun had begun rising. But by “warmer” I mean still absolutely freezing. We were all shivering. We pulled off our sweat pants and jackets and ran into the hot springs in our bathing suits. The water was so warm! In some places too warm even. Suddenly we forgot how cold we were and had a great time swimming in the springs. We had made friends with an Australian couple on our tour, and they joined us in the water. We all searched for the warmest places to sit and would call everyone over whenever we found a new hot spot. It was a bunch of fun and definitely a once in a lifetime experience. As we swam around we peered at the bubbling geysers surrounding us and the smoking volcano that we could see in the distance. We spent the remainder of our time at the geysers in the hot spring mainly because we had no idea how we could possibly get out of the water back into the freezing air. Finally I took the first step and was the first one out. Surprisingly it was not as terrible as I expected. I threw my sweats on and ran for the bus to find the rest of my layers waiting for me, and an unbelievable experience fresh in my memory.
After the geysers our tour continued through the park for several more hours. The drive was unbelievable and, even though I was tired, I still found myself glued to the window. We drove through the park and marveled as alpacas and other animals popped out of the sand. After about 45 minutes we stopped at the only place that was inhabited by people in the natural park. We got off the bus to find a very cute little village. It was made up of about ten little huts with straw roofs. The town had been abandoned for many years and natives had just recently begun living there again. We walked through the tiny town and found an old man selling llama shish kabobs. We knew we had to try llama meat. Each of us got a kabob. The meat was a bit chewy, but I was happy to check off “eat llama meat” from my bucket list.
Following the little town we stopped at a river that ran through the very dry park. Vegetation surrounded the village and many types of birds made their home in this place. It was really neat to see the desert vegetation and different types of cranes and ducks. Our final stop was to view some of the biggest cacti that can be found in San Pedro. We pulled over on the side of the desert and took a three minute walk to find an enormous cactus towering over us. The tour guide told us that this cactus was over 150 years old. For many years in San Pedro people used the cacti for wood to build their homes. When you walk into some of the older buildings and peer up at the roofs you can find a beautiful unique wood. This is the cactus wood. Today the cacti are protected in San Pedro.
After the final cactus stop it was near 10:00. My exhaustion finally set in as we made our way back to town. The three of us fell asleep on the bus and we awoke, after forty five minutes, back in San Pedro with sleepy eyes and an experience of a lifetime behind us! We gathered our things and decided that, although we would love to stay and explore the rest of the park, it would have to wait for another weekend. We were very tired and had school to prepare for the following day. We walked to the bus station and, after a lot of confusion, made our way back to Antofogasta just in time to watch the sun sink into the sand of the desert. What an amazing weekend!