San Pedro de Atacama

July 8th — 14th, 2018.

Unreal landscape.

Unreal. This word kept escaping from my mouth as we toured the striking landscape that surrounds the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama.

I had not expected the landscape of the Atacama to be so vibrant. Given the region is the driest place on Earth and runs along the spine of the arid Andes mountain range, I had imagined it to be dull and lacking of color. I was wrong. Color is abundant. The salt flats glisten white, blue, and gray. Florescent pink flamingos dance in circles with their heads down, scurrying for food, on top the shallow pools in the middle of the expansive flats. Craters of burnt red salt and clay, molded by water and wind for millions of years, go on for miles just south of the town — providing explanation to its “Moon Valley” label. Effervescent lagoons, situated in the valleys of the volcanic ash mountains, alternate between hews of indigo, aqua green, and cobalt under the clouds’ shadows.

As our surprisingly firm and steady tour van traversed a caldera (that was formed by the explosion of a supervolcano ~5 million years ago) on the way to Salar de Tara, we passed over deep black gravel topped with bundles of yellowish, green bushes that poked from the ground like busy haired chia pets. Freely roaming wild vicunas and llamas carelessly snacked on these head sized shrubs with the comfort of knowing few predators dare make it up to these steep heights (15,478 feet to be precise).

I also did not expect San Pedro to be so touristy. The place is full of and caters to tourists. The secret is out and tourists from every corner of the world come to explore the riches of this place. Every other storefront on the main street tout signs highlighting tours to the remarkable sights. Chic, bohemian style restaurants and cafes are slowly replacing the local eateries.

Thankfully, tourism has not completely taken over the town. It is still somewhat easy to find more local establishments. Venturing off the main strip, streets open up to soccer pitches filled with neighborhood kids playing pick up games. Wooden hut restaurants with menus listing local cuisine cling to the outskirts of town. One or two local eateries strongholds can still be found in the rapidly changing main strip, you just need to keep you eyes, and nose, open for them.

Unreal and unexpected — that is how I will remember San Pedro de Atacama.

3 highlights:

  • Rotisserie Pollo at Tchiuchi. How do you say delicious in Spanish? Tchiuchiu Pollo. Ok, I know the proper word is delicioso, BUT one could make a strong argument that the rotisserie chicken served at this local hole-in-the-could easily serve as the definition for the word. It is that good.
  • Running down the sand dunes in the Moon Valley. This may be the only time where a steep decent did not scare me. Normally I need to be coxed down a hill, like a cow going down stairs. I am not a fan of heights nor am I a fan of steep decent. The soft, buoyant sand of the dunes must of tricked my mind into believing I would be safe should I stumble and fall. When instructed by our tour guide, Francisco, to take the leap, I straightened my pants, zipped up my coat, and galloped down the hill, feeling as though I was flying the whole time. You’ll just have to imagine the scene, since the video Prathap was so eager to take of me rarely embracing a downhill decent does not exist — he forgot to press play.
  • Pizza night with pisco sodas at our AirBnB. On the last night of our stay, our AirBnB hosts put together a pizza night for the handful of guests staying at their house. A group of Chinese girls has just arrived that day, and it was one of the girls’ birthday. As the fresh oven pizzas and pisco sodas kept flowing, I found myself playing “translator” between the group of Chinese girls, and the Chilean hosts. No, I was not using the limited Chinese I picked up while living in Shanghai, but rather I was just helping to articulate the English words spoken between the two groups so that they could follow along. When I had to explain to the Chilean hosts what the Chinese birthday girl meant by saying, “I need to throw up”, I looked around and decided I was past my partying prime, and put myself to bed. It was a fun, strange, semi-sober night.
Dancing Flamingo searching for food in the salt lake pool.
Groups of Flamingos all march in unison.
Perfect reflection.
In awe of the beauty.
This is not photoshoped folks!
One of the multi-colored lagoons.
Just can’t get enough.
Angling to get that perfect pic.
Checking out the Moon Valley from above.
The Moon Valley — you can understand why it’s named as such.
A bit chilly at Salar de Tara!