San Pedro de Atacama is an oasis visible far ahead as we drive the rail-straight road out of Calama. The road shimmers and is unendingly flat, in the moonscape desert all around you; San Pedro is the only green patch. It's called the Valley of the Moon.
The Andean Cordillera
San Pedro is located at the foothills of the Andean cordillera, which reaches an altitude of 6,100 meters in this area. The majestic and mystic volcano Licancabur (5,916 meters above sea level) is in front of the village, only 40 kilometers away. Licancabar, or ‘village hill’, was venerated by the Incas, who carried out ceremonies and left offerings at the top.
San Pedro’s streets are just wide enough for vehicles to pass. Most of the shops and restaurants are located here on Caracoles Street. Peeking in the windows and open doors of the low-slung buildings, you see guides sitting with customers discussing excursions, and people dining next to fireplaces and firepits.
It has been written in guide books that San Pedro de Atacama grows on people, that some travelers arrive here and never leave--the proverbial Shangri La. It is also true that tourism is the lifeblood of the economy, since the only other source of jobs is two hours south at Calama, where the world’s largest open-pit copper mine sprawls in a four- kilometer spiral out of a former mountainside that is visible from space. Tours leave every day at 9:30 am.
Guiding tours or tending to tourists and agriculture are the main industries in San Pedro. Hiring one of the fifty available guide services is essential for experiencing the natural other-worldly attractions here. We chose Desert Adventure, a solid and reliable organization with a fleet of minibuses and vans capable of driving the terrible washboard rutted roads. We appreciated the expertise of our guide Danilo Vidal, who was passionate about the place and provided an up-close look at its many wonders.
On our way to San Pedro, Danilo pointed out the connicle shape of the Lascar volcano, which last erupted as recently as this year. The smoke from the volcano formed the only clouds we saw in this area's remarkedly blue sky.
The lonely little town of Toconao with its 530 residents can be found en route to the mountain lagoons. Here you can visit the back courtyard of a little store and find alpaca and llama scarves and sweaters, and feed weeds to the animals who gave the wool.
Out in the desert, we stopped by a marker, four plain white tubes against the boiling sky. “This is the tropic of Capricorn,” Danilo said. He pointed to a path going far out into the desert. “This is the Inca Trail.” This track was once traveled by the Inca, who developed a sophisticated society complete with irrigation systems and a complex language, and perished en masse when the Spaniards came in the 1500s. Many artifacts documenting this period's clash of cultures of this period can be found in the town’s museum.
All around were volcanoes, mostly dormant, with ribbons of snow coming down from their
peaks. The altitude was about 13,500
feet. Our heads were light as we donned copious amounts of sunscreen and proper headgear, (required, and a floppy hat with a wide brim is a good idea). Our hearts quickened and a sense of lightness came to us on the altiplano this high up.
In these harsh conditions, only the hardiest prickly little plants survive, but animals abound: partidges, larger than in the U.S., skittered out of the way as we approached, pink flamingoes rival those seen in Boca Raton yards, and vicuna, which resemble a cross between a deer and a llama. These docile creatures are prized for their fur, taken from the beasts with a comb and made into the finest sweaters, even finer than alpaca or cashmere.
We asked many of the people we met in Chile about what life was like under the Pinochet rule. Mainly, the answer was that there was no freedom, and people kept their heads down to avoid trouble.
That this first-ever woman candidate was able to forget, and not hold a grudge was the important thing, and that is why she is expected to make history in December when Chile goes to the polls.
Another young woman we met told us how she hated communists. We asked her about the torture and missing people from that time. “Oh there were some excesses," she answered blandly, but it wasn’t that bad. Danielo and others would strongly disagree.
Dinner by the Fire Pit
Dinner was inside one of these holes in the adobe. We entered an open -air courtyard with a straw roof covering just the outside area. Rocks were arranged in a circle and a fire blazed. This is the style here, where most of the restaurants have fires in the center of these courtyards.
A simple salad of beet greens and croutons was also on the menu.
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