Stranded in San Pedro

I was a little devastated when this post got deleted the first time I wrote it. But life goes on. Sorry for the delay. 

I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama in the late morning. The town is an oasis in the expansive Atacama, the driest hot desert in the world. I love this place and felt at home right away.

I found myself constantly comparing San Pedro with Moab, UT and Taos, NM, two places I’m also very fond of. It is a tourist town, but rightly so. The incredible beauty of the area and plethora of outdoor activities draws vacationing gringos and Chilenos alike.

I got settled at Hostal Rural – at 8,000 pesos a night ($16), a good deal for local standards – heading out to see the lay of the land. San Pedro is small enough that you can see most of the town in an hour. On the northern outskirts I stumbled upon another Chilean cemetery. It was less over the top than the last one but the light was much better for picture taking.

Nearby I had lunch at the row of local food vendors. Though my book said they were the cheapest eats in town I still found it reasonably expensive. That said it was really good and I got a lot of food for the money.

Chilling at the hostel for a spell, I headed out for an evening tour of the Valle de Luna (Moon Valley). 

On my way out the door I meet Eric and Sarah, a young couple (England and Ireland, respectively) who were on the same tour. With promises of a sunset finale, we decided we would be wise to bring some wine. Eric and I sprinted down the street in search of a liquor store, with the van expected to arrive any minute.

After spotting a place, I was quick to grab a box of Clos-brand vino tinto, a tried and true favorite from my time in Baños. Eric sprung for a glass bottle, which he would later struggle to open without corkscrew. Sarah was holding the van when we rushed back, just before they were going to leave without us.

Besides us and a Brazilian girl, Elena, the rest of the tour was filled with a group of middle aged Polish tourists. We should have known better than to think we were the only ones to bring booze, as one of the gnarlier characters began schlogging a glass flask of vodka fairly early into the drive.

As simple as a tour as it was, the pure beauty of the Atacama made it a truly memorable experience. 

Driving from site to site, we soaked in panoramic views of Mars-like rock formations, walked through the narrow Valle del Muerto (Death Valley), and scrambled through a long, winding cave. As lifeless as they are, I find deserts to be one of the most attractive landscapes there are.

The climax came at the end. After a sandy five-minute walk in, we climbed up a rocky ridge adjacent to a curvaceous sand dune, already painted orange by the sun. We claimed our seat and cracked open the wine as the show started. We saw just about every color in the spectrum as the sun slowly receded behind the red, rocky valley. As our tour guide promised the best part came 10 minutes after the sun disappeared, lighting the sky with a deep magenta in a second coming of color. It was special.

Starved upon our return, Eric and Sarah showed us Barros, a restaurant with formidable and affordable three-course meals, indoor fire pits and live music. Our entertainment for the night was a Chilean folk singer who really knew how to use a guitar. We may have had more wine. With early activities to get to in the morning, we all turned in early.

The next day was all about sandboarding.

Having done it in Oregon some years ago and having missed the opportunity when I was in Peru, I was very excited to shred some fine sediment. The group met in the main plaza, and we were belatedly greeted by our guide/instructor Sebastian (more on him in a minute). After being fitted for boards and bindings, we walked several blocks to the van.

Sebastian in an original. As suits his appearance, the dreadlocked Chilean does’t take many things seriously. On the drive to the dune he treated us to completely bullshit explanations of the local history and geology, joking how the (completely dry) river is great for rafting, as long as we aren’t scared of sharks. He loves poking fun at the gringos.

When we got to the dune – back up Valle del Muerto – Sebastian lit up a cigarette and marched us up the hill for a long-winded explanation of how to sandboard and not end up with a mouth full of sand. He smoked at least one cigarette for every run he took. Already knowing what I was doing I was anxious to start.

When we finally begun I was king of the mountain. 

Surfing down the slope was like riding a bike, and I double lapped most of my peers. Thanks to all the walking and hiking I’ve been doing I am in stunning shape compared to most people I’ve met, and the altitude acclimation doesn’t hurt either (San Pedro is fairly high up). While many people required frequent breaks in our 2.5 hour session – a Korean girl even gave up after one run – I hardly stopped, intent on getting my money’s worth. With each consecutive run I hiked a little higher up the ridge, challenging myself with a longer and steeper ride.

Like everyone else I fell a couple times, but it’s not sandboarding if you don’t go home with a little sand in your crack. While I might compare the not-so-graceful sport more to sledding than to skiing, I had a lot of fun gliding down the hill for a couple hours, the artificial breeze giving me a temporary reprieve from the desert heat.

After an active morning, I spent most of the afternoon in the hostel’s little hangout pit, buried in my book.

After I while I was joined by a pair of traveling Brits. While I would later learn to dislike one of them in particular, I had a nice time talking about books and travel, later grabbing some beer and pisco. We chilled at the hostel all night, drinking and making acquaintance with all who walked by.

At some hour I realized I had yet to eat dinner, so I rushed out to the minimart right before they closed and bought myself a cheap packet of ramen to heat up. It wasn’t luxurious but the price and convenience were just right. After a bit more friend-making I turned in, sleeping very well under my cozy beer blanket.

Always trying to budget my time, I try to spend too much time in any one place.

After some time spent in front of a map and a calendar, I decided my next destination would be Salta, a city in the north of Argentina, due east of San Pedro. With Chile and Argentina shaped as they are, it really doesn’t make sense to explore one country all at once, just to come back up to see the next. Moving north feels unnatural at this point.

Although I heard early on that there was a popular bus from San Pedro to Salta, I learned on Friday that said bus only departs three times a week. While I try to stick to the two night rule, my heart was set on Salta and another day in San Pedro sounded pretty darn pleasant. Sometimes fate has to remind me that I’m not ready to leave.

My last day in Atacama was about doing exactly what I wanted to do.

I woke up at an early hour and bought groceries. With the simple ingredients of bread, cheese, egg and avocado, I was able to prepare a beautiful breakfast that made more than a couple strangers compliment it in jealousy.

Tired of being hauled around on tours, my plan was to rent a bike and a sandboard, and explore the desert on my own.

Eric and Sarah had originally expressed interest in joining me but had to bail. Instead, I met John, an American study abroad student from Austin, TX, who had the same plan as me. We were joined by Kevin, a guy from Thailand, as well as that Brit I didn’t like.

It took a while to get everyone together, the Brit in particular taking his time, but we finally managed to leave the hostel and rent our gear by the late morning. We hooked our boards into our backpack straps so it looked like we had wings as we biked through the desert. Knowing the way to the dune, I led the pack.

This was my third trip up Valle del Muerto and I finally had the freedom to enjoy it in full, stopping for pictures and enjoying the view at my own pace. We got to the hill just before midday, and, as ought to be expected, it was really hot. I marched the boys up the hill and instructed them on how to ride the sand, but left them up to their own education after that. Some picked it up faster than others, but I think everyone had a good time except the Brit. Despite being decent at it, he said he found it a bit boring.

It was then, while taking laps on the dune, I was struck by a profound sense of euphoria. 

Rolling in the sand, stranded in the middle of an expansive dessert, I realized how happy I was. To be so far from home, independent and cut off from all responsibility and suffering in the world, I had reached my nirvana. I appreciated my fortune to be here and the beautiful, simple life I am allowed to enjoy for a time. I pitied the soggy Brit, who was in the same exact situation, but a tenth as happy, simply because of his attitude toward life. At least when it comes to the basics of human existence, I felt I had something figured out.

While I could have kept riding the sand all day, the boys were getting weary and so was my knee.

We hopped back on our bikes and headed back into town to dump our boards and the wet blanket of an Englishman. After rehydrating and refueling, John, Kevin and I hit the road again. Following a very primitive map from the bike shop, we set out on a long stretch of unpaved highway that later turned out to be the wrong road, but I think I preferred it to the route we would later take.

In the heat, we struck an easy pace, talking about life as we pedaled – both are nice guys with good outlooks on life. As the only strong biker in the group, I took opportunities to set out ahead, bike with no hands and feel the wind. I was still running high on the day.

After figuring out the right route, we got to the first stop, a ruin on a hill that required an entrance fee. We decided we didn’t want to pay $6 for lackluster ruins. The boys were tired at this point, but I wasn’t finished yet. As they headed back to town, I was intent to getting a little more time in with my bike before calling it quits.

Though I had planned to bike the remaining 8 km., I soon noticed from the road an interesting stone arch tucked into a hillside valley. 

I followed a short single track trail to investigate. Carved into rock next to the arch was a large human face, and past the arch was a narrow canyon. I followed the canyon to the point where it funneled into a small cave. Cautiously, I crawled through the first 5 meter tunnel, which then led me to a larger, seemingly endless cave. I entered the tall, narrow opening. 

As I went deeper, it soon got too dark too see. With no other source of light I was forced to use my camera flash to take a picture of the terrain in front of me every few steps. The cave floor became increasingly uneven, and after going as far as good judgement allowed, I decided to turn around, not wanting to die alone in a cave.

By the time of my exit, I was feeling the length of my day and opted to return to town so I could turn in my bike before the rental expired

Back at the hostel the boys had showered, and invited me to an early dinner before Kevin caught his night bus to Santiago. I showed them Barros, from my first dinner in town. During our meal I asked the waitress if the folk singer from the other night was playing again. She said no, but that this night’s band was much better and well worth returning for. With no other plans, John and I decided to make it our evening activity.

After Kevin left, we chilled out for a bit before getting a six pack and drinking it on the hammocks. (Note to self: buy a hammock)

John is a good Austinite, with a laid back disposition and complete fluency in Spanish. Shortly before heading out, the Brits and some Australians returned from their Moon Valley tour. Hungry and intrigued by live music, our party grew rather quickly and we had 9 people to seat by the time we got to Barros. With the band about to go on, the place was packed, yet somehow had a single picnic table that could accommodate our whole crew.

Being the lucky fellow I am, I had the best seat in the house – within arm’s reach of half the band. With 6 foot long flutes and other traditional instruments, the shaggy Chileans lived up to the hype, playing some amazing Andean folk with a distinctive identity that is often missing in such music. Not having the money to buy a CD, I had one of the members write the band’s name on a napkin.

While the rest of the group has keen on stirring up some mischief and finding one of the “illegal parties” that sets up in the desert after local bars shut down, I had an early bus to catch and John and I both thought it sounded better to drinking more beer in the hammocks. So that’s what we did. 

For my own tastes and standards, it was a perfect day.


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