It´s easy to say, but harder for you the reader to fully grasp, that everywhere we´ve visited here in South America till now have felt pretty similar, maybe El Chalten or Puerto Natales broke the mould a bit being really small towns in the middle of nowhere, but really and truly this is the 1st town really to have a completely different look and feel to it. It is in the middle of nowhere, but more than that, all the buildings are single story, all the walls are either red mud or whitewashed, the mud roads which are ubiquitous are treated with something to keep the dust down but to leave them authentic looking. All in all this small town of San Pedro de Atacama is the closest to walking into a real cowboy/western movie set we´ve ever come…. Until that is you take a closer look. Its quirky and authentic looking at 1st sight but then you see nothing but tourist trap tatt shops, tour agencies, bureau de change offices and restaurants with touts outside. All in all it is a bit of a tourist hell, but who can blame these people or the town. Most people come here to go on day trips – to the volcanoes, to the hot springs, to the sand dunes to sand board, to the salt flats, to the moon valley, to the valley of death…. Some (like us) even come to go on a three day 4×4 trip across the border into Bolivia via lakes, via hot springs, via rock formations, via the world´s largest salt lake…
All that said the town is compelling and you can´t help but want to slow down, relax here. It doesn´t make it easy for you to choose, granted, as there are a dozen or more operators for us to choose from for every activity, with lots of varied prices, and with wildly differing reviews online. It´s worse than trying to choose a hostel, because once you commit to this choice your life is in their hands for 3 days on the dirt roads, you can´t just walk away.
So information collected, we went away to decide who the lucky company were going to be. It was, and hopefully vindicated, a no brainer we think, one operator we were speaking to, when some girls arrived off of one of their trips, so we were able to get their opinion straight up and they seemed pretty happy with them. With our fingers crossed, we go back later in the evening and put our money down. The guy to be fair was the only one out of 5 to tell us anything about what to expect regarding altitude sickness (we´re at ~2500m here and on the 1st day of the trip we drive up to 4500m and then descend to ~4000m to stay the night) and what food/drink to avoid 24 hours before we start. So we were likely to choose him anyway. Let´s just hope the driver we get lives up to our expectations!
The 3 day trip starts on Monday morning and Dan and Huw were going to go cycling Sunday afternoon – see the sun go down, Bernice wasn´t feeling up to it – but when we got up and got into town to do the few jobs we had to do, we ended up going for a short walk that was recommend by the guy who sold us the 3 day trip after lunch pre the cycle ride. It turned into a 3 hour trek from the town to a local archaeological site: ”Pukara de Quitor” which was an old town ruin on a hillside and a mirador looking back at the whole beautiful landscape of the desert, the town, the volcanoes, amazing! We would definitely recommend that anyone coming to San Pedro do this walk to get orientated before signing up to any tours.
Needless to say the bike ride didn´t happen when we got back, just a little chilling before a hot shower to wash all the dust off before dinner. It´s an early night tonight as we (a) can´t have a beer (b) set off at 8am tomorrow.
Oh yeah, and you might have noticed, we do have wifi here, we didn´t expect it.