San Pedro de Atacama feels like a town straight out of the Old Wild West, with its adobe flat-top buildings and men dressed as gauchos casually riding horses down its dusty dirt roads. Except for the Internet cafes, ATMs and foreign money exchanges, tour vans, and signs announcing WiFi coverage in the main plaza, I might have been ambling around a California Gold Rush town in 1870.
Upon my arrival at eight in the morning, the town was completely quiet and almost deserted, making it feel even more like an old Western town. As I dragged my suitcase over the dry dusty road, it was hard to believe that this desert town had suffered abnormal amounts of rain in the past month that caused devastating flooding in the surrounding area, the worst they’ve had in eleven years. A madly overflowing river is an unusual occurrence for a place that is considered the driest place on earth.
Later that day, I saw firsthand how dusty streets and dry stone buildings can turn muddy and dark with wetness in a matter of minutes. A blanket of purple clouds arrived out of nowhere and exploded rain on the tiny town, causing tourists and locals alike to seek temporary shelter in the adobe shops and restaurants as streams of water poured from the flat roofs and accumulated in the dirt roads.
The next day the rain had abated and the skies were sunny, so I headed out for a run in the desert. A long road extended straight out from the town into the sandy tan and rocky orange landscape, with nary a building or person to be seen for miles and only a few odd cars passing every ten minutes or so. It was just me and the desert. And a snow-topped volcano that was peaking up on the horizon, looking very out of place towering above the arid orange landscape!
Enticed by the rumors of cool archeology attractions in San Pedro, I prepared myself for an afternoon archeology lesson. In the center of town is an archeology museum that showcases archeological findings from pre-historic humans in the Atacama Desert to the Incan reign to the Spanish colonization. Atacameño tools, jewelry, pottery, baskets, kitchen wares, and even tablets for inhaling hallucinogens were on display in impressive condition.
Next, I set off for Pukará de Quitor, a site of Incan ruins about 2 miles outside of town. A 12th century Incan building built of stone on a hill overlooking the San Pedro River, it presumably operated as a fortress because of its perimeter defensive wall. At least, that’s what my map told me it is. I was anxious to see it for myself, mostly because I am fascinated by ruins. It seems incredible that buildings from an ancient civilization remain existing today, providing clues to how these people from another era lived their lives.
I lumbered along the now-dry dirt street until I encountered the river overflowing across the road. My hope for an afternoon of archeological adventure was almost extinguished, but then I spotted a slab of wood crossing the river, serving as a pedestrian bridge. Obstacle overcome!
Trudging on past the flooded spot in the road, I made it another quarter of a mile, only to be interrupted again by the river gushing across the road. This time, there was no makeshift pedestrian bridge. There was no way to cross without getting my legs wet up to the knee.
Hmmm. I wasn’t too keen on wading through this disgusting-looking brown water. Slightly frustrated that my mission for the afternoon had failed, I turned around and retraced my steps back to town.
All was not lost when I arrived back in San Pedro. It was time to join my tour group to head to the Valle de la Luna, a desolate rocky canyon area where we would watch the sunset.
Apparently finding a reliable tour company for seeing the sights outside of town is an art, and visitors are advised to research the companies before making their ultimate choice. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to know what you are going to get from any given company, even if you read the big book of handwritten tourist comments in the tourist office right off the main plaza. (Plus, a lot of people have really hard-to-read handwriting. Not that I’m one to judge.)
Anyway, I definitely made the wrong choice. When I arrived at my chosen tour company’s office, it was an absolute madhouse. Tourists spilled out of the small office into the street while the woman in charge ran around like a crazy person trying to tell people where to go while attempting to answer the company’s phone that was ringing off the hook. Before I was able to hand over my credit card to pay for the tour, the woman shouted for me to follow a guy with a clipboard.
After all my care to book with a good tour company, I got sent with a guy from another company! My annoyance began to simmer, but I tried to have a positive attitude. There are certain aggravations you must endure when traveling in other parts of the world, I reminded myself.
The guy led me and a dozen others down the street away from the chaos, and we proceeded to wait for our tour van to pick us up. And wait, and wait, and wait. Forty minutes passed. A herd of sheep baa’ed their way on by, but there was no sign of our driver.
At this point my annoyance had boiled over. Chileans are notoriously late, and I tried to tell myself that while in Chile I had to accept the Chilean way of doing things. But in this case, I just really didn’t feel like dishing out money for a five-hour trip that was already almost 20% wasted.
I guess it was lucky that the woman at the tour company was too unorganized to accept my credit card before the tour started. I took this as a sign and snuck away from the group.
Instead of seeing the sun set at the Moon Valley, I downed a dinner of apple tart and pisco sour at a local restaurant. It was a fabulous tradeoff, I thought as I savored my sugar high.
I used my free evening to plan my last day in the desert. I had already struck out twice trying to see the attractions outside of San Pedro. The tour I had planned for the next day required me to get up at 3:30am in order to see the sunrise at the Geysers del Tatio. Ouch.
It probably would have been really fun to see a bunch of geysers spurting out of the earth as the sun rises behind them. But I was enjoying myself in the little town and didn’t feel like spending money on another tour that may or may not be good.
Sometimes while on a long-term trip, things just don’t work out, and it’s impossible to see every single amazing thing in every place I visit.
So, instead of being an ambitious traveler and seeing all that San Pedro had to offer, my lazy side decided to get a good night’s sleep and enjoy a leisurely last day in San Pedro to rest up for my next venture, a three-day trek through the desert to see the famous salt flats near Uyuni, Bolivia!