The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile
Leaving Santiago behind
My next leg of my Chile trip was a flight from Santiago to Calama, a city in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
Calama is one of the driest cities in the world averaging only just 5 mm of rainfall per year. The River Loa, Chile's longest river flows through the city and the world's biggest copper mine is here. From the air I could see the huge copper mine and many windmills producing power for the desert community.
My final destination was San Pedro De Atacama, located 98 kms from Calama and reached by a modern double decker bus travelling on a good highway. One nasty section had seen many accidents, crosses and flowers lined the side of the road, even the car the person had died in was still there as a reminder to slow down.
If you were asleep on the bus, and I wasn't, you would have wondered where you were when waking up, as the landscape we travelled through before entering San Pedro was the Valle de la Muerte or (Death Valley) as it's commonly known as. You may be forgiven for thinking you have arrived on the moon!
Near San Pedro De Atacama
My first impression of San Pedro was how different it was to the south - the people and the buildings. It wasn't a real good first impression as the buildings looked in disrepair and like they may crumble, many had huge rocks, milk crates and all sorts of things sitting on the roof to stop it being blown away, and the streets were dry and dusty.
San Pedro De Atacama
I was waiting for the cowboys to come down the road and a shoot-out to take place, you know, just like in the old Western movies. It didn't happen, but a Spanish gaucho came riding along on a very feisty horse which he handled just like a pro should.
Well, that was near enough for me, I just hope the horses the tourists were on were much quieter than his horse
The Hotel I had chosen to spend several nights was the Don Raul Hotel.
Don Raul Hotel
Accommodation was quite expensive here, I guess they know you can't go anywhere else to stay and charge accordingly.
The Hotel was located in the main street, (Caracoles street), named after the miners who years ago, left from here to work in the Caracoles silver mine, discovered in 1870. The street was dirt, just like all the streets in San Pedro. Reception could speak English and were very helpful with filling me in with information, and they gave me a map of the town too. They said I should take it easy the first day and acclimatize to the height and thin air as San Pedro was higher up than Santiago and care had to be taken, especially as I'm asthmatic.
I loved this Hotel! It was an adobe building, with great places to lounge around outdoors, my room was nice although on the small side, and breakfast was excellent. The breakfast had set menus from which I could choose omelettes, scrambled eggs, pancakes, waffles and much more, all was cooked fresh. If I was still hungry, then I could help myself to the buffet food, there was no excuse if you left breakfast feeling hungry or thirsty.
I had dinner at the Hotel Restaurant and that was excellent too!
My day was spent exploring San Pedro, booking tours for the next 3 days and browsing the enormous amount of souvenir shops - What a shame this was the beginning of my trip and not the end, I could have gone mad buying things to take home. I couldn't go window shopping as there weren't any windows, shops here just have a door through which you enter, some had a dull light, some just relied on natural light!
All the garments made from Llama wool weren't any good for me, but if you came from a cold climate, there was many a bargain to be picked up here.
San Pedro De Atacama souvenirs
San Pedro was full of backpackers and tour agencies, there wasn't any need to book ahead to do a tour here, in-fact, it was much cheaper than booking online. All offer virtually the same tours and prices do vary. The town was quite dead when I arrived, I found that altered when all the tours returned in the afternoon. San Pedro became a hive of activity.
San Pedro Roman Catholic church
The Roman Catholic church was constructed during the Spanish colonial period (17th century) in Adobe, whilst the ceilings were made from Locust tree and clay, that was later covered with large rafters of Algarrobo wood overlaid with cactus logs.
I never seen cacti wood used like this before, although in San Pedro, I found doors, lamps, fruit bowls and other pieces.
Cactus wood Restaurant Door
The entrance doors were made from Algarrobo wood and cactus wood bound together by llama leather, in the technique traditional to the Altiplan. Obviously, these woods must be strong and hard wearing as this church was built quite a few centuries ago.
Church cactus wood
I was told Algorrobo trees were growing alongside the pepper trees in the town square next to the church.
This church is believed to be one of the oldest in Chile.
The town square was really an oasis in the desert and very popular with everybody because of the amount of seating underneath the shady trees.
I sat down for a while and people watched, then a pack of dogs decided to have a fight with another pack which happened to be police dogs let our for a run. Dogs were roaming everywhere but no of them were aggressive towards humans. They would have to be the scungiest looking dogs I have ever seen.
I really enjoyed my time in San Pedro wandering the streets, finding interesting sights along the way. I thought the mud brick walls with with new Pepper trees protruding from the top of the fence rather unique! Was this meant to happen - good question.
Some other things I liked in San Pedro were the artistic wooden business signs on the buildings.
Hot, dry and dusty, San Pedro was a unique, unforgettable experience for me.