Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I Spy

I though I had seen desert. Our trip to Australia´s Red Centre was my first time in such an arid part of the world. Nine months without rain, we were told, and it looked it too. On the bus between Alice and Uluru, some parts were particularly sparsely vegetated and completely unsuitable for cattle stations. Then I saw the Atacama.

We´ve been brushing the edges of desert or semi desert for a few days already, as we´ve been making our way North aboard countless buses (well, 4 buses actually). After 2 days in La Serena we took a night bus to Calama and onwards to San Pedro de Atacama, forsaking the coast in order to follow the strongly worded advice of Iain Ballesty (I got the feeling he´d track us down and hurt us if we bypassed S. Pedro) and the gentle prodding of `Nonna Carla`.

I´ve never seen a place like the Atacama, or a town like San Pedro. San Pedro is an oasis. Literally. Everything else is dry as toast. This is not a place of little rain. It simply doesn´t happen here. You´ll appreciate that for an Irishman, this is a hard concept to register. It offends my Celtic sensibilities. Believe me, I´m not fond of rain, but I feel it may have a role to play in earthly matters. If the lunar features of the Atacama are anything to go by, I might just be on to something. Australia was just barren. The Atacama is dead. Some isolated parts are sandy in the way one would expect (or in your case David French, in the way one has experienced) but mostly I saw hard rock with a dusting of, em, dust. It´s a brave individual indeed who would try to hammer a tent peg into the Atacama ground.

Back in Santiago, Iain had told the girls how they might play I Spy in this part of the world:

"I spy with my little eye somthing beginning with S." "Sand." "Yes. Your turn."
"I spy with my little eye somthing beginning with S." "Sky." "Yep. Now what do we play?"

If you look through any edition of the Rough Guide (and we're on our 4th so far), you'll become familiar with the light brown tone of their city maps. Flicking from map to map, you could be forgiven for thinking that every city looks much like the other. Especially in Chile, where a grid layout centred around a Plaza de Armas is standard. According to the map of San Pedro, we had to walk three blocks East and three blocks South to get from the Tur-Bus terminal to our hosteria. One small but important feature of the map, that might have hinted at how different San Pedro was from all those other maps, was the scale. A San Pedro block will take you all of thirty seconds to walk. Stroll. But if you are wearing a rucksack and dragging two wheeled samsonites (admitedly much lighter than when I was dragging them through China) across dirt-track streets, spending as much energy in balancing them as dragging them, the blocks start to look big again. Even the Tur-Bus terminal itself isn't much more than a dusty corral lined with rough wood fencing. We were spared the journey by the arrival of Señor Samuel in his taxi - indistinguishable from a big city taxi in colour and model except for the fact that it took up the entire road, adobe wall to adobe wall. Our three block by three block journey, made longer by the necessary one-way system, effectively spanned the limits of this town. We weren't in the city any more.

Our time in San Pedro organised itself as follows: On both evenings we left the village on a tour bus, first to the Salar (salt flats) and then to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). But our mornings and afternoons were spent browsing the streets, this time without the samsonites. As you might have understood, this doesn't take a lot of time. But that was fine - we weren't in any hurry. Nothing is taller than one or one-and-a-half floors high, except for the steeple of the church of San Pedro. Almost every single door is open, and shows a cafe, a shop of artisan goods, or a tour operator behind it. If this doesn't sound very enticing, you have to allow for the atmosphere. Yes, it's full of tourists, but anyone who makes the trip to a place so isolated really wants to be there, and everyone seems to fall under the same spell. There is no sign of boxer shorts emblazoned with national flags here, although I'd swear I saw a Dublin GAA jersey.

We tried out a lot of eateries, either early before our tours, or later when we returned in the dark. Not every experience was positive but my favourite was the first one we stumbled across was Bistro Les Copains on the corner of Tocopilla and Caracoles streets. A shallow room opening directly onto the street, it can fit about 10 people. The owner speaks good english makes you feel genuinely welcome. The fare is simple but good. And to top it all off, they offer a very cheap laundry service as well. Beef sandwich and clean knickers. What more could a traveller ask for.

As I said, I'll blog separately about the two tours we took. But hopefully the following pictures, courtesy of Letizia, will give you a feeling for the sand-stroked genteel nature of San Pedro de Atacama.

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