Blue Doors and Purple Mountains

San Pedro de Atacama Travel Blog

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Beautiful church. With a blue door!

There is no solid reason it took me this long to post this, but I have had a hard time summing up my trip to San Pedro de Atacama. Each year, the program goes on a trip somewhere in Chile, sometimes to Patagonia in the South and sometimes to the Atacama Desert in the North. At first I was bummed to hear we were going to the latter, but this weekend was so nice that I have a completely different view on it. I got pretty choked up on the way back to Santiago. I just felt awful leaving the warm, sunny, clear desert to come back to cold, smoggy, urban Santiago.  I think I sound ridiculously trite when I try to describe why I had such an attachment to such a podunky town, so I will just outline our trip and hopefully somewhere in that and the photos I can convey my sappy feelings towards adobe and dust.

The view out from our hotel. Note the volcano straight ahead.

I think I first fell in love with the delicious mattresses and sheets at La Casa de Don Tomás. Getting to San Pedro was a ridiculous ordeal and by the time we got to the hotel a fruit palate would have felt great, but the beds were particularly luxurious. Thanks AU. So, the flight: we flew from Santiago to Antofagasta and were supposed to just stay long enough to drop off and pick up passengers. We were soon told we had to disembark for an hour so the mechanics could check out the plane. We did so, to find an airport that could only be described as “a 1980’s southwest themed rec-center”  The one restaurant in the place blanched when it saw 25 hungry Americans descending upon it , but managed to prepare 25 fairly mediocre sandwhiches before we got back on the plane.

Me expressing full trust in our plane.
We departed, made 10 minutes of the 30 minute flight to Calama when the pilot came on the air and said we were turning around. Has anyone heard Ron White’s comic bit on a similar flight? Very similar. The really unsettling bit was that in the English explanation of why we were turning around they sited a problem with the wheel, in the Spanish version it was a brake malfunction. I think the final consensus was that the brakes were safe enough to land us on a long landingstrip such as Antofagasta, but Calama was too dangerous. Still, the Antofagasta firefighters were there waiting when we landed, but did not end up being needed.  They ended up finding us a new plane and we finally got to Calama where we had an hour and a half ride to San Pedro, where I promptly fell into said comfy bed and passed out.
Ruins of a circular apartment building.

Next day- we packed into two vans and drove to the town museum, which was really full for a town of 5,000. The guilt-ridden gringo in me was happy to hear that they finally took their mummies off the exhibit at the request of local native groups. The extremely dry and mineral rich area made many natural mummies which had been uncovered over the years, but having them in display for the tourists felt morbid and rude. After that we drove to Aldea de Tulor, which were the ruins of a pre-columbian apartment building. The complex was huge and mostly covered by sand.  Next stop of the gringo-mobiles was Pukara de Quitor, which were basically Chile’s version of Mesa Verde. A huge complex of houses built into the hillside.

Anna on top of a hill.
We hiked up to the top and took some pictures of the impressive valley below and then hiked back down. Danielo our guide was really fond of telling the girls to be careful in a kidding, condescending tone. I became fond of responding with “always” in a kidding, ticked off tone of voice. Danielo’s partner Marcela was with us the entire time, she spoke fairly quietly about the anthropology and history of the area, and our other guide mostly dealt with the geology side of the lectures. All of them spoke enough English to translate any word we didn’t know in Spanish, but for the most part the tours were conducted in Spanish. I was the nerd who usually was right behind Marcela and mostly picked up everything she said, which added a lot to the whole trip.

                After lunch all but 4 of us elected to go on the additional trip to the Salar de Atacama, which is the 3rd largest salt flats in the world (after a salar in Bolivia and the Great Salt Lake of Utah) I mostly went because I thought Jessie and Walt wouldn’t speak to me if I didn’t get some pictures of the flamingo colony that lives there.

As Flamingo-y as we could get.
(Sorry Jessie and Walt, they wouldn’t let us anywhere near enough to take a picture of the flamingos, it was pretty disappointing) We stopped by a small town on the way there that manages to keep a fairly active farming industry up despite being in one of the driest areas in the world. Their very regulated canal system allows each family to irrigate their fruit trees according to a set schedule. The picture of the shriveled up pomegranate is from there. We also had a mandatory photo op with a llama, since 90% of us are obsessed with llamas, and the other 10% is lying. The photo I included was taken just as the llama made a disconcerting hacking sound, which explains my worried look. They are known to spit, so my reaction is completely understandable, but it makes the picture pretty ridiculous. Mom will probably put it in the Christmas cards this year…The salt flats, despite being quite void of flamingos was pretty spectacular, it looked like dirty snow for as far are you could see, and we stayed for the sunset which was spectacular.
Showing off my super cool bag from Sue Jr. at the salt flats.
In one direction you had the sunset, and the other direction you had the Andes showing off in the setting sun. They turn an amazing shade of pink and purple.

Almost all of the restaurants in San Pedro take advantage of the town’s miniscule annual rainfall and have open areas in the middle of the restaurant with a firepit out in the open. They also all double as bars, so after your dinner you can take your drink to the steps around the fire pit and sit as long as you like looking at the stars and pretending you are at a campfire. It gets pretty cold the second the sun sets, so the fire is a welcome item. I loved this end to the day activity and also enjoyed the walk back to our hotel which had stretches of pitch dark where the stars were absurdly bright.

Beautiful sunset from the salt flats.
I have never seen the milky way so clear, and there were people on the trip who hadn’t ever seen the milky way, so it was very nice for all the city slickers to see what they have been missing.

The next morning we had to ourselves, so we poked around all 6 blocks of San Pedro. The 25 of us made up about 1/200th of the towns population, so it wasn’t surprising when we ran into each other around every turn. I had heard through the grapevine that the next day’s activities were going to be frigid, so I bought a hat and a pair of gloves made out of brightly dyed alpaca. They are intended to be replacements for the hat I knit Jennie that she lost eventually, but I did get good use out of them the next day.  IMPORTANT NOTE: I will be able to buy many more alpaca goods when I am in Peru in December and I have room in my suitcase, so if you want something in particular for Christmas, let me know…

That night we went to Valley of the Moon, which is very appropriately named.

Really cool salt cave.
One of my favorite things about deserts is the large scale of everything. We got out of the bus and hiked around a bit to huge overlooks, and everything was very other-worldly. We poked around in a salt cave (I am including some photos that will probably not be interesting to anyone but my few geologically inclined relatives) and I got to put my headlamp to good use (Thanks Jo and Sue! I was only made fun of minimally) We watched the sun set from the top of a sand dune ridge. After another impressive display from the purple Andes, we bounced down the sand dunes and drove back to town.

The next morning started at 3:40 AM, a time when most Santiaguinos are thinking about calling it a night. We rolled into our buses with a cup of tea and were told to try to get some sleep right away if possible because the road was going to deteriorate soon.

A cold college student.
Now I am a big fan of 4-wheeling in the desert, but we were driving 15 passenger vans, and while I had infinite amount of trust in our driver and his reluctance to roll us down a ravine, it was petrifying nonetheless. I didn’t sleep much. Now why did we wake up so early to take such a harrowing drive? To see the largest geyser field in the Southern hemisphere of course! At 13,750 feet above sea level at 6 in the morning in the middle of winter, we all were sleepy, freezing, semi-altitude sick and fairly underwhelmed. Ok, they were pretty cool. I am not doing it again though. We had breakfast there, cooked using the heat of the geysers, which not many people can say they had. We were hoping for eggs benedict, or even pancakes, but were happy enough with hot chocolate and cheese sandwiches. I heard someone say we forgot about the hard boiled eggs.
Dear Marcela, making hot chocolate.
We had already piled into the vans for warmth.

On the way down the mountain we stopped a couple times for “Natural History Lessons with Marcela” which included looking at a moss relative that is endangered in the area, but used to serve as the primary fuel for pre-historic campfires, and vicunas, which are wild cousins of llamas.

Our last stop was the hotsprings, which were a delicious sight to people who had been in bumpy vans since 4 am. A particularly pleasant surprise for a girl whose only experience with hotsprings involved the persistant smell of rotten eggs was that not all springs are sulfur springs! These hotsprings didn’t smell bad at all and were absolutely perfect. Until I tried to slide down a waterfall and majorly bunged up my left foot and hand… I have enough movement in my foot that I have ruled out breaking it so I am going to avoid complaining about what was probably a sprained baby toe, because frankly that sounds really lame.

A bunch of happy college students in a hot spring.
I am still walking funnily though and shoes are definitely uncomfortable, so I can justify a mini pity-party.

The real injuries of the trip came the next day when most of the folks went sand surfing. I had decided I was out of money and stayed back to enjoy our hotel’s shaded patio one last morning, so I missed out on the injury causing mayhem. They ended up taking Marie and Tom to the hospital to get their twisted knee and whacked head, respectively, checked out. Both are alive, but it was a bit of a downer end to the trip.

That aside, it was a wonderful time. Our faculty chaperone, Oriana, is high up in the Chilean Environmental Protection Agency, and was really great to hang out with and get to know outside of school.

The whole group in front of the Three Marys
Our tour guides added a lot to the trip, and gave me a whole set of Spanish vocab I have had no need for before. I never would have expected to have had this much fun up in the desert.

I apologize for such a long post, and for its tardiness, but now I am going to go to sleep in my cold little bedroom in smoggy Santiago and dream of fresh air that has the slight scent of dust.

PS- a rambling thought process on humanity: It is magical to me how humans on opposite sides of the world have found similar solutions to common problems. Adobe- for instance, is extremely effective at keeping a shelter warm when it is cold outside and cool when it is hot outside, and almost every desert residing culture has some form of it.

Cliche picture of a door, but I really was blown away at how many blue doors there were. Beautiful.
Parts of the Atacama desert reminded me immensely of the desert in Moab, Utah were I have been camping my entire life, and the similarities in architecture were even more stunning. One last coincidence- the Native American tribes of the South West United States paint their windows and door frames blue, as a way to keep the bad spirits out of the house; at least 75% of the adobe houses in San Pedro and the surrounding area are blue. I asked Marcela and she had not heard of a symbolical reason for this, but the similarity stuck with me. I just love it when human beings prove how alike we all are. Peace Salam Shalom everyone.
PPS- notice that there are more photos underneith this.

gfranci2 says:
This post is definitely going to come in handy when I plan my trip to San Pedro. Thanks for all the info!
Posted on: Sep 23, 2007
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Beautiful church. With a blue door!
Beautiful church. With a blue door!
The view out from our hotel. Note …
The view out from our hotel. Note…
Me expressing full trust in our pl…
Me expressing full trust in our p…
Ruins of a circular apartment buil…
Ruins of a circular apartment bui…
Anna on top of a hill.
Anna on top of a hill.
As Flamingo-y as we could get.
As Flamingo-y as we could get.
Showing off my super cool bag from…
Showing off my super cool bag fro…
Beautiful sunset from the salt fla…
Beautiful sunset from the salt fl…
Really cool salt cave.
Really cool salt cave.
A cold college student.
A cold college student.
Dear Marcela, making hot chocolate.
Dear Marcela, making hot chocolate.
A bunch of happy college students …
A bunch of happy college students…
The whole group in front of the Th…
The whole group in front of the T…
Cliche picture of a door, but I re…
Cliche picture of a door, but I r…
Read description of goofy expressi…
Read description of goofy express…
Hiking up a precarious ridge.
Hiking up a precarious ridge.
Great Spanish translation. Dead ve…
Great Spanish translation. Dead v…
San Pedros idea of high security.
San Pedro's idea of high security.
Ruins of a Atacaman fort.
Ruins of a Atacaman fort.
This is definitly a one horse town…
This is definitly a one horse tow…
Look at how the sun burnt the wood…
Look at how the sun burnt the woo…
This 100 year old churchs roof wa…
This 100 year old church's roof w…
Almost the whole group at the salt…
Almost the whole group at the sal…
Look at how the ridgelines swoop a…
Look at how the ridgelines swoop …
Posing in front of a rock formatio…
Posing in front of a rock formati…
More salt depostis in the cave.
More salt depostis in the cave.
Me looking goofy as can be, I am o…
Me looking goofy as can be, I am …
Salt deposits in the cave.
Salt deposits in the cave.
David looking like a model.
David looking like a model.
Great geology.
Great geology.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (anyone who didn…
Fantastic Mr. Fox (anyone who did…
Early morning geysers
Early morning geysers
Marcela and the Geology guide whos…
Marcela and the Geology guide who…
A heart shaped geyser. How sappy o…
A heart shaped geyser. How sappy …
A geyser that has formed a hill.
A geyser that has formed a hill.
Mineral depostits on a geyser.
Mineral depostits on a geyser.
Colorful mineral deposits, and com…
Colorful mineral deposits, and co…
Issel in front of the highly effic…
Issel in front of the highly effi…
My desert totally beats Erics des…
My desert totally beats Eric's de…
Our valliant tourbus.
Our valliant tourbus.
Cool bird, will find out name tomo…
Cool bird, will find out name tom…
A huddled mass of freezing college…
A huddled mass of freezing colleg…
San Pedro de Atacama
photo by: eefab