I said, young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
The Atacama desert is dry. It is a dry that makes the mucus in one’s nose evaporate upon arrival, the towel a redundant part of the bathroom routine. Here, they film movie scenes that are supposed to take place on Mars. There are huge swaths of land with no life whatsoever—only sand. Though there is a common misconception that deserts are all sandy, rather empty places, plenty of deserts are full of life. Consider the one that contains Las Vegas, for instance. This is not that type of desert.
In Atacama, the areas that do have life have a sort of life that appears to be inspired by Dr. Seuss illustrations—yellow grass growing in small cartoonish clumps beside bright blue lagoons where herds of vicuñas (cousins of the llama) congregate. Flamingos roam cracked salt flats.
The town of San Pedro consists of four types of establishments. There are restaurants, mini marts that sell alcohol and basic foodstuffs, shops and tourism agencies. Save for restaurants, there is minimal variation within each category. Those wanting to cook for themselves should skip the mini marts and hit the produce market on the edge on town.
To experience Atacama, one must leave San Pedro. Bikes are the most inexpensive way to see the area but they can only go so far—especially considering that thin rubber tires are no match for thorny bushes. The most famous attractions (lagoons, geysers, the country of Bolivia) require a vehicle, but the ones within bike range (ruins, rocky red canyons, Valle de la Luna) are also stunning.
If feeling particularly adventurous, schedule the return flight on a day when domestic airlines may or may not strike. (“Sorry we unable to disclose that information at this time.”) Return to Valparaiso via bus. Stop in La Serena to break up what would otherwise be a 24-hour journey into small 18- and 6-hour ones. Every journey to come will feel remarkably short!
*All photos in this post by the lovely Laura Gumpert, another IFSA participant!