Home TravelSth America High & Dry (& Breathless) in the Atacama

High & Dry (& Breathless) in the Atacama

by GypsyHeart

The beginning of my recent, incredible journey through Sth America saw me landing on the edge of the Atacama Desert in far northern Chile on the border of Bolivia. The greatest physical challenge here is altitude. This is the commencement of nearly 3 weeks above 2400m. My first point of call was the vivacious little town of San Pedro de Atacama which sits at a healthy 2408m above sea level, overshadowed by Volcan Licancabur and surrounded by red dirt.  What a place to adjust?!

I arrived to the region on a flight from Santiago. A mere 2hrs in the air takes you across the folds and crinkles of Andean peaks and up into the middle of nowhere to El Loa airport at Calama which – whilst sparklingly new and (apparently) one of the largest Chilean airports – looks like it has been dropped from a great height! Within minutes of driving away it seems to get lost in the sheer vastness of this land.

Calama is an oasis – a mining city of some 150,000 people – but our transport whisks us past the new as a pin, south-eastern edge of the city and within minutes we’re cruising through barren, dusty landscapes of dusky red sand and treeless, mirage-splashed distance. There is little to break the vista here – a blossoming of wind farms here and there, rising like sculptures and kicking at the stones at their feet, tussocks of dusty green clinging to the earth and, off in a hazy pinkness to the left, the looming presence of the purple Andes wearing mantles of white. After an hour or more of traversing increasingly barren gravel and sand, the road starts to descend and the landscape starts to fold and buckle to the left and right, a lone green road sign shows directions to the exotic sounding Valle de la Luna and sections of tarmac coast between layered stone. There is evidence that change is ahead!

Suddenly, to the left the pink rock rises in walls above the road whilst lay-bys on the right form viewpoints across lunar landscapes. The road swings into sweeping curves and suddenly we pass through the Cordillera de la Sal, a low ridgeline of stratified rock full of salt deposits. On either side of the highway canyons and outcrops look like they are dusted with snow due to the prevalence of salt all about. At this point it becomes clear that I am entering a world of astonishing geography.

The prospect of the weeks ahead fills me with excitement.

Billboards appear, junctions to other routes and then ahead a stain of low green trees upon the dirty distance. There is civilisation within range. A roadside stone cairn and sign welcoming us to San Pedro de Atacama (population ~2500) and we have arrived!

The relaxed open space of the Plaza de Armas - shaded by peppercorn trees
Dusty streets of San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is a delicious contradiction. Red-dirt, boot-staining unpaved streets between white & brown adobe houses & shops punctuated by trendy restaurants & cafes, handicraft galleries, jewellers and artisan ice-cream sellers. Everywhere are signs for tours into the surrounding beauty. It is undeniable that this is a town very much geared to the tourism out into the local lunar landscapes and a jump-off point for Bolivian sorties. Its original development was related largely to the oasis it surrounds and local copper mining locations. Nowadays, the backpacker is the ruler. As is often the way, this brings an eclectic air to a place as the demand for hospitality is high and the flow of custom builds business. However, beneath the hustle of the tourism and the assault of the street advertising, there lies a gentle energy to this town. The dogs of San Pedro will always remain my happiest introduction to the Sth American experience. Wandering, sleeping, chasing – they are to be seen on every corner, free spirits of the altiplano. Added to all this is a holiday energy, as I have arrived on the cusp of Chilean Independence day celebrations. it is not merely the foreigners who are here to bask in the warmth of San Pedro’s welcome.

The key attraction is the beautiful adobe church of San Pedro which sits solidly behind decorative mud-brick fencing and rickety wooden gates to the west side of the shaded Plaza de Armas. The church is purported to be the 2nd oldest in Chile and is a simple, naive structure with thick walls and a roof lined with cardón (cactus wood), supported by fine wooden beamwork made from local algarrobo wood. An ornate altar with brightly lit niches displays figures of Saints Mary & Joseph. To stroll into the church from the adjacent shade of the peppercorn trees on the pretty square is a delightful experience. Generous arched entrances frame blue-painted barn-like doors which sit open to allow all to come and go. The dry, desert sunshine pours in and washes the scrubbed wooden floors. Simple wooden pews rest in the hazy light and the sounds of laughter echo against the high ceilings. The town dogs also pay their respects and feel free to wander in and linger for a while. This is my kind of church – accessible, noisy, full of spirit.

My lodgings are in a quirky campsite with little mud geodesic domes as additional accommodation on the Northwestern edge of town. My simple little ‘hive’ has a big comfy bed and an ensuite with a good hot shower. I must walk along the scruffy roads for 10 minutes to reach the Plaza de Armas and the buzz of the cafe culture. Los Abuelos has the appropriate backpacker feel.. a small plunge pool and an outside shaded area with tables 7 wifi where you can relax or eat. Breakfast is simple & fresh, served each morning in the communal kitchen/dining area. Peppercorn trees give shade and bright succulents brighten the gardens.  The distance from the bustle of town makes it a peaceful respite.

My first impressions of altitude are relatively unremarkable. It is an odd sensation which can vary wildly from one person to the other. It may bring merely headaches and sleepless nights, for most it lends a lethargy and a breathlessness to any activity; for some it can bring nausea and more. There is no pattern for whom it will affect. At this early stage, my only sense is a sluggishness and loss of lung capacity when I am active. My first few days will be spent here to acclimatise before pushing on to the dizzying heights of Bolivia and beyond. The laidback feel of this gringo town sort of blends with this sensation of taking it slowly. I am happy to just stroll gently and observe. The worst thing is to push against the sensation. Tomorrow morning will be the first test when I arise before dawn to drive up to the El Tatio geyser field at 4,320masl.


Join me next,  as we hit the ‘steamy heights’ of El Tatio


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