14.07.2012 - 17.07.2012 -5 °C
After the rather long and arduous 15 hours bus ride from La Serena, we finally arrived into San Pedro de Atacama at 7pm. When we are arriving after dark we usually book a hostel online as the last thing you want to do after a long journey is traipse around, but we couldn't find one online and so decided that as San Pedro was a big tourist destination we assumed that we would have no problem finding one. There was another guy on the bus sporting a bright green backpack who made the same assumption. You know what they say about assumptions...
At 10pm we had been in and out of more than 10 hostels all of whom were full, and none of which seemed to have any confidence in recommending that anybody else would have space. The situation had got to the point where as I saw it we had 2 choices: the first one was to pay to stay in a boutique style hotel for 150 quid a night, and the second was to find the busiest bar, get drunk and hope to make a local friend. We went with the first choice and even though it was going to cost us more than a couple of days budget, I was secretly looking forward to a spot of luxury – a concept that had alluded us for quite some time. Sadly for us, but happily for the budget, even the boutique hotel was full, and our options had dwindled down to 1 – beer.
Well, almost. On our way back to the centre of the town from the boutique hotel we spotted, down a very dimly lit road, a girl with a backpack disappear through a door. With nothing left to lose we followed her and made our way to reception to enquire about a bed. We weren't in the least bit surprised that they didn't have any room, but with more than a hint of desperation I suggested we wouldn't mind sharing a bed, or even sleep on the floor, as long as there was a roof over our heads. Probably more out of pity than anything else, the receptionist made a phone call to her boss and it turned out someone had reserved a room but not turned up so her boss agreed we could have the room and we breathed a sigh of relief. We also ran to the room and unpacked our bags quickly in case the original intended occupant of the room turned up and we could claim squatters rights and tell them to shove it. Ten minutes after we had claimed our room the guy from the bus with the bright green backpack turned up looking even more desperate than we had but trudged off disappointed. We didn't see him again and I've no idea whether he found a bed.
The town of San Pedro is charming in a dusty old-world desert kind of way. Apparently as recently as ten years ago it wasn't a popular destination for foreign tourists (although was for Chileans), but that has most definitely changed now. For all of the new tourist money the town brings in now, it doesn't appear to have changed much. The roads are still rocky and dusty, the higher-end hotels have all been built sympathetically so that they don't appear all that new at all and the restaurants, although slightly pricey, all have a rustic feel to them that befits their surroundings. The town is small though, and the main reason for it becoming such a hot-spot on the Chilean travelling scene are the tours you can do in the surrounding areas.
We had decided that as the tours were quite expensive, we would stay for 2 or 3 nights and just pick one tour. The morning after we arrived we scoured the many travel agencies that litter the main street, and eventually settled on a tour that would take in the altiplano lakes, the salt flats and the geysers - hot springs.
The pick-up for the tour was 6am the next morning and as we waited outside in the freezing cold, a minivan drove past us 3 or 4 times before finally stopping and allowing us on. The driver had an order of who to pick up and clearly lacked the brainpower required to swap the order, but never mind, at least any traces of a hangover from the rather lovely Chilean red wine the night before had been frozen out of us.
The tour was excellent, although it had a slightly different itinerary that the one we had booked. There was to be no geysers, although given the air temperature was below freezing was probably for the best from an avoiding pneumonia point of view. The first stop was 'laguna chaxa' in the salar de atacama to see some flamingos. There were several different types of flamingos to see, including the “James flamingo” which was my favourite. Despite being my namesake the flamingo had a tear-drop shaped black shading near its eye which gave it the appearance of belonging to a crazed American convict. In short, it was cool. The other things to note from the first part of the day was that it absolutely ponged – there is loads and loads of lithium in the area, and also the temperature – it was minus 5 before wind chill and when we were served breakfast (outdoors), the ham and cheese sandwiches were crunchy with ice.
The rest of the day we took in a couple of lagoons that had once been one but were separated by an earthquake a lot of years ago, a nature walk in 2 feet of snow and finally a visit to Toconao – a charming small town around an away hour from San Pedro. It was a bank holiday in Chile the day we visited Toconao and we stumbled across a fiesta to celebrate some Catholic event or another. It was interesting to see the mix of Catholicism with indigenous dancing, lots of colour, vibrancy and energy. Not words usually synonymous with the catholic church but enjoyable viewing nevertheless.
The next day we were still unsure of our next move; the choices were head up to Bolivia on a 4x4 tour or head to Salta in Northern Argentina. For a couple of reasons, primarily the tour up to Bolivia involved being freezing, but also because we could leave Bolivia until later in the trip, we chose to go to Salta. We were too late for the bus that day but booked the bus to leave early the next morning.
To fill the rest of our final day in Chile we headed out on one of the many walking routes that surround the town and lazily traipsed through the orange desert with the warm sun beating down. We finished the day bumping into a bloke from Birmingham who we had met in the hostel in La Serena. Lou was taking some cash out and he spotted her in the queue. He assumed, for no reason other than that he was stood in close proximity to her, that I was the bloke in front of her in the queue. I wasn't he, but I was close enough to see and hear the ridiculous spectacle of a guy from Birmingham speaking to a Chilean (who clearly didn't speak English) in English about the pros and cons of food in Chile. The clearly perplexed look on the face of the unbeknown imposter didn't seem to deter the Brummie and he continued speaking at him for another minute or so before Lou realised what was going on and pointed him in my direction, to the clear relief of the Chilean who had long since given up trying to work out what was going on and who's facial expression had changed from confused to slightly perturbed. He then came over to me and started talking to me about the hostel we had both stayed in in Santiago. I informed him that we had in fact met in La Serena but he was having none of this and carried on talking at me about Santiago and it dawned on me that it didn't matter if I was Chilean, English, or a lamp post, this guy would just talk at me no matter what about anything that came into his rather empty head, in an accent that did his dozy appearance no favours whatsoever.