Chile is a small country, but very thinly stretched, and to go from Santiago (middle of the country) to San Pedro (up north) takes 28 hours by bus – more or less the distance between Bulgaria and Belgium. Two weeks ago, before the school project start, I had 10 free days and decided to go up north – close to the border with Bolivia and Peru to the desert of Atacama – the dryest place on Earth, with parts of it not seen rain in 400 years.
I compared the bus and airline prices, and it was worth taking a plane for 2 hrs, landing in Calama – a very ugly city, with a majority of men only living there (single ladies’ or prostitutes’ paradise?) only because of the huge copper mines around which also get you a good salary. Chile produces 1/3 of the world’s copper, and here you can see a a pic of the mine and a little map. I only stayed in Calama for two hours – waiting for my bus to San Pedro de Atacama – my actual destination – a really small, really touristic pueblo (village) – a gateway and starting point to all the beautiful nature reserves and wonders in the area.
Atacama is the dryest desert on earth, and some places in the Atacama Desert have not had rainfall for over 400 years, however, around this area, you can also find salty lagunas where flamingos live, lakes, volcanos (some active), geysers and beautiful salt flats. The Atacama desert extends up into the Andes mountains and is very high in elevation. Unlike more familiar deserts, like the Sahara desert in Africa and the Mojave in California, the Atacama is actually a pretty cold place, with average daily temperatures ranging between 0°C and 25°C.
San Pedro is already located at 2400 meters above sea level, and a lot of the sights are above 4000! I had heard of altitude sickness, but never experienced it. Till now. At the time you arrive and start dragging your suitcase through the dusty unpaved roads looking for the hostel, your lungs are already struggling to send enough oxygen to your brain and muscles. Which results in: getting short of breath within 2 minutes brisk walking, constant headache, and if you have a more severe case of it – throwing up. I had it for the first two days, and since it didn’t go away as fast as I wanted, even with drinking tea made of coca leaves and chewing them directly (an ancient method used by the local people to naturally help altitude sickness; coca, i learnt, helps supply oxigen to the brain).
In the gallery of this post you can see some pictures of the atacameno style village, the church which was built without a single nail used – the local used cactus thorns instead, one of the ranchos and couple of cowboys, a cute boy dressed in national costume and a glimpse of the “Fiestas Patria” – I happened to be there during there biggest national holiday, when they do open-air bbqs, and dance “cueca” in large tents called “fondas” filled with flags, a lot of alcohol, cowboys with their hats, and people dancing with white napkins to live-band music (see more about the dance and the fondas here, and here).