Published: June 2nd 2009May 30th 2009
Long hike up to the top of the sand dune
...accompanied by one of our trusty stray dogs
San Pedro de Atacama was our first stop in Chile; we knew it was a popular destination for backpackers, but had no idea how touristy it had become. It is a tiny town with the highest concentration of touts we have seen since SE Asia... you can¨t walk through the main streets without being solicited, in English, by at least a dozen people trying to get you into a restaurant or to sign up for a tour.
Begging to speak Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country (the irony)
If you are a foreigner speaking Spanish--regardless of your language skills--nearly every local will answer you in English. This phenomena used to occur all the time when I lived in Buenos Aires, and is extremely frustrating. I consider it offensive to foreigners who are making a genuine effort to speak the local language, and it is especially insulting when the locals responding in English can barely speak the language... it´s like they are saying, ''you speak so poorly that my remedial English is better than your Spanish.´´ Back home in NYC, I would never immediately start speaking in Spanish to a foreigner if they had an accent; that would be presumptuous and rude.
Instead, I would ask them if they would prefer to speak in Spanish or English. In this tourist town, many people dont even try to understand or take the time to realize that you are indeed FLUENT in Spanish, they just bulldoze on in their basic English without letting you get in a word edgewise. After a few instances of this, I decided to keep speaking in Spanish no matter what, so at times it became a battle of the wills: who will give in first and switch languages? Proud to say I stood my ground and won most of the time. It pays to be persistant!
Desperate search for an ATM
Our 2007 Lonely Planet guide mentioned that there is only one ATM machine in San Pedro de Atacama, which is often out of cash. We only had a few Argentine pesos left, but weren't too worried... it has been our experience that the number of ATMs has usually skyrocketed since the guide books have gone to print. Not the best strategy for this particular town, since there are still only 2 ATMs, which are both owned by the same bank. Our first order of business in town
was to head for the ATM next to the tourist office in the plaza. Turns out our card did not work there. Panic was setting in, as many of the budget hostales did not accept credit cards and it was already getting dark and cold. The tourist office agent was helpful and gave us a print-out of local hotels, which noted the locations accepting credit cards. She also mentioned a second ATM located at the edge of the touristy area. As we headed there, we checked out several guest houses and were shocked by how divey and expensive they were (compared to Aregntina.) The HI affiliate looked like a flophouse with the requisite loud, hard drinking 20 year olds perched in the common area, presumably ready to start shouting and cackling all night. It turned out to be our lucky day, as the 2nd ATM accepted our card and we were able to withdraw several thousand Chilean pesos (1 US dollar= about 550 pesos).
Finding an affordable room
At this point it was dark and we were exhausted from running around town with our packs. We took a double room with private bath at the Puritama Hostal next door
to the ATM machine. It was a very basic, small room with no heat or TV for 25,000 Chilean pesos (about US$45)!!! Talk about sticker shock-- for that amount in Argentina, we would be living like kings.
After settling in, we headed out to check out other hotels for the next night, knowing there must be cheaper accommodations. We found a comparable but larger room in the Licancabur hostal for 20,000 pesos (about US$36) on Toconao street, and stayed there the following night.
Adjusting to the cold
The nights in San Pedro were FREEZING... the coldest temps we have seen in our 11-month trip. Most budget hostals do not provide heat, but ours included several blankets on the bed which were surprisingly effective. The locals seem to have adapted to the warm, sunny days and freezing nights by building restaurants that have no insulation, no ceilings and doors that are always open. This makes dinner a challenging experience-- don't forget to wear all of your warm layers, scarves/mittens and try to sit near the fire!
After eating very well in the main Argentine cities, we had gotten used to the mediocre cusine in Argentina's rural
northwest. At least that food was cheap... we soon found out that the restaurants in San Pedro were expensive and served poor quality food. We tried the Lonely Planet-recommended Todo Natural, and had a particularly bad meal of gummy spaghetti. We had better luck on the side streets, which offered cheaper meal specials. One pizza restaurant on Tocopilla Street was relatively good, though not memorable enough to recall its name ;)
Being independent travellers (and cheap), we decided to skip an organized tour and set out to bike on our own to Valle de la Muerte, the sanddunes that lay just outside of town. We rented bikes and a sandboard from a shop on Caracoles street (8,000 pesos for 2 bikes and one board, or about US$7).
It was surprisingly hard to bike on the paved highway, since it was at a slight incline and we were not used to the altitude. After huffing and puffing for a few kilometers we reached a sandy unpaved road, and discovered the highway was the easy part! Three stray dogs joined us on the highway and followed us all the way to the dunes; they stuck with us while we
sandboarded (sometimes getting in our way so we couldn't go down the slope), and followed us back to the highway again. These dogs were loyal and friendly, but not very smart... every time a car or truck passed, they would bark insanely and run right in front of it. We lost one of our precious pack on our return home. We last saw him chasing after a monster truck, and he never came back around the bend. The other 2 seemed to recover pretty quickly, as they kept following us and only stopped to play in the sand near the decomposing carcass of a fellow dog. Seems like truck-chasing is a favorite hobby of all of the local canines.
When we got to the end of the road, we encountered a desert landscape of tall sandy mountains that looked like the surface of Mars. There was one other group of boarders there, who seemed to be on a van tour with a guide, but they left just as we arrived. We had to ditch the bikes at the end of the dirt road, since it was impossible to ride them on the sand. It took a while for us
to hike up to the big dune where we had seen the other boarders-- we ended up taking of our shoes and walking through the sand in our socks, since it was much easier.
Once we made it to the highest peak, we took turns strapping on the board and going down. We quickly discovered that the only way to actually start moving was to wax the hell out of the board with the candlestick provided, since our board was wood and had a rough, worn surface. It took a few tries to perfect our style, since at first we kept making ourselves fall just after starting because it felt like we were going too fast. Whenever we stopped at the beginning, it was hard to pick up further down because the slope got less steep. I gave up pretty early, since I didn't have the energy to keep walking back up the slope each time I went down. Jake was a trooper and by the end was riding all the way down without crashing or stopping. Overall, it was easier than snowboarding and a lot more comfortable. (Although sand in the underwear isn't pleasant, it's better than freezing
Another country, another decomposing dog carcass!
This looked just like the 3 pack dogs following us, and they kept rolling in the mud around the carcass. A fallen comrade?
We decided to pay for one excursion, to the home of a local astronomist with a powerful telescope who points out the constellations, but found out it was booked that evening. San Pedro is an expensive town, and we didn't know of any other no-cost or low-cost activities to keep us busy for another day, so we decided to leave after 2 nights.
Our next stop was Arica, on the Chilean/Peruvian border, and we were told that several bus companies serviced that route. We set out for the different bus company offices in San Pedro, expecting to get prices and schedules, but that was harder than it seemed. One of them was closed that day, and we couldn't locate a couple of others (it turns out that some of the bus offices are actually candy stores that just happen to sell bus tickets).
We were quoted a price at Tur Bus that seemed high (15,000 Chilean pesos to go direct on a semi-cama bus, or US$30), and found out we could save money by taking a local bus to the city of Calama (for 2,500 Chilean pesos, or US$4.50) and then taking a nicer
overnight bus from Calama to Arica. We compared the prices for this leg with Tur Bus and Pullman, and Pullman offered less expensive service (8,000 pesos, or US$14.50). We went ahead and bought tickets for a Pullman bus leaving the next day. We were relieved to have saved money on the tickets (US$10 each by making the extra stop) and were ready to move on.
Throw down at the bus station in Calama... and we won!
The local bus dropped us off after nightfall in an industrial looking area of Calama, and the driver pointed us to an isolated street, saying the Pullman bus office was a few blocks away (the main bus office is inside of the mall and not in a bus station... which is apparently not that odd in Chile). It turned out that we were on the access road to the back entrance of the shopping mall; we walked through the parking garage and a security guard directed us to the elevator. We were a few hours early for our bus, so we checked our bags, ate a snack at the food court and then came back to ask about boarding. At this point
Enjoying a Chilean wine in San Pedro
... and paying more for this particular bottle of cheap wine than we do for the same brand in NYC!
an agent finally looked at our tickets and told us that we were booked on a bus for the PREVIOUS day. Since this was an obvious error (we had bought the tickets the previous day), we were expecting them to put us on the next bus. To our surprise, the agent claimed she could not transfer the tickets and said we would have to buy new ones! Mind you, at this point we were exhausted, and trapped in a grimy industrial area of town with no prospects for lodging. We were also extremely pissed off that the friendly ticket agent in San pedro de Atacama had screwed us with her incompetance.
I was quickly working myself up into a bitchy/hysterical/angry state and continued to argue with the agent in Spanish for 20 minutes until they resolved the situation. I may not have conjugated correctly, but I was rapid-firing responses to her lame excuses, and was very persistent... I refused to accept the cancellation. I suggested they call the San pedro ticket office (a novel idea that hadn't occurred to them), so they made a show of dialing and then said that no one picked up (no surprise since it
was nearly 10PM). I continued to argue in Spanish that this was not our fault, that we had nowhere to go, that we have no more money to buy new tickets, and would have to just sleep in the bus office until this issue was resolved. This was effective, since the office was closing in about a half hour and they didn't want to deal with me anymore. Plus, I started sobbing and arguing loudly and was drawing the attention of every passenger in the office. I almost stepped over the line when the $%&$/$% agent was not budging and I snapped at her (in Spanish), 'Oh I get it, its my problem, not YOUR problem'and she gave me a look of death.
The persistence and hysterics worked, though, since the agent disappeared into the back room and had 'good news' when she came back. Apparently she called 'Santiago headquarters' and they discovered it was the original ticket agent's fault, and they were putting us in the last 2 seats available on the last bus to Arica that night. I think that was a face-saving excuse, but it doesn't matter since... we won!!!
We were really relieved to
get any seat on the bus, and it turned out that we got the first row, far from the bathroom... a perfect outcome to a horrible situation. My adrenaline was really high as we sat in the office, waiting a half hour or so for the bus. Jake and I were bitching quietly about the agent, while she was whispering about us to a co-worker. A very tense waiting room experience!
When the time came, a friendlier agent led us out the back entrance to the bus stop, which was just a bench at the back of the mall in the parking lot. We waited for about 30 minutes with the other passengers in the freezing cold, and started to suspect that this bus might never arrive. Fortunately, it did come and we made it to Arica 8.5 hours later, at around 5 in the morning. Now we know why most foreigners book the bus directly from San Pedro to Arica... what a nightmare! If I couldn't speak Spanish, we would never have won that argument. It's probably worth the extra US$10 to save the aggravation.
Arica, and on to Peru
Luckily we found a room at the
Sunny Days hostel in Arica, which was a close walk from the bus station. The Kiwi owner invited us to have breakfast when we arrived in the wee hours, even before we had a chance to tell him what kind of room we were looking for. He was a great guy and provided a lot of info on the city and the border crossing. That night we went to the supermarket and I cooked for the first time since Australia (in October). We paid 16,000 pesos for a double with shared bath (about US$29)... we were happy to be leavig Chile and those high hotel prices!
After one night in Arica we set out early for the bus station (they have a special terminal for taxis making the border crossing). None of the taxis were full, so we knew we'd have a long wait ahead of us. We spotted another foreign couple and lunged on them, suggesting we team up to fill a cab and leave sooner. A cab driver found us (they approach tourists since there are so many of them and so few of us) with the offer to leave immediately, so we took it. We each
paid 2500 pesos (bargained down from 3,000) and the driver handled all of the paperwork, waited for us at the borders, and made it a very easy process. The other couple was Israeli, and we ended up sitting near them on our next bus ride in Peru. it was great having another couple to talk to :)
Next stop Tacna, Peru...