To spend 24 hours on a bus and not lose it completely is a painstakingly acquired skill, nurtured over time. Lots of time. We have acquired it. Slowly. Gradually, with every ride longer than the next. Passing time is a skill. Switching off. Waiting for as long as you can before picking up that book just to put it down after a couple of pages as the road is just too bumpy. And now you feel nauseous. Then what? Day dreaming. A cat nap. I find that copious snacking alleviates boredom greatly, but that’s a slippery slope...
For the final 10 of the 24 hour long stretch there was little to see out of the window other than black desert and barren cliffs. The stars were huge, and I wondered whether it was because we were a little closer now, being at altitude. Day broke and the temperature onboard our “super uncomfortable semi-cama” bus altered quickly. “Semi-Cama” means the seats only tilt back half way, and there are four seats to the aisle rather than a luxurious, roomy three which recline 180 degrees. We listened to other travellers complain about the long ride up to San Pedro de
Atacama from the capital, and how dreadfully uncomfortable it was going to be riding semi-cama, God forbid. We couldn’t believe it as these buses seem like ultimate luxury to us after others we have taken in the likes of Indonesia!
San Pedro is an oasis town in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. We pulled up to the bus station, identified as such only by the fact that the bus stopped there, and I thought “don’t let this be it!” Hardly the lush, green oasis I had imagined, here on the outskirts of town. We carted ourselves and our backpacks to our chosen accommodation in the suburbs, “Backpackers San Pedro”. Here we found a comfortable dorm which we would have to ourselves for the duration, a reasonable kitchen and quiet location with more residential cats than guests. Many of the hostels in San Pedro have bad to appalling reviews; Backpackers was, in our opinion, fine. It did the job and was clean and comfortable. However, the “hot water” was not as hot as advertised, and the lukewarm water was short lived, but nothing that can’t be fixed with a pan and a stove; after all, what can
you reasonably expect in the desert?
The centre of town itself was prettier than the outskirts. It was even somewhat touristy, but that was fine. It was also a little on the expensive side, and travellers be warned, the exchange rate is terrible. Most of the time we spent in town was to eat delicious empanadas in the quaint piazza. “Empanadas” are basically the food we have been dreaming of ever since we left home; deep filled pastry, or as we call it at home in England’s North West a “pastie.” At home they are usually filled with meat and potato, or cheese, whereas the ones we tucked into in San Pedro outdid our Brit-fare, with mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, green olives and sweet basil. Num!
We wasted little time before booking activities to make the most of our stay. We had been looking forward to San Pedro for a while as moving from city to city, though pleasant, leaves little room for adventure.
Our “things to do” list included visiting hot springs, geysers, sand boarding, horse riding... and much more. What we hadn’t planned on, but absolutely loved, was the astronomy tour we took on our first night.
Thirty minutes drive out into the desert we were greeted by a French native; a scientist and astronomer who took us on an hour long tour of the sky as we stood under it, necks craned and eyes strained. He began by talking about the basic nature of the night sky, how it “moves” throughout the night and how it is different depending on season and location. With his laser he introduced us to the brightest star “Sirius”, the closest star “ Alpha Centuri” (or pair of stars, we later found on closer inspection through one of his many telescopes), and that which is not a star at all but a planet, Saturn. We talked distances and put that into relation to more “knowable” things. Then we looked at the constellations, starting with the Southern Cross, the group unique to this hemisphere, and we attempted to remember other formations from there; the fly, the triangle, the altar, Scorpio... With wit and intelligence
the Frenchman made us laugh in his anecdotes of various other constellations commenting on the likelihood of Virgo “the Virgin” being chaste in actuality “with legs set apart like that”.
After an hour or so we were treated to viewing the sky through powerful telescopes. Most amazing was to see Saturn enlarged with its many rings. The moon was also impressive, and we were able to take a picture through the telescope. At the end of the night, after our cup of much needed hot chocolate (may I remind you that it’s cold in the desert at night), heading back to town Chris and I talked about how it was one of the best and most unique experiences on our travels to date. A little geeky, of course; a bit niche and not to everyone’s liking, perhaps; unadventurous and boring; absolutely not. We would say that the S.P.A.C.E sky tour is an absolute must for those visiting San Pedro! (We even wanted to go again the next night.)
Following a night of stargazing we were up at 3.30am the next morning to make the two hour drive to the Tatio geysers at 4274ms altitude
(making it the world’s highest). Tatio is a collection of steam geysers of all sizes and impressive force. The guide was quick to warn us of the natural danger presented by the boiling water being forced upward from the ground; in 2003 a French tourist was badly burned and later died of infection.
Arriving pre-dawn we were freezing despite wearing warm clothes and being wrapped in blankets. For me, this was the first time at such altitude and I could feel the effect on my breathing. We admired the smaller geysers before a breakfast of eggs boiled in the geysers themselves. As the sun rose the larger geysers became more active, so that is where we headed next. The huge steam spouts were impressive in size, scale and frightening in power whilst at the same time beautiful in the dawn light and with the creation of colourful pools made from the mineral deposits. Beside the larger geysers was a natural swimming pool heated by the underground lava. Earlier, when asked, I had said “absolutely not”. It was freezing cold. When we reached the pool Chris and I took one look at each other, a long sigh, and
stripped down to our swimwear. Why not?! Well, I’ll tell you why not; the water really wasn’t that hot and our moment of spontaneity soon turned to regret as we sat soaking, teeth chattering, and fighting each other for the warmest patch in the pool.
On the way back to San Pedro we had little option but to stop at some crappy touristy things, because we were on one of those touristy tours. (The only other option was to bike it. No thanks.) It wasn’t all crap, really. Some of it was interesting; we saw vicunas for the first time and they were cute, and we learned that San Pedro is a bastardisation of “place of the black ducks”, which we also saw, but at the end of the day a duck is just a duck... But then you get dragged to a “local village” (I never have been to a village devoid of all people unless I’m on one of these crap tours) where we could buy tat or use the loo for a pound, and then we had to stop in a random valley to look at cactus which Chris made me stand next to
for a photo using emotional blackmail to the effect of “go on, you’re Dad will like it”, but I didn’t want to stand next to a bloody cactus. Firstly because I was cold, secondly because I was tired and mostly because we used to have a cactus at home, I bought it as a present for Chris from Ikea and called him Yannick. It was dead in two weeks. He wasn’t that interested in bloody cactus back then, was he?!
But I only jest, and the tour was well worth it. As to the rest of the items on our to do list, we decided to do the horse riding later in Bolivia, in the land of Butch and Sundance, and sand boarding demanded more energy than we could muster after that early morning. So all that was left for us to do in San Pedro was get out of there... on a three day drive to Bolivia’s famous Salar de Uyuni!
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