San Pedro de Atacama - Off the grid

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February 21st 2016
Published: April 2nd 2016
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We still hadn't sorted out our body clocks three days after arriving in Chile and getting up and ready to check out and catch a plane was a real struggle. Chile is a very long, thin country with Santiago in the middle, the Atacama desert at the top and the icebergs in Patagonia at the bottom, with huge distances in between. We had originally planned to do it all but, physically and practically, we decided that it had to be either the deserts or the icebergs and the desert won out on this occasion (it was Steve's preference and I don't do cold, remember?!). We booked a taxi to take us back to Santiago airport and we checked out of the hotel at 11 am, arriving at the airport in good time. Which was a good thing really as there was no clear check-in process and we eventually just joined a LAN airways queue of Everybody going Anywhere. It was actually a really speedy way of checking in and it worked well, despite us having no paperwork at all for the flight.

Our flight was relatively short, leaving Santiago at 2 pm and arriving in Calama about 3.50 pm. Our take off was rather wobbly (all those downdraughts and crosswinds I guessed) and we could see the smog that besets Santiago sitting in the bowl as we rose above it. Our landing in Calama was just as wobbly but I couldn't explain that as it looked like reasonably flat terrain. Maybe LAN planes just wobble a lot ... We bought tickets on a TransVIP minibus to take us and several others to San Pedro de Atacama, where our accommodation awaited. The journey was about 100 kms and the scenery was apparently stunning according to Steve who could see it all from where he sat; I could only see the back of the head of the guy in front of me.

San Pedro is a very small town which travellers use as a base to explore the surrounding desert. It makes the most of what it has to welcome the visiting tourists but it is very isolated and the adobe buildings and dirt streets make it seem quite poor though appearances might be deceptive in this case. It doesn't run to a whole lot of hotel standard accommodation. When Steve said he had booked us in to Hostal Solor I immediately focused on the word 'hostal' and had visions of a 'hostel' of dubious cleanliness and shared facilities. Despite Steve's reassurance that it was more hotel than hostel it wasn't until we arrived that I was somewhat reassured. The Lovely Lise, who spoke no English whatsoever, checked us in and we settled into Room 5, of only seven. It was basic but clean and unfortunately didn't run to air-conditioning. In the heat. In the middle of the desert ..... You can imagine the type of sign language that eventually resulted in me securing the last fan in the small hostal store for our room.

As well as being in the middle of the desert, Atacama is at considerably high altitude. We'd run into this issue (almost literally - it was like hitting a brick wall) once before when we were considerably younger and fitter so we took the sensible route of taking a day to acclimatise on this occasion, being older and perhaps a little wiser. Nevertheless, our gentle ten minute stroll into the centre of town left us short of breath, with our lungs working hard to extract oxygen from the thin air. We passed a shepherd herding his sheep, donkeys and llamas through the main street, stopping all traffic and had a lovely meal in a typical tourist restaurant. Good - fed and watered after a tiring day should mean we'll sleep through the night and get some sort of routine back into our bodies. Wrong ..... The town dogs, of which there were many, literally howled at the moon all night long. I think it must have been the moon - it was a lovely clear night and that and the stars, including the Southern Cross, were all there was to see. I got up at 2.30 am, 4.00 am, 6.30 am and 8.00 am with a headache pounding behind my eyes but then fell asleep until 11.00 am! I wish I could say I felt rested, but I didn't.

We met Javier, the hostal owner who didn't live on the premises (Lovely Lise did instead) but he spoke wonderful English and gave us his contact number in case we needed anything. It was reassuring to have that because you never know. However, I was still trying my best with the native language. 'Hola' is a very useful word of greeting and is hard to get wrong. Unfortunately, exchanging 'holas' with everyone doesn't help identify other language speakers. I initially avoided another couple in our hostal after I decided, from their initial 'hola', that a conversation with them would be just too difficult with my limited Spanish. It turned out they were French and we would have been OK with a mix of my poor (but better than my Spanish) French and their English. I had an interesting conversation in Santiago with a guy who thought I was someone called Anita and we spent some time trying to clarify the matter in Spanish. In the end I had to tell him, in Spanish, 'I don't speak Spanish - sorry'. It turned out that neither did he - he was from Canada! In the end I gave up and opened up every interaction with 'Hello' which kind of identified us up front as English-speakers much better than 'Hi'. I'm pleased to say that it didn't stop others from trying to communicate with us, or us with them, thankfully, but at least it meant we all knew where we stood.

We took another gentle stroll back into town the second morning and booked two trips, one to a moon landscape and another to the salt lakes. We had a bite to eat then strolled back to our hostal where we found a message left by the booking agent asking us to pop back to the office. Did they not realise how breathless we were and how much effort it took to just 'pop back'?! It turned out that one of the trips was overbooked so would we mind doing an alternative which covered the same things but more? We wouldn't have to pay any more than the $25K we had already paid, even though the new, improved version normally cost $65K? Well, put that way, how could we refuse?! The only downside that we could see was that we would have to get up at 5.00 am for pick up at 6.00 am. No problem - surely we would be straight asleep tonight ready for a bright and early start in the morning ... In anticipation, we had an early night, retiring to bed about 8.30 pm (I know, we live the high life!!).

About thirty minutes later, at sunset, The Street Party started. The Street Party was in the next street to ours and it seemed the whole of San Pedro was invited, apart from us. The Street Party involved lots of loud music, shouting and laughter so it had all the right ingredients for a great event. The Street Party meant no-one was going to get any sleep that night and the French couple, who had been sleeping with their room door open (because I got the last fan, remember) eventually joined me outside in our shared patio area, she to do her nails and he to drink a bottle of beer but only after he had been to put some clothes on after he realised I was outside too! The Street Party encored with a lively round of karaoke, each 'singer' trying to outdo the previous one in terms of volume and, if we had known any of the words, we would have joined in. The town dogs did know the words apparently, because they howled along with everyone else. As it was, we eventually returned to our rooms when it seemed The Street Party had finally finished about 3.30 am. Man, the Chileans sure know how to party! I paid a final visit to the toilet before getting back into bed. Now, I wasn't completely familiar with the San Pedro plumbing but that just didn't sound quite right ....

And, indeed, it wasn't. We dragged ourselves out of bed after having no sleep at all to discover the hostal had no water. No water for a wash, no water to clean our teeth, no water for the toilet. Using a mixture of bottled water, wetwipes, and the last cistern full of water in the toilets in the reception area we readied ourselves for our 6.00 am collection to learn from the guide that the whole of San Pedro town was without water and, not to worry, it happened quite regularly. I refrained from voicing my views that I thought The Street Party had drunk the town dry.


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