So this, this, and this and, well, all of this sum up Peru (The First Time). Desert, mountains, altitude, harsh wind and hot sun, indigenous people, wonderful food, alpacas, pink eye and stomach sickness.
At the last minute we opted to swing into Chile as an easier way to start up our Salt Flat tour (Bolivia was also a last minute addition; too many travelers raved about the country for us to skip it).
I am so happy we took that route. Even though we were only in San Pedro de Atacama for two days and I spent half of it in the bathroom, it was one of my favorite towns and I would definitely return.
Yes, its a somewhat pricey backpacker desert town filled with expats who refuse to speak English (rude!) and tourist-focused activities like sandboarding. But it was beautiful and serene and laid back and it managed to feel authentic. No tour operators harassed us like they do in Peru, and the local and expat communities seemed to co-exist happily, versus the resentful love-hate relationship we noticed elsewhere.
We hit town the day of San Pedro’s annual religious festival, so we caught a wonderful parade through the town’s narrow dust roads, with local people carrying Virgin Mary statues overhead and dancing and beating drums in brightly colored dresses and crazy feathered wings.
I was just standing there taking video when one of these dudes pulled me into the parade. I was at first a little terrified to be yanked by my arm through this stomping gauntlet dance but after a few rounds of getting my toes crushed I think I actually got the steps right. So that was a bit crazy.
Later I rented a mountain bike and explored the town’s outskirts, where I took in Chile’s dusty desert landscape and soaked up a little sun for the first time in weeks. I was chased by a pack of wild dogs, got a little lost, and remembered just how much I miss riding my bike around Brooklyn.
That night we took something called an astronomy tour on a whim, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.
It was run by this adorable French man and his wife who operate a hotel for amateur astronomers. We went to his house, where he’s got around 15 huge, mostly self-constructed telescopes. Chile has more clear nights with many more visible stars than most parts of the world, and the view was spectacular. In the middle of the freezing cold desert night he showed us constellations, planets and well-known stars; I’ve never seen the Milky Way or Jupiter or even the Big Dipper (upside-down, of course) so clearly.
Even better was his military-grade laser light that literally pointed directly at the stars, which probably could have burned my retinas given a stray sideways glance.
Later we watched the moon rise and drank hot chocolate.