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San Pedro de Atacama

Written on: Friday January 11th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile 

Author: Julie 


Our drive from the Bolivian border to the small touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama was eventful for the three of us after having spent 4 days of nearly endless mishaps. We had settled comfortably into the shuttle van which was to take us into the town. The boarder outpost was slowly disappearing from sight as we bumped over the gravel road when everything went smooth and quiet. No more than 500 meters from the border, we had already met the main highway that went from San Pedro to Argentina and it was paved. The differences between Chile and Bolivia were instantly obvious, sharp curves had guardrails, steep hills had emergency stopping points for trucks with break problems, there were road signs everywhere and everything was paved. The 45 minute ride into town was like returning to a modern city after spending months of living in the wilderness. Obviously our time in Bolivia wasn?t that drastic, but it was how it felt to us. The only similarity was when the driver turned on the radio, it was playing the exact same ABBA song we had listened to over and over again for the last 4 days. We all looked at each and started laughing, you just can?t get away from disco. 

On arrival into the desert town, our drive took us to Immigration to get processed. We had to bring our bags with us and for the first time since we had started travel we were searched. They were looking mostly for fresh fruit, vegetables and meats that could not be imported into the country. Thomas lost a banana but at least they hadn?t discovered the flamingo skull he had found at Laguna Colorada the day before. 

With a new set of stamps in our passport, the driver dropped us off close to the plaza. We hadn?t booked any accommodations and it wouldn?t have mattered since we should have arrived the previous day. We pulled out our travel guide which weights like a boat anchor and consulted it for the nearest and hopefully cheapest place we could find. A few left turns and we were at Hostal Villacoyo. They didn?t have any more doubles but they did have a triple available (36$) that we could share with Thomas. We dropped off our bags and laid down for a nap, we were tired from being up so early that morning and needed to catch up on our shut eye. Upon waking we were all starved and seeing the advertised prices on boards outside of restaurants we were not ready to part with that much money so quickly, so we walked out of the tourist area of the town and found a small local restaurant advertising a set menu lunch of 2000 pesos person, perfect! At a bit more than 8$ for the two of us we could eat a meal consisting of a salad, main platter of rice and chicken and a juice. It was simple but delicious. 

In the afternoon, we walked around for a while and checked up on our email. The internet prices here were aimed towards the hoards of tourists that arrived every day and was available for the low price (not!) of 2.50$ an hour. We had always paid a dollar or less, but they knew they could ask that price and people would pay it, including us. We also dropped off our laundry for washing, it had been so long since it had been washed and I?m sure the girl turned green when she opened the bag. Everything was covered in salt, sweat and dust. We then spent a couple of hours walking from hostel to hostel trying to find better accommodations at a cheaper price, but every single hostel was full up for the remainder of the week-end and everyone was asking a lot more in price (40$ to 180$!). 

In the evening, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal out. At 7 PM, we walked around looking for a nice restaurant. We stopped at one called Blanco that was very funky looking with everything white including the walls, tables, chairs, flooring, bar, etc. We found it really strange that no one was in the restaurant and the staff were sitting outside, we were their first customers of the evening. We found out later that Chileans eat supper starting at 9 PM and we were very early. Actually, we were lucky that the chef was even there yet. I ordered myself an amazing supper of ginger salmon and the guys ordered a plate of pasta with salmon. This was accompanied with a fantastic Chilean Cabernet-Sauvignon. When we got the bill, the total cost was a bit of a shock as we were all used to paying Bolivian, Peruvian and even Ecuadorian prices. We were now in South America?s most expensive country and we would have to re-adjust our traveller?s mentality to what was expensive and what was cheap. The new exchange rate was a little bit more difficult to translate into American dollar equivalents with 454 pesos to the dollar. We finally figured out that we had to drop al the extra 0s and double the cost to get an idea of the price. For example, our room was listed as 16.000 pesos, which comes out to 36$. We were now millionaires! 

The next day, we spent part of the morning at the hostel catching up on our sleep while Thomas took the day bus to Calama, the closest city to San Pedro. He was having difficulties getting money out of the two ATMs in town and hadn?t exchanged any Bolivianos before leaving Uyuni. We were okay for a couple of days but I still wanted to get more money in case we decided to do any extra activities. San Pedro is known as being the Chilean gateway to the Uyuni and Atacama salt flats, as well as offering multi-day horse riding treks, excursions to the Moon Valley, and to the geysers of El Tatio. I was finally able to get money out of the machine around mid-day when the power came back after one of the many power outages. I extracted 200,000.00 from the bank machine for the first time in my life. It felt weird to be punching all those zeros into the machine. 

We spent a better part of the afternoon walking around the town and it is truly as the guidebook had described it: Adobe-landia. In one decade, this sleepy town on the Trans-Andean cattle driver was transformed into a gringo-satisfying street after street gathering of guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafes, artesinean shops, and travel agencies. It mostly existed to serve all the tourists that arrived everyday on their way to or from the salt flats or the surrounding sites of the geysers and the valleys. It certainly had its charm with its adobe brown buildings, narrow dusty streets, its cute shops and trendy restaurants. 

With our pockets full of 10,000$ bills we walked over to the bus station to buy our tickets to Calama. We were hoping to catch a bus from there to Antofagasta, the nearest large city in our part of Northern Chile. The guide book wasn?t very complimentary to Antofagasta but all the buses to La Serena our ultimate destination was booked. We had arrived in Chile at the start of their summer and everything from now on would require a bit more advanced planning and reservations. We could have stayed in San Pedro a few more days to take advantage of all of the sites on offer to us but with only one month scheduled in the very long country of Chile, we needed to head south now to experience the other areas that were more in our interest. 

By then Thomas was back from Calama and had been successful with his banking. We discussed if we wanted to go to another expensive restaurant or take advantage of the self-serve kitchen at the hostel. All of us voted for a home-made meal and we stopped at the grocery store to buy a few scrawny vegetables, some chicken burger patties, sausages and we had a feast. We ate our supper at 7 PM which shocked the Argentineans staying at the hostel. At this time in Argentina, people are partaking in Once which is tea-time with a snack of sandwiches and tea before going out for supper at 10:30 PM. When I explained that most of us prepare to go to bed at that hour they couldn?t understand. We commonly see kids as young as 2 years old up and awake at 11 PM, just finishing their supper. I don?t know how they do at school the next day.

We had an early morning bus so we headed off to bed before the Argentineans had their supper. Our clothes was now back and clean so we quickly packed our bags, said a quick good-bye to Thomas and wished him happy travels. He would be sleeping when we departed the next morning.