Sand, Salt and Sunsets in the Atacama Desert

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Chile, that “long petal of sea, wine and snow” in the beautiful words of its Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda, stands out on a map of the world. At 2,700 miles north to south, it is longer than any other country except Brazil – roughly the same as Britain and the United States bolted together. Yet it is all of 40 miles wide at its narrowest point east to west, 220 at its widest and a little over 100 on average.

The south has glaciers and ski slopes, the north has the Atacama Desert. Geographers know it as the driest place on earth, but it is better known now for the San José mine where, in 2010, 33 copper miners were trapped underground for over two months.

The Valle de la Lune (Moon Valley) is around 300 miles to the north of that, roughly in the middle of the desert. The sand is sprinkled with ancient salt deposits, like lorryloads of Shake n’ Vac. Natural sculptures sprout in the middle of nothingness. Dunes rise three storeys high, pristine except for a narrow strip which has been corrugated by the wind. Nature has carved the variegated sandstone into walls, as if of a fairytale castle. There are narrow alleys which you can squeeze through, and jump in alarm when the walls bang as they cool in the late afternoon and you think the whole lot will collapse.

As the sun dies down and the sky dims, the golden rocks turn gradually pink then gradually red. The Licancabur Volcano we had tracked towards on our way from Bolivia was pink at the crater, blending to red, then blue, then purple at the base of the cone. Busloads of people had come to watch the sun set. They crouched with their cameras, fussing with tripods; or sprawled on the rocks, sipping wine from plastic cups.

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Back in San Pedro, I went to a restobar with tables outside and a bonfire to chase off the chill of the evening. The fire crackled and scented the air as I looked through the menu and the waiter brought a basket of bread and the bowl of pebre, which always comes with it in Chile. It is simple enough to make. Roughly chop a handful of coriander, toss with a couple of diced tomatoes, a few sliced spring onions and a finely diced green chilli, add a glug of wine vinegar, three or four of olive oil, a sprinkle of seasoning, and toss it all again.

I was out by seven the next morning, looking to hire a bike. But everything was closed. Doors were bolted, windows were shuttered; there was no one else about. It was the same again when I went back at eight. A few cafes had opened by nine, but everything else was still shut. I had a coffee and an empanada de pino as I waited for the hire shops to unlock their doors. Then I really needed the exercise: Chilean empanadas are massive things, like half a rugby ball.

Sometime around 9.30, the keenest of the hire shops opened for business and I chose a mountain bike which surprised me by stopping when I squeezed the brakes. Hire bikes tend just to slow down. I had, as always, to remind myself that it was left hand drive. Squeeze hard on what would be the back brake at home and you are over the handlebars wondering how it happened.

I pootled around town and into the outskirts and rode out to the remains of a pre-Incan fortress named Pukará de Quitor. I could have cycled all day in that weather, but I had a bus to catch in the early afternoon: South towards Santiago.

© Richard Senior 2015

Of Poop and Parties: San Pedro de Atacama

They were full of shit.

The islands to the south of Peru were thick with seabird guano. It made excellent fertiliser, and Peru millions. They exported it all over the world. In 1864, the Spanish used a flimsy excuse to occupy the islands, and Peru, Bolivia and Chile went to war with them and won. It was the first time that nations had fought over bird shit.

Then, when saltpetre from the Bolivian desert became even more marketable than seabird crap, a Chilean company secured the right to mine it free of tax. But Bolivia reneged. Talks went nowhere, and they ended up at war. Peru joined in on the Bolivian side. But Chile resoundingly won and shifted its border hundreds of miles north through Bolivia and into Peru. Bolivia lost its saltpetre deposits and coastline; Peru lost some of its guano. There is bitterness about it still, 130 years later.

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The Chilean army marched on San Pedro de Atacama in 1879 and Bolivia never saw it again. It is an arty, bohemian enclave now, a charming place. Adobe shoeboxes with peeling whitewash and beaten up doors line the main road and half a dozen side streets. The shops sell copper jewellery, textiles and indigenous art. Alternative types sit in the plaza in the shade of the trees overlooking a cute little colonial church.

Two jeeploads of us arrived from Bolivia and, whether it was the waves of positive energy the hippies claim to feel, or the stupefying sun, or just a sense of release after three days driving across the altiplano, everyone seemed to be in a party mood. We went out en masse to eat, swapped stories about scams and overnight buses, and stayed on until late for cocktails.  Some peeled off to their hostels, and the rest of us went looking for a club.

But San Pedro is not as liberal as it seems. There are no clubs, no late bars; in fact, no bars at all outside of the restaurants. There is nowhere to drink legally after one in the morning, and nowhere where it is legal to dance. I discovered that later, though.

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Some locals invited us to a beach party, which was a puzzle because San Pedro is a long way from the coast. Or at least it would have been a puzzle if any of us had been sober. I was not happy with the idea of following them out of town and down a dark lane and away from any houses; but dozens of gringos joined the procession, travellers who had stopped off on their way north or south. We bought beer from a guy who had stockpiled a few crates and was selling it off can by can, and we plodded up and down the dusty hills, shouting and giggling and talking crap, and the drunkest of our crowd fell over a lot, until we eventually got to the ‘beach’. It was a quarry. The party was a hippie with a Spanish guitar and a bunch of his mates quietly singing along. It was hardly Ko Pha Ngan. But it was all there was in San Pedro.

There was an earthquake next morning which shook the town and knocked things off shelves, but no one who had been to the party noticed. I stumbled out into the blinding sun and trudged in agony to the restobar on the corner, where I ordered two cafés con leche and a medium-sized pizza for breakfast.

My head throbbed, my stomach churned and my mouth felt lined with guano.

© Richard Senior 2015