The carabineros (Chilean police) rushed into the scene before any of us could even stand up. They spread out across the front of the group, speaking in quick and efficient Spanish, telling everyone to wrap up the party and go home. One of them approached a man who was clearly drunk and probably high. He said something and started laughing. The carabinero lady didn’t look impressed with his wit and called one of her teammates over. It looked like he was going to be arrested. People around him tried getting in the way, but the carabineros coolly ignored them.
I started walking towards them, but the man beside me held me back with his arm. “Not safe for you,” he said, and then added, “They just want to scare him. They won’t do anything. Where are you from?”
On the map of Chile, the Atacama desert occupies much of the North of Chile and small parts of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Given its existential issue as a plateau between two mountain ranges on both sides that shield it from the rest of the world, the area receives almost no rainfall. I was told some parts of the desert have never received rainfall. The desert one of the world’s premier sights for star-gazing and NASA has tested their Mars Rovers here.
There is almost no humidity and there is almost always an unrelenting and dry heat under a straight-to-your-skin sun. There will probably come a day when I will regret not wearing sunscreen during my time here.
The desert is littered with interesting rock formations, salt lakes, geyser pools, salt flats, sand dunes, and so much more. There is a never-ending list of things to tick off while you are here, and all these things are always in the periphery of your vision and perception when you spend any time in the small gateway town of San Pedro de Atacama. David, Travis, Jes (who we met again on the bus to here. Remember these guys from Valparaiso, Vina, and La Serena?), and I spent a few days here touring the region and seeing the sights.
San Pedro brought to a head all my debates — internal and external — about being a traveller versus being a tourist. In my mind, the differences had been slowly melting away leaving behind a general understanding that everyone, tourist or traveller, is doing their own thing.
But getting to San Pedro de Atacama from the Caldera region was a shock. Every street was replete with travel agencies, adventure tour operators and fancy restaurants. There were backpackers walking everywhere, always recognisable with their (mostly) whiteness, (mostly) youth, flip-flops, and a general aura of confidence and aimlessness that seemed to walk in step with them.
However, the town also had an unavoidable positive energy, rumoured to be from all the lithium deposits in the desert. Almost-pedestrian-only dust-covered streets, clean and dry air, volcanoes in the distance, cafes filled with chatty happy tourists, pretty expats advertising for the tour agencies: all these things left me feeling light and cheerful, and gave me a spring in my otherwise exhausted (from the heat) step. David was unimpressed though. “It’s a tourist trap”, he said.
On our first day, we rented cycles and rode to the nearby Valle de la Luna (Valley of the moon). Sculpted by millions of years of wind and water interacting with salt and sand and stone, the formations in the valley are thrilling. There are caves that connect to small paths that connect to viewpoints. There are sand dunes and amazing views from the top of them that extend all the way to the horizon and seemingly beyond because there’s nothing between your eye and infinity here. At sunset, improbable colours pile up on top of the landscape as hundreds of travellers and tourists on guided tours gather to watch the show.
The valley really is something different from any other place I have ever been. I would love to go back in a camper van and just spend a few days there.
That night in our campground, we met two brothers from Punta Arenas in the south of Chile, and a group of giggling girls from Santiago de Chile who thought I resembled the lead actor from Life of Pi. Together with the brothers, we went out to have dinner and instead ended up watching the most amazing street musicians I have ever seen. They were playing a few unusual instruments, some native to Chile, and they had some really cool rhythms going. A big crowd was gathered around them; strangers talking to one another (and to us) and enjoying the music. Dinner was forgotten and we just stayed there, dancing and enjoying the music.
After a while, the musicians started walking along the road, but they kept playing. The crowd started walking and dancing along with them and we got caught up in the flow of people. “Where are we going?”, I asked David. He shrugged and we kept dancing and walking in what had now become a parade through the streets of San Pedro.
“We’re here! Welcome to the Playa Sin Agua [beach without water]”, said one of the musicians as we reached what appeared to be the outskirts of the town. We had left the streets behind and we were on sand now. The musicians continued playing their awesome music and a bonfire was lit. We lay down on the sand and looked up at the stars.
The next day, we did the unthinkable and booked tours with an agency. They took us a set of two pools (water in the middle of the desert!) called the Ojos del Salar. One of these pools welcomes tourists jumping into it, and so that is what I did of course. For sunset, we were taken to a place that I now don’t remember the name of. There were salt flats and a few volcanoes in the background which made for a magnificent view.
That night, we walked around the town trying to find the musicians again, but they weren’t there. After dinner and a great deal of walking, we ended up at a square in the middle of the town, where a group of locals was sitting around. One guitarist in the middle was strumming songs with a gentle, soothing voice. We sat on the ground and took in the atmosphere. “See, this is what I’m talking about. These are real people”, said David.
I nodded, but then added, “You know they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the tourists, right?”.
There were joints passed around and beer cans kept appearing out of nowhere. Then the carabineros arrived. Even as the police vans were parking, the beer had disappeared. I looked around and David was gone as well.
I wanted to interfere when they started talking loudly to a man who was clearly drunk but was held back by the guy next to me. “They just want to scare him. They won’t do anything. Where are you from?”.
I told him I was Indian, and continued to look at the drama.
“That’s pretty cool that they won’t do anything”, I said. “In India, they wouldn’t let him go without humiliation and a bribe.”
“The last thing you want to do is bribe a carabinero. They are very proud and never accept bribes.”
He led me away from the scene and we walked together and talked. “Chilean wine is the best”, he said as we reached his apartment. “Wait, you want to try some?”, he asked.
He went inside and came back after a few minutes with a huge bottle of white wine. “Best white wine in Chile!”, he said.
We sat there side by side, the night silent and wispy like cigarette smoke around us, drinking wine and talking about our countries.
“Chile is very political because we are still divided on the dictatorship years”, he told me.
He showed me music videos by famous Chilean artists. One artist, Violeta Parra, still stands out to me, and I’ve linked to one of her songs below. It is a beautiful deeply political song about a girl whose brother has been arrested. The translated lyrics can be found here.
In return, I showed him videos of Zakir Hussain playing the tabla because that’s the only thing my wine-happy mind could think of!
“Do you have Facebook? Can I add you?”, I asked him.
He waved and disappeared into the night.
When I made my way back to camp at around 5 AM, David was there waiting. “Where did you disappear to?”, I asked him.
“A guy was showing me around the town. It was really cool. He told me about the town’s history and all. Really cool guy. But then he got pissed that I wasn’t gay”.
We had come to San Pedro and our eyes had at first seen merely a tourist town. We left it (in different directions) happily surprised with experiences I had never thought I would have.
Getting there: You can fly to Calama airport from Santiago and take a taxi or bus to San Pedro, or you can take the bus to San Pedro. It’s about a 22 hour bus ride from Santiago, but it’s comfortable and fun.
Staying: Hostels everywhere, hotels everywhere, and a few campgrounds too. There’s probably one that fits your budget.
Doing: Sandboarding, star-gazing, thermal springs, volcanos, lagoons, salt lakes, crazy rock formations. You could stay a month and still keep doing stuff.
But really, if you have the time and money, get your own transport (i.e. a camper van) and drive around. Some of my friends did that when they came here later, and they had a blast.