Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tuesday, February 17th, San Pedro de Atacama


San Pedro de Atacama is a lot more than we expected. Though we haven’t yet been to its signature viewing – the flamingos on the salt flat, we’re already blown away by the beauty of its land and sky. And we had no idea that its local archeological ruins would be so extensive, and how well displayed its museum would be. I mean, this is in the driest desert in the world. You’d think all there’d be is dust storms (oh wait, we huddled on a mountaintop through one of those today) and tumbleweeds (they all are alive here, and the roots go down nine times as deep as the plant).

At breakfast near the pool, the hotel staff informed us our tour staff had arrived. Since we thought they were coming at 9am, we hurriedly finished and met Oliver at the desk. He apologized and explained that there had been a change, and we quickly joined the other five passengers which had been rounded up from nearby hotels.

Oliver was a great guide, sounding in Spanish and English much more experienced than his two months on the job would indicate. He and Carlos took us to the first dwelling in the region (Tulor – tracing back to about 900 BC), then to a mountainside fortress (Pukara of Quitor) guarding the San Pedro River in the period from 300 AD to its assimilation into the Inca Empire in 1450 AD. Finally, we were guided through the exhibits at the Gustavo Le Paige Archeological Museum before returning for lunch near the town square.

At 4pm, we were picked up by Claudio for our trip to the Moon Valley. Before heading off there, he wanted us to see the surrounding area from several panoramic viewpoints. It’s hard to realize how unique the little community of San Pedro is until you see if from atop the adjacent hills. The river has afforded a lush colony of adobe-bricked houses and shops which have become a mecca for eco-eager tourists. From backpacker to five-star elitists, they are here for Chile’s peak vacation week.

The Moon Valley at sunset was clearly an experience we won’t forget. At least 300 tourists, very few of them Americans, hiked up a long windy hillside to the topos a huge sand dune to catch the last rays of the sun on this side of the Chilean Andes. Unfortunately, the Bolivian winter rain clouded the distant mountains, and only the tallest snow-capped peaks were visible. And then came what our guide called the strangest weather phenomenon he’d seen. Reversing the usual West-East wind direction, a bizarre dust storm rose out of the Atacama Valley, swept over us, and reduced visibility to about ten feet. Climbers who had secured the best rock locations to view the sunset were worried they would be unable to climb down again. Soon, it passed to our west, and we were able to at least watch the sun set as we walked back down the hill.

Tomorrow, we’re traveling to some thermal pools in the highlands.

To view today's photos,click on San Pedro de Atacama>

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