South America | Chile | Atacama Desert | San Pedro de Atacama – Gearing Down in the Desert
It has now been a week since we left ‘home’ and slowly the new surroundings begin to take hold. The process of slowing down and turning off the western clock will still take a while to complete but we are making a serious effort not to make any serious efforts.
The past twelve months have been a steady build up of stress and preparations for this twelve month stretch on the road. I suppose that is a fair deal though the last weeks before departure turned into a hectic frenzy that I don’t care to repeat. It is exactly this frenzied existence that we are now trying to gear down for there is little room in South America for impatience and the plaguing western belief that ‘time is money’. Down here time is time, and money is money, and granted it is a fine thing to have enough of both, it is not an obsession. And while I could go on and on with my biased opinions of the shortcomings of the western world I’ll spare you that and use the time instead to update our progress.
Santiago greeted us with blue skies and warm temperatures. Street cafes full of life and laughter, musicians and artists, park benches filled with people who seemed completely content to simply watch the day pass, yes, despite Santiago’s urban pace it was clear that we were well below the equator.
We found a room and made our way to the “Plaza de Armas”, the central square around which the city’s life revolves, there we sat and tried to catch up with the speed of the airplane that had brought us there. A mere 19 hours had passed since leaving Berlin’s winter skies and landing in the Chilean summer sun and we were still caught somewhere in between the two.
Children played in the fountains, ice cream vendors, shoeshiners, and Polaroid photographers made their circuits while under the shadows of the palms men huddled around rows of tables playing chess and discussing the news of the day. And there we sat, a world removed with our pale white skin flinching under the golden rays of a Santiago afternoon.
Despite the tranquil setting we were still unable to take it all in. Shouldn’t we be doing something ? Shouldn’t we be in a hurry to go somewhere or buy something ? No, the work is done for now, this is what we have been yearning to do and now we are here, still in a hurry but for what ? At this point it was again clear that it would take some time to adjust to the relaxed pace of Latin America.
Though we were forced to downshift a gear or two upon arrival, to describe Santiago as tranquil is far from the truth. It is the capital city of a modern and upwardly developing country, the economic and geographical heart of a land that sprawls almost 3000 miles along the Pacific Ocean. Mediterranean in climate and feel, it is impossible not to notice the same relentless drive for success that, to a slightly greater extent, controls most of the western world. This is what we had just escaped from and, while the city is certainly pleasant enough, it had served our purpose as a port of entry and we were to lose no time in moving on to more relaxing environs.
Leaving Santiago we were faced with three options; a normal bus, sleeper bus and the last was a clever combination of the first two called “semi cama” or “half bed”. As we we had a full 12 hours ahead of us and the bus was leaving at 10:30 at night we opted for the semi cama, not wanting to spoil ourselves too much but still wanting to assure a reasonable nights sleep. We were soon to find out that semi cama is basically no different than a normal bus with the exception that the seats recline far enough back that you can roughly estimate how long it has been since the passenger behind you has changed his underwear. In this case I am happy to report that it hadn’t been too long although his last meal was a bit heavy on the garlic.
Making amends with the limited space available we set off along the Panamericana (The Panamerican Highway) towards the small port town of Caldera. Within a half an hour Santiago’s relatively hectic streets fell away to reveal a clear moonlit night and miles and miles of central Chiles arid, coastal mountains. It was good to be moving. Just out the window Orion stood guard over the passing silhouettes of the rolling hills and I could only smile. Orion has accompanied me on many a journey and having him watching the road ahead was all the assurance I needed to drift off into a somewhat satisfying sleep.
Morning light gave new detail to the passing landscapes but little had changed with the 500 miles that we had covered since leaving Santiago. Indeed, there is little change to be registered in the 2500 miles from Central Chile all the way north to Southern Ecuador. The Panamericana, like a river, follows the path of least resistance which keeps it nestled between the Pacific Coast and the Andean mountains. This strip of barren coastal desert is wild and free and forgive my over-generalization in saying that there is little change but that has been my observation.
Our plan had been to settle down in a small town and let the stress of the past months wash away in the tide.Unfortunately in Caldera we were not to find the the tranquil beach environment that we had been searching. Though the Chilean vacation season had just ended the town was still quite full and the crowded beaches, icy waters and expensive restaurants left something to be desired, namely the Carribean !
We had to wait a day for the next bus and we set out again sandwiched in a semi-cama for another long stretch through the night. It was a long, sleepless night but our spirits remained high as we eventually left the Panamericana and the Pacific and began the eastward journey towards the heart of the Atacama Desert, an area with the dubious distinction of being the driest place on Earth.
We are now in the small village of San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis surrounded by fantastic formations of stone and earth. I have found the village can claim yet another dubious distinction as being the place with the largest concentration of “Gringos” in Chile. (the term “Gringo” was originally reserved as a, less than friendly, term for Americans, but has now been extended, in slightly friendlier terms, to include all pale-skinned touristas) Despite the almost overwhelming presence of Gringos the village has a very relaxing feel to it and it is understandable to see why San Pedro has become a tourist destination. At this point however, we have yet to partake in any of the varied excursions and hikes that are on offer, choosing instead to make-up for our less than Carribean coastal stop. The only order of the day is to relax and once that task has been completed I should have more tell. Entonces, hasta luego viajeros !