Wednesday, September 05, 2007

San Pedro de Atacama: tourism has two sides

After the melancholy of a Santiago submitting itself to the chill of a rainy winter, San Pedro seemed like a perfect first stop. A fellow volunteer and I had planned a near month long trip which would take us through the north of Chile, across the border into Bolivia, and after passing through Lago Titicaca, bring us to Cusco, Peru just in time for the Inti-Raymi festival at the end of June. San Pedro is a 24-hour bus ride north of the country's capital, and is a tiny pueblo in the middle of the Atacama Desert: the driest desert in the world. We enjoyed deep, blue skies, the kind that make you feel like you could see beyond your universe, the kind that evoke that same feeling of awe as the ocean. I've heard these blue skies are a daily occurrence.

As I learn more about South America, I would like to return with the resources to travel off the main tourist routes with a knowledgeable guide, but for my first time through Bolivia and Peru I decided to see what opportunities arose and play things rather safely. I prefer to travel in a manner that interacts with the local community rather than observes it, but this is difficult if you need to keep the pace fairly quick. Unfortunately we felt pressured by time and money during these travels, but I didn't want to think of it as limited; I looked at these weeks rather as an introduction to places and cultures in which I hope to be immersed again, and soon. I do not like feeling like a tourist. This can be very difficult to avoid when you have pale skin and blond hair, and are traveling through Latin America. While I can surprise people with my language skills, locals still know that I am an extranjera. Sometimes tourists are looked down upon, depending on the behavior of previous tourists who may have made a name for themselves, but in San Pedro tourism has given an enormous boost to the local economy. With all of the sites and natural beauty located just around the town, it's no surprise that this oasis in the desert is the perfect base from which to explore.

In comparison to other small towns in Chile, San Pedro is unique in many respects. First, the use of adobe for walls and buildings seems to make its long history more apparent. If you take out the tall tourists with backpacks, I think the town has a sense of being untouched. I remember standing outside the town on a hill, with the vast, infinite desert expanding all around the tree-lined pueblo, and thinking how different the sense of space felt. In Santiago, sometimes the city seems to go on forever, neighborhood after neighborhood. But here, it was the opposite. Around San Pedro, under an unending sun and hidden in intimidating expanses, are geysers, prehistoric ruins, the 3rd largest salt flat in the world, archaeological wonders, and natural rock formations that create intriguing shapes and shadows. We choose to visit the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Mars. The Valley of Mars cannot support one bacteria of life, and among its choppy rocks and reddish sand NASA practices their robot which is then used on Mars. We spent more time walking through the Valley of the Moon, El Valle de la Luna, and stayed there to watch the sun set. It looks like you have left earth, and are on an entirely different planet.

The actual sunset is not nearly as impressive as the 10 minutes following. Across from the sun, to the east, you can watch the cordillera become literally a rainbow of color. The mountains and clouds reflect the separated light and turn from yellow to red to blue with such an intensity you forget that this is natural. I walked away from the line of tourists and found my own place in the sand to witness the marvels. I imagined what the town and the area had been like when the Spanish built the church in 1745, and even the thousands of years before the Spanish had arrived. Chile, I learned, has been greatly influenced by immigrants from all over the world. With a recognized indigenous population estimated at nearly 7% of the whole country's population, Chile seems to be a sort of complicated mix of cultures. But rather isolated pueblos with such long histories as San Pedro make me wonder how much the local citizens have been able to retain of their heritage. And how much, in the face of the strong wave of tourism that is flowing through its adobe lined streets, will influence its future.

After discussing options of crossing the border into Bolivia with other travelers in our hostal, my friend and I decided to take a four day tour in a four wheel drive jeep. We booked with a local company, and settled in for one last night in San Pedro.

See fotos from San Pedro de Atacama here.

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