It’s been almost four months since I touched down in the UK and I thought it was high time to write something about my last weeks in South America. The more time passes, the more it feels as if ever being there at all was one long, elaborate dream.
My brother arrived in Santiago in the middle of July – on what would have been our mum’s birthday, rather fittingly – and, since I still had a couple of days left at work, we saw the main sights of Santiago and spent a day in Valparaíso, where I was able to make a final trip to the amazing empanada place. Then, after my last Saturday morning class (honestly, I thought the moment of saying goodbye to that class would never come), we took an evening flight to San Pedro de Atacama, a strange little town and popular tourist destination in the Atacama desert.
San Pedro is strange in its rusticity: all in all, it comprises about four intersecting dust roads, all packed with wood-fronted restaurants and tiny souvenir shops. At over 2000m above sea level, it offers a good point of acclimatisation for backpackers going on to the even loftier heights of Bolivia and it is, essentially, a base used to explore the various attractions of the Atacama desert, the driest in the world. We stayed in a hostel, endorsed by literally all of my friends who had been to San Pedro, right in the centre of the town; I was less than impressed by the showers (the temperature of which it was completely impossible to regulate #highmaintenance) but highly impressed by the ‘bundles’ they offered in terms of visiting the attractions of the desert. We paid about £100 each to visit some of the area’s most frequented attractions, including the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), some lagoons, and the Geyser del Tatio, as well as an afternoon of sandboarding and an evening of stargazing.
Sandboarding was the first thing we did and I was, to be honest, quite relieved when it was over: the sun was beating down, climbing up a dune only to go back down it again is hard, and the whole affair brought out my tendency to dislike any activity I’m not immediately good at.
The valley, lagoons and geysers (which involved a fairly horrific 4am start are probably best described by way of photographs:
We had the same guide for the trip to the geysers (which also involved an AMAZING breakfast which we reminisced about for days afterwards) and the trip to the valley; needless to say, we were best friends by the end. The diversity of the landscapes contained within such a small area was staggering and I feel very lucky to have been able to see them.
I think I speak for both of us, however, when I say that the unexpected star of the show (excuse the pun) was the evening of stargazing. We were picked up from our hostel after dark and driven to a slightly dodgy-seeming location in the middle of nowhere, where we were led into somebody’s actual back garden and told to sit in one of the chairs surrounding a large telescope. The next couple of hours were amazing: the guide was very knowledgeable and, to my brother’s relief and delight, spoke fantastic English. San Pedro is, apparently, one of the best places in the world for seeing the stars, and the clear view that we had of our arm of the Milky Way was testament to that. The guide also earned some extra brownie points by providing wine halfway through.
On our final night in San Pedro, before heading to Bolivia, we treated ourselves to dinner out. It featured coca leaf (derived from the same plant as cocaine and popular throughout South America as an altitude sickness remedy) pisco sours and, for my brother, beef a lo pobre, i.e. served alongside a massive portion of chips and topped with a fried egg. It made a very welcome change from the tomato and vegetable pasta we’d eaten in the hostel for several nights in a row.
We enjoyed San Pedro and all it had to offer, but we were very excited to move on to the next part of the trip: the Uyuni salt flat!