How can I describe San Pedro de Atacama? Lonely Planet calls it a kind of Disneyland. It wasn't really my first impression after the 18 hour bus ride from La Serena, when we arrived in a dusty village with tiny adobe houses and non-paved roads. After walking around for a while, though, I realized that it may just as well be the most touristic place I've ever been. There are tour agencies at just about every corner, and at any given time point, tourists seem to outnumber the locals (less than 2000 according to the last census). There is, however, so much to see and do there that we were happy to extend our stay to nearly a week.
|Adobe houses in San Pedro ...|
|... and lots of tourists|
|Did I mention that it´s surrounded by volcanoes?|
San Pedro and the surroundings are famous for their archaeological findings that have been remarkably well preserved due to the arid nature of the region. Thus, we visited the Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological museum (excellent), and biked to two nearby archaeological sites. We really liked the Pukará de Quitor fortification, which dates back to the 12th century, and which even allowed the Atacameño people to resist the Spanish invasion for 20 years. The aldea de Tulor - remains of the Tulor settlement, from 800 BC - was interesting, but we found the entrance fee a tad overpriced.
|Pukara de Quitor|
|Sunny day at aldea de Tulor|
|All these houses were used by a single extended family|
We also biked to Valle de la Muerte - Death Valley - a place so dry that it is claimed to support no life whatsoever. Luckily, we managed to survive the trip.
|First time mountain biking - ever!|
We also went on a couple of tours. On the trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), we saw some amazing things that wind, water and other forces can do with the landscape.
|It looked like the back of a stegosaurus|
|Afraid of heights?|
|Tres Marias - this rock formation is thought to look like three praying Marys. It is surrounded by salt.|
|The Licancabur volcano (5950 m) at sunset|
The trip to El Tatio geyser field began at about 4 a.m. We were told to be ready and waiting in front of our hostel between 4 and 4:30, and were picked up after we'd waited for 25 minutes in the freezing cold. We assumed that we'd be among the last people to be picked up, but in fact, some people waited outside even until about 5. El Tatio is among the world's highest (at 4200 m above sea level) and largest (over 80 active geysers) geyser fields. We arrived there before sunrise, and were still quite cold. Fortunately, we soon had a chance to warm up in a hot spring. All in all, I was quite impressed by the geysers, but Radek had been to Yellowstone and found this place somewhat uninspiring.
|A couple of geysers at El Tatio|
|Sunrise at El Tatio|
On the way back to San Pedro, we saw some beautiful animals, visited the Machuca village, with about six inhabitants, and ate grilled llama meat (absolutely delicious!).
|Lycalopex culpaeus andinus - the locals call it zorro culpeo altiplánico|
|Church in Machuca|
|Most houses in Machuca are abandoned|
Another early morning trip took us to the second largest salt flat in the world - the salar de Atacama, with a size of approx. 3000 square km. It is an important habitat for several species of flamingos, and the world's largest source of lithium.
|Salt at salar de Atacama|
|I think I´m seeing quadruple|
|Landscape at the salar|
We also decided to visit the Chuquicamata mine and ghost town. It is the world's largest open-pit copper mine, and copper mined here and in other places in Chile account for one third of the country's exports. Bolivia still hasn't recovered from losing the region and access to the sea in the Pacific war.
Inhabitants of the Chuquicamata town needed to relocate in 2007 (the last family left in 2008) to Calama due to enforced international pollution regulations. It was indeed very dusty, but apparently, people liked to live there because they didn't need to pay for rent nor for electricity, water, etc. The town now has everything - schools, a hospital, shops, hair salons, a church, theater, etc - except its residents.
|Pinocchio in abandoned Chuquicamata|
|Church in Chuquicamata|
|The tires of this truck are approx. 2.5 m in diameter|
|Dusty copper mine|
By the way, the truck above uses three liters of diesel per minute, and thus, in one day, about as much as a normal car in two years. The mining company is currently making preparations to change from the open pit system to a tunnel-based system. This is thought to reduce dust pollution by 90%, and will make these trucks obsolete.