A story of san pedro
Some moments while traveling stick with you, and I found many of those in my quick trip last weekend to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile’s northern Antofogasta region. San Pedro is a community that hosts many visitors to the Atacama desert, one of the most barren and dramatic landsapes in the world. There’s something about it that is magical – from the intense shadows cast by moon-like surfaces in Valle de la Luna to the way the sun echoes off the salt flats. But even I couldn’t realize how much the trip would mean to me and the friends that I would make along the way. It was so memorable, so important to my life, that I would like to detail my trip by each day. Here we go.
Day 1- Arrival/Valle de la Luna
I woke up promptly at 4AM to get all set for my 6AM flight – the cheapest option that had been available to me. It was a quick two hour flight to Calama, the nearest airport to San Pedro. Calama is the home of one of Chile’s major copper mines, and you can tell the economy is booming right now because there are new housing divisions popping up in the community. From Calama, it’s a 1 ½ hour bus ride to San Pedro. I (of course) slept for most of the way to San Pedro, but woke up just in time for our first glimpse of the Atacama desert. It was in that moment I realized that it felt like we were on a different planet. We drove along the surface of Valle de la Luna, one of the most famous landscapes near San Pedro. Its harsh shadows piercing the ancient rock formations make one believe they are on the moon – hence the name.
Once in the town, I arrived to my hostel. At this point, I need to make a s/o to my friends at Hostel Mamatierra. I could not have been more happy during my time at Mamatierra, because they treated me like a member of their own family. It was my first time staying in a hostel, and all of my roommates in the 5-person dorm spoke English and we immediately hit it off for the weekend.
I meandered around San Pedro, the old, sleepy town that hosts many of the tourism activities around Atacama. And to my emotional surprise, I ran into Saira and Ale, two of the good friends that had stayed with me for a couple days in Santiago. I thought I would never seem again and hadn’t known our paths would cross again in northern Chile, of all places. It was an emotional and tearful reunion, one that I will never forget.
Finally, after almost getting ripped off on a monopod, it was time to set off on an adventure into the belly of Valle de la Luna – a contrast of salt flats, sand dunes, and extraterrestrial rock formations. I met two Marines along the way, as our bus took us all throughout the valley that is overlooked by the Licancabur Volcano. It was truly mesmerising to be in the middle of this dusty, dry, and inhabitable valley. That night, the Marines and I went to dinner, sharing stories and experiences from home. They were on their way back to Colombia from a trip to Peru, and then would return to the U.S. It was my first time meeting people – especially U.S. citizens – while traveling around, so it was an amazing experience to make new friends while on the road.
That night, I returned to the hostel and went to bed – I was exhausted and I had a full day ahead the next day.
Day 2 – new friends, lagunas, and salt flats
I woke up early, not knowing what to expect. I had booked this all-day tour because I wanted to make the most of my time in San Pedro, but did not know what that even meant.
The bus picked us up promptly at 7, and we were off deep into the mountains that surround San Pedro for our all-day trek. First stop – breakfast. Our trilingual French tour guide busted out a shared breakfast of French bread and maté. So good. At this point, I would like to pause the story and introduce some important new friends.
Fernanda – a 28 year old doctor from Brazil that I immediately became good friends with (and still am). She is picking up English quickly, and I love being her friend. She’s smart, funny, and incredibly caring. We ate snow in the Lagunas Antiplanicas (looking back, not a good idea). My life is different because I know her.
Adam – A PR guy from Australia with a great sense of humor, so obviously we got along great. Can’t wait to see what the future holds for our friendship, especially since we are both passionate about storytelling.
Continuing the story, the all-day tour took us into the heart of the Lagunas Antiplánicas, a huge coupling of lakes situated between peaks. It funnels water to many of the salt flats in the area. The lake is characteristically blue, so blue and clear that it acts as a mirror, ricocheting the view of the peaks to the heavens. It was mesmerising, especially since it was winter-time.
From there, we made a long-haul to Piedras Rojas, a valley of red rocks and a frozen lake nestled in the heart of the Andes mountains. On the way, we encountered some vicuña, a relative of the llama.
Once we arrived to Piedras Rojas, I don’t think there was a dry eye in our vehicle. The red rocks seem to go on infinitely, and the untouched landscape in the distance seems insurmountable. We trekked down the red rocks and onto the frozen lake – it was the first time I had ever stood on ice. There are just aren’t enough words to explain the beauty of how the sky, the mountains, and the rocks collide to create a scene that I have only ever imagined in movies.
From there, we went back towards San Pedro, stopping into this small community for a lunch. It was there our group continued our conversations about politics, our home cultures, and our travel dreams. I didn’t realize it was possible to become so close with people so quickly – Fernanda, Adam, and I already had our own inside jokes! The whole day, our entire group had slogged through English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese to be able to communicate with each other. Just goes to show, doesn’t matter what language you are speaking – as long as you are able to communicate!
Finally, we made a long (long) drive to Salar de Atacama, a huge salt flat that is surrounded by Laguna Chaxa, which is home to pure waters and (most importantly) flamingos. What is most interesting me to about these salt flats is that they just… exist. They are just there, away from the smog and grit of Santiago. They rest here peacefully, as they have for generations. Many companies in Chile are trying to make profits off their extraction, but many Chileans are pushing back, arguing that the profits from the extraction of this natural, finite, resource should be for all Chileans – not just a few. But even after this political battle ends, the salt flats will still exist here, breathing sulfur and light into the sky for all to see.
It was a long, wholesome, and important day. It was time to part ways with Adam and Fernanda, who had become friends very quickly and ones that I know I will keep in touch with. To quote Fernanda, it’s certainly a joy of traveling to meet new people and learn about new cultures. And how joyous that technology paves a way for us to keep in touch with all the friends we meet along the way in the world.
I woke up at the ripe time of 4AM to prepare for my 4:30 departure to the geysers, another famous attraction near San Pedro. It was about a two hour drive to the geysers. The reason these tours go so early in the morning is that normally, the steam from the geysers is too great to step foot in. But early in the morning, it is much more subdued and eaiser to see the sights. The geysers are entrenched between a field of yellow flowers and peaks. It is truly magical, to watch this natural process of sheer force blasting water and steam from the rock formations.
On the way back to San Pedro, we stopped by a community called Mapucho – a people that have cared for these lands for generations. There’s a church in this community, whose doors are open for all. Sitting in this church, as many before me have, I drew a certain strength from this community that has a sole duty of protecting the lands granted to them from their ancestors. And it made me think about many do not feel this same responsibility towards our lands, and how it will take all of us to reclaim the beauty and ownership of our lands.
Finally, my adventure was coming to a close. If it had been up to me, I would have stayed there for a week more, but it was time to return to Santiago. I had loved and breathed every single moment, and San Pedro had given me so much life to complete my journey in Chile.
I learned some important lessons in San Pedro, some that are still so difficult to articulate. But my biggest lesson was this: when we travel by ourselves spontaneously to new places, it offers the opportunity to meet other people that are doing the exact same thing. Also, the more languages we know, the more people we are able to meet. Now, I have friends from all over the world because I made the choice to take a chance and go to San Pedro.
So, cheers to the rustic little town in the middle of the Chilean desert that changed my life for the better and gave me the “travel bug” to go explore more.