“ City: San Pedro / Country: Paraguay / World Region: South America „
Nestled in the driest desert in the world, San Pedro De Atacama is a tiny settlement in Northern Chile that has turned itself into one of the trendiest backpacker destinations in all of South America. When you arrive initially you get the impression that there is little happening but inside the rustic adobe buildings that line its dusty streets are atmospheric restaurants and lively drinking spots. San Pedro is centred on the tree lined Plaza De Armas and the brilliantly white Iglesia San Pedro Church to its left. On the northern end of the plaza is a market called Feria Artesanel selling everything from T-shirts to pottery. Despite what you might think there is little pressure to buy here so for once browsing becomes something less than a chore. During the day there are incredible views of the nearby snow capped Andes from plaza. Several of the peaks are truncated due to their volcanic histories. At night you get to see some of the best views of the stars ever (which could explain why astronomers flock to Northern Chile). When the electricity gets switched off at 1 am it feels like you are alone in the desert lapping up the splendour overhead. The Milky Way actually looks milky and other constellations appear so much brighter and well defined than you see at home. Besides the allure of the town itself there are about a half dozen unique attractions in the area that make for great one or two day tours. The town has more tour operators that most cities which means that getting to the attractions is easy and often great value for money. San Pedro's appeal is wide ranging, attracting people from all over South America as well as a huge proportion of gringos. ACCOMMODATION San Pedro is bursting at the seams with places to stay. The most common form of accommodation are residentials which are a cross between a homestead and a hostel. During the peak summer months (the oppos
ite to Europe, November to February) finding a place to stay can be difficult. For the rest of the year, however, there is plenty of vacancies and by comparing a few places you get an idea of the standard. There are a number of things to consider when you view a place. Apart from the obvious like the state of the room, asking whether the place has electricity is very important in San Pedro (unless going native is your intention). Some places on the edge of town rely on noisy generators for their power which often means that there is light for only a few hours a day. Hot water (aqua caliente), while not as important as in the colder regions of Chile is often the difference between washing and not. The mornings and evenings in San Pedro can be very cold so it's a good idea to ask what times (if any) hot water is available. An important attribute to consider when looking for a place is the common area. Some places are built like motels with little or no thought given over to traveller interaction. A common area makes it easy to meet new people and get advise on things to do in the village and its surrounds. When we arrived in town we found it hard to get our bearings (as well as our breath, San Pedro is 2,400 metres above sea level!). Bus Frontera who we travelled with from Calama have their office on calle (street) Licancabur which is a little isolated at the north end of town. We were met off the bus by the lovely lady owner of Hostal Tierra which only opened in January of 2002. We took a look at the place which was just out of town. Although the rooms were small they were neat and tidy. There was a good communal kitchen and very clean bathrooms. The thing that put us off the place was the electricity generator. Another traveller remarked that the candles at night made it really quaint but with really bad camcorder batteries that need powering almost hourly the generator didn't really sui
t so we reluctantly looked elsewhere. Residential Rayna on calle Gustavo Le Paige is run by a very friendly local couple. They charge $10,000 (about 12 Euro) for fairly spacious double rooms. The bathrooms and showers are immaculately maintained (even if you have to go outside to use them!) and hot water is supplied by means of a gas heater. The rooms are arranged around a good communal area with garden chairs that catch most of the days sun. Residential Rayna is less than a minute from San Pedro's Plaza De Armas and calle Caracoles the main restaurant and bar area. That said, it is extremely quiet save for when the owners puppy begins to whimper. There is a well stocked shop a few doors down from the hostel that has everything you'd need from fruit to the local delicacy, cheese empanada's. ATTRACTIONS Before you set out on any of the several tours around San Pedro you must first decide on a tour operator. There are close to a dozen such agents spread throughout the village but it pays to compare and contrast. Prices are pretty standard although for a couple thousand more pesos you can get English speaking guides (try Cosmo Tours for this, who we disliked immediately because they were fronted by an indoor sunglasses wearer). We didn't feel the need to shell any extra for this privilege, deciding that we'd prefer to be authentic in the desert (ah no, it was the cheaper prices really!). The tour company we chose was Pachamama who are based right in the village plaza. The girl who served us had excellent English and came across as if she really cared. As well as booking us on 2 tours she gave a lot of hints on where to eat and what to see in town. Valle De La Luna as the name suggests has the features of the surface of the moon (and being so high above sea level your breathing is astronaut like). It is a barren area with salt deposi
ts covering much of the surface giving it its white hue. Many tours make their way to this spot (15 km from San Pedro) to watch the sun go down. The best views are from the top of a huge sand dune. Making it to the top in the heat makes for lots of panting and heaving but it's worth it. As the sun goes down the sky turns maroon illuminating the candyfloss like clouds and paints the broken features of the surrounding areas with rich colours. This tour is a steal at $3,000 and includes a visit to the Valley of Death which hosts dramatic rock structures not unlike dozens of huge rib cages spread evenly apart. To say the area is desolate is an understatement yet for the 4 hours you spend there it is hard not to be transfixed by its otherworldliness. The tour to Salar De Atacama is another one well worth taking ($7,000 including entrance fee). This natural wonder contains the remnants of a lake that forms each winter with the melting snow from the nearby mountains. The water is rich in minerals and when the suns dries the lake out the salty deposits remain. This huge area is coated in a white coat of salt and where several years of deposits have amounted the result is not unlike a coral reef. Some of the lake remains throughout the year and has proved to be the perfect feeding ground for several species of Flamingos. Apart from the incredible surfaces Salar De Atacama offers dazzling sunsets. With a cotton wool cloud cover the sky becomes a canvas of ever changing tints. As several Flamingos take flight the combination is a once in a lifetime image. We took delight when our tour bus refused to start giving us enough time to witness the full spectrum of colours. The El Tatio geysers are one of the areas greatest attractions. Situated just 90 km from town getting there is a bit of a slog. The geysers are active between 6 and 8 every morning which means climbing on the tour
bus at 4 am. There is no light in town (aside from candles) after 1 am so this trip suits those with strong wills. The geysers put on a show that sees dozens of hot sprays shoot into the air. When this display is set against the rising sun the result is inspiring. El Tatio is quite hazardous with unsteady surfaces and many cases of scalding have occurred. Tours to the geysers are reasonable at $10,000 which includes a small breakfast. There are 2 or 3 bike rental shops in town that offer hourly or daily rates. Many of the roads surrounding the town can get a little bumpy so to counter the bike shops hire out mountain bikes. An alternative to taking tours to the areas attractions could be to cycle there instead. We saw a good number of scorched souls who actually did this but the heat and dust makes a strong argument for taking a minibus. One journey suitable for a bike is the archaeological ruins of Pukara De Quitor, 3 km from town, although there are several river crossings that complicate matters. The ruins at Quitor were only discovered recently so they haven't been fully restored. Along the way you pass through the village of Quitor, several stray donkeys and the San Pedro's unique irrigation drains. The ruins are located on a steep hills and are mostly made up of stone walls indicating where the chambers existed. The view from the top is unique. The green oasis of San Pedro sits amid vast tracts of arid territory and the huge Andes add majesty to proceedings. The entry fee to Pukara is $1,200. San Pedro's only museum, Museo Arqueologico Padre Le Page, is the work of a Belgian missionary who founded it in 1955. Famous for its mummies it is a little disappointing considering its reputation. Apart from the impressive mummies, including one of a girl (nicknamed 'Miss Chile') huddled on the ground and the mummy in a broken jar, the museum lacks much to hold the interest. It i
s situated just off the plaza and costs $2,000 per person. All the exhibits have Spanish text to give some background which is disappointing if like us you have a minimal grasp of the language. The nearest town to San Pedro is Calama with a population of 100,000. Nothing can prepare you for the boredom that sets in within 5 minutes of arriving in this town. Apart from visiting Chuiquicamata the biggest copper mine in the world or passing through on the way to St Pedro it should be avoided at all costs. Not that its particularly dangerous or anything, its just that the hotels are old and drab and finding a place to eat is akin to locating the final resting place of the holy grail. Chuiquicamata is an open-pit copper mine situated 16 kilometres out of Calama. It produces almost 20% of the world's mined copper annually and employs 8,000 people. It has the deepest open-pit mine in the world at 800 metres. Free tours of the area run daily from the cafe at the entrance to the mine. To get there you need to take a collectivo taxi (you share the taxi with passengers going in the same direction) from Calama's Plaza De Armas. The fare only costs $800 per person. Once you reach the cafe in Chuiquicamata you must register your name and donate a small amount to local charities. Apart from this donation the tour is free. The tour takes about 3 hours in total and comprises of a video introduction, views of the open-pit and a walk around the smelter. The former is an incredible sight, watching huge trucks carry their 30 ton loads from the base of the pit nearly a kilometre down. The pit looks like the ancient coliseum with circular rows marking its sides and dust billowing every time a detonation is set. For the visit to the smelter each visitor must wear protective clothing and an oxygen mask. It can be a little difficult getting everything in place but its worth getting it righ
t because the emissions from the smelter are toxic! The temperatures required to melt the copper and cast it into sheets can be gauged by the blue flames that rise from the kilns. Tours to Chuiquicamata are in English and Spanish and the overall feeling you get is that the authorities there are trying hard to show that the mine is doing its utmost to be ecologically safe. Emissions from the mine have been reduced dramatically (but they are still damaging the quality of the air in the region) and every drop of water used in the process to extract copper is recycled 8 times. That said there is a certain grimness to the locale and the workers we saw most resembled drones. EATING & DRINKING The liveliest calle in San Pedro is Caracoles where there are a number of restaurant/bars to frequent. The standard does not differ a whole lot but each has its own identity and some have nightly specials that can sway any decision. Our favourite was Flamenco, entry is through a small door but inside it is roomy while still remaining cosy. The wood fire stove is great and there are candles everywhere to add to the magic. The restaurants kitchen at the back is open plan so you can see the chefs in action. There is a set menu for $3,300 that offers a 3 course meal with wine or a desert. The staff are very chatty and one waiter gave us lots of good advise about travelling in the region. There is a happy hour all night with 2 pisco sours going for $3,000. Cafe Sonchek on calle Calama is a really nice place to have breakfast. As well as being one of the cheapest restaurants in town it also has an outside terrace that is full of sunshine in the morning. There are only about 4 tables and you'd be lucky to see anyone else eating there in low season. The terrace sits beside a garden that has seen better days. The breakfast menu (desayuno) is quite extensive with all sorts of egg dishes and sandwich
es. For about $2,000 you get a good feed including coffee (if you want milk ask for cafe con leche). The cheapest restaurant in town, Quitor, is unmistakably where the locals dine. The place has a rustic charm and the service is incredibly polite. For $1,500 you get a huge chicken schnitzel with vegetables and bread on the side. The music is welcomingly authentic and makes a good change from the lounge beats to be found all along Caracoles. There are a smattering of places along calle Caracoles that have a cool edge. La Estaka is all fancy wooden furnishings, stylish lighting and dozens of wine bottles protruding through every available wall space. Despite this and the overpriced food (good quality but for a toasted cheese sandwich here you could get a main elsewhere) it is one of the busiest places in town and has a good atmosphere. Adobe Restaurant, a few doors down from La Estaka, also has arty decor but their roaring fire in the centre of the restaurant is hard to resist, especially when the temperature drops in the evening. Their internet cafe out back is one of the best in town. Cafe Export has potential but has a completely pretentious feel to it. The lavish prices don't deter the masses, however, and its partially outdoor terrace is very inviting. The most disappointing eaterie in towns is Pedro Pizza's. On paper their specials of a pizza and bebida (drink) at $1,800 is great value. Unfortunately the pizza turns out to be not much bigger than a slice and is sans carne which left us searching for a couple of empanada's (a pie of sorts with cheese and meat) from the shops nearby. Getting to/from San Pedro is easy because most of the larger bus companies has services between there and the major cities. Tur-Bus who we used the most in Chile go San Pedro/Arica daily. The journey is 12 hours in length which can be undertaken over
night. The service provided is semi-cama which has a toilet on board and loads of leg room. The standards of buses is really high in Chile, most have attendants that hand out blankets, pillows and even complimentary snacks on some journeys. Like a lot of the northern towns in Chile San Pedro seems to be overrun by dogs. Walk down any street and any time of the day and you're likely to witness one of more dogs ready to scrap for their territory. While they rarely turn their attentions to humans they do detract from the ambience of the place. Despite this San Pedro has a lazy charm all of its own. There are only about 6 streets to wander around but each one has a plethora of hidden wonders. The town is about as friendly as you'll get too, nearly everyone says halo as you pass them which combined with the ever shining sun means that it's impossible to not feel relaxed and content. It is quite close to the feel of a hill village in Crete minus the tourist fuelled prices. San Pedro De Atacama is the perfect place for exploring the Atacama desert or for just taking it easy for a couple of days.
San Pedro is a city in Paraguay. It is the capital of the department of San Pedro.