Friday, June 4, 2010

Dark Side of the Moon

This is wild, wacky and beautiful country around here.  I just arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile late this afternoon, and I feel like I've landed on another planet.  It's a tiny, dusty, frontier town in the middle of the Atacama desert -- the driest in the world -- that looks like the Wild, Wild West, gaucho style.  The sky now, at about 8:00 at night, is unbelievably dark and full of stars, as there is no other outpost of civilization for a hundred miles in any direction.  Calling San Pedro "civilization" is a bit of a stretch in itself -- I feel like I've landed on the edge of the world.

The bus ride from Salta is stunning, taking you high up through the mountains -- at the highest point, the road hits an altitude of about 4,500 metres.  This was too much for some of the passengers, who were nauseous, dizzy and close to fainting, but the bus crew came prepared with oxygen tanks and were able to avert any major health crises.  (Fortunately I was fine; this bodes well for a successful trip later to Machu Picchu if I can cope well with altitude!)

The landscape is lunar in places, particularly at the high altitudes.  You ascend up through the mountains from Salta through Jujuy and beyond, and eventually reach a immense plateau.  At first glance, you think that the ground is covered with snow, but on closer inspection you see that it's salt -- dry, cracked salt plains stretching in every direction, out to the mountains ringing the horizon. 

Then you eventually reach San Pedro, an outpost in the middle of the vast empty nothingness of the Atacama desert.  To the south is the Salar de Atacama, an enormous salt plain rivalled only by the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia; there are brilliantly coloured lakes, geysers, hot springs and the Valley of the Moon in other directions.  The town itself has one main street, about six blocks long, and probably 4,000 residents (not counting tourists, who in high season probably double the numbers).  Stray dogs chase things blown in the wind down the dirt-packed streets, and fast, incomprehensible Chilean Spanish* flies at you from every direction, as the locals try to sell you a day trip, feed you at their restaurant, change your pesky Argentine pesos for fine Chilean ones, or load you up with an assortment of local handicrafts.

It's another world, really.  I've landed at a relaxed little hostel with hammocks swinging in its gorgeous central patio, in the company of a couple of backpackers I met on the bus.  We're thinking about heading back out to the little bar we discovered across the street (one of the backpackers is an Aussie, so beer is always on the agenda), and tomorrow we'll probably set out to discover some of the countryside. 

But right now, I just have to go get warm.  It's bloody freezing in the desert when the sun goes down!

*NOTE:  Chilean Spanish is another language.  It fell off the boat somewhere along the way when current South American speech was developing; it sounds nothing like the rest of the continent, or European Spanish.  It's unbelievably fast, slurred, and slangy, and words are invariably chopped off into short forms or twisted into something unrecognizable.  So I may have to give up on actually understanding anyone again until I get to Peru!

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