Our romp around South America with my parents continued as we crossed the border into Chile. We had been spoiled by Peru. It may have jaded my father a bit, his response when we told him we were going to the driest place on earth was a curt, “I hope it is only for one night.”
It soon became apparent why we came. Between the altitude and otherworldly scenery, the Atacama desert is breathtaking. We drove our car over a 15,700ft pass on the first day. The desolation seemed endless until it gave way to green and yellow slopes as we ascended towards the mountains, the rain catchers of the desert. These mountains give life to the desert. We saw wild vicuñas, flamingos, foxes, vizcachas (a rabbit like rodent related to the chinchilla) and many kinds of birds. There were dunes, mountains, and lakes. We didn’t see another soul for hours as we continued. We climbed wind eroded desert towers and gazed across salt flats. It was as if the rest of the world had disappeared and we were the only ones left.
We didn’t spend much time in the town of San Pedro de Atacama. It is a dusty grid of mostly unpaved streets and high adobe walls. It was like something out of a cowboy movie with the inclusion of electronic dance music a smattering of soulless tourist restaurants. Half of the population are indigenous people who share more in common, culturally, with Bolivians and Peruvians. The others are southern Chileans who are trace their cultural heritage to Europe as much, or more, than to this land. The southern Chileans are the newcomers here, and they get all the good jobs. This makes for palpable tension and contributes to the frontier feel of the place. There are at least forty tour offices all hawking the same five tours. For its faults though, San Pedro de Atacama is an excellent base for exploring the desert. Nonetheless we were glad to have the car and thus the freedom to leave or linger as we pleased.