By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the ninth post about my adventures. See September 10, August 27, July 27, June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.
When I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, artisans were about halfway finished installing a tile mosaic on the front of a one-story building in this dusty small town in the Chilean desert.
The mosaic illustrates the natural wonders that draw tourists to this region: a snow-capped Andes peak, rendered in shades of blue, tan and white, capturing the slanting play of light on the mountain; long-legged, black-tailed pink flamingoes; furry tan vicunas, members of the camelid family; and green cacti reaching skyward on a reddish-brown mound of sand, signifying the desert.
I think the left side may have been portraying the ragged cliff and rock formations of the Valley of the Moon, an evocative, close-by destination perfect for a challenging hike.
At the top, in a deep blue sky, was a Gaviota Andina, a black-headed gull, white wings spread in flight. Below, the sky gave way to a wide, lighter blue panel.
The lower half of the mosaic was yet to be completed. Stacks of colorful tiles, cans of adhesive and a wheelbarrow were among some of the tools and supplies on the sidewalk in front of the artwork.
The building was about a five-minute walk from the hostel where I was staying, and so over the four days that I called San Pedro de Atacama home, I passed it about eight times as I made my way to and from the center of town.
Every day, a bit more work was completed. It was beginning to look like I would get to see the mosaic in its entirely before I departed.
San Pedro de Atacama predates the tourist boom, its surrounding acreage rich in copper and quartz. Nowadays it’s abundant lithium that’s drawing multinational mining corporations to this South American country. Yes, the lithium that powers your smart phone batteries and so much more.
For visitors, the scenery and wildlife are the attractions, and many of the 4,000 or so residents have some hand in the tourism industry. They might run a hostel or hotel — or work in one; they might give tours out to the national parks’ salt flats, where the flamingoes play; to the stark landscape of the Valley of the Moon; or drive the predawn mountain run so passengers can catch the El Tatio geysers spouting off at sunrise (see July 8 post).
Or they might be craftsmen or artisans, making a living selling their brilliantly colored cloth wares and pottery. In stalls and markets, hand-woven fabrics and spools of yarn, covering the spectrum of the rainbow and then some, provide a glorious contrast to the white walls and red-brown clay adobe architecture.
When the sun is as bright and unrelenting as it is here, it’s best to harness it, as one craftsman was doing in front of a shop. A piece of multicolored striped cloth was draped over his head and shoulders, completely shrouding his face.
He was sitting, bent over a long, thin plank of wood, with just his hands and heavily tattooed forearms visible. (If not tattoos, then tattoo-like sleeves covered his forearms.)
In his right hand he held a large magnifying glass horizontally over the plank, concentrating the powerful rays to burn the lines and curves of his design into the wood. At this moment, he was forming the tail of a crowned lizard, splayed at the top of the plank.
With his left hand, he was grasping the plank between his thumb and fist, steadying it, balancing it across his blue-jeaned knees.
On the ground to his left was a sign written in Spanish. Coins were tossed atop it, obscuring some of the words. Mostly likely it said something about donations being welcome.
At one of the smaller craft malls between the center of town and my hostel, the sun again played an ornamental role. In a large open space, horizontal and vertical lines composed a geometrical pattern on the ground, the shadows cast from the overhead wooden slats lining the top of open metal framework.
Caracoles Street is the busiest in town, with shops, restaurants and lodging nearby, if not on the street itself. The small church, the Iglesia San Pedro, was touted in guidebooks as an oasis of white in a sea of adobe. That description was off the mark.
It’s in a small plaza, just to the north, of the western side of Caracoles, closer in fact to a street called Padre la Paige. I don’t know whether some sort of renovation was under way, or the townsfolk decided they just wanted a change. But not a speck of white paint remained on the exterior. Just adobe, adobe, adobe.
The tree-lined plaza was decorated with balloons and signs noting that it was hosting a “Mountain Do” event, three simultaneous trail runs of 42 kilometers, 23K and 6K, from town out into Valley of the Moon. I met a man from Brazil who was visiting specifically for the race, and he competed in the middle distance.
San Pedro de Atacama in looks has much in common with the American Southwest of the 1800s and early 1900s — from the mostly one-story adobe buildings to the wind-blown tumbleweeds, to the cloudless azure sky to the unsparing sun. Some November mornings can be blessedly cool, but by early afternoon, knee-baring shorts, ample shade and a cold drink are in order.
Yes, I got to see the finished mosaic. Green shrubs sprouted around and under the hooves of the vicunas, against the white-rocky terrain in the foreground. The flamingoes were given a blue lagoon, their habitat in the national reserves. At the bottom edge, a pretty border of light gray and tan separated the art from the sidewalk.
Quick reference: Latam has many flights from Santiago to Calama, the closest city of size to San Pedro de Atacama. At the airport, several companies offer minivan transfer to San Pedro. The ride is a bit over an hour on a national highway that was in excellent condition when I visited.
San Pedro has a wide range of accommodations. The closer to the center of town you stay, the more you’ll pay. I stayed at Hostal Solar, Volcan el Tatio No. 737, Licancabur, San Pedro de Atacama. It is about a 10- to 15-minute walk to town (website has a map). It has only 10 rooms. I made the reservation online; the site was mostly in Spanish, but it has been updated to include English. My en-suite room (very small bathroom) had a queen-size bed. Towels were provided. Remember, you are in the desert: Rainfall is rare. Therefore, take very quick showers. No television or radio. A small interior courtyard ringed by the rooms is a gathering place for guests. Made-to-order breakfast is included. Most days it was eggs, bread and cheese, served with good, strong coffee. A full-size refrigerator is in the entryway, provided for guests’ food and drink. The refrigerator by the breakfast room dispenses cold, filtered drinking water. In the evening, thermoses of hot water, cups and materials for tea and coffee are available in the entryway. No staff are on the premises overnight, so guests have keys to unlock the hostel’s front door in addition to their room keys. http://www.hostalsolar.cl