The only reason I'm in San Pedro de Atacama is that the alternatives sounded worse.
Atacama exists to serve the people who come from all over the world to bike, hike and otherwise explore the driest place on earth. It is a tourist mecca like Aguas Calientes is for Machu Picchu. All reviews I read of the town were negative, plus I found that even a crummy hotel in Atacama costs an arm and a leg. But it's the first Chilean town you hit coming over the Andes from Purmamarca, Argentina, and, I thought, how bad could it be?
Then the bus entered Atacama and I realized I'd made a mistake. This isn't a town, it's some other town's dump. I got off the bus at the bus station and found nothing marked, no street signs, no addresses, just a maze of dusty streets populated by other bus riders wandering zombie- like looking for directions. I wondered if I could go back to the bus and ask if they'd take me back, let me ride to the next stop, Calama.
But I kept walking, determined to find some redeeming value in this horrid place. I pulled out my phone and called Canada, not for an RCMP airlift home but to add a roaming data plan so I could pull a map to find my hotel. And suddenly the town is OK, in fact better than OK. Soon I found the main square, streets with names, cute restaurants, excursion companies, bike rentals, hidden markets, and lots of people young and not so young speaking different languages and dressed in outdoorsy attire having a good time. And my opinion of Atacama changed. This is a cool place unlike any I've visited. I like it here. Weird, eh?
I start the day with a fifteen minute walk into Atacama for breakfast at a very charming restaurant. The sky is a cloudless deep blue and it is warm and, of course, dry - as i keep saying, this is the driest place on earth.
Casa Don Esteban claims to offer breakfast but instant coffee, stale cereal with no milk, and a cracker isn't breakfast. The rooms look much better in photos than in person. A poor choice of a hotel but after paying US$85 per night for the luxurious Patio Alto in Tilcara and 65 for the comfortable Carpe Diem in Salta, I thought 100 per night would get me a good room in Atacama. If I could jump into my tardis and do it again I'd pay the 300 or so that is the going price for a nice room in Atacama.
The hotel's positives are its bubbly proprietor, though she speaks no English, its peaceful location away from town, and its market: the hotel targets astronomers so it is empty and quiet all night (they are out stargazing) and they sleep all day.
I guess Atacama is a different market than Salta and Tilcara plus Chile's economy is more stable so maybe that is why hotels cost much more here. Atacama's international draw allows hotels to charge more; one can easily pay 1000 a night here. Just listening to the languages spoken and noting the expensive cameras - my barometer - I know I'm not in Argentina anymore.
After breakfast I hire a mountain bike to ride 10 km to a nearby lookout and it turns out to be spectacular ride through a red-rock canyon then up a hill that overlooks green valleys with volcanoes and snow - capped Andean mountains in the distance. Beautiful. The only challenge is that i can feel the altitude - 2500 m - so the uphill sections have me panting. Along the way I stop to talk to a German biker who recommends another trail, an all-day ride to a lunar landscape, but tomorrow I've a plane to catch to Santiago.
I get back to town and stop for ice cream. I'm thinking about going for a pisco sour later...
My opinion of Atacama is now a complete reversal of my initial impression and if I could I'd stay one more day, though I'd look for another hotel. I especially like how they've taken the indigeneous adobe architecture and had fun with it. As they say in Argentina, Ciao.
It is noon and I am sitting in La Estaka, a restaurant in Atacama, sipping an espresso and enjoying a lunch (the meal of the day special) which features cheese - covered clams followed by an entre of tender ground beef covered in pesto on a bed of local grains and vegetables , followed by dessert of pastel de leche (cake soaked in milk covered with browned whip cream) for 7500 pesos (US$15). Excuse the description - I find recitations of eaten meals and recipes tedious - but this is one of my best meals of the trip, for taste, reflection of local cuisine, and presentation. If i return to Atacama I may eat all my meals at La Estaka.
This is proving to be a good day food-wise. When I checked out of the hotel this morning I was surprised to find the hotel serving a real breakfast: scrambled eggs, meat, cheese, and bread. Don't know what happened to yesterday's breakfast.
I walk to town to visit the Museo Gustavo Le Paige, named for a Belgian priest, painter, and archaeologist who settled in Atacama in the 1950s. He founded the museum which contains exhibits (in English as well as Spanish ) on the Inka as well as the flora and fauna of the desert and the Andes. The museum is well organized in a hub-and-spoke chronological layout though the building is a bit worn.
I walk through Iglesia Sam Pedro, a beautiful 17th century colonial church also on the main square. The church is built of adobe, wood from the cardon cactus, and, in lieu of nails, large leather straps.
I am thinking about returning to Atacama - quite a change in attitude from my first impression - for a longer stay, perhaps combining it with Bolivia and a return to Peru. But I'll stay in a different hotel and study up on the different tours available. Atacama has lots of tour agencies in town offering trips ranging from local half-day affairs to multi-day trips to Bolivia.
That is it for today. I am off to Calama to catch a flight to Santiago.