The Atacama Desert in Chile‘s northern region is a landscape like no other. As I made the one-hour bus ride from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama I wondered why is it that this vast land is not deemed one of the world’s natural wonders. Have you ever seen or heard of a place on Earth where in the middle of the desert there is actually snow? Boggles the mind.
The Andes Mountain range runs fairly uninterrupted through the Atacama Desert, and where there are tall mountain peaks there’s usually snow. The landscape is a study in contrasts. My eyes focused on the snow-blanketed mountains but my mind kept saying, wait a minute, you are in an arid zone, a vast wasteland straight out of Mad Max’s Thunderdome. And yet, there’s the snow, lots of it, cascading down to the desert sand. Man, I’m definitely heading up one of those mountains to shift from hot sand to cool snow in one day’s climb. Hot to cold and back to hot. Well, more like warm. It is winter in the desert and while the days are comfortably warm, the nights are chilly.
As for San Pedro de Atacama, it isn’t at all what I expected: homes and other buildings are built from adobe – a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water – and roads left unpaved – in other words, rocky dirt words that I’m sure turn to mud – if it ever rains. The Atacama is the driest place on Earth.
The village, with homes that date back to the 1500s, seems to have been built to cater to tourists. It has rows upon rows of hostels and hotels and businesses that offer guided tours to see the mountains, the desert, the geysers, lakes, lagoons and salt flats. Tour guides abound. There are also the usual shops – countless of them – selling local arts and crafts. In short order, San Pedro de Atacama is crawling with tourists who outnumber actual residents, just below 2,000 people. The tourists are here for obvious reasons. The town is the launch pad for all the natural beauty – the flora and fauna – that the surrojunding area offers. But beyond that, San Pedro de Atacama is a fantastic little town that has remained largely unchanged for centuries. It’s well worth a visit.
Now if they could only do something about the wind kicking up all that sand. Bring sunglasses to keep some of that sand out of your eyes. And expect to be dusted in that fine desert sand.