San Pedro did not get off to a good start. Our bus from Iquique arrived prompt and early in the nearby city of Calama at 5am; unfortunately, the bus station wasn't so prompt and early in opening. For three hours, we sat on benches outside the station, taking comfort only in the fact that we were surrounded by Chileans who had made the same error of judgement. When the station did finally open, Danielle went to enquire about tickets. She came back, fuming that somebody had been sick over her: her bag and jacket were covered. But closer examination revealed it was some kind of milky paste, and her bag had been unzipped. It had been an attempted pickpocketing. Throwing the paste on her unawares, two shady men had then approached her, it would seem, offering to help clean it off, while at the same time trying to steal her stuff. Fortunately, Danielle is no shrinking violet. Immediately upon thinking her bag was covered in sick, and with two strange men trying to wipe it off with tissue, she had entered into a series of furious and loud expletives and marched off. Nothing was stolen, and we will be extra vigilante at bus stations from now on.
The 90-minute bus to San Pedro finally arrived around 9am, but our day was yet to improve. Our hostel was incorrectly marked on the booking website, so we spent almost two hours traipsing around in the increasingly searing heat until finally figuring out the mistake. In fact, our hostel turned out to be minutes from the bus station.
It all got better from here though, I'm happy to say.
San Pedro, or San Pedro de Atacama to give its full name, is a small town in the driest desert in the world, the Atacama Desert. Its existence seems to have arisen as a tiny oasis outpost, but these days tourism is its driving force. Every building around the small network of central streets is dedicated to feeding, resting, or selling tours to tourists. This description might give the impression of tackiness, but San Pedro retains a charm. It's peaceful, the skies are blue, the buildings simple and single-storey, the streets unpaved. The church, restored in recent years, sits aside the main square, and represents the straightforward appeal of San Pedro well.
Within the town itself, there's not a great deal to do beyond eating and drinking. It doesn't take long to wander around the town, visit the church and be disappointed by the boring museum (it used to have deformed dead bodies but they were removed for sensitive cultural reasons, and so it's just a collection of beads and pottery now. Boring!). But the point of visiting San Pedro is the surrounding area - there's a lot to do. Geysers, salt flats, lagoons, volcanoes, sand dunes, mountains, weird landscapes, and all kinds of other stuff, San Pedro has weeks of activities for those with the time and money. Danielle and I had little in the way of time, and given that our hostel was costing almost our entire daily budget, even less money. So we opted for just the one tour. But it was pretty good.
We went for the salt lagoon and salt flat tour, mostly because it started at 4pm and came with a free Pisco Sour. Sold. It featured three attractions: a Dead Sea style lake, that's so salty you can float on it, two big circular pools of water, and a salt plain.
The mini Dead Sea kicked things off, or the Laguna Sejar to give it the proper name. It was fun. In 2001, I actually visited the Dead Sea, when travelling with Varwell, but inexplicably didn't go in. I've been searching my mind for the reasons for this, but don't quite remember. Did I forget my shorts, or my towel? Or did Varwell's aversion to water rub off on me? I don't know. All I know is that I stood in front of the Dead Sea and didn't go in. Rather like going to a ball and not dancing, or visiting s brewery and not sampling the beer, I kind of missed the point. (edit: a quick check reveals that I left my shorts behind.)
The Laguna Cejar is much smaller than the Dead Sea, but it fulfills the rolls of salty floating admirably. In the middle of the desert, about a hundred tourists bobbed around for an hour, in what in hindsight seems quite a surreal scene. Danielle and I were coated in salt after.
This was then thoroughly washed off by jumping in a circular pool of water a short drive away.
All this was part of the larger Salar de Atacama, that is the salt plains of the Atacama Desert. The final part of the tour was the most striking: the actual salt. Truly, this was strange. Salt water runs from the mountains, settles in a basin, the water evaporates leaving a thick crust of salt over the desert. It's a little like crunchy snow.
San Pedro is definitely somewhere I can imagine returning, with a bit more time and money - it was a little beyond our meagre travel budget to stay there too long unfortunately. Our next destination, La Serena, I can't imagine rushing to return to. It's Chile's second oldest city (the oldest is Santiago), but felt, I don't know, a bit lightweight. The churches were nice, the square was nice, the streets were nice, but it simply had much less personality than I'd expected. It simply didn't grab me. To make it worse, it has a huge beach, and on our second day there Danielle insisted we go for the day. Honestly, I'd rather sit on a bus. Beaches are the scourge of my travelling experience.
Perhaps I'm being unfair on La Serena - it is evidently very popular with Chilean tourists. It's pretty. But vases are pretty. Daisies are pretty. Puppies with bows on their heads are pretty. But that doesn't mean they're interesting. That's not to say I didn't enjoy my two days in La Serena. I just wasn't excited by them.
Except for one thing. La Serena's archaeological museum has this: