Friday, August 9, 2013

San Pedro de Atacama

Leaving Antofagasta, our next stop is San Pedro De Atacama. It is one of the top three travel destinations in Chile along with Torres Del Paine National Park and Easter Island. Our route takes us past the mining town of Calama and to the highest elevation we have been so far over, a pass at 11,500 ft. (3,593 meters). We are now deep in the Atacama Desert and the landscape reflects that, sand dunes and the occasional cactus are the only break – not a bird or animal in sight and very few people for that matter. Until we reach San Pedro. Long before the Incas conquered the area in the 1400's, there were other cultures that thrived around one of the rare sources of water in the Atacama Desert, the Rio San Pedro. The water ran from the Andes, forming an oasis before flowing into the desert where it evaporated. The people who first lived in the region at that time raised crops in small family style farms and developed a culture called Atacameño. Over the centuries they built settlements along the Rio San Pedro and fortresses for protection. The earliest Atacameño artifacts discovered date from 11,000 BC and native ruins from the Atacameño now attract increasing numbers of tourists interested in learning about pre-Columbian cultures. The rule of the Inca dissimilated this independent agrarian culture and then a century later came the Spanish. However no gold was found and with mining now centered on Calama, in 1870, government offices were transferred to that town and San Pedro de Atacama became unimportant. Now with the development of the natural resources of San Pedro and the Atacama into national parks and reserves, tourism is flourishing. Our camping is at Los Perales which turned out to be uninspiring, small and dusty but it is the only camping in town that has room for us to fit. Its saving grace is that the town center is close by and there is room to walk Winston. After settling in we walk to the town to explore before dinner. The streets of the town are unchanged from their early settlement days, narrow and lined with buildings built from adobe and trimmed with native woods from the carob, chañar and pepper trees. Because there is little rain and the desert air is so dry, there is no humidity to affect the adobe and it is in perfect condition. In the center of town is the plaza with benches under huge shady trees providing relief from the sun. To the left of the plaza, built in 1641 and named an historical monument in 1951, the church of San Pedro is one of those churches that is just rural; simple and pretty and picture postcard perfect. It is built with the same white adobe as the rest of the buildings in the village, with decorative wood from the cardón cactus and leather straps in lieu of nails. The artisan stores are abundant selling scarves, shawls and other articles of clothing made from alpaca and basketry and ceramic pottery crafts first developed by the Atacameños and now sold in the souvenir shops as typical products of the region. In fact, we were so seduced by the quality and prices that we purchased a gorgeous Alpaca shawl for me and a scarf for Tom. As we were examining the goods in one of the shops we met a couple vacationing from Peru. Carlos and his wife Jobita live close to Lima and are currently building a home in the south of Peru. When they heard of our journey, they promptly give us their contact information and told us that when we get to Peru to contact them and they will help us get acquainted with the area and cook us dinner. After a conversation about food, Jobita said with a twinkle in her eye “maybe I’ll cook cuy”. Hmm. Cuy is guinea pig and yes, the Peruvians eat it. It is a delicacy, so I am told. I am unconvinced but laughingly agree to try it, if that is what is served. As we walked back to Los Perales to collect Winston for an evening walk before dinner, we talked about Carlos and Jobita and again are amazed at the ease and friendliness that people exhibit towards us.

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