San Pedro de Atacama


Leaving Vicuna I promise myself that the next time I come to Chile, I will come back to this Valley and rent a house somewhere in the mountains, far away from the towns…. But for now, I have to get back to La Serena and get on the night bus north to San Pedro de Atacama. When I board the bus it is a relief to find that the seat reclines almost all the way back, there are blankets and movies. I settle in for the ride.

The night is spent drifting in and out of sleep, the bus stopping at certain points to pick up and drop off passengers as we move north through an impenetrable darkness. In the morning, when I wake, I look out the window and see that overnight the bus has travelled through a wormhole and onto a strange red planet. Are we on Mars? Space has opened up the landscape, the bluest of skies divided in two by harsh, dusty mountains and plains. It looks inhospitable and dangerously beautiful. We must be getting close to San Pedro. I have no idea what I will do here, although I do know that there is a lot to do. I have five days.

The bus gets into the terminal, I hoist the backpack and start walking to the “centro” following the signs. It is an oasis in contrast to its’ surroundings of cracked, salty earth and rock. Nevertheless, it is hot. The sun is a molten yellow orb burning in the sky. It stings my skin, my eyes. Dust gets up my nose. I feel moisture draining out of my body, my first offering to the dryness of the desert. I have reserved a room at a place called Takha Takha, which lies right at the end of the main drag “caracoles”. It is in a reasonably quiet place and I am grateful for this… When I get into the room, I notice the temperature difference~ this room will be my sanctuary from the elements.  Whether it be cold or hot outside, the temperature never varies inside these four walls.

San Pedro is in a region that makes it very difficult for one to do things independently, so tours are essential. I cannot imagine that I will do much long distance walking here. First, I visit a museum dedicated to a fellow named Gustavo Le Paige, a Jesuit who, after spending years doing missionary work in Africa, came to this area and was responsible for a lot of the archaeological work that was done. It is a good start to understanding a little bit about the place. The exhibits explain the flora and fauna at  different altitudes, about how people thrived in this area and the cultural shifts that happened with the arrival of the Inca and then Christianity. I notice that there are a lot of ancient accoutrement for the ingestion of hallucinogens on show.

There is a church in town, but it is being renovated after a massive flood (?!). The statues, pictures and pews have been moved to a temporary space, where they wait for their home to be restored. Back out on the street, I see a sign for a man who went missing in December. During my time in San Pedro I learn that he was a guide. Somehow the image of his face haunts me, a reminder of how things can quickly go very wrong. The fragility of flesh and bone means that without extra help, I wouldn’t survive a night. Here, the mother demands respect.

I look for the plaza de armas and discover a beautiful leafy plaza, lined with cafés. I pick one with bright umbrellas and order a salad- my body is begging me for fresh, green food, probably in response to the red, dry, surroundings…. As I sit, I watch tourists wander past, and the usual lazy dogs asleep in the shade. There are tourist agencies on every street corner, mini-markets, restaurants, and jewellery/souvenir stores. This place is rigged for tourists, designed for maximum extraction. I pick an agency that claims to try to do things at the opposite times to all the other tour agencies in town. I book a massive itinerary of tours. I want to saturate myself with this amazing landscape, so that when I leave here I am literally exhausted, having soaked up as much as possible…

I visit the Valle de la Luna, the Valle del Arcoiris, Los Geysers del Tatio, Salar de Tara , and Piedras Rojas. I see spectacular sunsets and glittering diamond night skies. This area has the cleanest skies in the world, which is why they won the tender to host the ALMA project (a network of 66 satellite dishes), in a valley about an hour away from San Pedro. Walking around at night, looking to the sky, I feel I am looking out on the universe, looking at forever… The moon has just started waxing and I see her on the second night, a fine, mysterious sliver of silver, hanging in the sky, in direct opposition to that fierce sun.  La Femme D’Argent. She rewards me that night with beautiful emotions. Gratitude. Expansiveness. Possibility.

I see all manner of amazing flora and fauna. San Pedro is at 2,800 metres, so most of the places I visit are at higher altitudes. The highest we go is 4,800 metres and it is amazing to see what kind of life survives there. I see rabbits with curly tails jumping across rocks, and in another place during the sunset I see one sitting on a rock, surveying an enormous crevasse. There are mountain foxes, Gabiotas Andinas (Andes gulls) soaring overhead, small black birds with yellow wings called “cometozinos” (lard eaters) zipping about. Llamas, Alpacas, Vicunas. In a thermal pool at almost 5000 metres there is a duck bathing. Lucky duck. A network of gopher holes that pepper the edge of one of the salt lakes we visit offer me up a delightful surprise when a gopher suddenly pops its’ head out so it can snack on some grass. And flamingoes… three different types, one of which I see samba dancing its way through the water as it feeds on microscopic shrimp, moving its head this way and that through the water to catch the shrimp in its’ beak. The flora is equally spectacular. Small 500 year old (?!) clumps of grass, herbs (ricarica; pingupingu) that were used by Shamans in the region to heal stomach ailments and altitude sickness. There are also other types of grasses that are used by locals to thatch rooves. And massive San Pedro cacti, used by Shamans in ceremony, growing all over the place.

But the thing that moves me the most are the expansive landscapes. The higher I go, the harder my lungs have to work but the easier it is for my soul to fly free. I feel that I have been released from the mundane by the altitude and the stunning mountains. My heart takes deep gulping breaths, drinking the beauty in. The days where I sat in front of the computer for ten hours feel so far far away here. In these places, I understand why the Atacamenos (and the Incas) believed that the mountains were gods, bringing the mother (earth) closest to the father (sun). My surname takes on a new meaning and significance now. It is my link with my past, my family, my tierra, my roots. It is funny that I had to travel to the mountains of Chile to understand this point.

Of special significance to these landscapes is the fact that the Incas had paths linking far northern regions to the South of Chile, as far down as Temuco, where the Mapuche were situated. The young male children of royalty were often chosen to make the pilgrimage south, some of them to these mountains, where they were sacrificed, their bodies left on the top, offered up by the mother to the father. Sacrificing a being to God, whether it be a llama or a human, involves sacrificing only that which has the greatest value. The fattest llama, the most valued human- it was seen as a tremendous honour. Was it always like this? Or is this how history has chosen to remember the Incas? I’ve no idea. Through my Western eyes, it is curious to observe myself questioning whether the practice of sacrificing humans might not have been used at time to conveniently get rid of political threats or to control the public…Some of the villages in these mountains still carry on the tradition of sacrificing llamas. Once the sacrifice has been carried out, crosses are woven using the dyed wool from the llama and placed on the rooftop. This is a curious blending of a pre-christian tradition with christian symbology. The sacrifice is seen as a contribution to the well-being of the community, and it is curious to note that an important part of the ritual is to publicly demonstrate  who has “contributed” and who hasn’t.

Along the Inca trails there were places called “posadas” where messengers and people who were to be sacrificed would stop on their journeys to rest. Many of these places were built over with the arrival of Christianity. For example, the cathedral in Santiago~remember the one where the priest got his throat cut? That was once a posada. I am beginning to see the edges of the multiple cultures and perspectives that have been laid on top of each other throughout the history of this place. Indigenous cultures layered over with Incan culture layered over with Christianity…. Posadas were places of great luxury, where one could rest, wash, and replenish energy for the long journey ahead. Messengers would run along these trails, relaying information. How did they keep the (always spoken, never written) messages accurate when they were being passed from one person to another over great distances? Could they imagine a woman thousands of years into the future standing on this dirt in a completely different reality imagining what it must have been like?

One particular landscape moves me to tears. The clouds overhead cast moving shadows onto a landscape that looks like it has been painted from a palette of soft greens, yellows and pinks, the whole scene blanketed by vibrant blue skies.  I imagine inhabiting the body of a ten year old boy, the same age as my nephew Sol, destined for sacrifice, making the long walk towards death. To be honest, looking around me, I wouldn’t mind dying in such a place…..

I smell the Earth’s sulphur farts and watch her spitting up hot water and boiling mud, which sounds like thick soup bubbling on the stove. Later, swimming in a thermal pond, my skin feels the temperatures shifting, as waves of cooler water are replaced by torrents of heat, the pebbles underneath my feet protecting me from the boiling dirt underneath. San Pedro, for me, is a total sensory experience. I have never felt so close to the Earth as I do here. The energy in this place is brutal, I feel that I am standing just that little bit too close to the fire….. and I am, volcanoes dot the landscape, most of them either active or asleep, none of them dead. Here I watch the ground where I walk to see what I might find and to make sure I don’t step on any precious hundred year old clumps of grass. In one place, as I walk, I find a quite large chunk of Obsidian, which I accept as a gift to take away with me to remind me of this amazing place…

I try to write about this in some way that comes close to the heart of what I really feel, but I feel that my words don’t even come close. The artist, whose work I saw in Santiago~the one who did the sand paintings with sand taken from this area~must have experienced the same thing looking down on her work. This place has brought me close to another of the infinite faces of divine nature. Here, she is hard, demanding, breathtaking. When I leave San Pedro I carry a droplet of her strength with me, tucked away in a hidden corner… I leave San Pedro five days later, exhausted, and with extremely dry skin, but with a full heart 🙂 My next stop is Arica, which is right on the border with Peru. I am not ready to go into Peru yet, first I will do a little detour inland to a place in the mountains called Putre….

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