What makes the Atacama region so remarkable is not only that it includes the highest desert and clearest night skies in the world but that it displays a remarkable variation in its landscapes. The seven of us now exploring this part of Northern Chile have all been astounded by the vistas around us.
We had learned before we flew into Calama before our one hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama that there had been unusually heavy rains last week which basically closed down the show for 5 days with many of the roads to the main attractions impassable. This is not unusual in February and it is the only rain all year for this parched land. But it is a problem for the many visitors. One of our tours was cancelled and we were concerned about the rest but the situation had a spectacular bonus: temporary white snow capped mountains including the major volcano which stands on the border with Bolivia. Throughout our stay, as we watched the snow slowly diminish, we would forget and then turn our heads and gasp at the Fuji-like mountain in the distance.
The town of Atacama itself (Atacama being the region and the “San Pedro de” being added upon the forced conversion of the locals to Catholicism in the 1500’s when the Spanish arrived) is a group of one-story mud brick buildings, the same color as the dirt of the street. The town developed along the life-giving channel of water that flows through it which allowed the existence of the oasis. Non-indiginous trees were introduced from Europe over time so that the vegetation is a combination of two worlds. Outside the immediate commercial center of town all of the private property is walled off by the ubiquitous mud brick so that it is easy to get lost with each street looking like the next, mud colored walls and roads with sometime large wooden gates at the entrances to each enclosed space, with the occasional shade tree overhanging the street.
There is a plaza and very old church at the heart of the community with restaurants, cafes, tourist souvenir shops and money changers radiating out along the adjacent streets.
One night after dinner in town we entered the Plaza to find the entire local population, young and old, in the square listening to groups performing music on traditional instruments. Some of the groups were obviously amateur family bands, young children and grandparents playing and singing together with gusto and enjoyment. We learned that this performance marked the beginning of the week long Carnival before the period of lent.
The town is filled with big and small hotels, from backpackers to the highest level all-inclusive lodges all built since the late 1990’s and many small restaurants and cafes. Prices are high for food but surprising good quality. COVID was a serious setback here, as in all tourist based locations in the world, with no other jobs available there was an exodus of about 40% of the population. It has now returned to life and it is a very pleasant place to walk around, with little car traffic and a very pleasant climate and environment. We are greatly enjoying our time here.