South America Part XI - San Pedro de Atacama

Friday morning we left at 5:30 AM with our driver, Bill Smith. That was a little surprise to meet a fellow who spoke good English with a name like Bill Smith who had always lived in Argentina. We traveled with a couple from Switzerland who had not yet faced the intricacies of high altitude travel. In a second vehicle, a pickup truck with a stretched cab traveled a young man from Brazil. Bill asked us to travel in the pickup (back seat) because we knew Spanish and could follow the conversations of the driver and the Brazilian passenger. That was OK for the first part of the trip…actually a lot of fun. Until we reached the village of Susques, the roads were paved and there was lots of beautiful scenery to enjoy.

The very narrow picture is of a herd of vicuna, a very rare group of alpaca. The wool from this animal is sheered every two years but is so fine that only about ½ pound is recovered from each animal. It is the finest wool in the world and is used to make inordinately expensive scarves and coats.The animal has never been domesticated making it a thrill to see them in the wild. The other two photos were taken at the high altitudes on the Chilean side of our ride.

In Susques we were taken to the local adobe church that is over 500 years old. The walls inside the church were lined with paintings of peasant scenes. The roof of the church was covered with grass that had bleached out with the sun. This peasant church was far more fascinating to us than all the grand Spanish catholic cathedrals of South America.

We had lunch in Susques. Because of our early departure we were quite ready for a big meal. What we had not counted on was the condition of the road for the rest of that part of the trip – a gravel road. The back seat of a pickup truck traveling on a gravel road and our stomachs being filled with a heavy meal were just about the worst combination imaginable. By the time we got to the border we were terribly uncomfortable.

Now we had the really high altitudes to cross. The highest point that afternoon was 5200 meters or 16,900’ As we mentioned our traveling friends from Switzerland had not been to any high altitudes yet. Yes, parts of Switzerland are high but not this high. The girl first got a headache but before the afternoon was over she was loosing her lunch of the day. Sander developed a big headache and we were all wheezing.

We arrived in San Pedro about 7 PM and needed to find a hotel. This town is very popular with young travelers and nearly every room was taken. We had to go to five places before we found a room. Then we discovered that there were no banks and no ATM’s in town. Because we had not saved our Chilean Pesos from our earlier visit we had no choice but to trade in our precious dollars at a very bad rate of exchange. Another worry was where to trade our Argentine pesos as we had nearly $80 worth at a good rate of exchange. Good or bad, nobody wanted them in San Pedro. Usually there are money exchangers who are eager to change the money at a border point for a little profit. The border we had crossed had a few mangy dogs sleeping in the shade and that was all. We carried those Argentine pesos all the way to Arequipa, Peru where we were able to exchange them at a terrible rate.

Some storms end with a rainbow. At the hotel where we finally found a room there was a group of 8-10 young people enjoying happy hour on the patio. They welcomed us to join them with our last bottle of Argentine wine purchased at a gas station along the way that day. They were from Holland, England and South Africa…a great fun loving group of interesting people to know for one evening of our lives. They made San Pedro seem a little less dusty and forlorn. Perhaps that is the draw of San Pedro out there in the middle of the desert. It brings people together.

Regardless of the nice evening we were determined to be on our way north to Peru the next day.