Driving there from Northern Argentina is an experience as spectacular as it is surreal. North of Salta, you pass the famous rainbow-colored mountains that exhibit more hues in their rocks than there were Captain Scarlet characters (remember them?) Next comes a road that snakes perilously up the Andes, the bus lurching round each corner in a way that reminds you of a certain scene from The Italian Job. And we all know how that ended…sort of.
Luckily, the mild terror of this road morphs into more wonder, more ohhhs and ahhs, pretty fast. At the border post and across into Chile, the landscape becomes lunar, or Martian; weird, smooth shaped rock formations peer out of the plateau, and a perfect conical volcano looms into view, dwarfing our tiny bus.
Simon, the self-proclaimed “Scouse-African” (meaning that he is of Liverpool origin, now living in Cape Town, for the uninitiated) whom I’d met in Salta, is snoring loudly a few seats back from me. Perhaps it’s better to hibernate like this from the heady effects of altitude we’re put through during the crossing. Didier and I are reeling with headaches. When I spark up conversation with this cool, stubbly French professor at the border, and I find out he’s returning to San Pedro and eager to see how it might have changed in 9 years. He’s still full of awe for its splendor, and has stoked my growing excitement nicely.
The other two seem to have succeeded in achieving a cryo-sleep torpor for the final few hours, but I can’t tear my glance away from the window for longer than a few seconds; the mirage salt flats and the towering, eerie volcanoes are just too spectacular. We shudder to a halt in the tiny bus terminal, eventually, though, and the three of us set about locating accommodation.
It’s late afternoon, and on our way into the tiny town center we walk through a throng of sun-bleached people: Hardy locals, who peer through dust-proof sunglasses (see cult, mediocre sci-fi Pitch Black) and eager gringos like ourselves, clamoring for a room and the lifeblood of a working cash machine. After a while we stumble on a place typical for San Pedro: cool open air courtyard, adobe walls and rickety wooden furniture.
Later, chatting in my faulty Spanish to the welcoming mestizo sisters who run the hostel, I learn how the building was once just a simple family home. In their autumn years they’ve been forced to convert it into a money-making hostel in order to get by. The tourism industry is the latest gift from the desert, replacing the alpaca herds and salt deposits of ages past as the locals’ primary source of income, for better or for worse. It is resourcefulness at its best, and they’ve even got solar-powered showers. The hot water in the bitter desert nights is greatly appreciated.
We three spend the next couple of days exploring the staggering scenery, largely on bikes rented from a local tour company/internet café/sundries kiosk. Virtually every business here, and even many homes, offers a collection of the above to seemingly tap into the influx of visitors and their needs. You can now browse your WhatsApp while munching imported Mars bars and checking your tire pressure simultaneously. Well, almost.
Peddling across bumpy tarmac on the first ride out of town, we leave a billowing dust cloud in our wake. The red rocky landscapes looming around us have me feeling like I´m a Mario Kart character, or one of Wiley Coyote or Roadrunner (the former, presumably, given an innate lack of speed and inherent clumsiness I bring to larking about in the desert). Cycling and panting up our way up the rocky slopes, seeking the particularly superlative view at the top of a rocky outcrop, we decide we are polka dot-jersey-wearing Kings of the Mountain. Why not? I don’t see any other contenders on this particular peak.
On arrival, the view takes our breath away, or at least would have, had we had any breath left. Shattered, we drink a landscape of the same cartoon-esque sculptured rocks, now among giant and distant lunar-like craters. The moon is clearly on everyone’s mind in this place, since they actually named the area near San Pedro Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon. It’s certainly the closest I’ve come to standing on an extra-terrestrial surface so far (I´m still holding out hope for that phone call from NASA). Spectacular, natural beauty.
Bizarrely, though, it’s the Looney Toons vibe that is evoked again in an official capacity as we reach the Valley of the Moon proper, this time with a rapidly speaking, dynamic, local Chilean to show us around. “Here we have the Wiley Coyote rock that everyone likes to stand on” she says, pointing to a perilously over-hanging formation that is begging for some ACME-based intervention of some kind or other.
As it is, the feature seems pretty sturdy, and the fellow travelers that abound are literally lining up to take the all-important Facebook-profile-selfie, or whatever it is. A bit of a weird thing to queue for; it´s been there for centuries! But to each his own, I suppose. On a personal level, looking at the jaw-dropping views of ancient dunes and salt-washed peaks before me is infinitely more pleasing than assessing a close-up of my own ugly mug with a two-way, touchscreen camera. No thanks, no thanks.
Next day we’re off peddling across the desert again, this time in search of beautiful salt lake hidden somewhere in the depths of the endless dry scrub and sand surrounding San Pedro. We´re directed by a Spanish cyclist we bump into, who is all too eager to divulge the route of a shortcut she knows. What could possibly go wrong? It’s another beautiful day. The sky is huge and hazy blue overhead, the volcano and its smaller little brothers perpetually on our shoulders, reminding us this is Chile and not Route-66. The road is very flat and very straight, almost like an artist’s demonstration of the vanishing point; the parallel curbs always meeting somewhere at the edge of our vision.
After hours of scything over the bitumen, we turn off and into the desert proper, surrounded by scrubs so dry they turn to dust underfoot and blow away. This new bumpy, sandy track exposes a terrible hangover from yesterday’s japes: Saddle-sore. I had no idea the agony it could cause! We cut a comical trio now, bobbing up and down on our bikes like Whack-a-Moles. Solemnly, I take the decision to lash my cherished Boca Juniors shirt to the saddle, which affords me a brief respite (sorry Roman!), and we push on, by sheer chance bumping into the earnest Spanish cyclist hours later, who now has her kids in tow. Her daughter is fresh as a daisy compared to our panting selves, heading at the lake like us, but from an altogether different direction: the mythical shortcut.
Our slightly sarcastic, somewhat miffed tone while chatting to her are generated only by an obvious lack of fitness and by legs screaming in protest at the easy route denied them by faulty directions. In informing us about the shortcut, the cyclist was only trying to help after all, and the angst soon evaporates when we reach the gorgeous Lago Cejar. It´s picturesque in the extreme, the perfectly clear salt lake reflecting the volcano backdrop in a mesmerizing mirror-image over waters part turquoise, part dark, deep blue. Of course, I’ve forgotten my camera, but in such a beautiful place it hardly seems to matter. I won’t be forgetting this sight in a hurry.
We sit tired and meditative for an hour or so before a herd of white tour buses appears on the horizon, another reminder of the tourism that’s expanding through this corner of the desert with every passing day. Not that us humans just spoil things out here. When Didier falls slightly behind on our way back, a ripple of anxiety between Simon and me prompts us to flag down the next vehicle that drives past. Without a second thought, the local Chilean Mapuche driver and his family cheerfully let me jump in the back of their red pickup, and we head back towards the lake, out of their way, until we find him still peddling away, grateful as we all are for this spontaneous generosity. People look out for each other as a matter of course here in the Atacama.
The population boom in and around San Pedro these days isn’t just a result of the tourism cash cow either, though you’d be forgiven for thinking this while walking the streets surrounding the main plaza. The desert has also offered up valuable practical gifts too, such as providing a location for cutting-edge astronomical research. The lack of humidity and light pollution make it just about the most perfect spot on earth for the professional stargazing community, who have constructed the planet’s most powerful radio telescope to date, ALMA (note how it brilliantly spells out the Spanish word for soul. They´re a clever bunch, these scientists).
But this astronomy lark isn’t just for the white-coated Sheldon-ites of this world. Just glancing up at night reveals a plethora of stars, not to mention a visible milky way, which drops your jaw. Didier and I are spellbound, and opt for a stargazing lesson on our final night in San Pedro. Our excitable and geeky host has us fumbling over telescopes to pin down initially blurry yet eventually stunning glimpses of the stellar stuff beyond our planet. He’s a multilingual Belgian who’s found his calling working out here: one among many who are flocking to ply their chosen trade in such a stunning location.
The glimpses of Mars and Saturn we get through the telescopes (after much cajoling) before the cold has us scurrying back into town are still seared into my mind’s eye, bright and clear and magnificent. It isn’t the final gem San Pedro has to offer, though. We meet Simon in a bustling, local bar complete with Wild-West swinging doors and an open courtyard heated by fire pits dotted around the tables. A Chilean duo are singing Latin versions of Marley covers, and we sate our thirst with tasty beer from the other end of the country (Chilean Patagonia, some 2,000 miles away to the South). It´s been thirsty work exploring the driest place on earth.