Through the desert on a horse with no name...

Trip Start Jan 23, 2008
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Flag of Chile  ,
Thursday, May 8, 2008

After an overnight bus from the Chilean border town of Arica, we arrived yesterday morning in the mining town of Calama (or Carumba, as I like to call it.) We should have known to keep moving when the town´s best (and only tourist attraction) is one of the world´s largest copper strip mines. If that wasn´t enough to motivate onward migration, the surprisingly expensive, exceedingly grungy hotel rooms on offer inspired an instant change of plans and we were on the next available stagecoach out of town. Elapsed time in Carumba....less than 2 hours.

A two hour bus ride brought us to the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacma. San Pedro turned out to be an oasis in so many ways. In the literal sense, the community developed centuries ago at an oasis along trade routes across the vast Atacama desert. More recently, it has become a popular destination for outdoor adventure and/or travelers heading across the remote northern frontier between Chile and Argentina. We fit into both of the latter categories.

We were shocked by how expensive San Pedro was. Handcrafts were 2-3 time above Chilean prices, and accommodation was about twice what we were used to paying. But at the end of the day, ESPECIALLY at the end of the day, it was worth it, for the most incredibly comfy beds, FLEECE sheets for the cold desert nights, and piping hot showers for cleaning off the sand and dust.

After nearly 3 days of non-stop bus travel, we were thirsty for some exercise, so we rented mountain bikes and gidday-upped for the Devil´s Gorge. After passing some pre-Incan ruins and fording a nice cool river, we found the turn off to the gorge. The route followed up the dry river bed of an ephemeral creek, under shady overhangs, through narrow slots, and across rolling sandstone hummocks. The going was sometimes tough where the creekbed was sandy, but it was a nice easy climb and a pleasant cruise down. Rather than head straight back to town, we decided to take a turn off to another route via a tunnel and something called Valle de la Muerte. While the scenery was stunning and the exercise welcome, suffice it to say that I was feeling a little muerte myself when our trusty steeds finally plodded into town about 50 km later. Just a little more sand and distance and sun and thirst than I had anticipated.

Fortunately, San Pedro also proved to be a culinary oasis as well. Tasty mint chocolate chip ice cream revived me enough to contemplate a shower and the shower revived me enough to contemplate dinner. And what a dinner! We found a set price menu that included pisco sour or wine (we got one of each), a salad or soup (one of each), pasta or beef (one of each), bread, and desert. Great food, ample portions, lovely presentation, and a nice local vibe to the place.

We are so thankful that we came here!

Rare recommendations from Steph:
Hotel: Hostal la Ruca. US $35 per night. Bargain for a multi-night discount.
Restuarant: Cafe Export. Multi-course set price meal US$10 pp. Bargain to gets drinks included in the price, especially in low season.
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