– a paradise on earth or a dusty town hidden in the desert?
Amongst muddy streets and old craftwork traditions I have found a presence I did not know existed.
Chile is one of the most fascinating countries I know. Its culture, people, nature and history keep amazing and surprising me. I’ve kept coming back to this country full of contrasts ever since I was here as an exchange student four years ago.
I find it hard to limit myself when writing about Chile. It is difficult not to mention all the fascinating things this country has to offer. I start thinking about the famous poet Pablo Neruda, who described a lot of what he found extraordinary about his homeland. In Cuándo de Chile he depicts his country as a petal made of sea, wine and snow, underlining the vast diversity in nature this country has to offer.
My own experience is that every little town and village in Chile has its own charm and history, and you will meet people who are willing to share their stories no matter where you go.
I am looking out of the window of the plane, on my way from the busy capital of Santiago de Chile, only to catch the sun setting upon the Pacific Ocean. I find myself thinking; living in 2012 certainly gives us a lot of possibilities and choices to make, and traversing the 1127 kilometers of desert to visit San Pedro de Atacama is an opportunity I just had to grab.
You can get to San Pedro by bus or by plane, and this time I arrive at Calama airport in the evening. Calama is a busy, shady and sandy city about 150 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, but more than 2000 meters above sea level. For some people this means height-sickness, headaches and sleepless nights, but you usually get used to it after a few hours.
Into the desert
Arriving at possibly the smallest airport in the world, I am met by a handful of shuttle-companies, each of them trying to get me into their shuttle to take me further into the desert. My choice falls upon Translicancabur, and as soon as the shuttle is full of tourists we start driving towards San Pedro. I am fortunate enough to be seated in the very front of the car, so I have a great view of the desert, and I get to talk to the shuttle driver, Mario Almendras, as we go along.
Mario is originally from Los Angeles, way further south in Chile, but has been living in San Pedro for the last 10 years. During this time he has worked as a tourist guide and a driver. Mario does not want to be here. He does not like the heat, the dirt, and he hates being away from his loved ones. Mario also tells me about the drug trafficking in the area. San Pedro is a transit place that a lot of people pass through on their way to Bolivia. You will find alcoholics and drug addicts amongst tourists and the local people wandering the streets, not bothering anyone, but confirming what my friends have already told me; “There are a lot of strange people in San Pedro”.
Mario chooses to stay here despite these problems. “I have a family to take care of, and up here there’s always work”. This man seems a bit bitter about his situation, but is nonetheless happy to share his knowledge of San Pedro and its history with me, and I can tell that he has lived a long life and experienced a lot. He tells me about Licancabur, one of the most famous volcanos in the area. The name Licancabur can be found many places in San Pedro; a street is named after the volcano, as is the shuttle-company that Almendras works for.
Almendras recommends a book that will teach me more about San Pedro and its history: Río Loa ayer, hoy y siempre (The Loa river yesterday, today and forever) written by an author from Calama, and I decide to look for it in the local library during my stay.
A strenuous past
Some friends in Santiago have recommended a small rentable adobe cottage. It belongs to Feliciana Pacífica Tito, an indigenous woman from San Pedro. Almendras drops me off as the last passenger of the shuttle and I have to walk alongside a small muddy river to get to the house. Feliciana lives here with her family, and has agreed to let me rent her single room cottage that was previously used as a showroom for her craftwork. Arriving at this small wonder of a hut I am sure that I picked just the right spot for my weeks in San Pedro, and after a long day I fall asleep to the sound of grasshoppers.
The next morning I wake up to the sound of twittering birds. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face and whilst looking out of the cottage, I send some grateful thoughts to my grandmother who insisted on me bringing a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen.
During breakfast Feliciana tells me about how she arrived in San Pedro many years ago. She had to walk across the deserted mountains in the heat in order to find water and food for her family. This lady has an incredible story to tell, and I find it admirable how she has created a new life and home for herself and her big family.
I let Feliciana and her family carry on with their day, and start walking the 30 minutes towards the town center. As I walk towards the town I get a spectacular view of the famous volcano Licancabur which the shuttle-driver told me about.
Walking through the town center I am able to find the local library, and start looking for the book that Mario Almendras recommended. The receptionist can tell me that they do not have the book, but that I can use one of their computers to search for it online. It turns out that the book is harder to find than Almendras thought, and after some time I give up and walk down to San Pedro’s artisan village, which has been recommended to me.
Presence in the present
The artisan village lies just around the corner from the library. What strikes me about this place is the calm, laid-back atmosphere and the nice people I find here. I think the reason this is my favorite place in San Pedro, is the sense of presence I get when I am here. The artists work with a lot of different materials and techniques, such as fabric, macramé, metals and paintings. Their workplace is filled with music, relaxed people, fresh juice and lovely lunches, and it is a place I keep coming back to during the rest of my stay in San Pedro. One of the artisans is Javier Ignacio Pachero Goday (30) from central Chile. He works with copper, bronze and silver, and also makes macramé at an impressive pace.
Jorge Enrique Gonzales Gonzales is from Santiago, and has lived in San Pedro for six years now. Although he is almost 60 years, his nickname is “El Chamo” – the adolescent. This man has been working as an artist for 30 years, and is an inspiration to the other artisans here, who mostly are young people in their 20s or 30s. His newest “student” is Ariel Ehijo Vasquez (31). He was born in Russia because his parents were expelled in 1978 during the Pinochet military regime. Ariel has just started crafting, but with Jorge as his teacher he is learning fast. He works with a material called ulexite, a mineral that has been under the soil for millions of years before it surfaces with the steam that sometimes erupts in this arid area. The mineral was discovered in 1850, and is common in the arid, northern part of Chile. Ariel collects his pieces of ulexite in one of the many valleys that surrounds San Pedro.
I have never considered myself a creative person, but when I am surrounded by these people I find myself with a pen in my hand and a camera over my shoulder, wanting to document what I am experiencing, in order to share it with people back home. I want to convey the presence, peace and quiet I have found in the beautiful surroundings of a desert in South America to others.
My last day in San Pedro – for now – is spent saying goodbye to all the great people that I have met here over the last weeks. They are open minded and nice people who let me into their homes and lives and shared their stories. As we drive through the desert one last time, towards Calama, I look back at some of the memories I am taking home with me from this trip and I cannot help but wonder when I will be setting foot upon this land again. I have found peace and quiet in this dusty small town, and quite a few things that for me are fairly stable; the nature, the people and the energy of the Atacama desert.
San Pedro de Atacama – facts
– The town is 2450 meters above sea level
– At the last population census (in 2002) there were almost 5000 people living in San Pedro, but the number of inhabitants is constantly increasing, making it almost impossible to tell the exact number of people living there
– San Pedro is situated in the most arid desert in the world; the Atacama-desert
– The first villages in the area were established about 11 000 years ago
– San Pedro was conquered by the Incas in 1450, and in 1536 the Spanish conqueror Diego de Almagro took over the town