This past weekend, my husband and I once again trekked up the hills behind of Antofagasta, across the pre-cordillera (flatlands) of dry sand, past small mining settlements and deserted nitrate towns to the picturesque plateau village of San Pedro de Atacama in the cordillera (highlands/hills) of the Atacama desert at the foot of Los Andes.
I previously wrote about my first visit to San Pedro last October when I visited the spectacular salt flats, Valley of the Moon, mountain lagoons and isolated villages scattered in the desert region.
Although that trip had been a breathtaking experience, this time I wanted to try something different. Instead of going around with my husband and his friend, who was visiting us for a few days, to the usual tour spots around San Pedro, I decided to stay behind in the quaint village to get a feel for what made the little settlement, which is thousands of years old, survive for so long.
After saying bye to my husband for the day as he headed to the tour bus at 7 am and eating a leisurely breakfast at the now nearly empty hotel, I took a walk around town and discovered that at about 10 am the village empties of the tourists who have descended upon the village, taking bus tours around to the geysers, the salt flats, climbing the mountains or sandboarding (!) in the Valley of the Moon.
Walking around town, the atmosphere changes after the busy morning breakfast-and-hop-on-the-bus rush of tourists ends. Shop and restaurant owners sweep up or chat with their friends along the shady side of the sidewalk. Since it was a Sunday, I enjoyed a piece of delicious lemon pie while watching families walk out of the picturesque white church in the central square, carrying small bunches of flowers and greenery following Palm Sunday service. Stray dogs beg for food outside doors to restaurants. One man was apparently taking his two llamas for a walk down the street, stopping to say hi to his friends.
Just outside of the central part of town, people ride their bikes home with their families, underneath the endless sky and a stunning view of the Andes in the background. A man sells fruit and snacks in a dusty parking lot. Groups of men watch a soccer game under the unforgiving afternoon sun. Families tend to their backyard gardens, growing corn and vegetables and a variety of greenery which the village pharmacist told us people still use as remedies to common ailments. Backyards also host chickens, llamas, sheep and goats, which provide some essential household supplies.
I admired the smart irrigation system that runs through the town. I gathered that there are underground springs in the area, and shallow channels have been created to bring water throughout the town and supplying much-needed liquid to the gardens. The result is a relatively green town for being in the middle of the desert.
I also entertained myself during the day by search for some art and crafts made by local artisans. I will write in more detail about my impressive findings in an upcoming post, but I was pleased to visit a local potter who showed me around his workshop and talked to me about his art. I also saw a special exhibit at the museum which featured alpaca tapestries woven by local women, still creating in the tradition of their ancestors, their impressive work representing the pre-Hispanic culture of the community.
I enjoyed this trip more than my last, although I cannot regret the unforgettable scenery I saw last time. This time, however, I felt like I got to understand the region for more than just its natural beauty. Tourists are so devoted to seeing every attraction when they arrive in a place that they forget to simply look around, figure out what makes a place tick and simply soak in the environment. It reminds me of something a friend said to me after his visit to Montreal last year: his favourite part of the visit was just sitting around, enjoying some food and talking with our group of friends. We often get so focused on seeing the sites and sights of an area (and indeed in San Pedro – or Montreal, for that matter – there is some incredible scenery) that we often ignore the fact that usually the most important part of being somewhere is not the guided tours but simply being there and basking in the nature of the place.