San Pedro de Atacama & Calama, Chile
Airport Rating ***
Reception of locals *****
San Pedro de Atacama bore the brunt of the consequences of my cancelled flight. Having planned to spend a whole day there with a night tour of the desert, I managed to reach the town 12 hours later than I had originally planned, meaning for me, it was more of a resting place as opposed to a town I could explore.
As I mentioned in a previous entry, the flight cancellation had meant that I had to switch my three day salt flats tour to a one day tour. The three day tour would have slowly worked its way down Bolivia and into Chile, reaching San Pedro in small manageable journeys. As I had switched to the one day tour, I had to make one long journey from Uyuni to San Pedro via Calama.
A long journey
I got to the bus station in Uyuni at 4am loaded my bags inside and jumped on. Other than a Colombian couple, I was the only non-Peruvian on the whole bus and definitely the only person who didn't speak Spanish. The bus was about half full and although they had told me that it had air conditioning at the ticket office, I pretty soon found out that it was a lie. At 4am Uyuni was still very cold and the inside of the bus was no different. I took a seat and got myself comfortable, I was hoping that I could perhaps get a few hours sleep before the 730am sunrise. I found out pretty soon that wasn't going to happen. As this was a local bus, it stopped every 20 minutes to either pick up or drop off passengers at different locations.
Other than the stop start nature of the bus ride, the journey to the Bolivian border was fairly uneventful and took about four hours. The scenery we passed was quite spectacular in places as we drove past mountains and volcanos. In fact for the final hour and a half of the ride, I may as well have been on a bus to Mars the landscape looked so different to anything I had ever seen before.
Near the start of the journey we were all given a number of forms for immigration at the Chilean border. I had read a number of blogs online that all mentioned how tricky Bolivian immigration can be. I had read that sometimes they 'forget' to stamp your entry and then charge you an extortionate amount at exit. I made sure to check I had an entry stamp before I left immigration at La Paz airport. I had also read that on exiting, immigration officials charge a fee for an exit stamp. This fee is usually 15 Boliviano's although they sometimes charge foreigners extra, I had read cases where people were charged 10 times as much.
We pulled over by the border fence next to what I can only describe as a large shed. Next to the immigration hut was a small stall selling food and drink. As it was still cold outside, I decided to wait in the coach. We had reached the border at 7:30am however, we were stuck waiting for officials to arrive at the centre until 8:30am. Eventually the doors to the immigration centre opened and we all queued up. I had quite a bit of money remaining, but not wanting to be fleeced I put it all into my wallet, wrapped it up in my jacket and placed it under my seat. The queue moved quite quickly and as I entered the centre there was a large, intimidating guy dressed in army clothes and big black boots. In front of me I could see the Peruvians going in and paying 15 Boliviano's. I checked my pockets to make sure I had brought just the right amount of change and I had.
As I got to the front of the queue, a small, skinny guy sitting on a chair called me in. He looked at my passport and documents. "Ingles?", "si", "sesenta Boliviano's". 60?? Was this guy serious? I showed him my pockets. "Tengo quince" I told him showing I only had 15 Boliviano's. He looked at me and agreed to take the 15. I thanked him and began to walk away, but as I turned around he shouted "QUINCE" to the army guard and he blocked my exit. I emptied my pockets. "no mas?" he asked if I had anymore. "no mas". He sort of grunted and let me past. It was a strange experience, a bit too tacky to be frightening but the army guy had enough of a presence for it to not be outright funny.
Welcome to Chile
The ordeal wasn't over just yet, having completed immigration at Bolivia, it was now time to navigate the Chilean side. Almost immediately I could feel the difference, immigration officials were smiling and the building on the other side was larger and better staffed. One word of warning, I was given what looked like a receipt. I put it into my passport and had I used my passport again in Chile I probably would have thrown it away. Turns out, when I was leaving Santiago the immigration official asked for this receipt, so if you are given something, make sure you keep it.
There were still issues in Chile. Once we got our entry stamps we then had to leave our bags on the floor and walk about 5 steps away and just watch them. It seemed weird because no one picked our bags up or checked them, they just left them there for about 15 minutes. Although it was beginning to warm up, it was still quite cold and I was looking forward to getting back into the bus and putting my jacket on. Finally we were allowed to pick up our bags and go into a room where all of our bags were pretty thoroughly checked. I saw immigration officials throw away a few bags of coca leaves from some of the older Peruvian women but they were quite friendly and spoke English. Finally, at about 11am we were back on the bus and on our way to Calama.
It was still another 3/4 hours to Calama and as the sun came out the bus changed from cool to oven hot in a short period of time. The heat also meant that some of the flies that must have been hidden behind curtains started to come out and pretty soon there were flies everywhere. It wasn't too bad although a couple flew into my eye on a number of occasions so I decided to put some sunglasses on after a while. Again, the scenery was amazing. We drove for hours through barren landscapes interspersed with groups of alpaca's roaming the deserts. As we approached midday I realised I had made a big error. In my rush to catch the bus in the morning, I hadn't brought any water or any snacks whatsoever, however, sometimes my work can get so intense back in England that I can easily go a day without food without even realising so I knew if I kept myself distracted I'd be okay.
Peruvians are quite stocky and strongly built, but rarely are they tall. The women on the bus with their brown complexions reminded me of Indian aunties, but they were all really short. As the midday sun beat down on the bus I could tell passengers were beginning to get uncomfortable. I carried on reading my book with headphones in, ignoring what was going on around me. At one point I saw a woman try to open a sun roof but fail to budge it. She looked around the bus, sweating from the heat and pointed at me. I was comfortably the tallest guy there and walked over to the sun roof like I was the Undertaker. With one strong push the sun roof opened, I was glad because I could feel everyone looking at me and it would have been pretty embarrassing. The women started clapping and knowing I was English tried their best "thank you" and also gave me thumbs up. Nice little ego stroke. I sat back down feeling like I had just saved the world or something. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder, it was the Colombian couple who came over to offer me some food. I graciously accepted and felt very good about myself. We all need those moments sometimes.
We reached Calama by about 2pm. The town had houses that looked a lot more like southern European dwellings and the city looked significantly more wealthy than the towns I had gone past in Bolivia. The bus to San Pedro didn't leave until later in the afternoon and so I went for a walk around the city. I had heard from friends that there is nothing to do in Calama, and it turns out they were right. In any event it was nice to see something significantly different to any of the towns I had seen in the previous couple of weeks.
It was a 90 minute bus drive from Calama to San Pedro and this bus was even smaller and hotter than the previous bus. There were 5 of us altogether on the bus and even after opening every window it was still like an oven, but I figured if I had gone through such a long journey to Calama, this would be nothing. By the time I reached San Pedro, the sun was already setting. The hostel I had been booked to stay in was double booked but the owner was absolutely fantastic. Not only did she pick me up from the bus station in her car, but also took me to a replacement hostel where I would have my own room and for the first time in a week, working wi-fi.
Roll with the punches
I had originally planned to do a tour of the Atacama, but the final knock on effects of my flight cancellation meant that I had arrived too late to jump on any of the tours. Just as well, I thought. After weeks of running around on an average of 4 hours sleep, I needed one night where I could actually get some rest, put some ice on my knee and catch up on sleep so although I couldn't really do anything, I wasn't overly disappointed.
I took a walk down the main street of San Pedro and there were no locals, it was all tourists, and they were all hipsters. I have nothing against hipsters, but so many in one place was just a bit much. I felt like I was on a strip on a Spanish island as opposed to Chile. Every second or third shop was a tour agency. This was very much a town that existed on the tourist industry. The food however, was amazing. I have never seen portions so large and for the equivalent of about GBP 5 you can get a very large meal.
Once I had eaten I headed to the outskirts of the town to see the night sky. Having seen the amazing stars on the mountain in Peru, I was a little more prepared for the stars here but even then they were impressive. A lot of people had bought small telescopes to look at the night sky but after a while I just wanted to rest up and get a few hours sleep before my flight to Santiago. After a week of chasing my itinerary following my flight cancellation, I was finally going to catch up. Well, thats what I thought.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.