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Report 1842: Letís Go Someplace Like Bolivia...

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2010

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Page 4 of 24: San Pedro de Atacama

photo by Michael

Llamas are an important source of wool and meat

We spent four nights here. The first couple of days were spent around San Pedro de Atacama as we adjusted to the heat and altitude. We had done the trips to Moon Valley, Tulor and Quitor and El Tatio geysers last visit so gave them a miss this time.

We had a full day tour round the villages to the north of San Pedro, which took us up to 3500+m. This was followed by a day around the lagoons on the altiplano where we spent several hours walking at 4000+m. This was part of our acclimatisation process - going high during the day but sleeping lower at night.

We did both of these as private tours. On our previous visit we had been part of a larger joint tour. We were lucky with our fellow travellers who were interested in the same things as us but even so we felt restricted by the timetable of the day. We wanted more freedom to stop where we wanted and for as long as we wanted. In fact the private tour was not much more expensive than the joint tour. Tour prices in San Pedro are cheap compared with some other places. We would go down this route another time.

San Pedro itself is always quiet during the day as everyone is out on one of the many day tours. There are plenty of tourist and craft shops to look at and prices are reasonable.

We went into the Archaeology Museum, which covers the history of human civilisation in the Atacama desert. The mummies which used to be displayed in the museum (and are still mentioned in some guide books) are no longer on display as it was felt this was disrespectful to the dead. The museum runs tours in different languages during the day and it is worth joining a tour as there is only a limited amount of information in English. Photography is allowed in the museum so it is worthwhile going round by yourselves afterward to look at exhibits again, read the English information and take pictures. It is always cool in the museum and there are toilets.

We also went into the church, which is a delightful old building. The pastor does not like photography and the old lady who looks after the church discourages picture taking. We also enjoyed sitting in the square watching the world go past.

In the evening we did the Space Star Tour. The tour starts from the office on Caracol. We had been told it would be cold and to wear plenty of layers. There were about 20 in the group, nearly all back packers. We felt distinctly over dressed in our fleeces and jackets. The tour is run by a French couple who have eight telescopes in a field in the middle of nowhere. The tour begins in a round room lit by candles and with a glass roof so we could see the stars. First priority was to take orders for hot drinks after the tour.

After a brief introduction and talk about the stars - their changing positions and use by the ancients as a calendar - we were taken outside. It was very clear and the Milky Way really did look milky. There were almost too many stars to be able to identify constellations. It brought home to us just how few stars are seen in England due to light pollution. It wasn't 100% dark as we could see the glow of San Pedro and a small settlement to the south east. It was quarter moon so there was little moonlight to mask the stars.

We were shown the positions of the stars and constellations using a laser beam. The Southern Cross was pointed out and how it is used with Alpha Centauri to find south. The constellations of Orion, Taurus, Sirius, Cancer, Leo, Gemini were identified. (They are 'back to front' compared with the northern hemisphere.) Mars and Saturn were also visible and we could see the rings of Saturn and a couple of its moons.

We were taken round the telescopes and were given an explanation of what was visible through each of them. We then had about 40 minutes to look through telescopes and ask questions. There were always two people on hand to check telescopes were set up correctly and had not been moved out of alignment.

It was then back to the house for a hot drink, final questions and summing up.

This was a very well worth while trip and we learned a lot. It was not as cold as expected and we were definitely overdressed.

We were booked into Hotel Altiplanico, which we used last time. It is about 15-20 minute walk outside San Pedro de Atacama on the road to Pukara de Quitor. It is designed to look like a traditional adobe village surrounded by pleasant gardens with swimming pool.

Each room is in a 'house' and each one is different. Furnishings are simple - almost basic, but the rooms have great character. Outside the 'back door' was a small sitting area. Our room also had an outside shower - great for cooling off during the heat of the day.

There are two computers for guest use in the reception area and wireless is available although it may not reach all of the rooms, so you may need to use computers in the reception area. Tea, coffee and water is available all day in reception. The receptionists were good, friendly and most had good English.

Breakfasts were excellent - buffet style with plenty of choice, especially sweet cakes and flans. There was a reasonable choice on the evening menu, which wasn't expensive for a hotel like this. Depending on how busy they were the meal could be slow to arrive. Staff in the dining room had little or no English but were delightful and so keen to help. It's amazing what can be achieved by a smile and hand gestures.

Unlike some of the other expensive hotels in San Pedro the Altiplanico makes a point of employing local staff. You feel that your money is actually making a difference to the community.

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