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Gateway to the Atacama Desert: San Pedro de Atacama

Updated: May 26, 2020

Most trips to the Atacama Desert start in Calama, the closest airport and mining town. My trip was no different. And, like most tourists, my primary objective after collecting my luggage was to get out of Calama as fast as possible. Located at 2,280 m (7,400 ft) it’s dry, not particularly scenic, and rooted in mining.

A few minutes into the one-hour-and-twenty-minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama, it is apparent to me that Atacama is desolate. Desolate, but with a stark beauty that intrigues me. As we start gaining altitude, I notice what appears to be snow scattered on the ground and in the distant mountains. But it’s not snow. It is salt. It’s so dry here that the salt grows up from the ground. If the climate wasn’t so dry, rain would dissolve the salt and it would re-form into a smooth plain like the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA. It doesn’t do that here.

As we drop down over the first mountain range, the straight road gets a few curves. Every curve seems to be littered with truck or car wrecks. Really nasty ones. The accident debris remains, perhaps as a reminder, but perhaps because of the remoteness. I see a load of five-gallon water jugs scattered next to the road. I imagine a water truck taking the curve too fast, its load going one way while the truck continues another. There is nothing out here. No houses, no businesses, no people. I wonder why they build a straight road. It is so straight most of the time that the curves seem a cruel joke.

Out of the salt-peppered brown-and-pink landscape I finally see a swath of green. It’s San Pedro de Atacama—the destination of most tourists who visit the desert. The altitude is just a bit higher than Calama—2,400 m (7,900 ft). So far, I don’t feel any effects.

We drive through town and arrive at Explora Atacama, a hotel just outside of town whose aim is to help visitors detach from their busy world and immerse themselves in nature. They have an army of guides who are prepared to take from one to eight visitors at a time on an “exploration.” I hope to do a lot of hiking in this area. After which I’ll head to Boliva.

Now it’s time to unpack and get settled. The photo is the view from one of the windows in my room.

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