Plus: Decent pizza and an intro to the Atacama Desert
Wednesday I signed up for one of the cultural activities my Spanish school offers because it was tour of Cementario General. My classmates, Rania and James also signed up, but warned me that the tour guide was a bit, how shall we say? … scattered. They were right! We Americans (and apparently Brits, too) find the laissez faire scheduling and organization in South American to be a bit challenging.
The tour allegedly began at 1:30 p.m., but classes end at 1:30, so, yeah, I was thinking not. At a bit before 2 we walked to the Metro (where not everyone had a BIP card for the train so we waited for everyone to pay), took it one stop, changed trains, took it one more stop and walked to a buffet restaurant. We didn’t have reservations and there were about 20 of us, so we waited. Did I mention that we could easily have walked there or perhaps gone to a restaurant somewhere near the cemetery? But, no. Rania and I had brought our own food, so after warnings about the dangers of the neighborhood (OK, then why did you bring us there???), we walked about two blocks to the central fruit and veg market (Vega Central Santiago). Think many fruit and veggie stands at good prices. The surrounding area is not pleasant. It’s dirty and smelly. Once inside, we found excellent produce, but I wouldn’t recommend going there alone even though we didn’t see anything bad happen.
After everyone ate and paid one at a time with the portable credit card machine, we finally headed over to the cemetery, which took another train ride. The cemetery was reminiscent of the ones in Paris — a little overgrown, but beautiful. Our guide did know a lot, but she also uses the random approach to showing people around. Different nationalities had different areas of the cemetery, there were many mausoleums and tributes to freedom fighters plus a very icky mausoleum dedicated to Pinochet’s henchmen. It was the only place where I thought the graffiti was warranted.
Speaking of Pinochet: Allegedly the unmarked mausoleum in the cemetery is where his parents are buried. It is unmarked for obvious reasons. I think I believe that, but if everyone knows it is unmarked and really a Pinochet grave, why isn’t it defaced? We also saw Salvador Allende and Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated in Washington, D.C. by Pinochet’s order (and perhaps with the help of the CIA). Letelier was part of Allende’s government and was in exile in the United States.
The cemetery technically closed at 6, but our guide was still talking as students peeled off to go home. It’s hot in midday in Santiago and there’s no shade. We were done, but she wasn’t. She did tell a fun ghost story about a widower who appears near his wife’s grave whenever there is a storm. Of course, she also claimed she did not know the story when she saw him on a different tour. What do I know. Maybe ghosts do exist.
Thursday, Rania, James and I had lunch together since James was headed to Colombia. He had said he found good pizza and I was game to try. My hopes were not high, but the pizza was pretty good and the company even better. Steven and I had a flight to Calama, the airport closest to San Pedro de Atacama, at 6:30 that evening, so I expediently returned home to pack at 3:40 so we could leave by 4 (did she mention that she had not yet packed?). We got to the airport in plenty of time and had an uneventful 2-hour flight. Our driver picked us up for the hour long drive to our hotel, Noi Casa Atacama, and we marveled at the number of stars we could see on the drive. By the time we checked in and got settled, we were tired and just relaxed on our terrace.
The Atacama Desert is the highest (non-polar) and driest desert in the world with an average rainfall of 0.004 inches a year. Measurable rain falls only once a century. No significant amount of rain has fallen in 500 years. It’s dry. Beautiful, strange, and very, very, dry. The driest place on Earth. Bring your eye drops and water bottles (and lip balm) everywhere. Low- sodium salt is abundant and one of the tourist attractions are the salt flats. Salt mining had been big business since it was used in the copper purification process (along with sulfur). Salt is still mined using electrolysis, but you can’t buy it in the store to sprinkle on your papas fritas.
The town of San Pedro sits at 7,900 feet above sea level. It’s a dusty little tourist town of about four blocks full of artisan markets, restaurants, lodging and tour services. None of the roads are paved and the buildings are mostly adobe. Bring a hat and lots of sunscreen.
Friday, we had a morning massage (included in our hotel package). The massage therapist was very kind with our poor Spanish and told me that she loved living in a tranquilo town where she could bike everywhere she needed to go (I have no idea what she was saying to me). After our massages, we had our first tour of the weekend: Valle de la Luna, which you may have guessed, looks like a lunar landscape. Our perspective is skewed, because we thought there were a lot of tourists there, but in reality, compared to a weekend at Yosemite, we had the place to ourselves. We have also noticed that the Chileans haven’t quite figured out that a snack bar and souvenir shop at every tourist spot would net them mucho dinero.
The landscape can’t be described and I doubt pictures will do it justice, but if you don’t realize how small we are when you see the formations created by winds and blowing sand, the sun glinting off the mountains and salt, and the natural amphitheater, nothing will. At the end of the tour, we sat and waited for the sunset. Steven and I would have prefer to forgo that, mostly because it is summer and we had almost 45 minutes of sitting around in a spot with a steep drop-off that he wasn’t going to go anywhere near, before the sun slipped behind the mountains. We all know that the sun’s fall below the horizon is not the peak of the sunset, which we saw later on our drive back. It’s almost as though you cranked up the saturation on your photos, only you don’t need to because it’s real.
Steven is going to take over and describe our weekend, but like many of the other places we have been fortunate enough to visit, the Atacama will stay with us. I hope someday we will be able to return.