1. San Pedro de Atacama

Day 2:

We spent the following morning in San Pedro de Atacama. Truly a traveller’s town, San Pedro de Atacama serves as an opportunity for last-minute purchases of warm clothing, accessories, and snacks. The laid-back town is unassuming and can be thoroughly covered in half a day. The town centre consists mainly of the tree-lined Plaza de Armas, leading down the two main roads,  flanked by tour agencies, shops, and restaurants.

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San Pedro is almost entirely catered for tourists. Many international brands, even Patagonia, have percolated through the city centre, consisting mainly of two perpendicular streets.

The square is adjacent to the Church of San Pedro de Atacama. Built from adobe, the mud-like building material traditionally used in San Pedro, the church is small but elegant; reportedly, it is the second oldest church in Chile.

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Oddly enough, in most pictures and postcards, the church of San Pedro de Atacama is painted white; during our stay, the church reverted to its unpainted, clay-coloured façade, for a reason unbeknownst even to locals.

Our lunch was interrupted by rhythmic drumming and chanting outside the restaurant. Coincidentally, we happened upon the Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo, which commemorates the patron saint of the town. The procession, consisting of old and young alike dressed in colourful, traditional robes, ambulated down the main street.

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Amid chants of “Viva San Pedro!” led by a woman atop a slow-moving jeep with a loudspeaker, the crowd carried floats of the patron saint down the street.

Stargazing Tour: Our final night in San Pedro de Atacama was spent outdoors stargazing. Far too often, our view of the night sky is corrupted by light pollution; those of us who live in big cities may be lucky to see more than a few stars.

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Away from the light pollution in San Pedro, the dry and unpolluted Atacama Desert offers an unrivalled view of the night sky. It is little wonder that so many top-tier observatories and telescopes are set up in the Atacama Desert.

We were lucky to have enough people to form a private group, and as such, our host Rodrigo combined aspects of stargazing and astrophotography in the three-hour experience. Rodrigo picked us up at our hotel at around 10 p.m. and drove to a small cottage half an hour away from the town centre. He poured us tumblers of hot chocolate, led us outside into the whipping winds as we huddled in the warm safety of fleece blankets, and switched off the lights.

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As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, flecks of blue and red consumed our field of view. A silver streak of stars – the Milky Way (our galaxy!) – banded across the sky.

The view that awaited us was truly beyond description. Thankfully, we were graced with ideal stargazing conditions; the sky was clear and crisp, and there was no full moon. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, our photos barely do the experience justice.

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From an astounding morass of stars, we picked out the Southern Cross, the orange speck that is Mars, shooting stars flitting across the sky.

The experience was one of the most memorable of our trip, and the serenity of the night sky was only improved by the knowledge and enthusiasm of Rodrigo. There is no excuse not to join a stargazing tour when you are in the region; I guarantee that the experience you have will be as unforgettable as ours.

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We spent two hours outside observing the night sky with the naked eye as well as with Rodrigo’s personal telescope as he explained the visible galaxies and planets. Also an avid photographer, he gave us brief lessons on photography under low-light conditions.

The night sky gave us the perfect send-off from the Atacama region and San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is truly the travellers’ gateway to fantastically surreal landscapes. While perhaps inauthentic to Chile, the charming and laid-back town is a massive departure from any typical Western town and gives us a tantalising glimpse at life in the Atacama Desert. Partially acclimatised to the higher altitude, we venture higher into the Andes, towards the famous Salar de Uyuni.

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A plane streaks across the dusk sky in San Pedro de Atacama.

 


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