Vern: San Pedro de Atacama is an odd place. It turns out that desert tourism is surprisingly popular and as such this little town which comprises of a small grid system of dirt roads has sprung up to serve the travelers who happen upon it. There seem to be no residential blocks, just the full assortment of accomodation options: Campsites for the hippies who wear hemp pajamas all day, concrete floor dorms for backpackers and five star hotels for wealthy Santiago dwellers who've driven up country in SUVs. Every other street-front shop is a tour agency and the only other stores sell pizza, ice-cream and hand crafts mostly mass produced in China.
We found an affordable hostel with adobe walls and a reed roof where the owner swore that while they could usually offer guests hot water, there currently was none in the whole town owing to an unclear problem. Hmmm... We signed up for a trip out to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) for sunset and set off on the tour after enjoying a meaty soup for lunch.
The first stop was a view over Valle de la Muerta (Valley of the Dead). It was supposed to be Valley of Mars but somewhere in history a few letters got switched. Between steep canyon walls, pointy hills rested on each other, like rows of giant red samosas stacked one in front of each other in a bakery warmer. Sand-boarders were carving paths into a dune on the far side of the valley.
A little further on, we hopped out of the bus again and followed a trail through a dark crescent shaped cave which spat us out into Moon Valley, famous for its resemblance to the surface of the moon owing to stratifications (apparently) and salt formations. It was quite a unique landscape - every little rock has cracks, indentations and erosion lines, and miniature gorges run between the rocky patches so I felt like a giant walking over the Himalayas.
We raced past the Three Marias - three natural stone pillars left after a million years of erosion - and then were dropped off at the beginning of the Great Dune Path. Which, as the name suggests, is a path up to the ridge of a big sand dune, atop of which we watched the setting sun set fire to the desert sands. As the sun slipped away the volcanos on the horizon blazed red, the swirls in the soft desert floor phased through a sequence of colours like a mood ring. Shadows crept between the accordion-bellow like sequence of peaks which make up a huge salt and rock amphitheater. We took a lot of photos hoping that our little point-and-shoot would pick up all the contrasts then walked back down and returned to town in the dark.
We made burgers for dinner in the cramped hostel kitchen (no more meals out, this isn't Bolivia!) and sloshed through a large bottle of wine in front of a welcoming fire chatting and laughing with Kieran and Yvette while John Denver played from a radio somewhere. Considering the disasterous journey the previous day, the bus terminal chaos, and the unexplained absence of hot water we wondered if we had jinxed each other. Perhaps the universe didn't want these couples to meet. We joked that should we try meet up in London, the entire transport network might be brought to its knees!
We didn't do much other than a load laundry on our second day in San Pedro, though we found a bakery selling huge calzone-sized empanadas (half moon shaped pies with various savory stuffings) which made for a delicious breakfast and which we ordered in bulk for the bus trip the following day. Kieran and Yvette checked out that day and sure enough only moments after we said our goodbyes, the hostelier excitedly came over to tell us that the hot water had been restored!
We left San Pedro on a local bus and connected in Calama to a long distance bus. It took one Zach Efron movie, one Van Damme movie and a fun box (containing three sugary snacks) to get us to sleep on the semi-reclining chairs as the bus followed the coast south.