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San Pedro de Atacama is in the southeast corner of the area of Chile known as the “Norte Grande,” or the “Great North.”  The moniker seems an apt description for San Pedro, where everything is, indeed, great in size: the desert stretches on for miles, the sky is immense, even the prices are huge. 1  Only the town itself is tiny–just a few adobe buildings in the middle of the Atacama desert. This place is the most arid on earth.  It hasn’t seen any rain since January, when it rained for about 30 minutes, and the last big rain was–get this–in 2001, when it rained for five hours.
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While San Pedro itself has plenty of bars and restaurants, it’s the stuff outside of “civilization” that has tourists arriving in droves.  Every night, just outside of town, the sun puts on the best show around.  As it sets in the Valle de la Luna (or “Valley of the Moon,” so named because of the lunar-like landforms there created by eons of wind and floods), it paints the sky in spectacular shades, each section a different color.  We were lucky enough to see it one night after an amazing hike among the valley’s sand dunes.  To the west were yellows and oranges; turning a bit, we saw pinks and reds; the east was awash in blues and purples. Derek has a habit of describing things by rank.  A truly amazing meal is “one of the top five meals” he’s ever had.  A great hotel might be “one of the ten best” he’s stayed in.  For one of the first times in my life, as we watched the sun setting over the valley’s rolling sand dunes, I heard him pronounce that the sunset was the BEST he’d ever seen.  No rank needed.
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About 40 miles south of San Pedro are the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama.  Like something out of a Salvador Dali painting, weirdly shaped rocks fill the landscape and extend for as far as the eye can see.  In the middle of it all is Lake Chaxa, a lagoon that plays home to three of the five flamingo species.  Only a handful of the pink2 creatures were on hand when we paid them a visit, but I really loved being able to see them outside of the confines of a zoo.
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Nearby the salt flats stand Laguna Miscanti and its smaller cousin, Laguna Miniques.  One day, we hiked through the sandy terrain surrounding the lakes for a lunchtime picnic.  A few bites into my sandwich, I realized that we had a guest: a small but determined desert fox watched us from a safe distance, getting ever closer as he realized that we were both harmless and in possession of food to his liking.  And he wasn’t our only companion from the animal kingdom–from a nearby hillside, about eight vicunas (they looked just like llamas to me…) cast watchful eyes over the group.
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Tourists willing to awake on time for a 4:00 am departure from San Pedro3 can head to El Tatio, the world’s highest major geyser field.  For the price of a few hours of sleep (and a small admission fee), you get to walk through the steam bath created by the world-famous geysers, all of which are located in the collapsed center of a volcano. 4  This is no American tourist attraction, replete with guardrails and large-print warning signs.  Tatio is a free-for-all where tourists stroll among the thin-crusted geysers at their own risk.  Four have fallen to their deaths in recent years.  Most of the accidents have taken place near a particular geyser, now aptly referred to as “killer.”  This probably was not the best venue for my still-groggy self, but I survived without incident.

This fact is particularly surprising given that Derek and I, in a “you only do this once”-induced moment of insanity, took a plunge in one of the geyser-created hot springs.  The water, though warm, did little to cut the chill of the 30-degree air.  While falling to our deaths wasn’t a real threat (we were there with a knowledgeable guide), catching pneumonia was.  Alas, we survived, and we headed out of San Pedro with little more than good memories and fantastic photographs.

  1. Having only recently left Asia, where almost everything costs considerably less than it does at home, San Pedro’s prices really jolted us back to reality.  It’d been a long time since we had paid $2 for a bottle of water. []
  2. Did you know that flamingos get their color from all of the pink shrimp they eat?  This fact has made me think twice about my massive consumption of cherry red Twizzlers, lest I take on a rosy hue… []
  3. This group included me, though I would replace “willing” with “coerced by spouse.” []
  4. Allegedly, the early-morning arrival is imperative because, as the morning wears on, winds arise and sweep away the picturesque steam from the geysers.  Given that the steam was still entirely visible by mid-morning, when we left, I find the whole thing a bit suspect. []