I feel a need to express how much I love overnight busses. Although this one was probably one of the most flash buses we’ve been on there’s no escaping how painful the journey is, eleven hours of wanting to be elsewhere. This trip also had an added feature to make the journey all the more memorable, a small matter of a security checkpoint. While a security checkpoint isn’t a big deal it does puzzle us as to why it has to be at around 3am and why we have to take our bags off the bus ourselves and run them through a scanner. We’re completely confused, it seems like an arbitrary stop but Chile is generally very safe so I guess that comes at a cost, particularly close to the Peru and Bolivian borders.
As day breaks just that little bit too early we sit through the daze of a few hours before we arrive able to marvel at the scenery. The expanses are barren, vast and dramatic; with the Andes forming the backdrop to this region it’s a combination seemingly purpose built for vistas. Blue skies and dry desert heat greet us as we step out of the bus into 2500m altitude lacking the usual cool that should accompany this elevation. The tropic of Capricorn is marked locally by a nearby mountain peak and just a few days short of the summer solstice the sting of the sun is immediate and unforgiving. I think immediately of sunscreen.
San Pedro reveals itself to be larger than we expected but still a small town by anyones measure, just a handful of streets provide order to the vast majority of the inhabitants. Navigating the tight streets flanked by tall adobe walls we delve into this well known tourist hotspot looking for anything to give us directions or WIFI, the Plaza Da Armas will do just nicely. Through the main street it seems that the tourist reputation isn’t undersold, we’ve seen nearly nothing other than tour operators, cafes, restaurants and hostels, I wonder how many people actually live here. It’s dusty, dry and all together charming, the street scenes look like rustic cinema sets evoking tranquility just waiting for the juxtaposing gunfight or someone to be thrown out of old fashioned saloon doors. This place promises to be interesting if nothing else and we can’t help but notice, it’s comfortingly clean.
With just enough time to down a coffee around the surprisingly picturesque plaza we stagger through town in our tired state to find our hostel. With garden beds in the plaza flooded with water and small aquaducts busily rushing about town the desert harshness is very present but far from overwhelming. We’re staying in a tent at this place as San Pedro has the tourist price tag to go along with its many attractions, and with the clearest skies in the world we are quietly looking forward to a bit of camping. But the tent isn’t quite ready yet so we relax for a bit before heading back into town.
Again we are struck by the quaint aesthetics of this place, an oasis in the harshest of places that manages to deliver an inviting feel in a manner that few others possibly could. The heat is a shock to us cold weather folk but it’s all together not unbearable with the sun punishing all in its sights with the shade temperature not so bad, it’s like a hot day at the beach. We are also getting better at this coffee thing, we make our way into Marley Bar which is a bit of a hipster meets rasta mashup. Although the coffee isn’t great by any means it’s at least proper espresso and it goes into the ‘sugar makes it better’ basket that we’re getting used to, so overall it’s a booming success.
With coffee and food under our belts we head on back to the hostel to get into the tent and start some investigating on trips around here, the large images outside tour operators doing the trick in getting us excited. Most of the activities are a short while out of town so San Pedro is more of a base than the attraction itself so we find ourselves in a kind of weird semi-hipster traveller hostel multicultural eclecticism. There’s a few things we’ve had recommended by other travellers so we book in four tours for our stay here: Geysers and hot springs, Altiplano lakes, Valley of the moon and Cajar lakes. We have high hopes here as the desert bug continues to bite and San Pedro seems on the surface to be the perfect place to see it all from.
Through a hefty post overnight bus haze we settle into our canvas mansion sporting a few small holes; we figure that in the driest place on earth we’re probably safe. And the verdict; the tent is actually great, spacious and comfy with Charlie able to stand up. I drift off to sleep considering why this most unlikely of places seems quite inviting. It occurs to me that we’re surrounded by sand, the sun is beating down, there’s water all around with a healthy smattering of hipsters and tourists: we’re in North Bondi. It’s a marketing tagline from some surfing brand I think but in San Pedro it’s quite easy to live that old fashioned dream: life is indeed a beach.