I mentioned earlier that San Pedro de Atacama is very tiny; the population is about 7,000 (not the 1,400 I mentioned earlier). This is to be compared with the number of tourists who visit here, which is 150,000 annually. So it is fair to say that tourism is kind of important here. “Here” being a somewhat wishful term, there not being a whole lot of here here (so to speak).
Those 150,000 tourists include a whole lot of ridiculously fit people, judging by the number of spandexed legs pumping bicycles. You know the demographic: skintight outfit, neon-colored helmet, scraggly hair, 40 lb backpack strapped to the bike. They’re everywhere in town, and I can only assume that they are all googly-eyes crazy, because we are at 8,000 feet elevation in the driest desert in the world, and practically every direction out of town is UP, steeply, into the Andes. Long distance biking around here is about the least fun thing that I can imagine. But bike they do: every single business establishment in town is a craft store, restaurant, or tourist lodging, and I am not exaggerating.
To give you a flavor of the place, here is one of the major intersections:
Our local guide Camillo has lived here for 22 years, on the outskirts of town. (How a town of 7,000 in the middle of a desert has outskirts is not clear to me.) Needless to say, he knows everyone. About 30 seconds after I took this picture he chatted with a local woman who was walking by with some shopping bags. Turns out that was the mayor.
There is a central square, off of which radiate the Big Four of every small town in this region: a church, a small anthropological museum, a police station, and a craft market. The craft market was small, crowded, and lively, as you can see at left. The collection of goods for sale had its idiosyncrasies, to say the least. Along with the expected good quality woolen hats and blankets, and the kitchshy stuffed llamas and refrigerator magnets, you can also purchase (1) crystalline salt in lumps the size of grapefruits (“Care for some salt on your food?” CLUNK); (2) coca tea and hard candies; and (3) brightly-colored packs containing extremely sketchy herbal remedies allegedly for high cholesterol, diabetes, and, um, inadequate bedroom performance. The first two featured pictures of busty girls in microscopic bikinis, which of course is the image that springs to mind when you think of cholesterol or diabetes. The third featured a poorly-lit sweaty couple demonstrating the efficacy of the product. OK then, I’m convinced!
We had an excellent lunch (a local corn and lamb stew) at another off-the-beaten-path restaurant where Camillo inevitably knew the owner. It included a new (to us) culinary discovery: merken, a wonderfully smoky — and very hot — spice made from dried smoked chili peppers. (We’re bringing some back for you, Jon H, and we expect to sample however you use it.) Later that afternoon we were off to the Atacama salt flats. You knew that salt was going to show up again, didn’t you?
The salt flats are about two hours from San Pedro and occupy an enormous area: about 1200 square miles. They are spectacular, ringed by the mountains and surrounding a shallow briny (very briny) lake. But they did not comport with my mental image of a salt flat, which is the highway-smooth Bonneville flats in the US. These are anything but smooth: the crystallized salts are in rough flaky lumps about the size of oranges or as big as footballs, thrown together and stuck to and on top of each other to a height of about a foot and a half. You could not drive on this salt flat; were it not for the prepared path, you could not even walk on it. You wouldn’t make it six feet before falling and/or twisting an ankle. Here is Alice at right, contemplating how many Margaritas you could make out of 100 million tons of salt.
But here’s the thing. The salt flats encompass a number of briny lagoons, wherein live lots of very hardy brine shrimp, who in turn are the favorite food of (drum roll) flamingos! Yes! This seemingly inhospitable place is home to large numbers of pink flamingos, and we saw them strutting, preening, and even flying around in large kitschy numbers. It was a spectacular, memorable sight, and became more so as the sun went down, bathing the surrounding mountains in orange and exaggerating the flamingos’ natural color. We stayed for hours until shortly after sunset, wandering among the salt formations and ogling the flamingos parading around the lagoon. It was otherworldly, a real gift.