The author takes us on a tour of San Pedro de Atacama and explains how to chew coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness.
I am writing this article sitting next to the pool at the Jireh hotel in San Pedro de Atacama. The water jets percolate and make a pleasant sound that washes away stress.
Two maids just walked by. One is young, shapely, but she has the misfortune to be ugly. The other girl is handsome. Both are young indigenous girls, whose Atacameño Indian ancestry is written across their faces: jet black hair and skin darkened by the brilliant, endless sun.
San Pedro is a small town located at 2,400 meters surrounded by volcanoes and high plains in the north of Chile in the Atacama Desert. Viewed from the town’s horizon, the high desert rises up like a rolling dune gradually morphing into the Andes. The volcano Licancabur, at 5,950 meters, looms about the town. Even at that height, there is no snow on top for large parts of the year, because of the lack of precipitation.
Of the dozens of mountains here, most are volcanoes, including the Volcano Lascar, which erupted most recently in 1993 leaving a 9 kilometer lava flow. If one can make an amusing observation about volcanoes in Chile, is it that the ash always blows east toward Buenos Aires, Argentina, shutting down the airport there for days or weeks at a time, depending on the wind. This reach into Argentina is a metaphor for how the two countries hurl insults at each other.
The ash can fly further than Argentina. When the Chaiten volcano in the South of the country erupted in 2008, its ash cloud wrapped around the planet. Enough sulfur dioxide (SO2) was released by that volcano to offset the total man made carbon dioxide emissions that year, thus, for a moment, slowing global warming; of course, not everyone would agree on that point, for political reasons. The SO2 reflects light thus cooling what is underneath.
This area has been home to the Atacameña Indians for 11,000 years. You can see evidence of that; go see the ruins of the 3,000 year old village of Pucará de Quitar just 6 kilometers outside town. You can find taxis at the bus station to take your there.
These people living here are not Incan descendants of Peru and Bolivia. They are a different ethnic group than those Indians who still speak Quechua, a language that is spoken all the way from Bolivia to Ecuador. In Chile, there are maybe 8 Indian cultures, each still speaking their own language, including the Mapuches, who still are and have been at war with the Incas, Spanish, and Chileans for 500 years. They burn homes and logging operations, trying to run Germans immigrants and logging companies from tribal lands.
I talked to an Atacameño Indian who was working as a park ranger at one of the tourist parks. He said the Atacameño Indians came to this region 11,000 years ago. They spoke their own language Kunza, until it died out around 1900. His grandfather still knows the language, but the guard said there is no support for teaching it in the schools, so it is a dying language. The young man said the Spanish and Chileans would cut out the tongue of anyone who spoke Kunza instead of Spanish as part of their plan to assimilate that culture. Spain ruled Chile until 1821. They arrived in Chile around 1540, a full 90 years before any English came to North America.
In San Pedro, the major business is tourism, and business is good. Europeans, Asians, and, trailing in numbers, Americans flock there year round. The village is small, but crowds are not pressing. The streets are unpaved, giving San Pedro the look of a dusty desert village, albeit with a North Face retail shop and a few upscale hotels.
The major draw here is geological tourism and astronomy. The streets are lined with tour guides and their shops. I went to one to arrange two tours for my wife and I.
I got a virus in my ear some months ago that has given me vertigo and a constant ringing in my ear. Because of that, my wife and I decided to go to see the Salar Atacama (salt flat) and Valley de la Luna (Moon valley) at 2,400 meters and not go higher than that. To see the flamingos, the cobalt blue high-altitude lakes, and geysers you need to climb to 4,500 meters. If you go up there, you will come down with a pounding headache, because of the low oxygen environment.
Chewing Coca Leaves
The indigenous way to deal with high altitude is to chew coca leaves. They are sold in most of the artisan markets where people sell hats and gloves, made from llama wool, and copper jewelry, adorned with lapis lazuli blue semi-precious stones.
Coca is not cocaine. Instead it is a mild stimulant, like coffee. When you chew the leaves, It increases blood flow to the brain thus helping avoid the altitude sickness due to low levels of oxygen at high altitude.
To chew the leaves, you need to mix them with something alkaline to extract the alkaloid coca. Fireplace ash or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) work, because they are alkaline (PH > 7). Most of the small grocery stores in San Pedro sell baking soda. The saliva in your mouth will not break down the leaves, because it is acidic (PH < 7). So use baking soda, even if people tell you it is not necessary, as they are wrong.
To chew the leaves, put 7 or 8 in your mouth and chew a couple of minutes. Do not swallow. Make a little ball and locate that between your teeth and cheek. Then add a fingertip of sodium bicarbonate. The mixture will begin to foam, indicating a chemical reaction is taking place. Now you can swallow. Continue to chew ever so slightly. You will feel parts of your lips go numb. The effect lasts a few hours.
Valle de la Luna
Because I wanted to avoid altitude sickness, my wife and I toured the Valley de la Luna (Moon Valley) and Salar de Atacama (salt flats) instead of seeing the flamingos, geysers, or high lakes.
The Valle de la Luna is only about 9 km from San Pedro de Atacama. You could rent a bike to go there, but the climb up is steep in places. Those less enthusiastic about peddling can arrange a tour at any of the many tour guide businesses along Caracoles and Calama streets.
The town is so small that anywhere you need to go is maybe 4 blocks.
The guide will take you up in a van or bus across roads more suitable to a 4×4 vehicle. Most speak English and Spanish. Some can speak better than they can understand, so speak plain English slowly as you should with anyone who is somewhat less than fluent at that.
As we climbed up into the park, we stopped at various scenic locations, to snap photos.
One Chinese girl traveling alone was traveling with us. At the overlook looking over Death Valley, she was sitting too close to the edge of the cliff. I was worried that the crumbling ground underneath her would give way and she would fall to her death. Be careful here and anywhere. Tourists get burned by the hot water at the geysers when they get too close. There are no scorpions or snakes here, but there is the Rincon spider, which can leave a wound that will not heal. Ask your hotel to spray your room with Raid. They lurk between sheets, so shake them out.
Among our group of 12 people were 1 woman from Spain, three portly female students from Chile, two young men from Brazil, and three women from Germany.
We all piled out and slid down a dune and walked through a narrow canyon between two vertical walls. I thought Clint Eastwood and Apache Indians would pop out at any moment; the canyon looked like a perfect place for an ambush.
The landscape here is encrusted with salt, ringed by enormous dunes that you can slide down on a snowboard, and the Salt Mountain range. The terrain is like the moon or Mars, which is why NASA tests their Mars Rover vehicles here.
At the end of the tour, the van drops you off at a large hill of rock and dune so you can view the sunset. The hike up took us about 15 minutes, leaving the the plump college girls from Chile gasping for air. I wanted to reach up and push one along by her fat fanny.
Once you reach the ridge, it is not to hard to hike the less steep incline to the peak. Here you watch the sun set as lovely hues of color paint pictures across the vertical walls and dunes, casting a memorable view over the landscape.
I was among the last to head down at dusk, because I knew the full moon would rise over the Andes when the sun set and I would be able to see in the dark.
For stargazers, a full moon is the worst time to visit San Pedro, because the moon makes the stars hard to see. Because this high desert is so sunny and above the dust of the desert, most of the world’s largest scientific telescopes are located here; they are built by the Europeans and Americans. But I wanted to see the stars despite the bright moon. So I checked the lunar calendar and headed out at 6:40 am when the moon set so I could see more stars until the sun rose at 7:30. You can check such things using a lunar and solar calendar.
Salar de Atacama
The third day of our trip, we headed to the Salar de Atacama, also just outside San Pedro. This salt flat formed when salt leached down from the volcanoes and the lake below that evaporated, leaving the salt behind. The Salar de Atacama is the third largest salt flats in the world. The largest is the nearby Salary Uyuni across the border in Bolivia, who expanse is bigger than, say, Massachusetts, or something like that. It dominates the map in this corner of Bolivia located nor too far from San Perdo.
If you want to visit the Salar Uyuni in Bolivia, guides in San Pedro de Atacama will take you there. It is quite far, so a trip there could last more than one day. Your rental car company will not allow you to take your car across the border. Thieves in Santiago have made a business of stealing cars and selling them in Bolivia, whose president, angry at Chile over a border dispute, has created a market by allowing the sale of vehicles without any paperwork required.
The Salar de Atacama is about 20 minutes outside of San Pedro. Our guide took us to three spots there. The first was to swim in the Laguna Cejar salt lake. The water there is 30% salt. Not only can you not sink, it is difficult to submerge. If you did, the salt would burn your eyes. I wore sandals, because of the sharp salt rocks. But my sandals were so buoyant that they drove my head forward, so I could not swim on my stomach; so I swam on my back.
Next we stopped at a sinkhole, which is created when the calcium ground underneath dissolves in water, causing a cave in. In the sink hole, the water is fresh. Some of us, including me, jumped off the high banks into the water. Four from my van joined in the fun: me, a Scottish guy, and two men from England. All were in their 20s, as are most of the tourists that one sees in San Pedro. One girl from another tour group jumped in with her bikini as did a procession of fat guys from the US or Europe jump in with their trunks. They made quite a splash as fat guys and gals jumping into water generally do.
The men all turned around at once and looked on with canine interest when a mother from Santiago starting taking pictures of her daughter modeling a bikini in black high heel boots. The skin color bottom looked like no bottom at all. The girl’s skin was white as snow like Mary Louise-Parker. I asked her if she was a model; no, they were just taking pictures.
For the last stop of our visit, we piled back in the van and headed to a glaring white salt flat to watch the sunset and drink pisco sour. The entire salar is salt, but it is only white where the lakes have evaporated after filling with rain in winter, the rest of the salar is a layer of bronze crust adorned with plants that have incredibly adapted to the salt and wide expanses of nothing at all.
Rain and snow falls here in the summer, unlike the rest of northern Chile, where there are places where it has never rained. The summer rain and snow is called the “Bolivian Winter,” because the moisture laden winds blow in from humid Brazil causing rain or snow to fall on the antiplano (high desert) here and in Bolivia. The moisture cannot cross the Andes, because of their height, so the rain does not fall in San Pedro.
The Salar de Atacama contains from 30% to 40% of the world´s lithium. Lithium is used to make batteries for cell phones and the Telsa electric car. It is also given to people who are bipolar or schizophrenic, to stabilize their mood. So if you are bipolar and can run on batteries, you could live here.
At the park I talked to an Indian guide, whose grandfather I mentioned earlier still spoke the native language. He told me the people in San Pedro farm community gardens. The arable land is only a few hectares, because there is no water beyond the canal and the surrounding Atacama desert is, as they say, the driest in the world.
The water in this oasis comes from an underground stream that fills in the winter as snow melt and rain run down the Andes. The people here plant corn, quinoia (a plant that is native to the region), alfalfa to feed horses, beans, and probably tomatoes and such. I thought of what John Wayne said in Chisolm when he told sod buster homesteaders, “You cannot farm at 6,000 feet,” Having been a farmer myself, I wondered about that too. since here it is 7,800 feet. But these elevations are the region of the world from where the potato comes. There are hundreds of varieties here while in the USA they plant one: Idaho, use to make McDonalds french fries.
After drinking some pisco and listening to our Indian guide play an Indian flute, the van headed back, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the tipsy passengers swaying inside.
The radio and the Chileans sang:
y la cosecha de mujeres nunca se acaba
(the harvest of women never will end)
When we got back to town, I went with my wife to the Restaurant Ayllu. Try a llama (spelled “llamo”) hamburger there. It is spiced like an Arab kabob. Don’t be squeamish, these are not wild animals slaughtered for profit. They are farmed. Have a quinoa salad. These are tiny like seeds, somewhat like corn, but crisp like watercress.
Another great place to eat is the Restaurant Adobe, whose name reflects the material used to build houses here and the high walls topped with broken glass or other obstacles that ring every Chilean house. Try the Quinoa Risotto or Merluza Mantequilla (Merluza fish topped with butter and prosciutto). The restaurant is wide open with lots of space, which is the exact opposite of what you usually find in a Chilean restaurant, where the tables are too close together.
You should know that many restaurants and guides don’t accept credit cards. And this being Chile, such payment systems sometimes do not work, plus the ATMs run out of cash. The tourist mecca of San Pedro perhaps has a more robust infrastructure to process euros, dollars, reals, and pesos than other locales.
Cash is what you need to get to San Pedro by van from the Calama airport. The parking lot there is filled with red pickup trucks driven by commuting miners. Each red truck has a bent over flagpole bulging from the back. At the top is a flashing light, so 10 meter tall mining trucks do not run them over as they ferry enormous quantities of copper sulfates (Fool’s Gold is one example as are other blue and other colorful minerals) to be crushed then sent to the smelter to turn into copper.
Beyond the airport, there is no need to stop in Calama as there is not much there for the tourist. The GDP (gross domestic product) in this part of Chile is on par with Great Britain at something like $46,000 USD. Miners laden with cash come to this refuge from far-flung mines high in the Andes to either fly home or hook up with the Colombian prostitutes who have flocked to this town.
This region is ringed by volcanoes, many of which are active. There is much seismic activity too. Do not be concerned if the ground below you begins to rumble or shake, as any structure here that would fall down already has done so, because of earthquakes in the past. But the structures in San Pedro are built with adobe. All adobe buildings in the South near Talca fell down in the 8.8 earthquake on Feb 11, 2011. Newer construction is adobe over rebar steel, so they should not fall down.
Earthquakes of 4 and 5 point strength on the Richter scale are an everyday occurrence along the 4,000 kilometer length of Chile and into Peru. When we were in San Pedro, a 7 point earthquake rocked the coastal city of Iquique far north of San Pedro. There 100,000 people fled to the hills, because the American-run Pacific Tsunami Warning center and the Chilean emergency services sounded an alarm. The escape plan for Iquique is to walk to high ground, as if everyone piled in their cars, no one would go anywhere. Geologists say the people would have 15 minutes to escape. But the warning system takes 12 minutes to work. Geologists say the time to determine whether to issue a warning must be reduced to 3 minutes.
The best time to visit San Pedro is after the 2nd week in March, when Chilean vacations end, as the kids go back to school, so there will be less tourists. If you go in winter (May to September), make sure your hotel has heat, as Chileans are accustomed to going without it. The brand new Calama airport is not heated at all. The temperature there can fall to -10 Celsius at night in winter, but in the day it will be a warm 20 or 25 almost year round.
Finally, you should read a country’s writers when you go there and not just the travel guides. Don’t be a cliché and read Isabelle Allende and her two-dimensional novels with two-dimensional characters. Instead read the poetry of Gabriela Mistral or Nicanor Parra or the anthology Chile a Traveler’s Literary Companion or Grant 113: The Best of the Young Spanish Language Novelists.
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Thank you, reader, for your gentle correction. In appreciation, and to