Staying with Strangers: San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1

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I wanted to share one of the experiences I had back in 2013 that made me fall headfirst for Chile and Chilean people. This story is about one of the stupidest things I ever did while travelling alone.

I was about six weeks into travelling South America, feeling cocksure and relaxed, when I began the slog north into San Pedro de Atacama, the vast desert spanning the north of Chile. The plan was to rest up for a few days in a desert town, and then hop across the border and into the Salt Flats of Uyuni.

Getting to San Pedro de Atacama

The bus ride was a long one, and we had to change vehicles in Calama before we cut inland to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. During the changeover I asked the nearest woman – in my very best Spanish – if she would watch my huge bag while I took advantage of a non-moving toilet. When I returned, she struck up conversation, this time, in English. Where are you from? Where are you going? How long for?  We were still small-talking when the bus rolled in, and we picked out two double-seats opposite each other.

She was thin and wiry, a freckly-brown, with Argentinian-style flowing hair under a red cap, bedazzled with rhinestones. She was wearing a neon, multi-coloured running shirt, jeans and, perhaps, too many bangles. She soon got it out of me that I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay. San Pedro was expensive, claimed the guidebook, and only had big hotels back then. I was taking my chances that there would be a Hospedaje, not listed online, that I would find if I wandered the streets – It was a tourist town after all. If you’re looking for a recommendation, I’m afraid I don’t have one, because as soon as I explained this to her, Carolina, she invited me to stay with her. It was a relatively new place, she said, but she had space for me. I was young, I was a cheapskate, and I was looking for adventure. I said yes.

Kids, don’t go home with the nice stranger from the bus.

Desert StreetView

The City of San Pedro de Atacama

Arriving in San Pedro

It became clear that the air there was mainly dust, and the roads, walls and rooves all forged from the same type of sand. Carolina insisted I leave my heavy backpack with her friends at the Bus station office in a small room sporting only a few empty luggage racks, and a bored woman eating a banana. She shrugged when I asked when they closed. I left all my worldly goods with her and set off with Carolina into the heat.

San Pedro makes you thinks of Zorro, adventure movies and bullfighting, with wide streets built for 4x4s, bicycles, pedestrians and mules.  Strangely lush trees overhang whitewashed walls and the high, wide toreador gates. Bells adorn doorframes and rooves, with terracotta and corrugated iron matching the few patches of red earth that dry grass clings to. We strolled down winding, identical, unmarked streets, until we arrived at a long, low ceilinged building, with only a few windows. Carolina knocked, and we were ushered in to a small, square, cement room. Four whitewashed walls, a swept terracotta floor; with an open doorway and window out onto a large courtyard. A tree marked the courtyard centre, overgrowing a small blue wooden hut that enclosed a kitchen about to scale with the enormous cockroaches that had taken root there.

The courtyard was open on one side, with a basic, falling down chain-link fence, more to keep dogs out, and the occasional chicken in. On the other side of the fence, however, the land seemed to drop away, bringing the view so close you felt you could reach out and touch a volcano. The mountain range in the middle was red in the haze, towering over the town of San Pedro, like a great wall. This courtyard almost made the grey room feel less like a jail cell. The open bathroom, however, left little to the imagination.

Watercolour Sketch of Volcano Quimal

A quick sketch of the Coutyard overlooking the volcanoes and deserts of San Pedro de Atacama

Carolina and the old, portly man that had let us in were nattering in the background, and I had been paying little attention as she sent me out to explore. She turned and asked me “do you like it?” I told her how the mountains made me feel, and suddenly she turned, and pulled from her purse a wad of notes. She handed them to the man, he handed her a receipt and a key, and off he went. She bought a house. In cash. In front of me; a stranger, and her supposed house guest. Red flags were popping up before my very eyes.

“My boyfriend will be here in an hour with my mattress, let’s go and get a drink.” And so we did. She led me to the centre of town, a large square suddenly surrounded with flashy hotels, a fountain, and restaurants spilling out into the centre. We parked ourselves at a table and Carolina ordered us a beer and a sangria each. We were celebrating. We talked and shared our life stories and the sun got lower, and slowly different people would walk past and stop, crying out for Carolina, joining us for a drink, buying us a Pisco, flitting in and out like swallows. It was warm even as the sun began to dip below the houses, but I was suddenly aware that all of my jumpers for the desert night were still stowed away in the bus station locker room. Carolina and I tripped back to the post, to find it empty, the door locked, but the service window open, my backpack resting happily in full view. I hopped the window, and shunted the backpack out to Carolina. Nothing had been taken. Carolina scribbled a note to the lady that its rightful owner had reclaimed it, and we shlopped back to the grey, dark room.

Safe travelling in Atacama Desert

The Room – the red suitcase, my backpack, and the duffle

Outside, Carolina’s boyfriend was waiting, not-so-patiently, in his white flatback, a mattress poking out, beer and cigarette in hand. She let me in, and was loudly admonished for her lateness. He slung one mattress out onto her bed, another, smaller mattress on the floor for me, and then he left. Tyres kicking up a cloud in the street. The room still very much looked like a cold hard prison. I was now in the house of a stranger, a little drunk, and all alone.

Having spent all our money on drinks, Carolina suggested we ate what she had. Her boyfriend had dropped off a suitcase of clothes she had left with him. Other than that, she only had one, much smaller, multi-coloured, duffle track-bag – artisanal, but authentic – none of the plastic purples tourists have come to expect. To my shock, she pulled out, first, a full head of lettuce, some apples and an onion. Soon followed by two tomatoes, and a bottle of wine. I was sent to find the sharpest knife in the kitchen block – the only knife – and to make a salad for dinner. Meanwhile, Carolina became Mary Poppins.

Atcama Magic:

She told me about her work as a masseuse and spiritual therapist as she pulled out scarves and blankets and rugs and spread them on the floor, and hung them from the walls by odd pins. She covered the window and the open doorway to filter the light, warming the room and brightening the corners. As she pulled an entire folding table from the tiny duffle and set it up against the wall she told me she had no set beliefs. She lay out a golden Buddha, sainted candles, crystals and stones.

She told me how she loved to make strands of beads, how they symbolised luck and life, different strands for different experiences. She hung curtains and lengths of glass from the windows and doors, plastic jewellery mixed with clay beadwork. She told me I too would become a bead string from her life. She handed me boxes and boxes of beads, sorted by colour. Pick a few, she said; pulling out framed photos, a kettle, water glasses and a box of jewellery out of the bottomless bag. She placed lamps in two corners, covered in red shawls, and lit the candles around the room. The cellblock sparkled. The concrete was now all colours and light, the smell of perfume, insense, and hand cream filled the air. I had finished the salad, and she uncorked the bottle of wine.

Tranformation of a Room in the Atacma Desert

The day after the magic – which I still don’t understand

Out on the terrace we ate our feast, and, under the light of the largest moon I have ever seen in my life, she told me how women channelled the Luna goddess. And how tonight, the moon had blessed us both for being brave, for making friends, and for coming together in front of the volcanoes. Then she told me their story: love won and lost; Father´s blowing suitors´ heads off; and the power of the Volcano Princess Quimal. I sat quietly, and as someone who has never, I must admit, ever prayed to the moon, quietly asked every goddess I could think of to keep the moment perfect, and safe, and to not let this incredible woman quietly murder me in my sleep.

Photography of the Moon in the San Pedro Sky

The Moon over volcan Juriques in San Pedro de Atacama

When I woke the next day, she got us bikes, and we rode into the desert and danced for volcanoes – but that’s another story. Carolina helped me find a good tour guide to get me across to Uyuni, translating and negotiating for me. I went to see her again, in Antofagasta, and we made beads strings. She took me to lunch. She is one of the most giving people I have ever met, and took a total chance on a lost teenager. She never did murder me, she was just a perfect stranger with a magic bag.

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