Friday 12 December 2008 – Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama
512 km since yesterday’s report finds us sitting in the sun at Hotel Pachamama in San Pedro de Atacama. This is the same place that we stayed at in 2001 and 2004, but that was full when we needed a room in 2006. Things have greatly improved here since. For a start it has wifi. All the ‘cabanas’ have been refurbished. For the benefit of Leo, John Ede, Marlon, Anne Adams and of course Alain (who is the only one of that bunch actually receiving this drivvel), we are now staying ‘next door’ at #2, instead of #1. Of course the other change is that the price has gone up from 19,000 pesos I believe in 2004, to 45,000 but breakfast is now included.
Did we see any cacti? Yes, at 100 km p h, some Cumulopuntia boliviana. Did we take any cactus pictures? No, not at 100 km p h! I’ll have to brush up my techniques now that Angie tells me of her success in the recent BCSS photo competition. Well done!
Tomorrow the border with Argentina opens at 8 a.m., at the same time that breakfast is served here, so we should be across by 9, says he hopefully. That is ‘through the Chilean control’, just outside San Pedro. Then there is about 140 km to the actual border and another huge distance to the Argentinean control.
For the benefit of those who have visited San Pedro de Atacama before, here is a brief analysis of the tourist industry today.
In 2001 we amused ourselves with coach loads of ‘back packers’, fresh off the plane in Santiago or Calama airports, bussed in and complaining that their Nike trainers were getting muddy in the puddles after a brief shower – their back packs still shrink wrapped in cling film. Electricity was provided by a local generator that switched off at 10:00 p.m. or 11:00 on Friday and Saturday nights. Our hotel gave out candles to provide us with light when the power was off.
At night time, the main streets were bustling with tourists, many restaurants would have no table space, unless you had booked and the place was buzzing. A recipe for success you’d say.
Today, it seems San Pedro has gone ‘corporate’. That is to say that large tour operators have bought or block booked the best appointed facilities. Visitors are bussed in by the tour operator, straight to their hotel, where the activities are arranged, dinner and evening entertainment are provided and where visitors are only ‘let out’ on a guided tour of the town – church, museum …. and really, there isn’t much else.
So the restaurants were embarrassingly empty, there was room at the first accommodation we called at and the restaurants were positively begging you to come in. Lots of empty seats and miserable faces.
And of course, Europe and the USA are meant to be in recession, so perhaps there are people who have decided to holiday closer to home.
What a difference with 2001, 2004 and 2006!!! And of course the town has tried to keep up with time, e.g. by putting up fancy and inappropriate electric street lights. The candles given out in 2001, when the power went off at 10 or 11 had already gone by 2004. Prices for food and drink are still 100% more than Arica, but, while this was fine when demand outstripped supply, it is no longer tenable in the current climate.
In time, San Pedro will become entirely ‘locked hotel’ tourism or a two tier system will evolve.
In the past, the excursions offered were a) the 4 a.m. departure breakfast trip to the geysers at El Tatio or b) the night time laser show at Valle de la Luna. Now, it’s extreme sports, with day trips to the actual craters of the volcanoes that dominate the surrounding scenery, taking you with oxygen to 6,000 m plus! And ‘snow-boarding-on-sand’ on the ‘dunes’ in the Valle de la Luna and extreme mountain biking on the outskirts of town.
In the past, exited young girls from X would meet hormonally challenged young lads from Y and have long philosophical discussions about the meaning of live, before getting down to what teenagers do. Now, a number of the pretty girls parading on the square may as well have the label ‘call girl’ tattooed on their fore heads.
As you can tell, grumpy old men, drinking a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon each at (moderate) altitude can still put the world to rights.
Oh yes, it’s an early start tomorrow!
End of rant.