Epic Journey. Part 8. San Pedro de Atacama; Chile

So after the easy border crossing east of Reserva Eduardo Avaroa we entered the barren backdoor to northern Chile;  the Atacama Desert.  I didn’t really know what to expect from San Pedro de Atacama being as it was a relatively impromptu change of course, but turns out I love it!.  The difference is apparent immediately (paved highways and road signs what?!?!), and SPdA feels worlds away from Bolivia even if we are in a desert community in the middle of nowhere.  It feels like Santa Fe or Taos.  Artsy, touristy, little dash of hippy.  All in a small colonial town with a pinch of european chic.  Gone was any kind of indeginous connection; nothing like cholitas walking around.  Mostly tourists and crunchy locals with dreadlocks and avant garde styles.

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The girls checked into their hostel, and Mark, Katie and I eventually settled into Hotel Corvatch.  Recently renovated, and super cozy.  The kitchen is new, and outdoor patio was my favorite spot.  Dogs, birds in cages, shady trees.  Nice place to use the good WiFi and try to catch up on life back home.  There is a whole hotel part with restaurant, BBQ pit, possibly pool, but all that was off limits to us mere hostel folk.  Either way at $25 a night (private room, shared showers) it was perfect.  Well to completely honest…not perfect.  The staff was dry, and they have a ridiculous no left-luggage policy.  And at risk of pissing off my Chilean friends, I’ll mention that during my brief stay in Chile the friendly factor was way down.  Especially after coming from Peru and Bolivia.  The Chilean demeanor in my short experience runs the gamut from cold to mocking.  Sorry, but I’d be ignoring my documentarian conscious without noting.

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hotel corvatch room

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hotel corvatch courtyard

That night Mark and Katie joined me to meet up with Leonie and Niahm, two fellow Lares Trek group-mates from back in Peru.  We had run into each other randomly along the way, and this was a theme for everyone’s journey whether long or short.  Once you set out on the Gringo trail, you’re bound to see familiar faces along the way. You meet for drinks, compare notes, and say hasta luego, meaning “until later” in the truest sense of the words.  We met at Casa de Piedra on their recommendation.  The ambiance and pizza made the night!  While pisco sours flowed, and good conversations bounced around, the fire-pit and outdoor seating created a perfect storm for a having a couple more drinks than we all were probably meaning to.  We shut the place down, and it was then that I learned the town closes down at midnight.

This became the SPdA routine for my few nights in town.  Breakfast (usually bread; see below), relaxed activity by day, dinner, drinks by a fire til midnight, sleep.

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***

4/23  Laguna Cejar

You can book tours to many of the unique lands and lagunas around SPdA, but we chose to do what the locals do and rented bikes to get around.  That first full day we set out in the morning for the closest laguna; Cejar.  The trip over was a warm ride through the Atacama Desert along the main highway leading to the Argentine/Bolivian border.  Nice little cruise, about 22 KM (altough I think thanks to my shitty translation there is a shorter route that doesn’t involve cars whizzing by every once in a while).

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By the time we got there the desert sun was full on BLAZING, so we set up shop under a palapa and took a dip in the icy lagoon.  The shit is freezing, and I have no idea how or why considering the surface-of-the-sun temps on land.  The high salinity of the laguna makes it impossible NOT to float, and despite the frigid temp it is a very refreshing dip.  We brought bread, meat and cheese for a picnic lunch, and the afternoon was more than sublime.

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laguna cejar

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picnic palapa

We named the dog who posted up with us Salty, and to our amazement she jogged THE ENTIRE WAY BACK TO TOWN WITH US!  So I’m saying this dog trotted next to our bikes in the BRUTAL desert sun for around 10 miles.  Every time we’d stop to give her a rest, she’d look at us, tongue wagging, like “bring it you pussies”.  I was amazed, and back in SPdA she often appeared out of no-where to nuzzle on our calf and say hello.  Salty became our Ambassador to SPdA.

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salty

That night, after an evening siesta, we met for dinner at Adobe. Another super-cozy, lodge like establishment.  All wood, brick, and saliva enducing aromas. The food and wine was good all around.  I got the Lomo Pil Pil, with no idea what the hell that meant and happy with the choice.  Turned out is was a cazuela with chunks of succulent beef, potatoes, and a really tasty broth.  I wished there was more broth!  Spicy, white wine, garlic.  Very refined.

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adobe interior

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terrible lomo pil pil pic

After that we found another outdoor spot with a fire, and shared stories over drinks until the inevitable midnight closing hour.

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4/24  And then there where four

I ran into Julie, Jessica, Hope and Emma in the street on my way to coffee.  They (besides Julie) had decided to hop the afternoon bus to La Serna, and it was time to say goodbye.  Such is the way in the world of the traveler.  Me and Julie walked them to the bus station, and saw them off.  We had known each other for no more than four days, but there’s something about these kind of trips that grows people close even if in the hindsight of life its all very fleeting.

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That evening, Mark, Julie and I took our bikes out to Valle de la Luna for sunset.  Again (I’m getting repetitive, but its true) an other-worldly landscape.  It came alive as the sun dipped, colors deepend, and shadows stretched.  Sitting high up on a dune with a Paceña, not a bad place to be.

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For dinner we went to La Casona.  Same owners as Adobe, and Katie had been researching while we were on the bike ride.  Same rustic decor, same good wine, and same ubiquitous fire pit. Mark and I shared a parrillada, a dish meant for 3, and goddamnit I’m glad I agreed.  Out came a sizzling cauldron heaped with meats.  Beef, chicken, pork, chorizo, blood sausage, tripe, and grilled veg. Jesus, I’ve got the meat sweats just thinking about it.  Everything was amazing, although have to admit I’m still too much of a pussy to say I like tripe.  Bourdain is my idol, but failed him in trying to like grilled pig asshole.

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la casona interior

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la parrillada

The first hours we got to SPdA, while wandering town looking for a hotel, we walked passed this girl who was munching on an amazing looking baguette.  Mark and Katie inquired about such a find, and the girl turned us on to La Franchuteria, a panaderia outside of the middle of the town.  I am not exaggerating when I say it’s possible the best bread I’ve ever had.  Baguettes, olive loaves, croissants, just to name a few.  Get there early or the shit is gone.   In NYC and Philly we always say “we have the best bread/bagels/pizza because of the water”, and especially after finding out the place was run by a young french ex-pat with these non-Philly conditions I was intrigued.  I decided to ask Arturo/Arthur, the creator of this phenomenon, if I could do a little documentary on him.  He was fine with it, and now I’m looking at a 3:30 AM call time.  Art is hard.

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4/25  Pan doco/hasta luego SPdA

I got up at 4 AM today to meet the bread maker. As I trudged through the dark town I really had no idea what I was doing. All my optimistic and inspired ideas where nonexistent at this ungodly hour.  It all turned out pretty goddamn cool.  Once I entered, Arthur said he and his staff would just pretend I wasn’t there, and I even though my lens was busted, I was shooting on a Nikon D90, and I was half awake; I was actually documenting something people would rarely see.

He had Celine (French), Romane (French), and Eduardo (Chilean) working with him. They expertly kneaded, rolled, and baked these amazing breads/croissants/pan du chocolat before the world was even awake.  It would’ve been fun to watch/document even if is wasn’t in a homemade bakery in the middle of the Atacama, but reminding myself where I was heightened it all.  Arthur took me on his runs delivering his bread to the top hotels around, which he does personally, included the hotel rated the #1 in all of Chile.  In the still predawn hours, he told me his story as we bounced through the streets of San Pedro.

Arthur is from Burgundy and learned his craft on a semi-military base in Antarctica.  So I suppose he knows his shit about baking it harsh environments.  He came to SPdA on a vacation three years ago, and one night he baked a loaf of bread in his hostel.  His hostel-mates raved, and the next day he made 2.  Day after that 8.  Two years later he owns La Franchuteria, he built himself on the site of that hostel, and is making a name for himself.  In the last minute-ness of my decision to to this mini-doc, I hope I have everything I need, and can’t wait to cut together his story.

Bottom line, book a flight to Chile just for Arthur’s bread.

(I’ll cut the documentary and post it soon!)

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best bread ever

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stop at this sign for the best bread ever

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bread used at sandwich art restaurant

***

After what was already a super long ass day, I wrapped my little production and met Julie, Mark and Katie for lunch before we all were to part ways tonight.  We ended up on the plaza with a pitcher of beer in the pleasant desert sun.  The vibe was european somehow.  Por fin it was the end of this short but memorable group.  Julie and I walked Mark and Katie to the bus station.  After hugs, well wishes, and the like; it was down to two.  My bus was four hours later so Julie and I passed the time over another pitcher and a pizza at Blanco shooting the shit as ever.

I was sad to leave, I have to say.  Julie was kind enough to walk me back to the bus station (our third or fourth trip in 36 hours), and one more goodbye hug to put me here on this over night bus to Arica, Chile.  I’m on the home stretch now.  When I get to Arica around dawn (assuming the road is open, this is the epicenter area for those earthquakes a month ago), I’ll hopefully negotiate a ride across the border back to Peru and then on to Tacna.  My goal is to then go straight to Arequipa from Tacna.  All in all about 16 hours of bus.  I’m short on time at this point, with my flight looming.  In theory totally possible, but in the back of my mind it sounds too easy to be true.

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