Another early start saw me on the 7:00am Pullman bus service from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama, across the border in Chile. I hadn't originally planned to visit San Pedro. Truth be known, I had never even heard of the place. However, after speaking to various travellers in the weeks I have been away I decided that San Pedro was the best option for me to visit the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) in Bolivia. That was, I got to see this amazing landscape, but ended up back in San Pedro rather than Uyuni. And now, after visiting Uyuni, boy did I make the right decision.
The journey from Salta was 11 hours, which was surprisingly painless. It was the 2 hour wait at the border in Chile that did me in. A long day sat on the bus and literally 10 minutes walk from the central plaza in San Pedro we had to wait to clear the customs formalities. Hot, dusty and painfully slow. This would test the patience of a saint, something I have never claimed to be.
Finally I recovered my bag and walked the short distance into town, looking for my hostel. As San Pedro is small, and only has a few main streets, this didn't prove to be too difficult. What concerned me more was that the warnings in the Lonely Planet about the ATMs in town being very unreliable proved to be true. I had a grand total of $4000 (approx £5) Chilean pesos leftover from my earlier visit to Chile. This clearly wasn't going to get me very far. And to make matters even worse, after visiting all 4 ATMs in the town, I still had no money. Apparently they were all empty until the morning. Whoever maintains those ATM networks needs to find alternative employment.
So there I was, tired, grumpy AND skint. Maybe a lie down was what I needed. That's when I saw the vertiginous 3 level bunk beds! My god! There were 2 bunks left in the dorm. The one at the very top and the one in the middle. I was asked which one I wanted. Really? You need to ask? I flopped on the middle bunk feeling very sorry for myself and wondered whose idea was this trip. Oh yeah, that would have been mine. Maybe a shower would help my mood. Well, I better make it quick. San Pedro is one of the driest deserts in the world and the showers in the hostel were only available through the day, and you had to adhere to the hand written sign on the shower door, "3 minute showers only!". Later that night, I took my $4000 pesos and had coffee with cherry pie for dinner. And I can't tell you how happy it made me. After such a long, tiring, trying day, a little thing as a piece of pie but a big smile on my face.
The next day, after a very good sleep, everything in the world was good again. I was told at the bank that there would be money after 12pm, and there was. I think the security guard was a little concerned by my little jig of delight as my pesos came out of the machine. I could eat. And more importantly, I could pay for my Salt Flats tour, the reason I came to San Pedro in the first place. Trip secured, and money in my pocket, I went to explore San Pedro.
My guidebook, albeit a year old, states that the population of San Pedro (altitude 2440m) is 3200. From what I have seen today, most of those appear to be tourists. There were more tour and travel agencies than I have seen in a very long time all vying for the tourist peso. The biggest draw seemed to be the Salt Flats but there were also sandboarding, trips to the Valley of the Moon and very early geyser visits. If all this tires you out there are numerous eating and drinking places in town, ranging from little take away joints, to plush restaurants and everything in between.
For me? I was going back for some more of that cherry pie and fabulous coffee.