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San Pedro de Atacama Tourism

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SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile- I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama on September 10th. A very touristy place which I came away with mixed feelings about. On one hand it was an incredibly beautiful place, on the other hand the influx from outsiders has severely altered and/ or interrupted the local people’s way of life.

Llamas near San Pedro de Atacama

Seriously, almost every shop in the town proper is for “adventure this” or “expedition that,” is a trekking gear rental agency or a gentrifying restaurant or bar made for foreign tourists. I feel like an intruder, though, oddly, I am the sort of person who is invited to come here: to come here and spend money. Tourism. It cannot be argued that many of the local people have benefited from this invasion, as my newfound American companion, Brady, pointed out.

[adsense]I met two other travelers in the bus station in Calama. They were both from Seattle and they invited me to share a room with them in San Pedro, as we were both headed that way. I accepted their offer. They were quite cool guys, even though they studied business in college. They were 23 years old, I am 21. We went out to the bars and talked. I admire people unopposed to deep conversation — what better occupation is there than to sit around a table, drink beers, talk and debate into the night?

At least San Pedro de Atacama proved good for this.

Brady and Eric quickly booked trips to the salt flats in Bolivia. They invited me to join them, but I declined. I suppose I felt that the $35, two day trip was out of my budget, though I knew deep down that the cost of this tour was only slightly over my daily expenditure anyway. My real reason was perhaps a knavish sort of anxiety that comes from an unbalanced ration between social and alone time. I had been alone throughout these travels through the south of South America, only meeting up with other people in short stints. In point, my bosom companion over these months had been myself, and I was beginning to miss him.

Map of San Pedro de Atacama

I bid farewell to Brady and Eric, for now they snow board and backpack, but I am sure they will find many nice suits and mahogany desks in their future. For me, I carry on traveling. Alone.

I check out of the hotel room that I had kept with the Americans and set out to sleep in the bush. Literally. I had previously scoped out a good sleeping place down a dried up river bed and into a little meadow at the base of a hillock. There is a shrine here, an archaeology site around the bend. I spread out my sleeping bag over some dried up shrubs — maybe they were crops? — and laid down to sleep. At least, in the driest desert on earth, I did not need to worry too much about it raining. I slept under an open sky, pondering little but heavens.

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Editor’s note, March 2011 – It has been nine years since I visited San Pedro de Atacama and wrote the above words. With hindsight and 11 years of travel behind me I now analyze my position and have found that I very much missed the plot here. First of all, I failed to understand that tourism IS the people of San Pedro’s way of life; secondly, my romantic notions of a time before money and commerce are moot: people always sold what sells, now is no different than any other time. San Pedro is an oasis in the middle of the driest desert on the planet, visitors have always come here, for a long time the people have directed their industry towards providing these visitors with what they wanted: today it is tours to the salt flats, yesterday it may have been booze and whores.

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Filed under: Chile, Deserts, South America, Tourism

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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