Tuesday, October 13, 2009
(old) Beam us outta here Scotty.
Tonight we were off on the night bus to San Pedro de Atacama so it was time to put our affairs in order. Not because we feared for our life or anything so melodramatic but because San Pedro was a small town on the border with Bolivia and where we hoped to join a Salt Flat Tour back into Bolivia. That meant we might not have internet for quite a few days. The hotel here in Iquique supposedly had wifi but I had been unable to connect to it and their desktop in the lobby was so slow that after 20 minutes it had yet to load up the home page. I hoped that this was just the hotel connection and not a sign that the internet had taken the holiday off as well. Ivan and Catalina had told us that where they were staying was full of posh restaurants and hotels and we set off in that direction beach combing for a coffee shop with wifi.
We packed up all our gear and checked out of our room leaving all our bags except for my pack and computer in their storage room. Then it was time to walk down the beach towards posh Cavancha. Today the waves were huge and the water was full of surfers taking advantage of the swells. But they weren’t the only ones. The beach was absolutely heaving despite it being what we considered a bit too chilly to be sunbathing. The surf competition was still going on and with the big waves the experienced surfers were battling it out so we pulled up a rock to watch the action. Beside me Adrian continued to chant one, two, three, chum pretending to jump up on his invisible surfboard in some sort of imaginary competition with the pros. I didn’t ask him if he was winning but did tell him it was time to go when the backpack and computer got too heavy.
At the far end of Cavancha was a totally different world from downtown Iquique. Here it was nothing but those shiny condos and five-star hotels and restaurants that were way beyond our price range – or at least that’s what the linen table cloths and wine glasses said to us. But most of them looked closed anyway. There was no sign of a coffee shop with or without wifi. We considered heading downtown where we had seen a place with wifi but doubted that it would open today. So we kept walking all the way to Playa Brava. All though it was a wide beach it was empty because the waves here were deadly. Not even the surfers were brave enough for Brava. There wasn’t much in this area and we were starving and headed back to Cavancha to try and catch a bus into town. However, on our way back through the condos and hi-rises we took a different turn and discovered a bunch of restaurants that were open. One even advertised it had wifi so although it looked quite pricey we decided to give it a go. The prices were steep but we decided to just enjoy the ambience and the wifi and order anyway. I had my first Peruvian ceviche (albeit in Chile) and a salad while landlubber Adrian stuck with steak and potatoes. While we ate I used the wifi to upload some photos. It was a shot upload session since there was no plug and my weak battery quickly drained. There was more bad news when I used the little power I had left to look up some info on San Pedro. The hostel prices were ridiculous - $40 for a room with shared bath!?! I just hoped that we’d be able to find a tour out of town as soon as possible. We sipped our drinks as slowly as possible and just before dark we headed back to the hotel to get our bags and head to the bus station a few hours later.
When we bought our tickets the helpful clerk had spoken slowly and repeated everything so I could understood but I was still not 100% sure if I had understood it all. I was still puzzled by the fact that she had said the bus would stop in the middle of the night so we could get some sleep. That seemed weird and when we got on the bus I had trouble drifting off wondering if we were going to be woken up and forced off the bus to wait for a connection to San Pedro. When I finally decided just to sleep and figure it out when we got there, sleep was made difficult by the bus temperature. There were no blankets on board so Adrian and I alternated between sweating and freezing as the driver clumsily adjusted the heat throughout the trip. But we must have fallen asleep and indeed sometime in the middle of the night the bus did stop because when the sun came up, I woke up to discover that we were parked in the Calama bus company office with just Adrian, myself and a couple of other passengers left on the bus. The bus was locked up tight and so was the onboard bathroom. That was the most distressing since I now had to piss like a racehorse. It was also freezing now which did nothing to help my bladder issues. I thought I was saved when the driver opened the door and came onboard. I asked him to unlock the bathroom but he said no and directed me to the bus company office. I quickly ran off the bus only to discover the office just opening up and told by a clerk that the bathroom was across the street in the shipping office. It of course was closed for another hour. I set the world record in pee-pee dancing on the street waiting and hoping that some keen worker would turn up early for work. He didn’t but my bladder held until he showed up. Feeling 10000 times better I boarded the bus as the rest of the passengers filed on for the trip to San Pedro.
It was a 4-hour drive through the desert to the small dusty town of San Pedro. When the bus stopped and as we got off it felt like we’d traveled back to Bolivia already. We grabbed our bags and headed into town to search for a place to stay. The first place had a room for $60. And the next had a dorm that was going to cost us $20 each. Both were more than we wanted to be paying so we continued on to the HI where they at least had a room with shared bath for $40. The price wasn’t great and neither were the facilities but we were sick of walking and after a night on the bus just wanted to shower. However we were told we had to pay upfront and we didn’t have enough cash on us. So we set out once again through the small town in search of an ATM. The first machine we found only took Mastercards and our bank cards are Visa. We were directed to another machine on the other side of the thankfully small town but it was out of service. Now we had to find an internet café so that I could go online to look up our Mastercard PINs that I had stored in my email. But first we decided to stop for breakfast using the bit of cash we had. Breakfast was more expensive than we’ve paid so far and was mediocre like the rest of the town so far. But just next door was an internet café so I was able to grab our PINs while we waited for the food. Then it was back to the ATM which was now only giving out $100 at a time. I took this as a sign that our time in San Pedro should be as short as possible and after paying our hostel bill and showering in the lukewarm dribble they called a tap, Adrian and I went out to search for a tour that was leaving tomorrow.
San Pedro appeared to be a town that existed only for the tourist. The streets were pretty in that generic cookie-cutter sort of way and they were filled by alternating tour companies, cafes, and gift shops. It was like a Disney version of Spanish Colonial South America but at least it made it easy to do some comparison tour shopping. The guidebooks and fellow travelers warn that the tour companies in San Pedro were hit or miss and all somewhat mediocre. We tried one recommend by the Aussies we’d met back in Costa Rica. The rep there told us that the accommodations were basic; they only had dorms and there was no hot water (way to sell) and they cost more than we’d hoped to pay. So we walked down the street to another place that I’d seen reco’ed elsewhere. Their price was 10% less and they showed us pictures of their private rooms and promised hot water. But more importantly they took credit cards without adding a service charge. It was kind of a no-brainer and we booked with them to leave tomorrow. With our escape plotted we walked around the town but just saw more of the picture perfect white washed adobe buildings, souvenir markets, generic backpacker cafes and more pricey package tour restaurants. One of these had wifi so we decided to abuse their facilities. We ordered copious cups of coffee while I finished uploading the photos from the past week. The connection was rather slow and when the restaurant closed between lunch and dinner I thought they would kick us out. But they didn’t and four hours, and $20 worth of coffee later I got all the photos up.
We stopped to pick up snacks and water for the three day tour and then went to find a place where the locals ate for a cheap meal. Our search led us out of town to a not so pretty suburb. The homes were still adobe but were no longer painted and there were no more leafy trees lining the streets. It was amazing that this totally different village lay right next door to a tourist mecca. I thought for sure we’d find a place to eat but the streets were deserted and we saw nothing that looked open. You know in those Western movies when the stranger walks into town and all the locals close up pretending to have moved away hoping to avoid him? Well, that’s it what it felt like as we walked through this side of town. We were the outsiders looking for a meal (not a shoot out) and the locals were all locked up tight inside hoping we’d just go away. It was eerie and unnerving. I know the locals ate somewhere but we couldn’t find it. Instead we ate at the first place we came to back in San Pedro. But being on the edge of town, food was cheaper than what we’d seen elsewhere. It wasn’t the best but at least it cost less than our coffee. The best part came when we left the café. The sun was setting and thanks to some low-lying clouds it was the most unbelievable sunset ever. It was apocalyptic and I expected a space ship to appear out of the clouds (photo above) at any moment and blow up the church in the plaza. And when I looked down the street I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. Every other gringo stood motionless looking up at the sky. Before all of us zombies were beamed up, the sun dipped below the horizon breaking the spell. But I took it as a good sign that we were leaving tomorrow to be beamed up into the other world of the salt flats.