Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Boom and Consequences: Happenings in San Pedro de Atacama

Thirty-some years ago, when I first visited San Pedro de Atacama (pictured above), it was a sleepy Atacameño village where the Belgian Jesuit priest Gustavo Le Paige worked quietly on archaeological artifacts from the surrounding countryside, in the museum that bears his name today. Most of the buildings were, and still are, low slung adobes whose few windows offer little insight into what goes on behind them – with the major exception of those that now host a critical mass of accommodations, restaurants and travel agencies that have made it the highest-profile destination between Santiago and the Peruvian border.
At that time, San Pedro had only two accommodations options, though it now has nearly a hundred. One was the basic Residencial Florida, where I stayed and ate – there were no proper restaurants except at the still-existent Hostería San Pedro (pictured above), a full-fledged hotel that was well beyond my then backpacker budget. The only other guest at the Florida, which also survives as Hostal Florida, was a Japanese backpacker with whom I could barely converse in my then halting Spanish. I visited the museum, where Father Le Paige shuffled through the aisles and the desiccated mummy popularly known as “Miss Chile” inhabited a glass display case.
The San Pedro of 1979 had no traffic lights and little traffic of any kind – the local population could herd their sheep through the streets and into corrals behind the walls that extended from their houses. It still has no traffic lights but, in a development that some find annoying, it has increasingly strict parking laws and the Carabineros police are writing record numbers of tickets to locals and tourists alike. If you rent a car in the city of Calama, which has the nearest airport, watch for the no-parking signs here or you may find surprise charge on your credit card after you return home.
According to the last census, in 2002, San Pedro’s population was only 1,938. A new census is due to take place shortly, and most educated guesses are that the new figure will exceed 5,000. Growth has taken place not in the colonial core, but rather on the outskirts, where the new construction consists mostly of simple prefab mediaguas (one of which appears below). This is less than picturesque, but eminently practical for a growing population. The village sports a new soccer field, with artificial turf, and even an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Meanwhile, in a country where spray-paint taggers leave their mark almost everywhere, historic San Pedro remains virtually graffiti-free. At the same time, even as a relatively tasteful commercialism prevails (as suggested below, graffiti is becoming more visible beyond the roughly 12 square blocks where many of the countless tourists sleep, eat and organize their excursions into the nearby high country.
Speaking of excursions, there’s a new twist for those who take tours or head off on their own into the high country near the Bolivian border. Yesterday, when I went on a full-day trip to the famous geysers at El Tatio (pictured below), the Carabineros informed our driver and guide that from now on, all tour operators will be required to provide passport and ID numbers for all their clients, and that those clients will also have to carry identification. A clear photocopy of the passport will be sufficient.

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