For the majority of the people living in Latin America, San Pedro de Atacama doesn’t exist at all, not even on a map. Located in the north of Chile, it is a tourist attraction only for the Europeans that come to this place all throughout the year. They come by plane from Santiago to Calama, often going without sleep in their haste to catch a bus to the oasis located 100 kilometers from this northern city.
Why do they visit this particular place? First and foremost because it is the driest place in the planet: you feel this reality when you touch with your skin, nose, eyes, and lips. Here thirst is something you really experience.
The beauty of the desert is overwhelming as it touches the deepest part of the soul and you cannot believe it. El Tatio geysers, the Valley of the Moon in the Salt Mountains, the Valley of the Dinosaurs, the large salt mines of Atacama, the Licancabur Volcano, and the sky filled with stars, planets, satellites, and sometimes a UFO—each is an attraction unto itself. It is only in the last 10 years that people have begun to hear of the place, whether through photographs or from tales told by fellow adventurers. Before that San Pedro de Atacama was isolated from the world, where only its old inhabitants the Atacameños lived. Over the course of 3,000 years, these people were able to develop a culture suited to this unique habitat.
The Belgian priest Gustavo Le Paige once lived in the desert for 25 years and kept his evangelical duties separate from his hobby of excavating and collecting mummies and utensils. With all of this, he founded an archaeological museum that today is named after him. The museum brought knowledge of this land to fellow Europeans.
To be happy in this land today you have to be an archaeologist, which is what I am. Many places here are still intact where I can trace history back thousands of years. Deep in the soil exist signs of the first nomadic hunters, and of the first groups of roundhouses made of clay or stone, or clusters of salt if they lived by the edge of the lake. There are also traces of the first civilization that came from Bolivia, the center of which was Tiawanaku. Then came the Inca Empire, with its Gods represented in the beautiful volcanoes that crown the Andes. There, at 6000 meters, they built platforms and offered young girls to the gods.
San Pedro de Atacama is a place filled with history and eternal loneliness. A place where you can cut the thread that connects us with the rest of the world, and where the Pachamama covers us with its mantle of silence and harmony with the universe. It is a small place on the planet that nowadays brings curious people and languages that intermix in the warmth of its restaurants and its little streets that were built of adobe by the first Spaniards that came to America.
Translated by Diego Baraona.