San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Chile was my favorite country that I visited on my backpacking trip at the close of 2015. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, the cities are lively, and the wine is cheaper than water. I arrived after spending three days in the Bolivian desert by van with eight other travelers crammed in together. Our 70 liter backpacks were rumbling on the roof of the car as we sped through the vast desert of Bolivia into Chile. I’m not sure why, but I expected there to be some kind of marker to distinguish between the two countries, maybe like a literal border line drawn into the sand or a change in scenery. Nope. The desert along the horizon was just more desert, flat, desolate, and surreal like a Dali painting. We were on our way to San Pedro de Atacama, a famous little town in Chile known for its hippy culture and beautiful deserts. While driving in the mini van, I spoke with a couple from England that had been traveling on the same route as me, exchanging experiences and laughing. Suddenly we stopped and parked in front of a small building, where we all waited in silence for further instructions. Then, we were asked to leave our stuff and come in with passports while dogs sniffed out our luggage for cocaine and coca leaves. They knew that we were coming from Bolivia and apparently Chileans doubt the Bolivian’s ability to enforce illegal drug possession. During my experience, I got many hints that the Bolivians and Chileans don’t get along very well. Later, I learned of the Chilean’s victory in the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia in 1879. The war granted Chile it’s northern coastal territory, leaving the Peruvians and Bolivians bitter ever since. I can understand why.

After we got the okay, we ran our luggage through a security check like the ones at the airport and we were asked if we had any vegetables or drugs. Nope and Nope. This process took longer than I would have liked. Not to mention that during the whole encounter I desperately needed to pee and it probably made me seem antsy and more suspicious. Border Patrol did not have a bathroom for us and did not tell us where to go next. It was an unorganized endeavor, for sure, and I was confused but also very happy that I wasn’t fined for my peanut butter possession.

Photos of the desert between Bolivia and Chile

I walked for a few miles with all of my stuff on me, backpacking bag on my back and smaller day pack on my chest, along with my sweet black alpaca hat that I bought in Peru. Nope, scratch that. I left that hat in the car I took to the Border Patrol in Bolivia. Carlos, our guide for the three days in the Bolivian desert, was probably really stoked to inherit that hat. I pouted about it for a minute, but then forgot about it after the next, because I found ICE CREAM. With my delicious pistachio ice cream, I pressed on in the heat of the day, popping in and out of hostels trying to find an open bed. I finally found one at a quaint hostel called “Hostal Matty”. I dumped my things on the bed dripping in sweat from the heat and immediately took a shower. I hadn’t had one in days. When I got back to my room I met Caroline Leya, a beautiful blonde fair skinned babe from Chicago, who was talking in Spanish fluently to her Peruvian boyfriend in the bunk below her. We got to chatting like you usually do with traveling strangers and I told her that I was interested in riding horses through the desert the next day. Her eyes got wide in excitement and she said “Oh! I want to go with you! I love horses!” Then she told her boyfriend in Spanish that he would be hiking alone cause she was going to join me.

After more chatting with Caroline and her boyfriend (Whose name escapes me), we all went to lunch at the Cafe Esquina where we spoke in some Spanish and some English while eating our first Chilean meal. We were also able to book our horse back riding adventure for the next day in the same building! The travel agent was very friendly and recommended us to do the star gazing class that same night as well. This was absolutely amazing. Around 11:00pm the three of us took a shuttle to a cabin further out from the small town of San Pedro where we looked through telescopes to see the stars of Orions Belt. The Spanish Astrologists that lived there, explained the kinds of stars there are and the science behind their constellations. I had a space blanket wrapped around me, a glass of wine, and my curious eyes staring into the cold night sky. It was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen.

Photo from Google of Orion’s belt because my phone couldn’t take a good picture.

The next morning, Caroline and I woke up early to meet with our horse back riding guide and his loyal dog, Victoria, that would take us through the trails of the Valle de la Luna. His name is Robinson Eduardo Barraza Barraza and he was featured in a National Geographic photo showing the walls of sandstone in the Valle de la Luna. He has six horses, one including a calf named “Amanecer” which means “Sunrise” in English. He only speaks Spanish as fast he possibly can, has long curly hair, an “adult” sense of humor, and an appetite for beer like no other after riding in the desert for hours.

Photo of Robin with his horses featured in National Geographic

Caroline and I spent five hours in the Valle with Robin, laughing, galloping, and shooting pictures. The desert was just as beautiful as the stars I saw the night before, gorgeous.

It even looked as  if the stars were in the sand, twinkling in the sunlight. I must admit though, I was nervous to ride horses, as I’ve never connected with a horse like I have with other animals. Horses are mysterious, tall, strong, and passive aggressive. Robin connected with his horses like I had never seen before. When he galloped the others galloped after him, when he wanted to communicate a command he was firm on the reigns, and when he showed affection the horses batted their adoring eye lashes in trust. Robin is a true animal lover and a “hombre del campo”, meaning “man from the country” as he would refer to himself to me. He grew up in Santiago, Chile, decided he didn’t like the city life and has been living in San Pedro de Atacama for 10 years. After the three of us rode horses for hours and hours, we stopped at a local restaurant that Robin recommended. When I stepped off my horse, my legs were jello, I could barely stand, and I was STARVING. We stuffed our selves up like it was our last meal and washed it down with cold Chilean beers. We had a blast. It was like Caroline and I had known each other for years, we were already talking about traveling together in the years to come. Robin was still filled with energy to hang out. However, Caroline and I were ready to rest for the remainder of the day. So we did, because after all, we were on vacation. I did go to a local bar that night though, Barros,  with yet another English guy that was traveling on the same route with me. We had wine (duh) and listened to live music until the wine had made us drowsy enough for sleep. Robin was there also, smiling his big smile, talking about horses, and drinking many Mojitos.

Photos from Valle de la Luna horse ride

Caroline and her boyfriend left the next day. I was still exhausted but I wanted to go ride horses again. I went over to Robin’s house and we rode his horses over to the community pool across another stretch of desert. We galloped hard, the horses hooves beating the hard rock and sand under us. The sun was bright and I felt its heat on my skin that had been tanned from the previous day. I was also sore, but I didn’t give a fuck. I felt a love of horse back riding like no other in the days I spent in San Pedro de Atacama. That day though, before dark, I bought my overnight ticket to Iquique, Chile from the local bus station. After about three days I was ready to hit the beach.

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Shitty bus pic taken while looking out the window.

 

I hugged Robin goodbye and walked onto the bus with all of my things. As the bus drove, I watched the sun set through the windows over the beautiful desert, taking back the twinkles in the sand and freeing them into the darkening sky where the stars were beginning to shine. As I dozed off into sleep I thought of Robin’s horse Amanecer galloping after me through the desert sunset as I rode on the back of his mother.