San Pedro de Atacama
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San Pedro de Atacama is a town in Northern Chile. It's a very popular destination among Chilean tourists and international visitors alike. Visitors come in large numbers, to use the town as a stepping stone to the amazing landscapes around it. Most attractions are part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, perhaps Chile's most varied and amazing national park. Prices in any of the laid back bars and restaurants fare well against Santiago's (Chile's Capital). Still, it's a fairly expensive location, as it's one of Chile's three most popular destinations, along Torres del Paine and Easter Island. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in San Pedro de Atacama
There are three essential places to visit, plus a host of other very interesting spots. In order of popularity, these are:
Geysers del Tatio
Located at 4,200m above sea level, and a 100km away from town, these are some of the highest geysers in the world. It's also the third-largest geyser site on Earth, with over 80 active ones. Most agencies travel there at 4 AM. The spectacle is hard to forget-even if the geysers themselves are smallish, the backdrop, lighting, and sheer variety are astounding. Usually, you get to see them from the first stages of dawn, an hour before the sun rises, until sunlight bathes them completely. The best time to take pictures is at exact sunrise, but other lightings can also create wonderful pictures. All respectable tour agencies include breakfast for their guests. If you book one that doesn't, then you've been scammed. On the way back, it's typical to find wild vicuñas, an endangered andean camelid that's highly protected in Chile. They were rescued from the verge of extinction thirty years ago. Vicuñas in the area are accustomed to human presence, and will tolerate tourists coming to some twenty meters away-any more, and they're likely to flee. Be extremely respectful of the regulations, for many guides and drivers might even react in an aggressive manner if you bother the animals in any way. A common stop is the fording of the Putana river, a spectacle that for some even surpasses the geysers themselves. Many different bird species inhabit it, and it's perfectly possible to get very close to them-giant coots (fulica gigantea) are especially indolent. Winter has the most birds, with over ten different species cohabiting the place at peak migration, but temperatures are harsh. There's also the possibility of seeing a vizcacha or two (lagidium viscacia), a funny mix between a bunny, a squirrel, and a kangaroo. They're very shy, though, and if you don't get there among the first visitors, they'll have usually disappeared. In the background, to the east, lies the Putana volcano-an active mountain that boasts seven small fumes. Lastly, there's usually the choice of visiting one of two locations. The first one is Machuca, an abandoned altiplanic village that lived from the mining of sulpher. Most regular tours stop here. Nowadays, you'll find a few locals there, roasting anticuchos made of llama meat. Teas, soft drinks and empanadas are also available. The meat is of questionable origins, with some wild theories as to its origin floating around. Ask your guide for a laugh. It's fairly safe to consume, though, as sanitation's decent. Just after exiting Machuca, it's common to see llamas grazing on a beautiful pasture. After that pasture lies a micro-sized salt pan, where vicuñas and James' flamingos can be seen (the latter only in summer, though). The other location is Puritama. If you plan on going, please consider the following things:
- Temperatures can be terribly cold: -15ºC is common through June to August, while in summer it rarely dips below -5ºC. It's paramount to wear gloves, a cap, and preferably two layers of socks, along with a very warm jacket. After sunrise, the cold quickly subsides, and it gets bearable. Once you get to Machuca, the heat can be stifling. Prepare accordingly.
- The altitude, coupled to a steep and winding road, can easily cause height-sickness. Almost all agencies claim to carry an oxygen bottle on board; this is false. They do bring a can with air compressed to one atmosphere, but it does little other than acting as a placebo. See the section 'Cope' for advice on preventing and ameliorating the sickness.
- If you're going to rent a car, then, by all means, hire a tour to the geysers. The road's extremely difficult, confusing, poorly signaled, and you'll have virtually no communication with the world at all unless you carry a satellite phone, and even then the signal's sketchy. Every year there's a few lethal accidents on that road, plus a myriad of frustrating ones, always involving visitors in rented or owned vehicles. Do yourself a favor, and book an excursion.
Valle de la Luna
Entrance fee: $2000 Chilean Peso (the tours won't include it).
Commonly advertised as 'Moon Valley' in english, this part of the Salt Mountain Range offers stunning clinal and anticlinal formations in a perfectly barren landscape. Almost all tours include watching the sunset there-you shouldn't miss it. The large stone walls resemble those of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, sans river. There are also huge halite (rock salt) strata that produce a knacking sound all day long. This can be unsettling at first, but it's actually harmless. Among its prime attractions are the Grand Crater, the Salt Canyon, the Three Maries and salt mines, the Salt Caves, the Cari Viewpoint (also called 'Piedra del Coyote'), and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). All tours visit a number of these, but it's virtually impossible to know which beforehand. Summer tours tend to be longer, though, and therefore have a greater probability of including more destinations.
It's perfectly possible to ride a bike there, but you should take your time. Although only 8km away from San Pedro, the road's steep and sinuous. When biking, it's advised to travel early (think 7-8 AM) in the morning, for afternoon temperatures can be suffocating year-round. You miss the sunset, but also lessen the possibility of heatstroke and the sightseeings won't be filled with tourists. Also, it's easier to find someone to rescue you if you get in trouble. Most drivers and guides are willing to help stranded cyclists, especially if they're female, or if you travel with one. Just don't expect them to carry a retinue of ten or so tired bikers! You should get a flashlight especially if you want to watch sunset (the road can be dangerous when dark) but also because there's a cave you can visit and it's pitch black in there. Most bike rentals will lend you a headlight if you ask, but make sure the bike also has a tail reflector, and wear a helmet. Ask also an emergency kit for the bikes and a map of the valley. Kilometro 0 has good bikes (Caracoles street). Prices: $3500 for 6 hours, $6000 for the whole day.
If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- It can get cold immediately after sunset, especially in winter. Bring something warm to wear to enjoy the show to its fullest.
- Carry water! This is vital. You probably won't notice you're sweating; moisture evaporates at an alarming rate in the Atacama desert. This means you actually sweat more. Most agencies do not include water in the price.
- This tour usually includes long treks-wear appropriate shoes. There'll be lots of sand, too, which can be excruciatingly hot, and many sharp rocks, so flip-flops are a no-no.
Feel like visiting the Atacama salt pan, a picturesque village, and some Alp-lookalikes in a single day? Plus eating some local food? Then this is your thing. Usually advertised as 'Altiplanic Lagoons', the tour varies very little, if at all, between agencies. You'll be visiting the village of Toconao, renowned for its church and bell-tower; Laguna Chaxa, a national reservation which three species of flamingos inhabit year-round, located at the heart of the Atacama salt pan; Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons, located above 4,000m, and home to a variety of local fauna; and Socaire, a tiny hamlet that lives from selling lunch to tourists-it usually includes home-grown potatoes, big beans, carrots, and quinoa, plus a few other things. The tour usually leaves town at 8 AM, and returns at 4 PM. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Be wary of the salt pan, as it reflects sunlight in the way that snow does. Wear pants and long sleeves, carry a hat, and wear sunglasses, unless you enjoy the prospect of developing blindness and skin cancer.
- Miscanti and Miñiques are usually windy... very much so, to be honest. The wind can easily bring perceived temperature down to 0ºC; bring a good jacket at the very least. Also, follow the guidelines closely, for both park personnel and agency employees are strict about them.
- Again, carry lots of water.
- The meals in Socaire are deceiving, in that they'll usually leave you feeling quite full. The quality's good; most visitors find them remarkable. Don't forget to try the home-baked bread with pebre, a typical chilean sauce made with tomatoes, onions, coriander, and a bit of chili (ají). It comes included in the meal. It's spicy, but nothing unmanageable.
- Look for the Tropic of Capricorn marker. There's one on both of the roads usually taken by tours. On the main road lies a strange white cross that indicates not only the Tropic, but also the Inca road that used to traverse the area. Most guides ignore this fact (intentionally or not), so you'll have to keep your eyes open.
This is one amazing location... in summer! Set in the northern tip of the Atacama salt pan, this location offers a splendid panorama of the Andes, and the possibility to bathe in waters as salty as those of the Dead Sea. The landscape's also remarkable. It usually ends with sunset, along a simple cocktail with pisco sour. The tour sets off at variable times (since Chile follows DST), but always in the afternoon, around 3-4 PM. Besides the Cejar and Piedra lagoons, excursions usually stop by the 'Ojos del Salar' (Eyes of the Salt Pan), two freshwater eyes very close together, and lake Tebenquinche, a water mirror that offers the absolute best sunsets in the whole area-imagine the mountains slowly changing colors, from yellow to pink, and that same image reflected on the lake's perfect surface! You can get there by bike, but bear in mind that it's a long ride: 50km for the round-trip, with the sun burning your scalp without any mercy. There are shorter paths, but the safest is the main road; to get there, just ask where the customs ('aduana') are, and then travel south until you see a sign that reads 'Laguna Cejar'. The road's paved, and drivers are accustomed to see bikers on it. Wear bright clothing (red, blue and yellow work best), just in case. You shouldn't have any trouble locating it, for there are other signs along the way. If you'd like to visit the other lagoons, besides Piedra and Cejar, you can try asking the employee at Cejar's entry. Spanish is required, though. Unfortunately, no maps show the paths between Cejar and the others, but a simple compass can get you there-ride south, following the tracks of the agencies' vehicles. Again, bring a flashlight. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Sun protection is a must. Cejar's environs are of a pure, perfect white, which tends to obscenely reflect light.
- The water is cold. From October to March, this will be quite welcome, but not so much in winter. There is an upside to traveling in the latter season-some birds, like flamingos, migrate there (June-August).
- Always ask whether freshwater's included in the fee. Virtually all agencies carry some, but ask the guide and driver again, just in case. It's necessary to remove the coating of salt that will cover your body after taking a plunge. If not removed, it can cause an unpleasant itch. When desperate, you can always try swimming in the Ojos del Salar.
- Even if you can't swim, the water of Piedra lagoon ensures you'll never drown. People float like feathers on it. It might be worth a try.
- Be careful with the pisco sour! Normally, agencies send just enough for two glasses per visitor, but sometimes it can be more. As it's sweet and sour, it can be very misleading-the usual liquor used for this has between 35 and 40 proof alcohol. Unsurprisingly, tourists are quite chatty on the way back to San Pedro.
There are two ways to get here: either by booking a specialty tour, or by taking a different El Tatio Geysers route. They're commonly called 'Hot Springs', but that name couldn't be more of a misnomer. The Puritama (means 'hot water' in Kunza) is actually a warm river, that breaks loose from the stone a few meters away from the actual place. Water temperature usually is around 33ºC. It is amazingly clear and pure, and hosts a budding population of rainbow trout (don't worry, they're tiny and harmless). The "hot springs" are property of Hotel Explora, a five-star brand located in all of Chile's hot spots. The facilities are basic, yet elegant and extremely functional. The entry fee's something to watch out for: 10,000 pesos (20 USD). If you can spare the money, you won't regret it; the landscape's stunning, and the water perfect. Ancient agricultural terraces line the canyon-sides, along with massive stone walls, and even some cacti. The layout of the place is as follows: there are eight artificial pools, cleverly made with volcanic rocks, so that they mesh perfectly with the scenery. Guides and drivers typically recommend the fourth and fifth ones; unless you're there early, forget about them. Go for the seventh. The water's just a little bit colder, but the pool's very large, and has sizable waterfall that doubles as a hydro-massage. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- If you're traveling there from El Tatio, you'll be arriving later than the dedicated tours, meaning the place's going to be crowded. In summer, it's not uncommon for the place to simply close down once there's too many people in. Therefore, be careful when visiting between December and February.
- Also, visitors who take the Geyser route will be forced to follow a stringent schedule; if you want to spend a few hours there, better look for an alternative.
- Guests at Hotel Explora don't need to pay to enter Puritama.
- Useful tip: Get there after 2 PM. They'll only charge half the entrance fee from that time onwards, and you still have three hours to soak in the crystal-clear water. No tours leave at that time, though, but a taxi can get you there, and even be less expensive that a typical excursion! Consider this alternative if you have time, and are traveling with at least another person. Consult with the hotel staff.
In spanish, it's called 'Tour Arqueologico'. It usually comprises three destinations: Pukara de Quitor, Aldea de Tulor, and the R.P. Gustavo Le Paige archaeological museum. Pukara de Quitor is an ancient fortress, most likely built in the tenth century. It's quite close to San Pedro-only 4km away. The view from the summit is breathtaking. Aldea de Tulor is the oldest village in the Atacama basin, approx. 3,000 years old, and kept in pristine condition. It's part of the Los Flamencos national reservation, and has small exhibits on archeology (worthless) and local flora and fauna (worth a visit). Last, but not least, is the museum. It holds a decent collection of original atacameño pieces, along with some acquired by the ancient inhabitants of San Pedro through trade-these are most exotic. The main exhibit is only in spanish, though, but you can hire a guided tour in spanish, english and french. The schedule for these is published in the museum itself-take a look around. Special, private tours are also available in italian, german, and portuguese; you must reserve these at least two days before. The guides are very capable. The museum also sports a small, but well-stocked souvenir store. They carry some of the finest hand-crafted pieces to be had in San Pedro, plus an interesting assortment of specialized books in spanish and english. You can visit these places by cycling, or even on foot. The museum's right by the Plaza de Armas, the main square. Most bike rentals will give you a map of the area; it should clearly point out where the Pukara is. Getting to Tulor, however, is a tad tricky. You must look for signs in the most unlikely places: wall graffiti, stuff hung from trees, and street names. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- The so-called 'mummies' were removed from the museum years ago, by request of the indigenous community. If you're obsessed with dessicated corpses (you sicko), there's a nice assortment of them in Salta, Argentina, and La Serena (500km north of Santiago). The La Serena museum of natural history even has a collection of 'cabezas de jibaro' on display, which are miniaturized cranial skins (they're reduced to the size of an orange-go figure!).
- The hike to the top of the Pukara de Quitor is strenuous, but well worth it.
- A taxi is a viable alternative to visit these attractions, especially if you're short on time.
Like most deserts, Atacama has its share of dunes and sand-banks. The most popular is located in Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). All sandboarding tours will take you there. The dune is almost 100m in height; still, the typical track is barely a fraction of that. Some of them offer also to watch sunset in the Moon Valley-but be aware that you won't visit any of its spots, except the Great Dune or the Cari Viewpoint. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Many bike rentals also rent sandboards. The way is very taxing, though, so keep that in mind. If the moon is full, or close to, and rising early, it might pay to ride there later-skipping the unforgiving sun can be of great advantage, especially during warmer months (from October through March).
- If you're cycling there with company, the traditional axiom is: One board per three people. Remember that there're no lifts in Valle de la Muerte, which means you've to climb the sands by foot. This will be tiring and frustrating! Three people can share one sandboard with ease; while one toils away, the other two can relax and rest. Of course, this assumes you've lots of time, which might not be the case.
- Many agencies will take you there on a van, and include a board per person in their fare. This leaves you more time and energy to sandboard, plus they'll usually include watching the sunset, and maybe even a photo album of the experience. Depending on your schedule and interests, this could be far better.
- Sandboarding is absolutely forbidden in Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)! Expect to be fined if you even try.
Salar de Tara
It's perhaps San Pedro's best-kept secret. Or not. It really depends on your interests. The road is long, but well-paved, until you reach the entrance to the most remote part of the Los Flamencos national reservation: Monjes de la Pacana (Pacana Monks). The place is well above 4,500m-consider it carefully, as it's not uncommon for people to get altitude-sickness. After that, it's a visit to some peculiar stone formations, obsidian quarries, more stone towers (called 'Catedrales'), and the huge Tara salt lake. Fauna is abundant, and particular to that environment. The landscape is stunning at all times-it's easy to catch glimpses of Bolivia here and there, as well. Traffic is light, as this destination's not really popular. If that matters to you, then taking this tour is the perfect way of saying 'I was off the beaten track of San Pedro de Atacama'. The schedule's a lot more flexible than in other tours, so harass the driver and guide as much as you like. There are a few optional treks along the way, but they're difficult to attempt. You'll be feeling shortness of breath almost at once. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Altitude! The highest point of the excursion is almost 4,900m above sea level.
- The same nasty winds of Miscanti can be present here, with a vengeance; take warm clothing along.
- It's not uncommon to get stuck in the sand, particularly when the driver's not really acquainted with the path. It can be fun to push the van out of the mire, though.
Valle del Arcoiris
Or Rainbow Valley. It features three different parts, all of them interesting. The "Hierbas Buenas" petroglyph site is the first, featuring over a thousand ancient stone carvings from the ancient "atacameño" people. They're from all time periods, from the first caravaners to the Incas. Most tours just visit sites 1 and 2, but that should be enough to afford a pretty nifty panorama of these ancient people's history. The other four sites are of difficult access. Then you've got the village of Matancilla, which is only habited according to season. If you go there in winter, be assured you'll find it deserted. The inhabitants grow a variety of crops, which are easily distinguished all through autumn. Dead wild donkeys are all too common, on the side of the road, while goats and llamas are harder to spot. Finally, you've got the namesake for the place: the ever-stunning Rainbow Valley, a series of hills that display countless colors, from white to black, from blue to red. Usually, all tours visit two of the four roads available, where the best views are to be had: The "cathedrals" and the great valley. Next to the former, to the left side, are some ever-mysterious buildings, made partially of serpentine, which gives them a light green color. They're well-camouflaged, so you'll have to climb to actually see them. On the way back from these "cathedrals", there's a beautiful hill that displays a wealth of colors; if the guide doesn't offer you to walk down the slope, ask for it! It's certainly worthwhile. You can watch a similar spectacle in Argentina, on the "Cerro de Siete Colores", but you'll miss the petroglyphs. It might be worth it to rather book a tour in San Pedro, especially since most tourists are completely oblivious of the Rainbow Valley's existence, so you'll most likely be alone when you visit. Most of the advice given for other excursions applies here.
The environs of San Pedro de Atacama sport a large variety of mountains to climb, catering to many levels of difficulty. There's a few specialized agencies that offer this kind of service; be sure that they provide all necessaries, not only asking the clerk, but also the driver and guide! An oxygen tank and climbing rods are the least you should expect. The easiest mountains to climb are Cerro Toco (5604m) and Volcán Lascar (5510m)-they're fairly popular, and take no longer than a day to complete. Higher in difficulty are Cerro Pili (6064m), and Sairecabur (5971m). The beautiful Licancabur Volcano, which towers over the town, is a real challenge; although only 5916m high, it takes at least three days to complete, not counting an exacting preparation period. Another choice is the Kimal mountain (4276m); even when its altitude is not that impressive, it's surrounded in myth and legend. According to local folklore, the "princess Kimal" is extremely jealous, and enjoys snatching adventurers away. There's even a supposed season for climbing her, when she's more pleasant; of course, no agency will tell ever you this beforehand. Take the chance at your own risk. Should you attempt any mountain climb, in any case, you ought to be well aware of the potential risks.
Popular events in San Pedro de Atacama in the near future
About San Pedro de Atacama
- Visiting any of the destinations above. There's enough material on the web nowadays to help you decide and discern.
- Cycling around San Pedro. Follow the guidelines above to get an idea of the places you can expect to reach. Other destinations, such as Piedra de la Coca, Catarpe, Garganta del Diablo, and Quebrada de Tambores can be accessed only on a bicycle or rented car, as they're not part of the regular tours. If you're planning to go there, then, by all means, purchase the only thorough map of the area, courtesy of the Technische Universität Dresden. It can be found at many souvenir shops and currency exchanges. Otherwise, bring a GPS, or hire a local guide who actually knows what he/she's talking about. Turismo Tekara (across from Toconao 500) rents good quality bikes for $4000 pesos for a half day. Pick it up the night before, leave early before it gets hot and return it in the afternoon. Bring lots of water. Biking on the dirt roads here is safe, cars drive slowly past you, and the scenery is stunning. Be prepared to bike hard and get out of the sun before late afternoon.
- Horseriding in the area. There's plenty of agencies that offer this service; La Herradura is one of the best. While riding on horseback is not the fastest way to travel, it can be one of the most fun. One you shouldn't miss is the Moon Valley-the horse track around it will take you to places unaccessible to other kinds of tourism, and has enough thrill to send you home satisfied! If you've done the usual circuit, and are ready for some more, then take it in the morning. Watching the sunrise between salt-ridges is a unique experience.
- Be sure to check out the book of complaints in the tourist office on the plaza before handing over cash to a travel agent. While not perfectly accurate, it is especially helpful to choose an agency to travel to Uyuni, Bolivia. As for the ones in San Pedro, standards can vary widely; the best agency of yesterday might be in tatters today, while the best one of tomorrow could give only mediocre service today. Maybe you think of doing some research of your own-if so, then completely disregard travel books, and ask at least five locals; unfortunately or not, most of them are completely biased. This applies to hotels as well. Be extremely wary of tourist guides giving advice, especially if you're female-they're much too well-known for trying to convince visitors to pick this-or-that agency, in the knowledge that they'll see the same visitors aboard the van the next day.
- For starters, a piece of good advice: most restaurants have a set meal, called Menú. This is, almost always, the cheapest and best alternative, wherever you go. Only lower-end locales do not carry this.
- There's a chain of restaurants which are by far the most popular. These are Café Adobe, Blanco, La Estaka, and La Casona. Each one specializes in a kind of food. While very good, they're not the best, and a bit pricey. Adobe caters especially to younger people; expect it to be chock-full at the evening, as its customers prepare to party later. Blanco is the extreme opposite: it has a relaxing, though cold, atmosphere. La Estaka is considered the place to eat; while the food's excellent, it sometimes doesn't live up to its reputation. If you have a large stomach, be prepared for a disappointment. Finally, La Casona carries typical chilean dishes-from Chile's center, that is. It's expensive, but will also give you some insight to the best chilean "parrilladas"-which is to say, the local grill. Expect cow's tongue, blood sausages, and more. All these are located on the main street, Caracoles.
- A real alternative for vegetarians is Todo Natural, also located on Caracoles. The food's excellent, as is the service. They can be a bit sluggish, though, and the whole restaurant's a non-smoking area.
- Farther away from the mayhem is Ckunna, a restaurant that can be completely hit-or-miss; it's either superlative or subpar, depending on the occasion. The atmosphere is superb, in any case, and is normally a lot less crowded than the others. It is located on Tocopilla street, two blocks away from Caracoles, and next to Vilacoyo hostel.
- For people with larger budgets, Paacha and Paacha-Konna are not to be missed. The latter is considered, by local gourmets, the best restaurant in all of San Pedro de Atacama; it routinely combines local produce with more exotic ingredients, to create superlative meals. It's set within Kimal Hotel, in a very homely and secluded atmosphere. The buildings, courtesy of one of Chile's most renowned architects, combined with the talented chefs, and outstanding service, make it the best among the best. Paacha-Konna is the lesser sibling of Paacha, but still one of the better places in San Pedro to eat. It's more affordable, and carries a variety of typical chilean dishes, but always attending to it's parent restaurant's standard of quality. Both are by the lower end (to the west) of Caracoles street.
- Catering to the lower end of the spectrum are countless restaurants. The most famous is Al Paso, a locale that's open 'till 2 AM (some say even later than that!). Al Paso's cheap and quick, and serves a variety of dishes at all times. It can be found at the eastern end of Caracoles. The cheapest, though, is to be had at the "carritos", which lie at the northernmost end of the handicraft's market (that is to say, away from the main square). These are decent, though a bit unsanitary. Another good choice is Solcor, located on Calama street, close to the main street. It's a bit overpriced, but offers a quiet and secluded atmosphere, along excellent food and competitive prices for beer. And then there's El Sol, located on Tocopilla street, which sports the best cazuela in all of San Pedro, along a variety of beers. Another budget option is Portal Andino Lodge, which serves $2000 peso lunch meals (Toconao 500).
- The absolute best choice, however, is Inti-Sol (or Sol-Inti). If you want proof of this, look at the clientèle: half of them will be locals, the other half being lucky tourists. This restaurant has the best salads and sandwiches in all of San Pedro. Their spaghetti with mushrooms is also remarkable. If they offer meat on the Menú, expect it to be top-notch. The prices are not the cheapest, but more than justified. The waiters are slow, though, so it may pay to press the cashier into sending someone your way, and paying to him/her directly.
- Due to local regulations, no business selling alcohol may open beyond 11:30 PM on weekdays and Sundays, and until 02:00 AM on Fridays and Saturdays. This applies to both restaurants and liquor shops. So, if you're planning to drink the night away, then be sure to stock up beforehand! There's a couple of illegal places to buy alcohol later at night, but the prices are outrageous.
- While no discos or actual pubs can be found in San Pedro, the closest to the latter are Café Adobe, Café Export, and 6º Grado. Sometimes, illegal parties (called "clandestinos" or "fiestas clandestinas") are thrown in the houses of locals, empty lots, and even Valle de la Muerte. To find out if and where the action will take place, your best bet is to hang out at any of the aforementioned places. Usually, even the waiters can tell you whatever clandestinos will be open that night. They usually start at the time the restaurants close. Drinks in them are expensive, though! And of course, you're barred from bringing your own booze, as the parties are thrown for profit. If you decide to go, be prepared for hordes of drunk locals, frosty outside air, and unreliable conditions-power almost always comes from a gas-run generator, and drinks are brought beforehand by the organizing people; both are susceptible to running out, which normally kills the party. Also, the cops might rear their ugly heads, which can bring the event to a premature end.
- There are also legal parties, thrown by the City Hall or other organizations, called informally "mambos". These are, however, mostly frequented by the indigenous people ("atacameños") and are to be avoided. The indigenous men are known for drinking in excess, and staging bar fights, which sometimes evolve into riots. Foreigners (and other chileans) are much disliked by the atacameños; it's not uncommon for them to be assaulted by gangs of drunken indians, and given a sound beating. Of course, not all of them are this way, and it's perfectly possible to visit such parties without harm. If you're absolutely convinced that you must attend a mambo, then the following advice will save you lots of trouble: Get there early, don't bother with the drunken fistfights, stay away from the indigenous women, and leave early. If provoked into a fight, leave! There might be just a lousy drunkard in front of you, but as soon as a fight breaks out, all of his friends will come to the rescue.
- Due to the Major's policy in the village, you'll find virtually no indigenous arts and crafts. Whatever you see at the handicrafts' markets, you'll find much cheaper in Peru or Bolivia, even Ecuador! The few really local pieces, namely those of cactus-wood, are actually a crime against nature. The wood comes from a severely endangered species of cactus, the Cardón (Echinopsis atacamensis), which has been subject to extreme predation by locals. While a novelty, and sure to bring curious glances from everyone, it's not worth it-in all likelihood, whatever piece you bring back home will be detained at your customs. Be a conscious tourist, and avoid that trap!
- If you want something really local, visit the museum's store. Even if you don't actually want to visit the exhibit, or have already done so days ago, the people at the entrance will let you go in there freely. They carry plenty of books and woven pieces, plus a few curious souvenirs, that were actually made by the community. Some of the books they have are virtually impossible to acquire anywhere else!
- Be careful with the peddlers of archaeological findings! There's a few of them. You can be assured that whatever they're selling is the real deal; you can also be assured that whatever you buy will get you in jail. Chilean law punishes the "theft" of archaeological pieces with hefty fines and a stay behind bars. Do yourself a favor, and avoid them. And, if you're still unconvinced, ask a few locals about the curses that befall those who desecrate burial sites...
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