'Dancing is illegal in San Pedro de Atacama.'
I heard this from a fellow passenger aboard a rickety boat bobbing along a river in the Bolivian Amazon. She was a British ex-pat who lived in Chile’s most popular tourist destination (along with her partner and their two children) working in the hospitality industry.
'It’s because of all the tourists,' she explained to me. San Pedro de Atacama is a small town near the Bolivian/Chilean border, and in recent years it's become a travellers' mecca. Alarmed by the prospect of their quaint little town becoming a tourist party spot, San Pedro’s municipal authorities have reacted by cracking down on certain kinds of fun. There is to be no dancing, and even buying alcohol is difficult. Establishments are prohibited to sell booze, unless it comes with food.
I wondered at this woman’s story for the remainder of our boat ride. Just how touristy does a place have to be, to make dancing illegal?
San Pedro de Atacama is built around a rare oasis in the Atacama desert, the driest non-polar region on Earth. It became popular with tourists in the 1990s, as people began using the small settlement as a base to explore the breathtaking geysers, volcanoes and lagoons that warp and pucker the surrounding landscape.
Currently, San Pedro is one of Chile’s most alarmingly expensive destinations, popular with foreigners and Chileans alike. (Owing to a Chilean national holiday, virtually every tourist I met in San Pedro was from the Chilean capital of Santiago). Attempts to explore the small town outside of its touristy main plaza are largely doomed to failure. San Pedro is only a few streets on either side, and every third building seems to be a hotel of some kind.
Above: some of the staggering landscape around San Pedro. Click to expand.
Still, it is possible to catch glimpses of local life in the town, squeezed between the tour agencies. Adobe walls snake off down sunny backstreets, overgrown by hardy desert plants with clawing, thorny branches. Satellite TV dishes stick out from squat, rustic houses, and children run and play by artfully painted walls near the local school. Navy blue GASCO trucks trundle up and down the street, tinkering their bells like demented ice cream vans, carrying valuable fire-fuel.
In the town’s main plaza, locals patiently line up for water. This is one area where the contrast between locals and visitors is disconcertingly stark. As San Pedro becomes an increasingly up-market destination, more and more hotels are being constructed around the town--hotels which cater to guests who expect running water, hot and cold. Spas are even beginning to crop up in the area, touting the resort experience.
Surely if there's one place on Earth unsuited for a spa holiday, it's the planet's driest desert?
San Pedro is famous for its connection to the stars.
The Atacama desert’s scant precipitation means unusually clear skies, which means unusually good star-gazing. There are plenty of planet-spotting opportunities for tourists thanks to countless nighttime telescope tours, and the region is home to the sprawling industrial-sized satellites of the ALMA interstellar observatory.
San Pedro de Atacama is also located right next to the Valle de la Luna ("Valley of the Moon"), an unearthly stretch of twisted land where NASA tests its Mars explorer probes. Like everywhere near San Pedro, it’s an expensive place to visit for an afternoon, but I guess you could say my Curiosity got the better of me.
Seeing the striking vistas that surround San Pedro, it's not hard to understand why the town is being crushed under the weight of its own tourist appeal. Still, it makes one wonder how long before we're doing the same thing to the actual moon. After all, that's human nature for you. We like to seek out brave new spots and sparks of beauty, no matter how remote... and then build coffee shops around them.
Perhaps, one day, they will ban dancing on the Moon.
>It's possible to hop on a tour that goes directly from the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama (or vice versa), which I of course did not do, because that would have been too sensible.
>Indeed, many of the tourist attractions near San Pedro are quite similar to the sights on the Salar de Uyuni tours--only much more expensive. So if you're thinking about doing both, don't be too quick to spend money in San Pedro; you might get much the same content in Bolivia.
>How expensive is San Pedro? Well, a good double scoop of ice cream could set you back as much as $2,700 in Chilean pesos--that's about $4, practically New York prices!