There are two parts to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. The historic center is filled mostly with souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and hawkers of visitor activities. (The nicest, friendliest and most polite hawkers we’ve come across on our trip so far, but hawkers nonetheless).
Past the municipal parking lot, down the hill and very much out of sight of this tourist destination is another, modern, functioning town with housing estates, schools and playgrounds. We stumbled on this other San Pedro de Atacama coming back from an afternoon walk in the desert.
We hadn’t planned to go for a walk in the desert. A local had suggested to us that our boys would appreciate checking out the old swimming pool to help with the heat (there’s a new pool under construction near the bus station). After lunch, we’d taken a taxi out to this decidedly unkempt but blissfully cool structure where we stuck out among the locals gathered there relaxing. I felt that we were intruding a little but my boys were having so much fun just messing about in the water and no-one seemed to be bothered by them or their antics. I’m going to boldly state that I know maybe one other mom who would have let her kids into that rusting pool. Yes, it was filled with water that was definitely cold, but was it clean? Hmm, maybe, maybe not.
As other people left this not-quite-an-oasis, mostly on bikes, they headed directly towards the nearest urban area across the desert. So, when we left the pool area, that’s what we did too – on foot. After walking for 10-15 minutes, Murph – usually the less worrisome one on the wander-parenting team – observed that we had very little (if any) water and that distances are deceptive in the desert. We amped up our pace a little and collectively hoped for the best. Almost an hour later we were hot, thirsty and not quite sure if we were in the right place. Hence, as we passed the spanking new school building in the “other” San Pedro de Atacama, I only barely reflected on its incongruity with the historic town most people come to visit. If anyone was staring at us as out-of-place tourists I didn’t even notice.