Well, what can we say about San Pedro de Atacama, in northern Chile along its border with Bolivia. It is an oasis city in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the entire world. A town of less than 25,000, it has recently boomed thanks to the tourism industry, and the downtown is full of travel agencies and restaurants catering to Westerners.
It was planned as a short stop as we made our way to Paraguay from Bolivia. The Trans-Chaco highway linking Santa Cruz in Bolivia to Asuncion in Paraguay was supposed to take 30 hours, and only if the dirt roads weren´t muddied from a downpour (the wet season was just starting). So we wanted to avoid that. Instead, we headed to San Pedro as we were only an hour away at the end of our 3-day jeep trek around Uyuni.
Unfortunately, bus services to Argentina only run 3 times a week, and tends to fill -- unbeknownst to us -- almost a week ahead of time (Lonely Planet dropped the ball on this one!). We arrived on a Sunday, hoping to head out on the Tuesday bus, which was already filled. The next option Friday, which sold out from under us while we hemmed and hawed trying to figure out options, including redoing our entire itinerary and head south through Chile first instead of east to Paraguay.
To add to our frustrations, this was our first stop in Chile and not a single ATM in San Pedro worked and no one accepted traveler´s checks, so we were burning through the US dollars that we had at a quick pace (not to mention that no one would accept a US bill with the slightest milimeter tear, I´m not exaggerating). We ended up finding private transportation for an exorbitant amount to get to Salta, Argentina about 10 hours away. Ouch!
In the meantime, we did have a chance to explore the area. The first impression upon crossing the Chilean border: an actual paved road after days upon days of bumpy dirt and rock-strewn road-like passages in much poorer Bolivia. San Pedro was itself a bit pricey, like the cheaper parts of E Europe than anything we had previously experienced in S America thus far. We walked a few miles to 12th century ruins (Pukara de Quitor) on a hill created by the ancient people on the region with great views of the desert, mountains, and city itself.
The highlight of our time here was a nighttime star exploration trip. A French astronomer works outside San Pedro and has a number of large telescopes set up outside his home. Every night he brings people from San Pedro on a tour to explain the night sky and show various celestial amazements through the powerful telescopes, from the rings in Jupiter´s atmospheres to far away galaxies and nebuli. Great teacher and a very educational and fun experience!