What an incogruity San Pedro de Atacama is, in the desert of sand, gravel, multi-coloured rock, wiry desecated plants scarcely clinging to life, close to the Salar de Atacama, a dead salt plain with upwellings of water so saline that one can float in them unaided by artificial means, surrounded by volcanos some of which have wisps of steam and smoke, reminders of their deadly intent. There are endless open spaces threaded by scarce water, yet here is a town with trees, squabbling dogs and chirping sparrows, small boys playing football in the whitewashed square with its formal garden.
Visitors throng the narrow uneven main street of Caracoles, beset on all sides by offers of all kinds: food and drink in the many smart cafes and restuarants; tour companies offering excursions to all sorts of places; activities of desert mountain biking, sand boarding and skiing, trekking; boutiques offering indigenous multi- coloured handicraft at extortionate prices, ponchos, jewellry, artworks, tat; money changers raising suspicions; a North Face shop selling expensive Western goods; and somewhere to stay, from cheap hostels to expensive luxury hotels, all flattering to deceive with their rough adobe exteriors hiding well appointed interiors. And the plaza, simply called The Plaza, with the Church, the town hall, and, of all things in this the wilderness of the driest desert on Earth, free WiFi (which, in the best South American tradition, doesn't work).
These visitors, mainly young, travellers from all parts of the World, come to see the amazing wonders of this inhospitable place. For don't let the patina of civilization fool you, this is an inhospitable place. The scare water is toxic really, thanks to the arsenical deposits in the surrounding hills and volcanos, and to the mines high up in the Andes, and those who can afford to do so buy bottled water, leaving the poor to the effects of the poisons. Travel beyond the confines of this little marvel to smaller, more remote, settlements such as Tocanao and Socaire and the evidence of long-term consumption of the local water, combined with in-breeding, become very evident indeed.
San Pedro is an odd place in an odd place; it is a fusion of chic and sham, Chamonix Mont Blanc fused with Totnes and Sitges, an oasis of cool in a hot place, ¡que guay del Paraguay! but you come here, play and move on, leaving the local people dependent upon the next wave of tourists, for there appears to be little else for them to do.