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Full Circle

Day 174: Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama

Atacama Desert, Chile 
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Crossing the Atacama Desert.
Michael Palin - Full CircleThough this hard-baked, ridged and fissured saltscape feels as though it must be at the bottom of the sea, we are in fact at nearly eight thousand feet. The views are tremendous. I can quite clearly see a snow-capped mountain that the map tells me is a hundred and fifty miles away. We dip down again and enter the Valley of the Moon. When we stop to film, I'm aware of the utter silence. There is not a breath of wind and even if there were, there is not a tree leaf or a blade of grass in sight. This is desolation. The salt cliffs and ridges are crumbly and friable, worn into shapes unlike any I've seen in a landscape before and, as the sun sinks, the colours change. From white to cream to pink, terracotta and chocolate.

The last valley before San Pedro is the Valley of Death. The light has almost run out and yet the rock is still changing colour. This time into its most intense shade of all, a rich deep violet.

San Pedro de Atacama is a small oasis town of single-storey houses with white adobe walls and cobbled streets. It was one of the stops on the drovers trail in the golden days of nitrate mining.

My monastic cell at the Hosteria San Pedro feels just right for a place like this, but no sooner have I switched the light off and tried to remember the silence of the Valley of the Moon than the lights of a coach swing across my window. A moment later a party of fifty schoolgirls is disgorged into the car park. The generator has gone off so I have no light. Lie awake and listen to a sound that no stranger to the Atacama desert could have expected to hear on his first night - fifty schoolgirls trying to find their rooms in the darkness.
Atacama Desert, Chile 
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Crossing the Atacama Desert.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 174
  • Country/sea: Chile
  • Place: San Pedro de Atacama
  • Book page no: 230

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