San Pedro de Atacama is known for being a tourist hot spot in the middle of nowhere - the gateway to the salt flats from the Chilean side. It's a small town full of overpriced artesan (tat) shops, bars and hostels. And the most miserable people I think I've ever met.
In our 30 hour stay we witnessed some of the best bad service we've seen since setting off- from the full on row we had with the hostel owner who thought it was ok to change the rate once we were in the room, and then change the check out time by 3 hours (neither happened but only due to my one woman sit-in until 11.59) to the consistently indifferent service in the bank/shop/bars. For a town reliant on tourist dollars they really can't be arsed with tourists.
Luckily we were only there to get a bus down to Santiago so didn't loiter. On night one we went out stargazing in the desert with a local astronomer and saw some beautiful views of the planets and various constellations, and then the next morning Chris did some sand boarding (like snow boarding but shit) while I continued to argue with the battleaxe.
Getting on a 23 hr bus was a relief and we slept/read/slept through the most unremarkable scenery ever. For the first 7 hours it was boring to see desert, scrubby bush, desert repeated but when we woke up the next morning and the view was still identical we did wonder whether we were actually progressing or if in the spirit of Atacama hospitality we were going round in a big loop. Then a glimpse of the Pacific appeared and in no time (relatively speaking, it was probably another 3 hours) we hit Santiago.
3 days was enough to see that Santiago is a fully functioning modern city - very easy to navigate, great Metro system, easy to kick back and relax in the parks, bars and restaurants etc. but has little of interest to offer travellers looking for cultural difference. Probably a great city to live in (reminded us a lot of London with it's 'many small towns make up the city' feel) but not that compelling to travel in.
The exception was the human rights museum which chronicles the Pinochet regime. It serves as an idiots guide to modern Chilean history and a memorial to all those who died/disappeared in the struggle. Pinochet, like his bestie Thatcher, very much divides opinion in Chile and while the 200+ monuments across the country acknowledge the suffering experienced by his opponents, there is a substantial living contingent who prospered under his rule. However good he was at economics he was a sadistic dictator and we were suitably ashamed to be British when it came to the end of his story.
The plan was to move from Santiago due west to Valparaiso but a huge fire had been raging for 3 days, thousands of homes destroyed and the town declared a disaster zone so we changed direction and headed for Mendoza, Argentina instead. Sad to miss Valpo, and sad to see what was happening in Valpo but tourists getting in the way didn't seem right. Time to make up for months of fizzy beer in the home of Malbec. Sorry liver.
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