High Plains Drifter

The bus from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama reminded me of the beach at Stone Harbor, New Jersey.

Memories are funny that way. Something seemingly insignificant triggers a surge of nostalgia. Maybe it’s a song that takes me back to spring break in Cancun (Bob Sinclair, “World Hold On”). Or a shirt that I used to have as a kid.

I suppose it’s not that odd. The beach has sand; the area around Atacama is a desert. But it’s not about the scenery. This particular flashback was triggered by a snack.

Did anyone else have vanilla wafers as a child? I did, but I can only remember them in a specific context. When we would go to the beach, my grandmother–or someone in the family–would carry these wafers in a beach bag, to be distributed to and eaten by my cousins and me.

I don’t think I had seen one since I hit puberty. Until yesterday, when the conductor handed them out to the passengers an hour before arrival in San Pedro.

I call him the conductor. City buses typically have just a driver. In Argentina, I had to purchase a card in advance–a different one for each city, which was not at all annoying–to be swiped at a reader. Chilean local buses sell tickets on board. Except in Santiago, where I never did figure out the public transit, subway aside.

Regional and long-distance buses operate more like a team. The conductor checks tickets, ushers folks to their seats, and calls out the stops. The driver drives. They often chat like best friends; on the ride to Iruya, I hoped they would stop while the bus navigated hairpin turns over steep cliffs, but the conversation never slowed for a second. I made it, though.

As I drifted in and out of consciousness, the bus drove across the altiplano. It’s a flat, rocky, dusty terrain over 4,000 meters in elevation. The road navigates along riverbeds, across salt flats, and around mountains–some of which, I’m fairly certain, were volcanoes.

The border crossing is at what feels like the highest point on this highway. The process was neither quick nor efficient. We waited as the Argentine and Chilean customs officials got themselves situated, waited as the metal detector warmed up, and waited some more. My American senses wondered why the border agents weren’t better prepared for our arrival, considering they must know the bus schedule.

A couple of hours into Chile, the highway descends from the mountain pass. San Pedro is like a sanctuary. It’s basically a tourist town in a flat spot that sprung up because of people’s desires to see the incredible natural beauty of the surrounding area.

My guidebook warned me of cold overnight temperatures. Compared to where I came from in Argentina, though, it’s downright balmy. It never even dropped below freezing.

This is my home for the next few days, until I hop on the bus for my next adventure, going where the road–and my mind–takes me.



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