Although almost eradicated, there is still some possibility of finding vinchucas (spread from Panama to central Chile, about 7 centimetres long, and slow moving when just fed), a bloodsucking, flying arthropod which is carrier of the Chagas disease (a serious organical degenerative illness); note that not all of them are carriers, but only those infected, which are very few.
The sting is painless but itchy, and a dark bolt may appear after less than a week; the disease is NOT transmitted by the sting itself, but by the feces of the vinchuca, which gets into the bloodstream when the stung person scratches the skin to alliviate the itch. If you think that you were bitten by a vinchuca, go to a doctor immediately to perform a test. If not too much time passes after being bitten, the risk of developing the disease –which happens in up to 30 years- is almost nonexistent. Nowadays, the Chagas disease is transmitted in Chile only via placentary (hereditary) way, so there are only a few human carriers. Health services fumigate hazardous places in San Pedro several times a year, when climate conditions of very dry heat make it easier for the vinchucas to reproduce.
The sanitised compounds display a sign with a drawing of a vinchuca with a red “X” over it.
Hazardous places are dark, unclean or dusty corners in houses and hotels, places where clothes or anything have been stored or left for a while, and empty spaces in roofs, but also are the mud-brick ruins in the desert outskirts, and wherever a dusty, dry and warm shelter is formed, but ALWAYS close to human dwellings, as it needs human blood for nurturing.
Do not sleep in abandoned houses, or in caves close to inhabited places, as those are visited by animals that may carry vinchucas, which remain there (deep-desert caves are safe for sleeping, as living beings are very rare there).
A simple way to avoid being approached by any nasties is to spray yourself with insect repellent (Repelex is a local brand that is very effective).
Keep in mind you are still in the dessert here. So take some precautions, have enough water with you, proper clothing (including warm clothes, it gets freezing cold here at night and at day also at high altitudes just up the mountains). Sun is more or less guaranteed so sunblock would do as well.
And naturally, if you go out by yourself into the dessert, make sure you don't get lost and inform people if you head out, where you go to and when you are expected to return. Cellphone antenna's are not that widespread at places no-one lives.
If you are coming from low grounds try to let your body adjust to the altitude of San Pedro . One way is to stay at a lower level for a day or two. If you have no time for this then try lemon juice or lemon tablets, which you can find in drugstores. Start this 2 days before you reach high altitudes !!! The best precaution is herbal tea from local plants or coca leaves .You can find it in tea bags in the local markets. Or even make it yourself from coca leaves which you can buy legally, or chew the leaves as locals have been doing for centuries.
If you do, nevertheless, have symptoms like headache or dizziness or sometimes even worse like vomiting, confusion, lost of balance then you should get to lower levels immediately. I have seen people get even worse for more than 4 days. So don't neglect it.
Also take some extra precautions by drinking a lot of fluids and eating light, including carbohydrates in your meals. They are in milk, fruit, honey, sugar, bread, potatoes, cereals and beans. Avoid alcohol.
There is a very strong geyser which has taken the lives of some tourists who dared defy it. They tried to walk on the natural bridge over its hole but with a sudden turn of wind they were choked , fell into it and scorched to death. It's called the "killer"...So don't walk very near it or on the small bridge.
These warnings are frequnently seen in Chile and Argentina in regions near Bolivia.
Neither in Argentina nor in Chile are hygienic problems supporting such epidemies but in the nearby Bolivia (where you never find warnings like this) it is far more dangerous.
Well-fed tourists survive such an infection with a probability of 98 % (with help of antibiotics and intense re-hydration - one looses 15 liters and more per day which must be replaced immediately...
But it is always wise to follow the rules on this poster.
Well... the town is quiet, and the local people is used to the tourist so there is nothing to be afraid except for some drunk people around.
Just be sure to take your money with you or in a safe place and of course don't take expensive things to your trip you will not need it there.
Maybe the only thing to be care with is the famous "Chupacabras" ,a long story about this thing or animal that is supposed that it has been seen around but anyway it attacks animals and I have never seen it so... just have fun ;)
San Pedro is Expensive.
Everyone there says so.
I know that i arrived from Bolivia but, even other travellers from Santiago said so.
Beers start at just under 2 US$ and go up. Eat the set lunches as these are the best value. Hotels are just that level more expensive.
Shame though as it is a really cool place. Must be hell in high season, as everywhere is.
In the 70’s and 80’s, the Chilean Army, foreseeing a war, planted several thousand landmines along the border with Bolivia and its neighbouring areas, included some San Pedro outskirts, but also as westerly as km. 64 of the Calama-San Pedro route (N side, postmarked).
Many would-be mountain passes and transit areas around Peine, Talabre, the Sico and Jama passes, the NW and W hillsides of Licancabur volcano (Chilean route for the summit), and many unmarked areas N of this latter point, still have these weapons buried in the ground, occasionally blowing out a wild animal, or a car strayed out of the paths.
Most of these are antitank mines, which are activated by heavy things –like a car or a big animal, for example- so a person stepping on them would hardly make them explode...but they can anyway. Also, some border areas E of El Tatio –but far from the reach of visitors to it- have antipersonal mines too.
Don’t ask for maps of their location: mines slide underground in time and due to earth movements, so nobody –not even the military- know exactly where they are (although several thousands were tracked and defuzed in the area in 2002).
Since all this, drivers are often encouraged to not to stray away of the paths when in areas known for being mined (if in doubt about this, ask tour operators, or the Carabineros in San Pedro, who know almost all the general mined areas); also, tour drivers will absolutely refuse to drive into mined areas, or just to venture away from the paths when in areas close to the border.
Some –but not all- of these areas display prominent signs informing of the hazard
Although it is desert, always sunny and hot in the day, it gets bitterly cold at night, especially in winter (March thru October): temperatures easily reach –10º around San Pedro and other towns at more or less the same altitude, but in the open, or at higher altitudes (such as in El Tatio), late afternoon and nighttime temperatures are in the range of –20º in summer, reaching even as low as –35º in winter. Add to this the windchill factor, and you have a quite hazardous condition.
If under these conditions you get yor car broken, or are in any situation meaning that you are leaving your shelter, protect yourself from direct exposure to wind, cover your head (most heat is lost through it) and avoid exposing any skin to the cold air.
If you are stranded in a car, and have a tent, it’s much safer to set it and spend the night in it rather than in the car.
Nikon F4s, 20 mm. Nikkor, f. 2,8, 1/8 sec. handheld, L1B filter
San Pedro lies at an altitude of 2448 mts./8030 ft., which –although is not a high altitude- is enough to make some people feel altitude (acute mountain) sickness, or its more serious consequence, the Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
This is a series of symptoms that affect people, regardless of its physical fitness or experience in altitude, when climbing from lower levels to higher ones without proper acclimatisation. Even if you are a high-altitude climber, you can feel some of the symptoms at such a low altitude place as San Pedro, if you arrive there too fast.
These symptoms are tiredness, a fast heart pace, light to heavy headaches and dizzyness, nausea, feeling “short of breath”, migraine, disorientation, dehydration, irritability, stomach problems –throwing up, diarrhoea- and in more serious stages, it accentuates hypothermia, and can lead to brain and pulmonary edema and even death after these last.
Preventing it is very easy: just climb slowly, try to adapt to the altitude for at least 24 hours (48 is ideal), don’t move too fast nor make heavy physical effort, don’t run, drink plenty of fluids, try to sleep as well as you can, and avoid alcohol and stimulating drugs.
To heal it, follow these steps, in an increasing order of seriousness:
- Descend to a lower altitude, or use:
- Herbs (chachacoma, coca infusion) used locally to deal with AMS
- Aspirin (before and during AMS)
- Acetazolamyde (aka Diamox) – up to 1000mg./day
Acetazolamyde is a medication for glaucoma, edema and a diuretic; any light diuretic helps too.
Aspirin and Viagra are used to help blood circulation and hence increasing the arrival of oxygen to the brain. Viagra can be used by both men and women, but check with your doctor before using it, as it is intended for high-altitude, fast climbs only (like going to Licancabur, or any other 5000+ peak), and in smaller doses than the standard for its intended purpose.
Solar radiation is intense here –almost as strong as in the Patagonia, where the ozone layer is highly damaged due to the CFC emissions from countries mainly from the Northern hemisphere- so applying high-factor sunblock (at least factor 30) is essential, wherever you go, and especially if you’re somewhere higher than San Pedro, such as the Tatio geysers, the Andean lagoons and volcanoes, or where there is wind that could blow off the sunscreen from your skin, as happens in the Salar de Atacama.
If you use a special sunblock (hypoallergenic, or extremely high factor –like me: I use a 100% screen made for mountaineering and polar activities), bring your own stock, as there is no drugstore in town, and the choice for special sunblock lotions is rather limited (if found) and expensive.
Although this may seem redundant, dehydration is always severe, and if this adds to the slight altitude sickness and usual tiredness, it can turn into a dangerous problem.
Air humidity in San Pedro town is around 12% in winter, but can reach a very low 3% in summer; these values drop to virtually none (0%) close in the Salar de Atacama, which is one of the must-see attractions around San Pedro. If going on a tour there, make sure to drink a little bit more than usual the day before, and to bring at least one litre of water with you when visiting it. The salt-saturated air makes the skin to feel “tight”, so an humectating lotion is a god idea.
Tap water in San Pedro should be one of the most sterile waters in Chile...and how it couldn’t, if it has such a high content of arsenic –along with other minerals, as magnesium, sulphites and the like- that no bacteria could ever live in it.
Unfortunately, arsenic can affect human health quite seriously, although for occasional visitors this does not pose a life threat, but only a severe diarrhoea, stomach cramps and a general uneasy feeling (note that I’ve talked to one or two foreign travellers who had said that this water hadn’t caused them any problem at all –but from whom I suspect they wanted to show themselves as ”bold and brave” guys...-, but the usual scene is the one described before).
Some people believe –mistakenly- that the water can be made “safe” by adding to it those water purifying drops (or tablets): this is a mistake. Water purifying tablets ARE OF NO USE AT ALL (these only add more chemicals to an already mineralised and sterile water). All biological purifying devices (drops, etc.) DON’T HELP, since the problem comes from the inert contents in the water.
So, the ways to drink water in San Pedro are:
- Use of a PHYSICAL FILTER (such as MSR, Katadyn, or any carbon-capsule device) to block the arsenic in the water (it’s a good idea to filter it twice)
- Buying PURIFIED or MINERAL WATER in the local shops. These does not need to be filtered. Prices are around US$ 1 for a 1,5 litre bottle (a blatant rip-off, considering that in the same shops a huge, 5-litre tank is only US$ 1,50-2). The cheapest place to buy water is the aptly named H2O shop,on Caracoles 295-A (they also rent bicycles).
There are only a couple good street in San Pedro and most of them are very narrow and surface is damaged. So be carefull when walking or maybe cyckling out there.
Tocopilla 4, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Good for: Business
Camino Pukara, Sector Suchor, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Good for: Business
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Good for: Solo