Sunday, January 9

Sun-bleached history

We kicked back a notch today. As a result, the laid-back desert life lifestyle became today’s highlight. We joined a 3.5 hour tour in the morning of two local archaeological sites, Tulor and the Pukara de Quitor, then spent an afternoon by the hotel pool or dining alfresco with a local beer in hand. After a relatively full week of flights and daily excursions the change of pace was much needed.

The archaeological tour proved more interesting than expected. This is thanks in part to the captivating scenery that greeted us at each site. Our tour started at Tulor, located ten kilometres away from San Pedro de Atacama on the edge of the desert. It was here in the mid-1950s that a French archaeologist, Padre LePaige, discovered a small village of distinctive circular adobe houses.

At first, it was thought that he’d only found the wall foundations until the site was partially excavated in 1982. Researchers soon realised that shifting sands had actually buried the houses up to their roofline and thus almost every wall was completely intact. This discovery is all the more remarkable when you realise that these walls are composed of mud and straw; and are at least 1,500 years old. Today you can see just a couple of rooms partially uncovered while the remaining walls have been reburied leaving a series of curious mud rings in the ground.

Two replica houses have been constructed nearby giving you a good feel for both their design and the cool interior. These buildings also make for an impressive sight sitting stranded in thousands of acres of dry, barren desert landscape. Sadly, our visit will probably be remembered more for the unfortunate bathroom incident I suffered as we were finishing our tour of Tulor.

Buy me a few beers one day and you may hear the full story. For now I’ll simply confess that desert food got the better of me in the middle of nowhere. The embarrassing situation which resulted was then compounded when we discovered the only bathroom in the area lacked toilet paper. I’m now returning to Australia minus a pair of underwear and a large chunk of my dignity. Enough said!

Our second archaeological site, the Pukara de Quitor is a more recent settlement. It consists of a dozens of fortified structures built on steep hill overlooking a small river (more like a stream) that runs through a dramatic gorge and out into the nearby salt flats. The site was founded by the local population in the 12th Century as a defence against neighbouring villages seeking water and land in the small oasis that follows the course of the Rio San Pedro river. Today the site offers visitors a stunning view across the salt plains towards the soaring Andes mountains. The tallest peak visible is more than 6,000 metres high.

The Pukara de Quitor was also the sight of a famous battle between the Incas and the Spanish Conquisitors. In 1536 Rodrigo Ordofiez unsuccessfully tried to take the fort but was driven off. In late-1540, the Spanish returned, this time led by Francisco de Aguirre commanding 30 elite horsemen and a thousand conscripted Inca soliders. He captured the fort and as a warning to the local population then decapitated up to 200 elders and leaders, leaving their heads prominently on display.

Aside from this short tour, our only other excursion today involved a casual wander around central San Pedro looking for somewhere to dine. Our walk took us past the Church of San Pedro, built in 1744 from adobe bricks and furnished with items made from cactus wood. Yes – cactus really do have wood. We later saw several beautiful cactus wood craft pieces in the local market. If Antipodean quarantine restrictions weren’t so onerous I’m sure we’d have bought something.

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Bev said...

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