Clear skies and ancient history at San Pedro de Atacama in Chile

view southeast from Quitor to San Pedro

Leaving aside the the iffy tourist scene in San Pedro de Atacama, there are three very good reasons for coming here – the clear skies day & night; it’s stunning geographical location; and some very ancient history dating back to the 9th century BC. The clear skies are there most days & nights, but especially at night – find a darker space to sit back and stare at the beautiful and clear array of stars, and indeed galaxies. To see the sky even better at night, we took a late evening tour with SpaceObs out to their site south of San Pedro, where there’s no ambient light, and had access to 12 telescopes of varying strengths – to see clearly things far away that we’ve never seen before. Recommended – see website!

entrance to Quitor site

We took in the local geography at the same time as the local history, by walking 4km from our hostel north alongside the Rio San Pedro (or Rio Grande), to the ‘El Pukara de Quitor’ (in Quechuan – the Fortress of Quitor, where Quitor is an ancient indigenous community – see wikipedia history in Spanish). The walk, and the views from the top of El Pukara and nearby viewing points, were breathtakingly beautiful on a clear sunny (very hot!) day – see pics below.

San Pedro, like all the villages & small towns in this region, sits beside a river or other water source (such as an oasis). Many are in river valleys, in San Pedro’s case between the mountainous Andes border between Chile/Bolivia (and Chile/Argentina) to the east, and a further mountain range (the Cordillera de Sal) to the near west. And so despite the heat & harshness of this remote desert region, there has been human habitation in these areas for a good 11,000 years – from hunter-gatherer groups, to herders and agricultural communities. And situated as it is on an ancient river, that feeds into the even larger Rio Loa – that travels from higher up in the Andes to the north, all the way to the Pacific sea (Chile’s longest river – info) – San Pedro is also on an ancient trade route dating back several thousand years.

Rio Pedro valley below Quitor

So around 800-1000AD it had some economic & cultural interaction with the Tiwanaku culture/empire. From then until the Inca period it was a local base for Atecamena peoples, and during the Inca empire it was a key stop on their trade routes. Then of course came the Spanish invaders! The fortress is believed to have been constructed around the 12-13th centuries AD, partly as a defensive measure and also as a habitable community base – looking down over the Rio Pedro & its fertile valley where San Pedro is now, there was access to water & fertile land, as well as having unrivalled views in all directions.

monument to locals beheaded in 1540

In 1540 the Spanish ‘gringos’ reached the area and after a long battle stormed the fortress, taking revenge on the indigenous peoples who’d defended themselves, by beheading many and sticking the heads on poles on top of the fortress (oh those so civilised catholics eh!). However given the inaccessibility of the area, for centuries local people where left pretty much to their own devices. It is only in more recent times, with the discovery of various minerals in the region (mining), and more latterly scientific study & then tourism, that the area has been more disturbed. El Pukara de Quitor was only ‘rediscovered’ around 1982, who knows what other ancient history will come to light one day?
Here’s some pics of our day….

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