This past Block Break, I visited San Pedro de Atacama as part Colorado College’s Latin America program in Santiago, Chile. At CC, many students, myself included, view the break as a chance to do something “epic” outside—to outdoor recreate in a far-off destination and return with killer Instagram photos. And, I confess, while on this Block Break I took many Instagram photos, but I also did something that CC heavily encourages; I found a sense of place.
San Pedro de Atacama lies on the border of Argentina, a two-hour plane ride northwest of Santiago. Located in the world’s driest desert, there’s no limit to the beautiful canyons and sandy expanses. Our tour guide, Marcos, brought us to view these sights, but he also offered us an understanding of them—a context for our explorations. To start, he took us to Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte, teaching us the origin of their names and how they were discovered. During each trek, he’d point out endemic plants along the way. Pingo pingo and rica rica, for example, are medicinal plants that can quell stomach pains. Driving us between locations, Marcos stopped the van constantly for us to visit with the roadside burros, llamas, and goats. He’d pass around his binoculars and animal encyclopedias, allowing us to take turns admiring the wildlife in their natural habitats.
In the small towns of Tocanao and Socaire, we met local artists who weave their own sweaters, scarves, hats, and mittens from sheep and llama fur. One woman in Tocanao showed us behind her shop, where we met her llama and saw her weaving process. That night, an astronomer named Rodrigo explained the history of astronomy in the desert of San Pedro, naming specific stars, constellations, galaxies, and planets, and showing us how to use a telescope.
In a visit to the salt flats the following day, Marcos taught us about the indigenous birds, such as caití and flamingos. We walked along the crackly rocks and read about the formation of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains. That afternoon we biked to “Librería en el Desierto,” the “Bookstore in the Desert.” Nestled in a small wooden structure surrounded by native plants, this bookshop offers countless works by Chilean authors on the country’s culture, flora and fauna, indigenous people, and poetry. The owners explained that the people of the region have much respect for culture, and for that reason, they seek to teach its visitors not only about the wildlife of the area, but also the history. For instance, while they made us coffee, they told us the legend of the nearby volcanoes Láscar, Licancabur, and Quimal: a tale of love and jealousy.
Towards the end of the trip, Marcos brought us to a local farm. There, we met a small family that owns dozens of goats and llamas and produces their own goat cheese. They let us taste their homemade cheese and puffed barley, as well as membrillo, a Chilean apple they grow in their gardens, and chachacoma, a bittersweet tea. Afterwards, they took us on a long trek to show where they graze their animals each day. Along the way, they pointed out more medicinal plants they use, including suica, haba, and hierba buena. This tour is not an “attraction”; Marcos knows this family personally and asked them if they’d give us this private look into how they live.
I don’t write this article to brag, but to demonstrate a way to recreate outdoors in a more meaningful way. Like a classic Block Break, we did the usual active things—trekking, swimming, biking—but we also engaged in the culture and history of the space we were visiting. We left with a sense of San Pedro’s identity, not just its tourist offerings. We met community members who passionately and generously shared their homes and their histories. We now know about some of plants and animals that live there.
I think this learned sense of place is something that many Block Breaks could benefit from. Especially in light of Earth Day and Earth Week, it is not enough to just visit a beautiful place; we must understand how it came to be that way and how we protect that beauty. The more connections we make with these spaces, including their histories, people, and wildlife, the more respect we can foster for them. So next Block Break, don’t just use a space to play—get to know it.