We traveled to the driest desert in the world not because we wanted to see it, but because we needed to leave Argentina and didn’t want to go to Bolivia.  Even though we knew nothing about San Pedro de Atacama or the surrounding area, I am glad we opted for the Chilean desert experience.

We arrived in San Pedro (de Atacama) after an 8 ½ hour bus ride from Salta, Argentina.  Once we were settled in our hostel we headed in to town to see what options were available for getting out into the desert.  We knew that we would need to book a tour and had heard good things about Cactus Tour, so we found their office in town and arranged to see the flamingos in the salt flats and then head up to about 12,000 feet to see some Andean Lakes.

We weren’t disappointed.  We arrived at the salt flats just as the sun was peeking out over the mountains.

Desert Sunrise

Morning light shining on the salt flats

We were the first group to arrive at Laguna Chaxa, and the flamingos were in close proximity to the pathways.

Chilean Flamingo at Lago Chaxa

Chilean Flamingos at Lago Chaxa

I felt bad for the group coming after us, because the flamingos had all flown to a much more distant lake by the time we had finished our alfresco breakfast and piled back in the van.

Flamingos in flight

For the next leg of our journey our van chugged its way up to 12,000 feet and several mountain lakes.

Miscanti Lagoon

There was a small herd of vicuñas grazing nearby.

It was all incredibly beautiful, but between the high altitude and persistent wind it was very cold.

Pat and Amy in Atacama

That evening back in town we saw a beautiful sunset.

Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama

The evening light on the mountains turned the drab brown vistas into something quite dramatic.

Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama

Later that night we climbed back on a bus and headed for the Peruvian border and then on to Arequipa, which entailed 30 hours on buses, petty theft in Arica, Chile, and a very bizarre border crossing.  We were wrecked by the end of the journey, but glad to be in Arequipa.


There are two permanent indoor markets here in San Miguel:  The Mercado Ignacio Ramirez is located in Centro and the Mercado de San Juan de Dios is a few blocks outside of Centro towards the bus station.  We frequently do our shopping for meat and vegetables at the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, and one of our favorite lunch spots is found in the Mercado de San Juan de Dios.

Mercado Ignacio Ramirez

The biggest (and in my opinion the best) market in San Miguel is the Tianguis del Martes or Tuesday Market.  It is huge, crowded, overwhelming, and exciting.  Need some fresh papaya, oranges, or chayote?  No problem.  How about a remote for you television?  No problem.  A new (or used) pair of underwear?  A slotted spoon?  A pirated DVD? A rusty dull knife?  Table and chairs?  No problem.  The market has it all.

Baskets at the Tuesday Market

Fresh produce at the market

In addition to chock-a-block stalls, there are people wandering the aisles with new mop heads, racks of shoe laces, and woolen shawls for sale.  Shouting over the chatter of the crowds are the men hawking their wares, sometimes with a megaphone for extra emphasis.

And then there is the food.  Pat and I experience our travels primarily by walking through the various neighborhoods and by eating the local food.  One cannot completely experience Mexican cuisine unless you are willing to try some of the local street food.  Not only is it economical, but it is often much more flavorful.  In an effort to stay relatively healthy, we try to patronize places that are busy and where we can see the food being cooked in front of us.

I don’t know the name of our current favorite place to eat when we are at El Tianguis.  You just have to remember which section of the market they are in and look for the women’s bright orange aprons.

Carnitas at the Tuesday Market

Their specialty is tacos de carnitas (pork), and they are quite tasty – especially with the fresh shredded cabbage, salsa and homemade guacamole.  The first time we ate there, I was asked if I wanted my meat seca o con grasa, and I said con grasa.  I didn’t know what it meant but seca (dry) sounded boring.  She also asked if I wanted it surtido, and again I said yes not knowing what surtido meant.  When the plate arrived, I realized that con grasa meant with fat.  It took a bit of work to separate the meat from the fat, but it was moist and delicious.  I didn’t find out what surtido meant until I ran across it a few days later while reading David Lida’s book, First Stop in the New World.  According to Lida, surtido means that you are getting a mix of pork product, which could include organ meat and who knows what else.  With this new-found knowledge, the next week I ordered our meat blanca y seca (white and dry).  It was still good, but not as flavorful as it had been the week before.

There are many other tempting options for lunch at El Tianguis, and I am sure that someday I’ll try them.  But for now I can’t get enough of tacos de carnitas surtido y con un poco grasa.

I’m writing this while the events are still fresh in my memory, just about 4 hours old. Fresh, maybe, but perhaps a bit muddled and rambling. I’ve been awake for around 28 hours or so, so my brain isn’t quite functioning properly.

You see, it’s because I had to get up at 1:15 in the morning today, and when I have to get up really early, my brain just won’t quite accept that whatever alarm is set will actually work, so I have a hard time falling asleep, and last night I couldn’t fall asleep at all. Now, I had to get up that early so that I could (and here’s where this gets a little PG-13) participate in a Spencer Tunick photo installation.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, you’ve probably seen Tunick on the news at some point. He’s the photographer who gets hundreds and even thousands of people to show up at some location, strip naked, and have a group photo taken. Most of his photos are actually a kind of abstract art, where the people are just props. Today, at one point, we were used to create “cobblestones,” but more on that later.

Tunick is here as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival, and he’ll be doing another shoot in Dublin on Saturday. When I first heard he was coming to Cork, I thought it would be interesting to participate in something like this, but Amy and I were scheduled to be in Barcelona and Carcassonne this week. For reasons far too complicated to recite here, we’ve rescheduled that holiday for later in the year. So, Spencer Tunick, here I come. Amy thought about doing it, but as she put it, she “chickened out.”

Because of not being able to drive (also far too complicated to explain here), I took advantage of the carpool message board for the event, and arranged for a ride with Dave and four other participants to Blarney Castle, the site of the shoot. Dave and I were the oldest, with the others in their mid-twenties, and it was an even split of men and women. On the way, some of the others expressed their slight apprehension or denial that this thing they’d signed up for was really happening.

We pulled in to Blarney Castle around 2:45 AM, and were greeted by three young men dressed as priests and carrying placards protesting the event and calling us hippies. They were in the spirit of Father Ted (a classic Irish comedy show) but Dave later remarked that ten years ago they would have been real priests and there would have been a real protest. We parked and walked on dark paths to a field lit by halogen lights, where a few dozen other people were waiting. Because of the threat of rain, most people sat under the few trees available.

We had been told to arrive at 3, and so we waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually hundreds more people showed up, but nothing was happening. Of course, it was still too dark for the photos, but dawn would soon arrive and we thought Tunick might want to have us set up. Finally, although I hadn’t heard any instructions, everyone rose up from their small groups and moved to the middle of the field and surrounded . . . nothing really. I don’t think there were any instructions to move into the circle, but time and again over the course of the morning everyone would stand up or do something, only to realize that nothing was really happening yet and we’d all just followed what the people next to us were doing – herd mentality. Eventually, a man from the festival got up on a ladder and made some announcements, and then there was another break where nothing more happened before one of Tunick’s assistants got up and said a few words, and again nothing happened. As we sat waiting, our carpool group had adopted a few other strays, so I sometimes talked to Jurgen from Germany, or Karen from Belfast, or one of our original gang, getting colder and achier all the time.

Although we had been instructed to stay clothed until told to undress (a rule which didn’t need much enforcing in the cold night air), one man finally stripped, garnering loud applause and a few whistles. I told one of the women in our group that was how it was done, each person stripped off in front of everyone else. With a mortified look, she asked if that was true, and I had to admit it wasn’t.

Tunick got up to speak, and we thought we must be getting close to starting, but he just introduced a few more people and generally outlined what was going to happen. He said he didn’t know the official count yet, but it looked like there might be 1,200 people there. He explained he still had to get a few more things lined up, so we waited some more.

The wait was long enough that thoughts turned to practical matters. There weren’t enough bathrooms, and a few of those that were available weren’t very close to where we all waited. Several of us pondered whether we had time to make one last run, but we were worried that we’d return to find a field of naked people. Oddly enough, this reversal of the usual nightmare in which a person is naked in front of a room of clothed people was just as scary.

It was 5:15 when an assistant said something that most of us on our side of the field couldn’t hear, but in a kind of ripple effect, the people closest to the announcer began to strip off their clothes, and an ever widening circle of nudity appeared. At that point it was a race, with two of my neighbors commenting that now it would be the last clothed person who would feel awkward, and I felt the same way.

I’m not particularly modest, so it didn’t feel uncomfortable at all, but it was a bit odd to look out at possibly over a thousand nude people. Looking around, you could see a few people get down to their underwear and pause, maybe only for a couple of seconds, but that was the last chance to possibly bow out. Everyone pressed on, though. Once undressed, I was surprised at how it actually felt warmer, at least for a short time, and several of the others agreed.

We jostled our way to the next field, where Tunick had a crane set up for him to take the picture. From the crane, Tunick explained that he gets nervous about the installations, so we should forgive him if he got loud as he tried to get things just right. He had assistants in the field, but they seemed as inept as the rest of us at interpreting Tunick’s instructions, such as, “I need everyone near the tree to step to the left,” or, “People in the middle, spread out.” He wanted us roughly but evenly spaced, and that’s more difficult to achieve than you might think.

Eventually, though, we were where he wanted us, so we all stood facing him, hands at our sides, not smiling, and looking at the crane, not him. Occasionally, I would hear a ripple of laughter rise up as someone made a joke (or when Tunick did, I think unintentionally, every time he told us to freeze. It was probably in the forties (Fahrenheit) which was cold enough even with clothing). After taking several snaps with one camera, he took more with another camera, to be sure the pictures weren’t lost if something happened to the film. We then turned around, and the process was repeated. Finally, and here was the tricky shoot, we turned so we were facing sideways to Tunick and bent over at the waist (this was to create the “cobblestone effect” with our backs). This may not be difficult for most individuals (although with my back and flexibility, it was a challenge) under normal circumstances, but imagine doing this naked, no more than two or three feet from another half-dozen naked people. And that buffer was before bending; it disappeared once we were all in position.

He got the shots and we all walked to a third field, where roses (red for the women, white for the men) were laid out, and we each picked one up. Moving to yet another field, we spent several minutes again getting positioned just right, before finally facing Tunick and raising our roses before our eyes. We then turned to the side, and held the roses aloft (picture 1,200 naked Statues of Liberty holding roses instead of torches, and you’d have the right idea, except we were shorter and turning blue rather than green). Finally, he had us lie down on our backs and hold the roses straight up. Because of a need to make a few changes after a few snaps, he had us sit up and chat with our neighbors for a couple of minutes before having us lay down on our backs again, with the roses once more held above us.

Then we were done, at least for the time being, and we all hurried back to the field to find our clothes (not easily done) and hastily dress. This rush to dress wasn’t from modesty (I don’t think anyone had any after the first few seconds) but for the promise of a bit of warmth. As everyone got dressed, a woman saw Ray D’Arcy, a local radio show host, and shouted, “Ray D’Arcy, I saw your willy!” Then, more quietly to her friends, “I did.”

Any women who wanted to participate in the all-woman shoot now moved out across the river and onto a hillside. I asked one poor woman in her twenties why she didn’t go, and she said her hands had turned blue from cold so she didn’t think she’d better continue. She showed me, and sure enough, they were blue.

The men gathered as close as they could to where the women were preparing to undress for their pictures, about 150 yards away. Three of the women, seeing the crowd, mooned the men and few remaining women, which elicited a laugh and a round of applause. The women posed in several shots, mostly lying in different positions on the grass on the hillside, holding their roses. I commented to one of my carpool-mates that it was weird that this had a certain voyeuristic feel to it, though we had seen all of these women nude just minutes before, and been nude ourselves.

That finished, Tunick had one more set of photos to take of just men. He began selecting a few dozen of the men to stand in the river running through the castle grounds, and Dave, Eoin (pronounced Owen) and I all decided that while we might have been persuaded to do the shoot if it had been the first set of pictures taken, now that we were dressed and warming up, it was time to go. Unfortunately, a member of our carpool was missing, eventually turning up at the car, and the delay in finding her meant that half the group was in the parking area and half back at the river as the shoot of the men began, blocking the only bridge out.

Trust me, the men may have gazed at the women from a distance, mostly in silence, but the women were having none of that respectful crap. They stood only feet away and cheered and whistled as each man undressed and walked to the site of the final pictures.

What did it feel like to pose for Tunick? Again, it wasn’t uncomfortable, and it was surprising how it didn’t even feel like I was nude, really, but rather it felt very normal, very quickly. Everyone was there to have fun and help create a bit of art, and that’s just what we did. If you’d like to see a news report about the event, you can watch this clip from RTE, a national television station here. Oh, and if you find a photo of the shoot and look for me, I’m the pale one.