The blaze of green cutting across the landscape is a sight for sore eyes but still comes as a shock after several days driving through the uniform browns of the Atacama Desert. At first it seems unreal, another heat haze-induced vision amidst the wind-blasted, sun-bleached landscapes of northern Chile.
After all, water is needed for life and this is the driest place on the planet, some areas of which have never received rain and where, scientific research suggests, some river beds have been dry for more than one hundred and twenty thousand years. This poses the question, “When does a river bed stop being a river bed and become desert like everything else around it?”
Thankfully this was no optical illusion, this was Pica, an oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert that is renowned for its fruit, particularly the Limon de Pica, a small, tart lemon that is famous throughout Chile. Pica’s lush greenery and thriving agriculture is all thanks to underground water sources surfacing in the middle of the desert. The town also sports a hot spring where it is possible to take the waters.
Pica has developed a thriving (for northern Chile and mainly for Chileans) tourist industry based around the hot springs and the consumption of fruit juices. Not that the town seeks to exploit this in a tacky way, no not at all…
I’m clearly susceptible to not very subtle subliminal advertising, minutes after seeing this fruit display I was found at a fruit juice stall ordering a large mango and lemon drink. Delicious.
Thanks to its water supply Pica has been inhabited for millennia, and it was a vital point on the Inca road system south from Peru. Its also where conquistador Diego de Almagro came on his way to conquer Chile for the Spanish, and still retains some lovely colonial era buildings.
We hadn’t planned it but our arrival in the town coincided with the start of a big fiesta centred around the San Andres (St. Andrew) church and the lovely main plaza. After days in the Atacama Desert the sudden riot of colour and music was fabulous and the atmosphere was all fun. At times the whole town seemed to have joined in the celebrations and the streets were full of people dancing.
Although uniquely Chilean, the shared history and culture between northern Chile and Bolivia was clear from some of the costumes worn during fiesta…
As with most fiestas in Bolivia the local saints are paraded around the streets accompanied by performers and bands, and much of the action ends at the church.
As night descended things stepped up a gear and the whole of Pica seemed to pour out onto the streets and, accompanied by bands, danced and drank their way around the town. While outside the church other performers danced for hours, some with exciting illuminated masks. It was a a fun night.