Alfarena Etnica (Traditional Pottery) in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Usually when you arrive at a tourist destination – a vacation town, a particularly trendy city neighbourhood – it’s easy to spot local galleries and artists. Artist studios and handicraft markets all vie for the attention of the tourists who have a few bucks burning a hole in their pocket.

If you ever get the chance to visit San Pedro de Atacama, the main downtown (down-village?) thoroughfare, Caracoles (literally, Snails) street has a few unique, interesting and even upscale art galleries and workshops, all worth a visit. But just off of Caracoles on Calama (street) is something a little different and, in my opinion, far more interesting than a typical storefront gallery: an understated space where a potter (or alfarero), who at my estimate stands around 4’10” tall and warmly welcomes visitors with a big smile, works in an open-air workshop.

On his wood table, he creates pots, vases, figurines, and musical instruments (which he joyfully demonstrated for me by playing a few simple yet beautiful melodies) in the same style that has been made in the region for thousands of years. He told me that he is inspired by the style of the ceramic decorative and domestic objects that are housed in the San Pedro museum, just up the road.

He uses only the clay made from the trademark red Atacamanian desert sand, and most items were not painted or only decorated with simple colours and styles.

The wind musical instruments he carefully shapes out of the clay include a clarinet-like long flute, a cow-horn type instrument and an ocarina, a small, disk-like whistle that you can blow into and, like a flute, produce a variety of notes.

I also admired the charming figures he sculpted out of clay: many were dancing or playing musical instruments. I was worried about safely transporting them back, but despite that concern I vaguely regret leaving them behind because they were so unique.

After spending time gazing at his work in the studio and asking the artist a few questions in my broken Spanish (some were stupid, such as, “what type of clay do you use?” and he, surprised, answered, “the clay from the sand here” … what else? of course they wouldn’t bring in special clay!) and he gladly answering and allowing me to take pictures, he asked me where I was from.

When I told him I was from the U.S., he told me he had been to San Francisco once. We both agreed that it was a nice city. In a twist that proves exactly how globalized of a world we are, this man in the middle of the Atacama desert in his charming open-air workshop, asked me if I knew of the U.S. store Pier 1?  I nodded and said I sometimes shopped there. “I once supplied pots to them,” he said proudly. “I had a lot of people working with me and we sent Pier 1 20,000 pots…”

Needless to say, I decided to buy a clay pot directly from the source. I chose a small vase and a ocarina as a gift for my husband.

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