My Atacama Souvenir was Painted by the Sun

Written From… San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

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I was on my morning walk through San Pedro de Atacama, trying to orient myself to the town. The centre of the town is reasonably compact, once you get used to the blazing daytime heat that makes everything seem further than it is. Indeed, one of my first ‘souvenirs’ was a hat. But I found the main amenities relatively quickly, and even discovered that the main plaza had public WiFi.

San Pedro is definitely touristy, but I actually liked that. Probably because for the Atacama segment of my journey in Chile, that’s what I was – a fairly typical tourist. The main street, Calle Caracoles, is where it’s all at.

Still not quite adjusted to crowds after a low-key week on Easter Island, I periodically veered onto side streets to escape the bustle. It was on one of my re-entries to Caracoles, that I first saw the sun artist.

The odd-looking artist in San Pedro de Atacama

Artist in San Pedro de Atacama, holding a magnifying glass over a piece of cardboard in his lap.

He was hard to miss. Despite being dressed in a simple shirt and trousers, a pair of round-lensed goggles gave him a slightly steampunk look. Sitting on the sidewalk with his back to the wall, he held a piece of plywood on his lap. A light smoking rose from its surface, where sunlight was concentrated through a magnifying glass he held in his other hand, wafted swiftly away by the breeze.

What the…?

Curious, I drew closer. Displayed on the ground next to him were completed pieces that explained what he was doing. The plywood pieces were drawn with pictures. It was a good range – cartoonish pictures, abstracts, and South American traditional motifs. All scored black onto the light wood with nothing but sunlight.

He’s drawing with the sun! I thought excitedly. Instinctively taking my phone out to take a video, I paused when I saw the sign. 500 pesos for a photo. Next to the sign was a collection bowl. Hmm…

I was short on cash, and the San Pedro ATM was out of money. It was not going to be topped up until the weekend. I needed to hoard my remaining cash for tours and the hostel (you know, in case the ATM ran out again before I could get my turn). I put my phone away.

Surreptitiously, I peered to see the tracing of the artwork in progress. It was an intricate sun-burned drawing depicting what appeared to be an Incan . warrior. My excitement revived.

It’s perfect for the Continental Shelf!

My quirky take on sustainable souvenirs

Let me take a step back and explain. I have a quirky taste in souvenirs. They tend to be uniquely chosen, and generally come with an unusual association to the place, running the gamut from a vintage British mariner’s compass from Oman, a Himalayan ammonite fossil (yes, a sea creature fossil), and handmade teak swim goggles from the Philippines. Where I can, I also prefer to buy directly from the artist, or co-operatives representing artisans, local markets, or ancient bazaars.

Although not strictly a sustainable traveller habit, because of how specific each choice is, and the impossibility of knowing in advance what they would be, a quirky taste helps me ignore mass-produced souvenirs, and keeps me open to what the host culture naturally has.

But beyond these little mementos, are bigger art pieces that are even more carefully chosen, for they represent entire regions. For example, Asia is represented by a silk embroidery painting, and the Old World by an Egyptian papyrus, and Oceania by an aborigine hunting map. These take centre stage on my souvenir shelves which I dub my ‘Continental Shelf’ (yes, it’s corny and nerdy, I know).

But this was my first time in South America. I had wondered, Could I find something on my first visit, that represents this continent? Something that captures the things I associate with this continent – but special?

As I watched the pinpoint of light burning into the wood, I knew it was perfect. It wasn’t just a Chilean souvenir. It brought to mind the gilded civilisations of South America, and their grand Temples of the Sun. But it was offbeat – an unusual way to incorporate the sun in art. The hidden and the obvious, simultaneously. Although the motif is obviously South American, you would not know the sun association without knowing the technique. I liked that.

I resolved to return to the artist after I got more cash from the ATM. Please, please dont let anyone buy this one!

Painting with the sun

Thereafter, each time I passed him on Caracoles, I glanced to see that the completed design was still there, lying on the ground, still available. The artist was still sat there, day after day, working on other pictures. My anxiety subsided after a day or two.

Then finally, it was ATM day. I returned to the sun artist, to watch him work. This time, I took photos.

But I glanced at his ‘gallery’ of artwork on the ground, and my heart sank. My Inca warrior was no longer there.

“You’re from very far away.”

An incan warrior painted onto cardboard and suspended in a frame.

As I tried to talk myself into an alternative design, he looked up at me. He asked where I was from.

Noticing my pause before “Malaysia”, he asked if I preferred English. I nodded. He graciously switched to English, and invited me inside to his workshop.

That was when I noticed that there was an actual shop behind him. It was not a shop with a lot of product displays, but more like a craftsman’s work area. I walked in after him, and we talked a little bit about my impressions of San Pedro. He drew my attention to some wall shelves, where more of his work was displayed. He asked if I would like to buy any.

Miracle of miracles! The Inca warrior lay on the shelf! It’s still available! I immediately requested it.

“You’re from very far away,” the artist commented. “I sign it for you.” He wrote on the corner, ‘Mario Lupa’, and added a peace sign above it. “That is my name,” he said, pointing at it, and pointing at the sign over his shop door.

He thought for a moment. “What is your name?” he asked. I gave it to him. Turning the sun-drawn warrior over, he wrote ‘San Pedro de Atacama Chile’, and added my name beneath. It was my most precious cargo on the journey back home.


I took a long time to decide how to display this piece. In the end I asked for it to be suspended within a brushed-gold frame, held at the four compass points – a nod to the angular Andean map that one of my tour guides had drawn on the sand for me in Yerbas Buenas. A sun painting should suspend in mid-air, I told the frame shop. (She was not interested).

But after more than ten years of accommodating my antics, my ‘frame auntie’ sent doubtful looks my way – but came through.

Featured image by Vinícius Henrique on Unsplash

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