The most arid place in the world – San Pedro de Atacama

It was an early morning start, with the bus leaving at 7am, to head up over the Andes and cross the border back into Chile. The border crossing is actually at 4,700m and whilst trying to go through the border madness of various passport stamps, bags off the bus, through scanners, food checks on bags etc, you certainly started to feel the altitude.

San Pedro is 106km southeast of Calama (a coastal town in Chile) and is little more than a handful of picturesque streets clustering around a pretty tree-lined plaza and postcard-perfect church. However, the last decade has seen an increase in guesthouses, upscale resorts, restaurants, internet cafes and tour agencies wedging their way into its dusty streets. And sure enough, San Pedro suffers from the classic drawbacks of any tourist honey pot: high costs, irritating restaurant touts and lackadaisical tour agencies. However, the town has an addictively relaxed atmosphere and an enormous array of tours that get you hooked.

But the Atacama Desert is like no other place on earth – geysers, volcanoes, sand dunes, salt mountains, hot springs, flamingos, desert villages, salt flats, llamas, high altitude lagoons and so much more, all within a reasonable distance of San Pedro (SP).  Its also the driest place on earth and is an extreme environment.

I signed up for all my tours on my first night, just so I knew what I was doing and that no days would go to waste. Its best to go for one of the more inexpensive tours (after you have checked reviews) as the companies all tend to consolidate anyway.  The only thing about the tour company I used was it was one of the few which had french speaking guides, therefore, the tour was filled with more french than any other nationality.

SP is an expensive place to stay when you’re by yourself and you don’t want to share a room. Actually I think I misread the room booking and ended up paying US$80 a night for a room with no bathroom. That is more expensive than the Hyatt Mendoza for a night.  Any exchange for cash is crazy. They are offering the worst rates, because they know they can; just like accommodation It’s a closed market. I was carrying Argentinean pesos. The market rate was 47 Chilean pesos for an Argentinean pesos; in this town, they were only giving out 37.

The first tour I signed up for was to go and see the Salar de Unyni.  I was collected at 0700 to head into the mountains, that was until we got onto the mountain road and had to turn back. The police had closed the road due to bad ice. Following a Spanish / Brazilian discussion on the bus ( I was the only native English speaker on it) it was decided that rather than going back and sleeping the day away we may as well go somewhere else.

So off we went to the Domeyko Mountains, where mineral-rich rocks of various colors give the striking Rainbow Valley its name due to the mineral make up of the rocks. Then we went on to admire ancient petroglyphs at Hierbas Buenas – carvings of llamas to flamingos to monkeys from the pre-Colombian era.

Second day out I was booked to go to Piedras Rojas aka Red Rocks.  At 0530 I was waiting outside my accommodation in the cold desert night, waiting to be collected and the tour to commence.` The red rocks were created from volcanic lava and ash.  The lagoon that had been created was frozen over and looked blue green.  The area is just stunning.

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According to fossil records, the Salar was part of prehistoric Lake Minchin more than 30,000 years ago. Standing at 12,000 feet above sea level, Lake Minchin would have competed with Lake Titicaca for highest lake in the world, but it dried up thousands of years ago, leaving behind the flat concentration of salt that is there today.

Lakes high up in the desert

The Salt Mountain Range has been shaped throughout time by the rain and the wind, giving rise to enormous shapes and mineral brilliance made up of salt hills, gypsum and clay, spectacular natural sculptures, of various colors as a result of the minerals that form part of this natural attraction and the reason why we visit.  Its an amazing place.  In amongst them you find two lakes – Lagunas Miscanti and Laguna Meniques.

Salt flats and the flamingos

It was a day to go and visit the pink birds – we were taken to Laguna de Chaxa in Reserva Nacional “Los Flamencos” which is home to three different types – the Andean, Chilean and James flamingo.  The birds submerge their heads and stomp their feet while turning an entire 360 degrees. In doing so they stir up lots of crustaceans rich in beta carotene to eat and their beaks are specially adapted to separate mud and silt from their food.

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Valle de la Luna

The Valle de la Luna is named after its lunar-like landforms eroded by eons of flood and wind. The valley is San Pedro’s most popular organized tour, with trips leaving in good time to explore before sunset.

Watching the sunset from the exquisite Valley of the Moon is an unforgettable experience. From atop a giant sand dune, you can drink in spectacular views as the sun slips below the horizon and a beautiful transformation occurs: the distant ring of volcanoes, rippling Cordillera de la Sal and surreal lunar landscapes of the valley are suddenly suffused with intense purples, pinks and golds.

El Tatio Geysers

Another early start out waiting for the bus in the cold before dawn as we head out to see sunrise over some the largest geothermal fields in the world.  Once in the bus, we are on the road for about two hours and the higher up we go, the colder it gets (funny that!)  On arrival up there, the temperature was below zero and all clothing I had brought was quickly put on.  There are more than 80 geysers in the area and arriving there for sunrise gives an eerie feeling as the light shines through the warm mist.

After having breakfast out in the cold, we then had the opportunity to go and take a dip in the natural hot springs; take your clothes off and going running into the hot water.  The hard part is then to get out of the hot water, into the cold; get yourself dried off and back onto a not-so-warm bus.  Errr no thanks!

We continued through the Chilean mountain areas, through spectacular scenery and stopping off in the tiny village of Machuca where there are about 10 residents, a church, some houses with thatched roofs and a lot of tourists.  Of course there are then those who are out to make some money from them by selling llama kebabs  and empanadas- which actually tasted pretty good!

Time in San Pedro was coming to an end and it was to be a night bus out of there with the next stop being by the coast in northern Chile and hopefully a little warmer…

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