The many tours of San Pedro De Atacama

Well we’ve been very busy!

After leaving La Serena and the Elqui Valley, we headed up to San Pedro De Atacama, one of the driest places on earth, so much so that NASA use it for testing the Mars Rovers as it’s the most Mars-like location on earth.

So of course, it’s been raining for us.

It rains about once a year and it appears we’ve got (un)lucky. Nonetheless it hasn’t stopped us from a packed schedule.

San Pedro is one of the main tourist areas in Chile, surrounded by a wide variety of natural wonders which makes it a great base for tourists. As a result it’s very busy, and we ended up having to stay a 15 minute walk out of town to get anything even vaguely affordable. The accommodation was very basic and the bed was terrible (which meant we’re both very tired from lack of sleep) but at least it was cheap. Even a basic private bed in a dorm can cost upto 40 quid here if you stay in town (in truth it’s barely more than a village.)

San Pedro itself is a weird and lovely little place. Most of the action is on the main street, where every shop is either a tour company or a restaurant. I’m not exaggerating; there must have been about 20 tour companies on the main road alone. Everything is pot hole filled dirt roads around here, which made it properly feel like a desert town. We definitely had some of my favourite food here too, with lots of places doing cheap 3 course meals at lunch. It was nice to find food that (a) wasn’t bread and (b) had spiciness!

The first port of call on our adventure was to the meteorite museum; a private collection owned by two brothers, it gives a full explanation of how the universe and planets are formed with examples of all the types of meteorite that have been collected in the desert. The highlight was getting to touch 3 large meteorites, which were all approximately 4500 million years old. It’s safe to say I enjoyed the museum more than Laura but she was a good sport throughout.

On our first night in town the rain had really started to kick in. This is not a place built for rain- nothing is water tight, so everywhere has to switch the electricity off. This lead to us having a lovely romantic dinner in candle light. Unfortunately we’d tried to go for a drink beforehand however there’s a weird rule in town that you cannot buy booze unless you’re buying food too. A stupid rule I’m sure you’ll agree.

All the activities are based out of town in San Pedro which meant having to go on organized tours. We generally hate tours and avoid them but we had to make an exception and fortunately it went really well; we booked 3 tours with one company (Cosmo Andino) which were all really well organised and had a slightly more adult feel to it; we saw a bunch of tour groups full of gap year students which would’ve been our idea of hell!

Our first trip was to Valle De La Luna (Valley of the moon). It’s effectively a giant crater (formed by volcanoes collapsing not a meteorite) in the middle of the desert. The sheer scale of this place is incredible. The photos don’t do it justice but will hopefully give an idea of what’s involved. We also go to see where they used to mine the salt- due to the high altitude the water evaporates quickly leaving everything covered in salt. Very cool!

We were then taken to a mirador (view point) above the entire valley where we could try to grasp how big this place is. It also was a great opportunity to get some photos of us standing close to the edge of the cliffs!

By this point it had started to rain, which meant the final part of the trip, a walk around “Death Valley”, was cut short. The name apparently came from a mispronunciation of “Mars Valley” in French and nothing to do with death at all. We kept expecting to see Matt Damon appearing in his space suit!

It was laundry day, hence the stunning outfit I’m rocking

The first tour was just an afternoon one; our second tour was a full day trip to Salar de Tara- one of the biggest salt flats in Chile. The tour was almost called off due to weather- if it rains or snows in the mountains it’s possible for busses to get trapped there so they’re hyper cautious. Fortunately for us the tour went ahead and the weather ended up being incredible. San Pedro is around 2000m above sea level whereas our tour ended up peaking at 4800m which meant the weather changed dramatically; rain, snow, fog, and clear skies.

The main problem on this tour was that Laura felt really ill- whatever we’d eaten the night before had not agreed with her and had left her with some mild food poisoning. To add to the fun, there were no toilets on the whole trip. It seems we weren’t the only ones who hadn’t realised this, which meant an awful lot of stopping en route for people to scramble behind rocks to do their business. Not fun! Poor Laura struggled through but I did feel very sorry for her.

The salt flat is based in the Andes which meant driving through incredible scenery consisting of volcanoes and mountains, as well as some strangely placed wetlands full of flamingoes! A weird sight at 4000m in the middle of the desert. I was also surprised with how much wildlife there was for a desert. Vicunas (a relation of llamas) and alpacas were a common occurrence.

Snow on the way to the desert

The landscapes never failed to impress. The tour took us around some brilliant viewpoints, such as the “rock cathedral” and the “photo everyone takes” with the giant rock that looks like it has been sculpted into a person. I was particularly impressed with our minivan that somehow managed to cope with driving around in the middle of the desert without breaking it’s suspension or breaking down.

The culmination of the day was having a late lunch at the salt flat, complete with Chilean wine (which Laura did not have unsurprisingly.) I’d be very interested to come back and see this when it hadn’t just been raining, as I think the landscape was dramatically different for us relative to other tours. It was however still incredibly beautiful, and again difficult to grasp the sheer scale of this great plane that was so flat for so far and wide.

You’ll be pleased to know that Laura was partly recovered by the evening and sent her personal errand boy off to get take out pizza. This in itself was quite an ordeal; there is very little street lighting in San Pedro, which meant walking most of the journey home grasping a pizza with both hands and pointing a torch at my feet to try to not fall over one of the many pot holes. To get to our accommodation also involved crossing an incredibly rickety bridge which made for extra fun! San Pedro is also famous for its observatories and star gazing and we’d been hoping to use this evening to go on an observatory tour, but with Laura feeling unwell and the sky being cloudy we decided to pass and try and get some sleep.

My view as I headed out for pizza

Unfortunately our tour the next day was cancelled due to the weather. It had rained so much it had washed out a key bridge out of town and, although they were trying to rebuild it, it wasn’t going to be done in time. As a result we had a well deserved relaxing day, enjoying a nice walk around the town and getting some much needed work done. We’d organised to go on the star gazing tour at 11PM this night after cancelling the previous day, so we had a bit of a nap so we could stay awake till 2AM. Unfortunately the tour guide turned up to pick us up at 11:20 only to tell us he was sorry that the tour wouldn’t be running due to cloud cover. The weather has not been in our favour! This means we’ve managed to leave Chile without getting to a single observatory due to a combination of the bright moon and cloud cover, which I’m disappointed by but, c’est la vie!

On our final day we were getting a night bus to the border with Peru, which meant waiting around until 8PM. Both me and Laura hate this sort of day, and she suggested hiring bikes as we were able to grab a shower later from our accommodation (who were also kind enough to store our bags for the day.) I hadn’t slept at all the previous night and was quite grumpy but fortunately let Laura take the lead as the bikes ended up being a great idea. We cycled 18km into the desert to find Laguna Cejar, a salt lake which is very similar to the dead sea. The concentration of salt is so high that you naturally float in it. It took us a lot more than 18km to find it as the bike company had given us a terrible map, but it was worth it when we got there.

The sensation of being so buoyant is both weird and brilliant. It’s impossible to do frog legs when swimming as you sit too high in the water for a start. We couldn’t get over how quiet it was there, there were no tour groups and only a few other people. We had a lot of fun, although we both got a little sunburnt as you’re not allowed to use suncream in the lake.

We dried very quickly in the sun which left us both covered in a thick layer of salt. Fortunately there were showers so we could wash off!

The cycle back was incredibly hard. Did you know it gets quite hot in the desert around 2-3PM? The roads were also in terrible condition (no concrete in sight) which meant sore bums and arms. We were both very pleased to get back and get showered and fed after a really nice day out. I don’t think I’ve been that exhausted for some time, which helped with sleeping on the night bus. No Premium (180degree recline) bus was available so we were in cama (150 degree) which weren’t so good for someone who sleeps on their side. I think through sheer exhaustion I managed to get a fair amount of sleep, as did Laura.

This morning we were woken at 5am in Arica, the closest town to the border with Peru. I was literally not functioning, I think I must have just been in a deep sleep and had no idea what was going on. Fortunately for me Laura was a trooper and sorted everything out and shepherded me around. With the help of a nice Taiwanese tourist we’d met we managed to find the international bus terminal across the road to get a collectivo (shared taxi) across the border. We thought we’d have to wait as the border doesn’t open till 8, and Peru is 2 hours behind, but it turns out those rules don’t seem to apply to Collectivos who were fine to take us through despite it being 5am in Peru.

As we’d sat down in the taxi the driver asked us for a ticket. In Arica and all of Peru you have to pay a tax to use the bus station. Laura ran off to find out where to buy it whilst I stayed in the taxi with the bags. The driver started to pull away which panicked me somewhat but my cries of “mi esposa!” were met with an explanation that he was just moving out of the way slightly (good thing my ability to understand Spanish is improving). Fortunately Laura returned and all was well. We were particularly impressed with the service; you give your passport to the taxi driver and he returns with your peruvian entry form, fully filled out for you already. At each border (exit Chile, entry Peru) he guided us exactly where to go and what to hand over, and took us all the way to Arica, the nearest border town on the other side. All this for 4 quid each! Absolute bargain.

Our run of luck continued in Arica where we were able to get on our next bus a mere 10 minutes later. I’m on that bus right now! We’re heading to Arequipa, the midway town to Cusco where we will be starting the Inca Trail. I just hope the hotel is good as I think we both need a long nap. Hopefully the bus will get in in about 2 hours (5 hours total) and then it’s just a taxi to the accommodation. We’re getting very good at this travelling thing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *