After our short stay in Valparaiso, Ryan and I headed back to Santiago to fly up north to San Pedro de Atacama, the world’s driest (non-polar) desert. Average rainfall in the Atacama region ranges from 1-15 mm per year, although some areas have reported up to four years without rain. The aridity of the area, and therefore the lack of plant life, the orangish soil, the salt flats, and the mountains all contribute to an otherworldly appearance. It truly does feel like being on Mars, and this landscape attracts thousands of visitors every year to the Atacama Desert despite its harsh weather conditions.
The tiny town of San Pedro (population approximately 2,500) is indeed the most touristy place I have visited in Chile so far. You cannot walk 10 meters without tripping over yet another employee of a tour agency trying to pull you into his shop to sell you a package. They all work from the same sales book, too: Get the customer in the shop, sit them down, show them photos of all the tours on the computer, tell them the “normal price”, then tell them their super special “discounted price” only valid for whatever day you want to book it. After visiting three of these tour agencies, we got the picture and we just started popping our heads into places and saying, “We want to go fill-in-the-blank tomorrow. How much do you charge? What does it include? What time does it start and end?” Every place tried to get us to come in and sit down, but we knew better by then. It was a much more efficient way of shopping around. However, that said, the average price of every tour is pretty comparable across the board (and they’re not cheap). We saved about 5,000 pesos on one tour, which is only $8 USD. We probably could have bargained harder, though, as the competition is fierce and every company seems to offer multiple daily tours. Depending on what you want to do in the desert, the tour prices range from about $15-60 USD.
The reason for all the tour companies is that most travelers show up in the Atacama without their own transportation. San Pedro is extremely remote, 100 kilometers from the closest city of Calama. There are many shuttle busses that will transport you from the airport in Calama to San Pedro, but once there, you’re on foot. There are no taxis and no busses in San Pedro. You can rent a bike but there are very few places worth seeing that are also close enough to bike to in one day. So, where does that leave everyone? Booking expensive tours as a mode of getting “there” and back. Yes, of course the tour comes with a guide and usually a meal, but what you’re really paying for is the ride. Otherwise, you’re stuck in tiny San Pedro all day, which is fine but only for one day. The town is seriously about 8 square blocks.
Ryan and I ended up doing three tours:
1. Valle de la Luna / Valle de la Muerte: Located only 13 km (8 miles) outside of San Pedro, these valleys are the closest points of interest to the town. Valle de la Luna literally means “Valley of the Moon”and is called so because of its ethereal landscape full of stone and sand formations, salt flats, and caverns. Valle de la Muerte means Death Valley but it is also commonly referred to as Valle de Marte (Mars Valley) because of its resemblance to the red planet.
2. Las Termas de Puritama: The Puritama Hot Springs are series of 7 or 8 geothermal pools. They are located in a beautiful canyon 30 km from San Pedro. Although the pools have been developed with bathroom areas, changing rooms, and a paved and wooden sidewalk that connects all the pools, the pools themselves are very natural in appearance and feel. They are also not very hot. Ryan and I started referring to them as “warm springs” and some of them were just simply not warm enough to stay in for very long. Although the day was sunny, the outside temperature was only in the low 50s, so it was pretty chilly when walking (or in my case, running) between pools.
3. Full day tour of Laguna de Chaxa/Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, Lagunas Altiplánicas, and Salar de Talar/Piedras Rojas: This day was full-on, starting at 7am and ending around 7pm, with a lot of time driving from place to place. But we saw a lot of cool things and stunning landscapes. It was easily my favorite day in the desert. At the Chaxa Lagoon/National Flamingo Reserve, we got to see three different kinds of flamingos in the wild: Andean, Chilean, and James flamingos all live in this reserve. I learned that they get their pink color from eating pink brine shrimp that live in the lagoon. The Lagunas Altiplánicas are high-altitude lakes (Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques) that sometimes offer amazing reflections of the surrounding volcanos and mountains in their crystalline waters, but only when the water is flat. Sadly, we were there on an extremely windy day so we didn’t get to see this. Finally, the Salar de Talar and Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) are breathtaking landscapes that make you want to pinch yourself to make sure it’s real. Words don’t do it justice, and really, neither do the photos, but I did my best.
Aside from tour companies, San Pedro is rife with pricey restaurants, hostels, and little shops full of souvenirs. One should always shop around for a hostel upon arrival; there are dozens of them in town. Ryan and I made the mistake of booking an “AirBnb” online, which was actually just a crappy room in a hostel and way on the outskirts of town. We stayed there for two nights before canceling the rest of our reservation and moving to one of the much better options in town. Our new hostel was Hostal Vilacoyo and it was great. The women who run the joint are soooooooo nice and they will do your laundry for you. It’s also right in the middle of town and always has hot water (unlike the first place we stayed). And believe me, you want hot water because wintertime in San Pedro is colder than an Eskimo’s outhouse. The nights and mornings are especially frigid. Neither of our accommodations had heat, which is extremely typical for most places in Chile, but we did have SEVEN blankets on our bed, so sleeping cozily was achievable, despite an indoor temperature of about 40 degrees (4.4 celsius).
Overall, I enjoyed our time in San Pedro de Atacama. It is a part of this Earth that really makes you feel small, invoking feelings of both insignificance (you) and grandness (this planet). I know it sounds cliche, but it really isn’t like any other place in the world. And even though it’s well-touristed and very expensive, it’s worth the trip.