The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. It’s gateway town, San Pedro de Atacama is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, volcanoes (active and inactive) in Northern Chile. To be honest, this place wasn’t on our radar when we first started talking about coming over. It wasn’t until my sister, Katie mentioned to go that we started investigating and I’m so glad we made it. It has some of the most spectacular and foreign landscapes of the trip so far.
We arrived late one night to Calama, about a 1 hour drive from San Pedro, so we didn’t really get to see the vastness of the landscapes until the next morning. But like any weary traveller at the end of a journey, what we did need was food. Unsure of what to exactly expect from this town after 11pm at night, we ventured out onto the streets. We were pleasantly surprised. We managed to find a restaurant bar still serving food and as a bonus, with live music. The menu was extensive and we ended up getting a Parilla Plate for 2. This grill plate should have been suited to 3 to 4 people. When it came out it was huge. Steaks, chicken, ribs, black sausage, potatoes and corn. We barely ate half of it. Luckily we could take the rest back to our hostel and the meat served us for another 3 meals.
San Pedro was our first high altitude stop of the trip. The town sits at 2400m above sea level and we could definitely feel it. Just walking down the street you would be short of breath and your heart racing. I didn’t think I would feel the altitude as much as I did and was a bit worried as after San Pedro, we were only going to get higher.
The next day we woke up and readied ourselves for another free walking tour. We rocked up and we were the only ones there. The company had only started a month or so ago and the tour was still gaining traction. It was amazing having our own little private tour. Our guide, Tomas, had only recently moved to town but he was such a passionate guide about the area. He spoke about the many plants and botanicals and how they were used by the indigenous tribes, and are still being used today. Because the town is so isolated, they really needed to be able to live off the land around them, which isn’t an easy feat when you are living in such a dry climate. Herbs for anything you could think of – altitude sickness, headaches, stomach aches plus so much more. I ended up buying a tea to help with headaches from the local markets. It was a very strong tea with a pretty terrible taste. Tomas also spoke of the environmental impact of tourism and how everyone needs to be a responsible tourist with rubbish and the like.
While in San Pedro, we tried the Mote con Huesillo – a dried peach and wheat iced drink which was pretty delicious. The whole dried peaches had a very strong taste but the liquid was amazing. It would be perfect on a hot summer’s day, even though we were drinking it in the middle of winter, on a cold day.
The one thing I really wanted to do in San Pedro was to go see the stars. We had a slight problem in that we were there around the night of the full moon. The tour company I wanted to go with initially doesn’t run tours for the 3 days before and after the full moon because of how bright the moon is, you can’t see too much else. I was really disappointed but after doing a bit more research, we found another company that was still running tours.
We were picked up after dark and taken to the middle of nowhere. The moon was out and it seemed like daylight. I don’t think I have ever seen a moon so bright. Once we reached our destination, we hopped out and were taken to the telescope we would be using to view the night sky.
It was incredible, even with the moon. We saw Saturn, stars, galaxies and the moon, up close and personal. Dave was like a little kid he was so excited. Definitely a highlight for me and I can only imagine what the sky would be like without the full moon.
After doing some research online, we found that a trip out to the Geysers del Tatio was necessary. The only drawback of this tour, we needed to be up and ready to be collected by 4am, not an easy feat when you have spent the last 2 weeks drinking Chilean wine and sleeping in. But we managed it and we were on our way to see the geysers at dawn.
The reason for the early wake up was that the steam from 80 active geysers could be seen best in the early morning, and seeing the sunrise over the mountains just added to the drama. It was very eerie, if you could forget you were there with 200 other tourists.
We had packed our swimsuit (even though the temperature was something stupid like -10) to have a dip in the hot springs up at the geysers. Unfortunately (or fortunately) they had just emptied the pools so we didn’t have the opportunity. I was not-so-secretly happy about this. I felt that if the hot springs were open, I needed to experience it but since they were empty, I didn’t feel any of that traveller’s guilt for not swimming.
On the way back from the geysers, we stopped at a little food stop for some brochetes de llama – llama skewers. Both Dave and I got one each and with a little hesitation, we bit into the meat. It was delicious and well-seasoned. I probably could have eaten another one or two.
VALLE DE LUNA
On the same afternoon, we ventured into the Atacama Desert and took a tour of Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley. The landscape is completely foreign and not quite of this world. So different, that scientists have tested prototypes of the Mars rovers in this location. It makes for a stunning backdrop and makes you feel a little insignificant.
We walked along old salt mines and if you stood quietly, you could hear the salt cracking. It was like nothing I have ever heard before and something I wasn’t really expecting when our guide told us to listen quietly to the walls.
We were then transported to the best vista to watch the sunset. We also got to see the numerous people trying to get that perfect social media shot, with very little care for their own safety. While the sunset was beautiful, the entertainment of people watching won our attention in the end.
After geysers, sunsets and moonscapes, it was time to say adios to San Pedro and to Chile and welcome our next adventure over the altoplano and into Bolivia.