We arrived at the Atacama Desert (San Pedro de Atacama) at around 8:40am where we were dropped off at the bus terminal about 10 minutes from the town centre. Despite being early morning it was already really hot outside with completely clear skies and our accommodation was at least a 30 minute walk in the other direction from town – not fancying a 40 minute walk in the burning sun with our backpacks we took a taxi across the desert for 4,000 pesos (£5). Once at Altos de Quitor, where we were staying in a two person cabana for the next 2 nights at 24,500 pesos (£30) each, we dumped our bags and freshened up before walking into town.
It’s a little but surreal just wandering through the open desert, passing rocks, mountains and Glacier-topped volcanoes as you go, and it was a really peaceful walk (one where you could see hundreds of thousands of stars so close up at night) but it was also a good 30-40 minute walk that could get pretty exhausting in the desert heat and also a frustrating 1 hour 15 minute round trip if you just wanted to pop into town or the times when we needed to pop back to our accommodation to freshen up before going out again for the evening. You don’t want to complain about having to stroll through the dusty desert, but it’s hard not to on long, hot days.
Once in town – this really cute, clay-meets-wooden, low rise building, little town in the desert – we wandered around a few tourism shops to get an idea of prices for the various things we wanted to do while in San Pedro. Now I generally hate going on organised tours and would always prefer to get there by myself and explore on foot, but due to the size of the desert and the distance between each landmark (and the sometimes rocky terrain) it’s hard to get around and see the sights without a tour. As with most places you can pay a bit less than the average price but end up on a mass tour where you are rushed between places and feel lost within a huge crowd, so we decided to pay a little bit more and go with a tour company – Telutra – as we had really liked the tour representative, Fran, and understood we would be paying for small groups direct with their agency for a more unique experience with an English speaking tour guide.
After booking both Valle de la Luna and El Tatio Geysers for 12,000 and 20,000 pesos respectively, we went next door for their Pollo de Asuado for 3,500 pesos each, which included barbecued chicken on the bone with rice and salad (plus the classic bread with salsa as a starting snack). Having survived off empanadas, bread rolls and hot dogs (completos) it was a delicious, welcome (and fresh) change.
Annoyingly we then had to walk back to our accommodation to properly check in and put our bags in our tent as we wouldn’t be back again until late that night – and would then be getting up again at 4am for our geyser tour – and didn’t fancy sorting our things out in the pitch black. So this was our first experience of completing over an hour round trip just to “pop back” to our hostel.
We were then back in town by 3:50 in time for our 4pm Valle de la Luna tour with Telutra, where we were surprised to follow Fran as she lead us through the town and left us on the side of the road with other people. She then left, just before Katie managed to double check we would have an English-speaking guide to which she affirmed, for a group of 15 of us (after we were promised 12 max) were lead to a nearby van. On the van we were told to put our seat belts on, for me to discover my seat – on the back row with no other seats in front until the driver’s seat way ahead – didn’t have a seatbelt, and when I asked the tour guide he shrugged his shoulders and said in very broken, basic English, that there was nothing he could do. This wasn’t looking promising.
Let’s continue with the bad stuff. Firstly, most Valle de la Luna tours charged 8,000 pesos without the 3,000 entrance fee included. Fran said if we paid 12,000 then our entrance fee would be included and we would be part of a smaller, more tailored group. After being shoved on a bus with 15 people, as part of another tour agency completely, everyone was asked to hand over the 3,000 entrance fee. We tried to explain our position but our guide spoke barely any English so he got another man – presumably a tour guide from another group, who did happen to speak English, to abruptly inform us that our guide didn’t have the money to cover us so we would pay or we wouldn’t be going in. I’m not really sure what happened or changed after that but our tickets were purchased for us, and this was confirmed through gesture and broken English by our guide.
So, our “English-speaking” guide, despite being lovely after that, barely spoke any English – he referenced Duolingo to me at one point so he is obviously at the early stages of teaching himself – but he also gave our group absolutely no information on the sites we were seeing. So at every place we stopped, as we were wandering around, we had no idea what exactly we were seeing or the history of it. I even tried to eavesdrop into other tour groups to try to get a sense of what it was I was witnessing. It was so disappointing – we basically just paid to be driven around.
The good stuff. The landscape is absolutely stunning. Whilst I can’t really describe to you how it was all formed or what it signifies, I was blown away by the beauty and diversity of the desert.
We drove down narrow valley lanes with peaked mountains on either side, and then into open spaces that were dusted white with salt. We went on walks over the dry mountains, and then came to sand dunes that we could climb, gifted with views of the mountains and volcanoes at the top.
It was still incredibly hot and humid even at 7pm and with stuffy bus rides in between each location it was tiring, but breathtaking at the same time. We arrived at our last stop at around 7:45pm where we could sit on the edge of the mountain and watch the sunset over the valley below us. Despite our frustrations and not getting the full experience we had hoped for – I want to know what I am seeing and understand the history of where I am – it was still a wonderful afternoon due to the natural beauty of it.
Back in town around 9pm we walked through the market, picked up some food and beers, and walked back to our accommodation in the pitch black with the moon illuminating and guiding us. It was only once we were back at 11pm that we saw messages from our tour to say they geyser tour the following day was cancelled due to agency “problems” (you don’t say), apologising for our Luna tour and offering a refund. Annoyingly we hadn’t booked a star gazing tour for that evening as they end at 1am and we would then be up again at 4am, but we were also pretty pleased to have a lie in.
So the next morning we woke at a reasonable hour, had breakfast (included with our hostel) and then headed out to Valle de la Muerte for sand boarding. Our hostel provided sand boards to rent for free, so we slid them in between our backs and our backpacks and started the 40 minute walk to the sand dunes – it is about 3/4km from town but fortunately we were closer so had further to trek.
We reached the entrance to Valle de Muerte about 10 minutes in where you then have to pay 3,000 pesos entry, before we walked through the stunning Valley, crossing small streams, with clay-coloured mountains either side of us. It’s hard to explain how wonderful and surreal it all is. Because Kate and I can faff, we finally reached the sand dunes around 11:30, which is actually a bit too late in the day as not only is the sun high in the sky but the sand is also really hot so I would advise either early morning or late afternoon.
It was when we arrived that we suddenly realised neither of us really knew what we were doing; I haven’t done snow boarding before and was utterly shocking at skiing the one time I tried it when I was 11, which would be NINETEEN YEARS AGO (God, that’s ghastly). It also became quite apparent how underprepared we were in terms of clothing, wearing shorts, a top and normal trainers whereas everyone else was covered up and wearing shoes that protected their ankles. So we didn’t know how to technically sand board and nor were we really equipped to. All of a sudden I was a bit nervous. As we stood in the blinding heat, anxiously watching well-equipped individuals climb the dune to then effortlessly slide back down (alright, some did tumble, flipping over like clothes in a washing machine) I started to feel more apprehensive but really didn’t want to turn back after coming all this way.
Fortunately, at this point, a Chilean came over and said we looked like we needed help (what?! Noooo. Totally cool here. Sandboard pros, us…) and told us he was leading a tour of sandboarding. After admitting no we didn’t even know how to properly set ourselves up on the board, he very kindly showed us how to strap in properly, how to get ourselves up in the starting position and how to balance whilst on the board. Oh, and how to stop!
After the brief tuition, he was off and we were left to give it a go, first of all climbing halfway up the dune to get used to the skills, and then heading to the top for a better, steeper slope and more momentum. We didn’t go quite as high as others did, nor probably quite as fast, but it was a lot of fun and not half as scary (nor out of control) as I expected. Oh and the jaw-dropping scenery definitely helped.
After trundling back to our accommodation we made our way into town as we wanted to get our refund for the two tours and we also wanted to change our pre-booked bus tickets back to Santiago for a day later – we loved the Atacama desert so much and didn’t want to rush while we were there, plus we had to fit in the geysers at some point, so we had decided to try to stay an extra night. We ended up paying 6,400 pesos extra each as the tickets were more expensive for the following day but after getting our Valle de Luna money back it felt justified. We then booked a new geyser tour with Whipala for 20,000 each for the following day and then parted ways for a few hours where I wandered round town, perused the shops and sat in the Plaza de Armas as the sun was setting and the street musicians were starting to play.
Annoyingly we had to go all the way back to our hostel to change before heading out again at 10:30pm to make it into town in time for our star gazing tour with Una Noche Con Las Estrellas (A Night With The Stars) for which we had paid 15,000 pesos each. Around 20 of us were put into a minibus before being driven to a spot approximately 15 minutes away where we were the split into two groups for Spanish and English. Sat on plastic chairs in a semi circle, with blankets provided and a small glass of Chilean wine, our group were first given information about the Stars we could see – this included the Southern Cross and how to locate it plus how to use it as a compass, Orion’s Belt, and a few of the star signs.
This night was the last of the tour for about 5 days due to the moon being too big to see the stars properly so some things weren’t overly clear, but it was so interesting and you could easily spot the galaxies and various star formations. We then had a break with hot chocolate, biscuits and crisps before swapping with the other group and having the chance to observe stars through their telescopes; an up-close viewing of Jupiter with 4 of its 7 moons visible; one of the points of the southern cross and its twin star; a clear view of a smokey galaxy splattered with glittering stars; and the highlight, a ridiculously close shot of the moon with its cheese-like craters and blinding white. It was so impressive and a really enjoyable, informative evening.
The minibus left to take us back at 1:30pm and was dropping people off at their hostels, however as ours is past a river (usually dry but with rocks) the bus couldn’t go over it so we were dropped off just before the river and had to walk 20 minutes back to our tent at 2am, before getting up again just over 2 hours later in time for our 5-5:30am Geyser tour pickup. I’m unsure if I even really slept.
So, at 5am, freezing cold, we are sat outside our hostel waiting to be picked up for our tour and, of course, we are the last ones to be collected at 5:30. We the drove for about 1.5 hours to El Tatio, which is 4,320m above sea level so on the journey I started to feel the impact of the altitude change pretty quickly, feeling my eyes pop as well as my head go slightly dizzy. I did manage to nod off for a lot of it and when we arrived at around 7am, the shock of the cold as we stepped of the minibus was enough to shock me into waking.
Oh and the view – of the dozens of geysers emitting hot, bubbling water and steam, which would rise into the mountains and volcanoes, was just spectacular. I am running out of words to describe San Pedro de Atacama and all its natural, breathtaking beauty.
It reminded me of Iceland – because of the geysers and the mountains, but also because it is just so fresh and raw, and so little is manmade. It’s almost as if your soul connects with nature as you walk around, absorbing it all as the sun slowly rose.
After spending 45 minutes there we drove to the next spot where we had an amazing breakfast of scrambled eggs, smashed avocado, toasted bread rolls, cheese and ham. Obviously we didn’t eat enough as we then raided the back of the minivan for any rogue chocolate chip cookies. Haven’t eaten in months, you see….
After breakfast we had the opportunity to brace the elements by stripping off (sure, make us eat tonnes of food and THEN get naked – I feel just perky) in a temperature of -4 and hopping quickly into the natural thermal bath. Although “thermal” would be used loosely for me as it wasn’t quite as hot as I expected, but still warm and relaxing for the early morning. Oh and the reason you set off so early is because you can see the geyser steam more clearly before the sun rises, although maybe the lack of daylight is why approximately 5 people have died by falling into the geysers…
On our way back into town we made a stop at Volcan Putana to walk along the side of the road for glorious views of the volcano, also spotting some flamingos and camels on our drive back through the valleys and mountains.
and another at Manchuca – a little village where I paid 2,000 pesos to eat barbecued llama meat which was actually really delicious and quite gamey, reminding me of a combination of lamb and kangaroo. We before eventually arriving back at our hostel at around 1pm, completely satisfied from our tour but utterly exhausted.
The rest of the afternoon was spent laying in the hammocks, sunbathing by the pool and booking our accommodation for our time back in Santiago, before showering, changing and making our way into town at around 7pm.
It was still really hot and had been a long day so as soon as a car came along we stuck our thumb out and we’re lucky to catch a ride with a local tour company owner who was driving his van into town. We just couldn’t face doing that walk yet again! We first made our way to a local “pub” that was adorned with football shirts on the walls and ceilings and had copious amounts of beer on offer, where I had a Kunstmann Miel (honey beer) and we were joined by two Argentinians where we attempted to make conversation in both broken English and broken Spanish for half an hour.
We then walked over to Barros – a restaurant we had been recommended and had been planning to visit since we first arrived. Clearly a jaunt for the locals and a popular place, the prices for food were really reasonable (ranging from 3,000 pesos for a main) and we quickly ordered a really good glass of house wine each (Sav Blanc) for 2,000 pesos a glass. As we were perusing the menu we began eyeing up the food on the table next to us and, after engaging in conversation with the two women and them offering for us to try their food, we ordered the exact same as them – Katie a chicken lasagne for 3,500 and me a tomato and oregano omelette with salted potatoes for 3,000. As usual, we were presented with bread and their salsa to nibble on before our mains arrived, enjoying yet another glass of wine as we chatted over our food.
Oh and the local, Chilean live music that was being played – after the Elvis impersonator – added to the whole ambience of our final evening in the desert. On our way back we managed to hitchhike with a local whom at first claimed not to speak English but then bizarrely proceeded to have a conversation with us in English, where we were dropped off just past the river and then had our final walk back with the stars lighting our way.
Our plans for the following morning were to have breakfast, check out and then use the free bikes at the hostel to explore more of the nearby desert. However the bikes were all broken – as were the helmets, which, after our luck, had us crying with laughter – and, after attempting to cycle out for about 15 minutes and spending the whole time struggling to control and brake the bikes, we despondently walked the bikes back to our hostel. Katie decided to spend the afternoon chilling at the hostel while I headed out for a walk, going in the opposite direction of the town and exploring the nearby valley.
I then walked over to Pukara de Quitor, a fortress built for strategic and defensive purposes that overlooks the San Pedro River. It was around 3pm when I paid 3,000 pesos to enter, and by this point I was hot, tired and hungry and the sun was still blazing down on me, so the half hour climb to the top was a difficult one. But once up there the cool breeze and panoramic, mountainous views calmed me before I made my way back down again.
I got back to the hostel just after 4 and spent about an hour cooling off by the pool before we had to shower and do our final pack, to then catch a taxi back to the bus station. The hostel owner – Daniel – had promised he would be there to call us a taxi when we asked about it earlier in the day but if course, as our luck has it, he wasn’t, so we desperately tried to communicate to the non-English-speaking staff about how quickly we needed to get a cab before Daniel fortunately turned up in one and we could just take the same one back into town. Not, however, before a random police check had us stopped on the side of the road, anxiously sitting in the back as time seemed to fly by. We made it, however, arriving with plenty of time to pick up some food and drink for our agonising 22 hour bus journey back to Santiago at 6:45pm, where we had the same bus guy as when we came into San Pedro who greeted us both with a big smile and a kiss on the cheek.