San Pedro de Atacama: the Chill Out Town
The Journey to San Pedro de Atacama
Having decided to give Bolivia a miss (lack of time) we made our way to San Pedro de Atacama. A Chilean frontier town renowned for its kick back lifestyle and amazing surrounding scenery it.
The journey from Huacachina to San Pedro de Atacama wasn’t all that great. 2 overnight buses each of around 12 hours the second being worse than the first but we got where we wanted to be. We arrived a little dishevelled and tired.
The first bus was another Cruz del Sur, which took us to the border town of Tacna on the Peruvian side where we decided to stay in a hostel before crossing the border the next day and resuming our journey. The only event of the journey was having to get off the bus as we were entering a “fruit fly free zone” (who knew they existed) and having all of our baggage checked whilst the bus was sprayed with chemicals. Who said travelling isn’t glamorous?? Tacna is exceptionally non-descript. It turns out that the majority of backpackers and travellers on this route cross the border immediately and stay in Arica (on the Chilean side) instead. This is certainly what we would have done in hindsight, not that Arica had that much to offer either, but more than Tacna.
The border crossing itself was the most exciting thing that happened on the long journey. Peru is considerably cheaper than Chile so there are vast numbers of Chileans crossing the border each way on a daily basis laden with goods which presumably they sell on the other side at a premium. Seeing folks stacked with toilet paper wasn’t uncommon – loo paper must be expensive in Chile! As such the border crossing is a pretty well-trodden path, but could be quite daunting. We have written a short article explaining the simple but laborious process here.
We had time to kill in Arica and met up with Fiona from the Inca Trail who was also heading the same way as we were; as all good Brits do we arranged to meet in the pub and pretty much killed the rest of the day there. As good a place as any.
Slightly drunk we boarded our next bus which unfortunately was a bit of a shocker. It was 12 hours long, we were sat next to the toilet and it stank. We were not in a great mood when we rolled into San Pedro. Not least because for some reason at about 3.30am we all had to get off the bus, take our luggage out and have it scanned at a security checkpoint in the middle of nowhere before climbing back on board again. Our first impressions therefore of our new town was tainted somewhat by our mood and we couldn’t help but think it looked like a bit of a dump.
We found our hostel which was perfectly reasonable although certainly not worth the US$80 we were paying per night and set off into the main town more to stretch our legs than anything.
Charming San Pedro de Atacama
Luckily, our first impressions did not last. We actually found the town of San Pedro de Atacama to be a thoroughly charming place, full of abundant character and realised we were too quick to judge. The roads were dirt tracks, and the buildings all in white stone or wooden clad were single story giving the town itself a feel of a Western frontier town. Clint Eastwood would not look out of place here, trotting down the street on his horse with cigar hanging out of his mouth. It also had a very laid back feel to it, instantly giving a sense of calm and relaxedness meaning that we’d found the perfect place to chill out for a few days. It was also full of dogs, wandering the streets and finding themselves in all sort of unusual positions. Needless to say, we want to take most of them back with us.
Our first day was spent meeting back up with Fiona (who’d taken a different bus to us) and booking some of the day trips the locality is renowned for.
Moon Valley (Valle de Luna)
Our first trip was to the Moon Valley (or Valle de Luna) a vast landscape which looks like nothing we had seen before – hence its name. The views were simply stunning and we spent a couple of hours hiking through some of the trails taking in the different fascinating sights. South America seems obsessed with seeing shapes of people in rocks so one of the sights were the Tres Marias, apparently the rocks that looked like rocks actually looked like three women, maybe too many drugs have been consumed here! The trip was finished by a drive to a panoramic view of the valley where we watched the sun set, changing the colours of the valley as the sun went down blending reds, browns and purples in a visual feast for the eyes. The tour is obviously a popular one though because we were not alone on the cliff side, with loads of other tours pitched at the same place. In reality it was quite crowded as people jostled for the best / perfect shots, mostly of themselves rather than the scenery.
Geysers el Tatio
Our second tour was to the Geysers el Tatio, a couple of hours drive from the hostel, and best seen early in the morning when the temperature was at its coldest. Therefore, we had to be ready for our bus at 4.30am. Unfortunately, the bus didn’t turn up for a full hour after that so we weren’t exactly best pleased for the start of our trip – particularly as it meant we were now unlikely to see the geyser field at its best. We had been warned to dress warmly because despite the temperatures in San Pedro de Atacama reaching 26-30c each day the temperatures at the geyser field at that time in the morning averaged -10c! What we hadn’t anticipated though was that the temperature in the bus on the way to the fields was even colder than that…it was freezing!
The fields themselves are at 4300m hence the temperature. It is the 3rd largest geyser field in the world and apparently also the highest field in the world. It was an impressive sight to see the steam rising across the fields as the boiling water bubbled and occasionally shot to the surface. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the geological dynamics of the field so we learnt quite a lot – her ability to explain really technical detail in both Spanish and English was very impressive.
One of the expected highlights of the trip was the ability to shed our clothes and have a dip in a thermal bath. In the end only Michelle actually got in, and I think regretted it. The pool itself wasn’t hot – but rather lukewarm, and even quite chilly in some parts of it. She got out colder than she went in and shivered for a few hours afterwards.
The final tour we did was a star gazing tour. San Pedro de Atacama is renowned for its spectacular night sky view because of its height of 2400m and a cloudless sky so the 3 of us were looking forward to this. Of course our tour guide was late (standard) and we had an unusual experience of being picked up in a truck and driven out of town by a driver who didn’t say a word to any of us. It transpired that this was simply a taxi ordered by the tour company and we got dropped off at a house about 6kms outside of town. All rather strange. We were then taken into a young man’s house where he had a TV set up and proceeded to show us the history and context of the universe. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English so I pretty much failed to learn anything although Michelle and Fiona fared much better. At this stage all pretty underwhelming.
We were then led to his back garden, and to an enormous telescope and things started to, ahem, look up. His charming mother started plying us with red wine, biscuits, cakes and peanuts whilst our guide excitedly showed us the different formations in the sky and we saw some amazing things through the telescope. We were able to see both Venus and Mars with the naked eye as well as more clearly through the telescope, we saw stars that had already died, like Beetlejuice, saw new constellations being formed, all quite incredible sights. Although hour host couldn’t speak English he was clearly passionate about the stars, exceptionally knowledgeable and we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Definitely helped by the bottle of red wine.
The following morning, we said farewell to Fiona who has been great company over the last few days and we know we will definitely be keeping in touch. Mich and I had a day to kill, and so we took San Pedro de Atacama at its word and pretty much just chilled for the day preparing for our own departure the following morning.
All in all, San Pedro de Atacama was a charming place to have stayed and the perfect antidote for a few weeks hectic schedule. I can definitely see why many people come here often down from Cusco, Bolivia and the Salt Plains to just relax and chill. The only downside really was the food, all of the restaurants seem to do omelettes, pizzas and sandwiches with little else.
Our next stop is Salta, Argentina where we have decided to really take our foot off the pedal and have rented an AirBnB apartment for a couple of weeks. Our plan is to take some Spanish lessons, hire a car and go exploring for our first experience of Argentina.