As our bus drove through flat, endless desert for hours upon hours, we were both thinking to ourselves (but not telling each other) “why did we choose to go to San Pedro? This place is in the middle of nowhere.” The night before, we had boarded the bus in Santiago, and 18 hours later, we were only three quarters of the way there. Don’t get us wrong, the desert is a beautiful place, but after that many hours with only views of sand, rocks and an occasional trash dump, we both had a bad feeling that we were about to be disappointed. When our bus finally pulled in to San Pedro de Atacama, we were relieved, to say the least. After stretching our legs, we admitted to one another the feelings we were having on the bus. It only took a few minutes to realize that San Pedro is one dusty and isolated little town, but somehow from that very moment it captivated us.
We spent a week in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, using San Pedro de Atacama as our home base. Despite the apprehensions we had on the bus ride, we were not disappointed in the end. We were actually quite impressed by all the hidden gems to be found in this desolate place. We are not usually keen on taking organized tours, but San Pedro is a place where you have to go on tours if you want to see it all. The sights are spread over large distances, the roads are not marked making it unwise to rent a car, and the sun is so strong that biking would require more water than you could carry. In four days, we went on twice as many guided tours as we had in the previous 11 months of traveling. Much to our surprise, the tours ended up being really great.
Day 1 – Lagunas Altiplánicas, Laguna Chaxa & Valle de la Luna
For being the driest desert in the world, there sure is a lot of water in the Atacama. When we first arrived in San Pedro, we wondered how people manage to survive in this inhospitable place. It is such an extreme climate, in fact, that NASA has had an interest in this region for decades because the lack of life makes it almost like another planet. In the early ‘90s it was a test-site for the Mars Rover. The answer to how life is sustained here is underground water sources and snow melt which results in scattered lagoons. Our first tour took us to several of these lagoons, some sitting at elevations over 12,000 feet and others in the salt flat serving feeding grounds for pink flamencos. We even were lucky to catch a glimpse of some vicuñas (an indigenous species of the camel-family) grazing along the edge of a lagoon.
Valle de la Luna (or Moon Valley) is the most visited area in the Atacama Desert. Located just 8km from San Pedro, the drive is short, but it really does feel like leaving Earth all together. The valley is composed of great sand dunes, wind carved stones, and vast mountains of crystallized salt.
For centuries before becoming a national reserve, the valley was the site of prosperous salt mines. The salt is so abundant here, that you can literally break off a chunk of pure salt with just your fingers, and if you are quiet, you can hear the walls of the mountains cracking as salt expands under the heat of the desert sun.
Day 2 – Laguna Cejar, Ojos del Salar & Laguna Tebenquiche
As kids we both remembered learning about the Dead Sea and how it’s so salty that you can float on the surface with no effort. In the Atacama Desert you can do just that in Laguna Cejar. This lagoon is seven times more saline that the ocean, which allows you to roll around on your stomach, back and side with ease. After visiting Cejar Lagoon, our tour also took us to a few other incredible lagoons that pop-up out of nowhere in the middle of the desert. Possibly the most impressive was a very large, yet very shallow, salt lagoon that we could walk across, called Laguna Tebenquiche. The entire bottom of the lagoon is covered with a thick layer of glistening salt crystals. The water was so saturated that when it dried on our skin, we looked like we had just jumped in a huge tub of flour.
Day 3 – Geisers del Taito
Even for non-morning people like Mike, waking up at 7am isn’t too bad. Even rising in the 5s or 6s every now and again is acceptable. But waking up before 4am? Forget about it! Well, we bit the bullet one morning and set our alarms for 3:30am in order to take a tour to Geisers del Taito. In terms of elevation, they are the highest geysers in the world, sitting at over 13,000 feet, and are truly spectacular. When our bus arrived at the geysers just before sunrise, it was freezing (literally) and was one of those times when we wished we owned real shoes instead of only sandals. Gradually, the temperatures rose with the sun, and we even got to take a swim in a natural hot spring formed by the geyser run-off.
Our week in San Pedro de Atacama was well worth the 24-hour trip up north from Santiago (although we were still a little irked when people talked about how their flight took only 2 hours). Consecutive days of touring around the desert and exploring the town of San Pedro were exhausting, and we were always thankful to have an oasis-like hostel to retreat back to in the evenings. Its front entrance was unassuming, similar to the riad where we stayed in Marrakech, but opened into courtyard full of trees and hammocks.
If you are visiting Chile and debating whether or not to visit San Pedro de Atacama, we strongly encourage you to make your way up north, by bus or plane.