I had been looking forward to this trip to San Pedro de Atacama for weeks; work had gotten stressful, and I was tired of the vast amount of human beings in the big city. My friend Tracy and I had bought our tickets a month and a half prior, and we were ecstatic that the day had arrived. I packed a backpack and walked 15 minutes to Tracy’s house. From there an Uber met us. The driver, Rowina, asked for a little extra cash to take us into the airport parking lot as Ubers aren’t allowed there legally. It wasn’t much more money than the original Uber price for that distance, so I agreed, and we were on our way.
The flight from Santiago to the northern town of Calama is 2 hours, and I slept the whole way. Tracy was lucky enough to get a window seat and got some amazing shots of the Andes from an aerial view.
Once we arrived in Calama, we breezed past all of the peddling travel agents and headed out towards a taxi. We found one for 8,000 pesos, about $14.50, that would take us to the bus station. It was a 15 minute drive, and we got to see a little of the town we would not be staying in. From what I saw, I was just fine leaving it as soon as we arrived.
Before the next leg of our journey, we filled up on delicious empanadas. Then proceeded to wait an hour because our bus to San Pedro was that late. It was a little annoying because now this meant we would be arriving to a completely unfamiliar destination in the dark, but there was nothing else we could do. Finally it pulled up, and we were on our way. The bus ride to San Pedro is an hour and a half long, and we spent it relaxing luxuriously on the top level of the bus. It wasn’t until we stopped at a tiny bus stop that we noticed how gorgeous the sunset was over the desert.
By the time we arrived to San Pedro is was extremely dark, making the bus station looked very sketchy. We couldn’t find our hostel’s location on our phones; the address didn’t seem to exist. So Tracy and I decided to see if the taxi drivers knew where it was. No such luck. However, there was a phone number on the website which we were able to call, and the host was able to give the taxi driver directions.
Five minutes later we were at the Green House Hostel. Once we arrived, we knew there was no way we would have ever found it as there is no sign out front like hostels usually have.
The host’s name is Daniel and he spoke very good English much to our relief since I’ve found the more tired I am the worse my Spanish gets, and we had been traveling in total for about 9 hours. We were also blessed to have the whole hostel to ourselves for our stay! There were no other guests coming, and it felt like we owned the place. Once we dropped off our stuff, Daniel took us into the town center where we could find some dinner and start looking at what tours we wanted to do. On the short walk there, I finally had a chance to relax and look around. Here’s a hint; the smaller the town, the more stars you can see. We could see the entire Milky Way.
We didn’t know what we wanted for dinner, all we knew is that it had to be cheap. So Daniel suggested this little place just off the main street that gave you a huge plate of chicken and french fries for 3,200 pesos, $4.80. Fries are always good, but the chicken was surprisingly savory. Easily some of the best chicken I have ever had.
After eating, we went hunting for tours. Daniel said that we could talk about it in the morning,as he worked with some tour companies, but we were too impatient and excited to wait. Besides, I wanted to walk around and see who had the best prices. Towards the end of the strip, a nice French man got our attention and showed us the tours his company, Andes Travel, offered. He said that since it was the slow season, they could make cheaper offers. I was skeptical at first, but knew we could always ask Daniel for his opinion. So we left with a brochure, and headed back to the hostel for the night. Once we found our way back, we talked it over and chose what tours we really wanted and which ones we weren’t as concerned about.
Our room was small, and the bunk beds weren’t as stable as I would have liked, but they were comfortable and the blankets were warm, and we fell right asleep.
Tracy woke up at 8am to go running; she says it’s her way of exploring new places when she travels. However, this time, she explored a little too far. When she got back, Her hand was dripping blood, and there were holes in her windbreaker. Apparently she ran by a house that owned some unfriendly dogs. She said they chased her for a mile, biting and snapping at her. I tried not to freak out as I ran around looking for a first aid kit. Thankfully someone had been a paramedic in a past life because there was a large red ambulance bag under a table. I grabbed it, and started rummaging. While I was doing that, Tracy stripped of her leggings to reveal some pretty big teeth holes in her thighs. Needless to say, we got pretty close that weekend.
I finally found something that said cloruro de sodio, and it took me a second to realize it was sodium chloride in Spanish. So I told her to get in the shower so I could spray her legs down with it and clean out the wounds. There was also a sanitizer that I then applied. It too was in Spanish and I wasn’t sure if it was for open wounds or just a hand sanitizer, but I figured it couldn’t do any more damage. Once we stopped the bleeding, Tracy woke Daniel up. She obviously needed medical attention, and we didn’t know where to go to get it.
He was as shocked by the incident as we were, and we were soon on our way to the “hospital”. There were several people there already, and the doctor wouldn’t be able to see her for about an hour; or, she had the option to pay 40,000 pesos ($60) to be first in line. She declined their offer, and opted to wait.
While she waited, Tracy asked me to take her credit card and go buy the tours we had decided on. She was worried the seats would fill up as there were only about 20 for each tour. She also wanted some coffee. I left her there with Daniel as her translator and happily left. I had to admit I was eager to get out and feel like I was doing something useful. I ended up signing us up for 3 tours: Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) in the evening, a night time astronomical tour, and one for the following morning that would take us to 2 places. It was $68 for each of us for those 3 tours.
I eventually found coffee, and took it back to the hospital where she was already with the doctor. I asked Daniel about the tour prices, and he said we got a pretty good deal. The doctor said that Tracy would be fine. He had cleaned her wounds, put on some thick bandages, and the nurse gave her the rabies shot. I had been really afraid for her as I was always told that a rabies shot consisted of a giant needle inserted into your stomach. Thankfully that’s the old fashioned way. She just needed a series of 5 in her arm. I was so glad that everything went well, and that she was still ready to go on tours and have fun.
At 3pm we were at the tour agency ready for our first adventure of the trip. Our guide’s name was Fabian, and he was a very kind Argentinian who spoke Spanish, English and Portuguese. As we set out, he proceeded to give his speech first in Spanish then in English. Some of the places we wanted to see were in parks that had entrance fees. We were super excited to enter the Valle de la Luna!
We quickly arrived at some salt caverns. There was a trail that wound it’s rough way through salt scarred hills and down underground passageways. We were told to just use the flashlight on our phones to see. With everyone working together, we made it through just fine.
The trail went up and down and every direction. But at one point we reached a high spot where you could see the mountains to the west. On top of one of them was the border of Bolivia. It’s the one my finger is pointing to.
The salt caverns were super cool and had some great views. It was a fun little side hiking trip.
Next the tour took us to a few sand dunes. There were some cool aspects, but I wasn’t super wowed. The most interesting part was how earthquakes had shaped the land. It was easy to see where the rock had been pushed right out of the ground in undulating waves.
We climbed to the top the sand dunes and saw a little salt flat, and the dunes stretching away from us were pretty picturesque.
We stayed and watched the sun sink for about 15 minutes or so, then decided we wanted to go back to the truck. Fabian had told us that we needed to be there at 5:15 so we could get to the Moon Valley in time. This was critical as there was a point in the day where everything changed colors. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but I was about to find out.
Once the sun started to set over the Moon Valley, the entire landscape turned rainbow. The hills leading up to the mountains had stripes of pink and yellow and red with hints of green. The valley itself was a lavender color, and the sunset was just spectacular. The clouds made it that much more incredible. As the sun set further over the hills, the colors kept changing, it was amazing.
Later that night we were supposed to go on the astronomy tour. Unfortunately it was canceled due to the cloud coverage. So we would just have to wait for another night. Instead we went hunting for a place Tracy had read about that served fries with a slab of steak, grilled onions and eggs on top. We eventually found La Casona, a lovely little restaurant with an authentic adobe fireplace. We shared the plate, and that is some of the best steak I have ever had.
Afterwards we did some shopping around and headed home.There are tons of tourist shops that all carry the same thing, but they are like the tour agencies. You need to go to a lot of them and price them out. There was one shop I found that was cheaper than all the rest. Needless to say, she got all of our business, and I got a really cool llama sweater.
The next morning we were up by 7 and getting ready for our 8 am tour. Apparently it’s popular for the tour companies to come and pick you up from your hostel instead of having you walk all the way into town. It was a very kind gesture, but they were always late, and then you had to wait in the bus while they drove around town and picked up everyone else. I would have rather just walked into town and waited, it would have been much faster. They said they did this because otherwise the clients would be too lazy to get up and get to the agency that early. In my head I was thinking that that’s up to them, and then we wouldn’t have to waste all this time. But it was out of our hands. We ended up waiting next to the town cemetery. Tracy and I walked in and explored a bit. Instead of headstones, simple black crosses were used for the most part, and there were some lined up inside the walls; for sale I imagine.
It was certainly a special place for the townspeople. I was kind of fascinated by it, and I admit I thought it was quaint, though that might not be the right word to describe a little cemetery in a poor desert town. But that’s what kind of made it special.
On our way to our first stop, we were super excited to see some animals finally! First we caught sight of a lone guanaco. A little later on, we found a group of them. They were so adorable.
After a few more minutes, we ran into a large herd of llamas, but these were not wild, and weren’t bothered by the vehicle at all. These were owned by ranchers, and used for their wool and sometimes their meat. It was obvious they weren’t wild since they had tags on their ears just like cows do in the United states.
Close to the llamas were some free-range burros. It was a little herd, but they were so cute and small, until 2 of them started fighting. So we stopped and watched for a minute before continuing on.
Our first stop that morning was at an archaeological site that displayed very ancient petroglyphs. There was a trail to follow that took you to all of the popular carvings that had withstood the test of time. Fabian explained to us the different stories behind them, and what the animals symbolized to the people who once lived here.
Here you can see a two-headed fox. One head points up to the sky, and one down to the ground. This has something to do with the gods of the sky and of the land, and how both are recognized. There was evidence of how the quality of art increased. The older llamas had stick legs, whereas the newer ones had fully drawn ones, for example.
After exploring the petroglyphs, it was time for breakfast. Apparently they are also included in morning tours. It’s a pretty decent breakfast too, with bread, butter, jelly, ham, cheese, avocado, coffee, etc. As I ate, I got to look around and appreciate the historic site.
Once breakfast was finished, we piled back into the bus, and headed over to Valle de la Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley. It was appropriately named as the colors were just stunning for such a naturally made place. The clay was such a deep red and copper mixed into the dirt turned the hills as green as the Statue of Liberty.
I could have spent forever wandering around that place, and exploring the colors and canyon walls. Sadly we were a little rushed along by a tour group behind us. We quickly learned that the best place to be was in the lead. That way we could get some great photos before people got in the way.
Once we got back to town, the nice French man at the tour agency flagged us down. He said that he knew someone who could take us horseback riding. I of course had inquired about it quickly the day before, but he had gone a step further and set it all up for us. So we had to run home so I could change into some jeans, and when we came back, he took us to meet a very kind French woman whose name escapes me now. She drove us and her adorable son in her truck out to where the horses were kept. It was only a 5 minute drive of course. Once we got there, her older son, who we later learned was 10, helped get the horses in order. I was given a nice chocolate brown gelding named Chico Marco. It was so nice just the three of us going out. Taking tours with lots of strangers gets exhausting.
She gave us the option of either riding to the oasis, or through the canyon. I asked which one was more scenic, as we didn’t want to ride over flat boring desert. So she said we would ride through El Garganta de Diablo, or Devil’s Throat canyon. I instantly wondered if I had made the right decision.
We walked through the outskirts of town for awhile, and it was kind of nice, because we got to see a side of San Pedro we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Finally the houses ended and the desert began. Then the real riding started.
Once we wound our way into the canyon, we had room to run. I had never galloped over such rough terrain before, but the horse knew how and I trusted him. It was amazing, I felt like John Wayne in a Western movie. I did feel bad for Tracy, her horse was much lazier than mine and kept trotting, and the bouncing was hurting the wounds on her legs a little. But she was a trooper and kept up with us the whole way. She said she had a good time, so I was happy. We got to watch the sun set behind the canyon walls as we rode back into town. Once again the colors were gorgeous. I couldn’t get very many good photos as the movement of the horse made it all blurry.
Once we got back, we helped our guide unsaddle and unbridle the horses. As she was organizing the horses for the night, I was finally able to get a decent dusk photo of the Andes.
After our magical ride, we treated ourselves to some pizza in a lovely little hole in the wall restaurant. Literally, it was all the way down a long skinny hallway. The place was open roofed, with a fire burning in the middle of the tables. Surprisingly we were warm enough. It had been cloudy and a little brisk all day. Therefore our astronomy tour was canceled once again.
Once again we got up at 7am with the sun, got dressed had our necessary cup of coffee at the hostel, then waited outside for the tour bus to pick us up. This was the day I was super excited for, because we were going to the Salar de Atacama, or the Salt Flats of Atacama. This was already a special place to me because a couple months before I moved to Chile, I had been reading a guide book, and the first picture was an amazing photo of mountains, with glass-like water where wild flamingos lived. I had never seen anything like it. I even went and showed my mom I was so excited about it. Today was going to be the day where I went and personally visited that amazing place I saw in the book. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.
To be honest I was surprised to see so much water, especially in the driest place on earth. Turns out this salar is the lowest point in a large hydro-logical basin, so all the runoff rainwater comes here. There was actually more water than usual since it had recently snowed, so there was a lot more runoff water than there usually is. The last time it snowed in that area was 40 years ago.
We finally had our first completely clear day, and the sky was so blue. It was perfect weather, it was even warm enough to walk around in a T-shirt. Usually this would sound normal in the desert, but it is the dead of winter in Chile at this time in late June, early July. We saw several different kinds of birds, but it was the flamingos that were the most interesting. I even saw one dancing. They do quick stepping movements in a circle with their beaks in the water to catch the shrimp they churn up. The brine shrimp are super tiny, almost microscopic. It’s amazing to think this is the main part of their diet, and that it affects them enough to change the color of their feathers.
I could have stayed there all day just enjoying the view; the serene reflections on the water, the warmth of the sun, and the dancing flamingos. Sadly we couldn’t stay long, we had to eat breakfast and leave right afterwards.
Our next stop was a town smaller than San Pedro, with about 2,000 people in it. We didn’t stay long, with just enough time to grab something to drink if we needed it and to stretch our legs.
The most interesting part of the town was a very old clock tower from the 18th century. It was built out of light, porous volcanic rock, and has stood all this time. This is impressive because an earthquake destroyed the church that was previously there. It has since been rebuilt, but it is no longer the original one from the same time period. You can see a piece of it behind the clock tower.
The town was cute for the most part, but also very poor sadly. Their biggest source of income was from mining (or minery as our guide kept saying. Bless him, but his English was nowhere near perfect, but it was cute) and agriculture.
Just outside the town is another little archeological site. This part of the tour was very confusing to me. It was never made clear to us what we were here to see, but it was 1,500 pesos to get into the park, which wasn’t much thankfully as I thought the whole tour there was a waste of time. We started out at the end it seemed. There were different sites and points of interest along the way, but we started at number 6 and worked our way backwards. First we stopped at a little house that I thought was authentic, but was really a replica of how houses used to be built a century or so ago. It was hard to really understand as the information plaque had some very unclear English.
We continued along this trail towards a teeny tiny little cave. Unfortunately we had lagged behind the group to take photos and missed the explanation, but there didn’t seem to be anything very exciting there.
It was basically a nature walk past a river, and up a hill where we saw another llama petroglyph, which was honestly the most thrilling part of that whole tour. After that we walked along the dusty trail back to the bus, and didn’t even get to see stations 1-3. I would have been happier staying at the salar, but who knew this place would be so…..well, useless. At least there were some pretty views, like the canyon.
The ride back to town was relaxing, and we dozed the whole way. Once we arrived back, Tracy and I were ready to go bike riding! We wanted to go to Valle de Marte. This valley has 2 names, Mars Valley, and Death Valley. It was originally named the Mars Valley, but the man who named it spoke such bad Spanish that it sounded like he said muerte instead of marte, which means death.
Our plan was foiled though, because it was 3,000 pesos, which is only $4.50, but we had spent enough at that point, and the valley wasn’t worth that much to us. It honestly just felt good to get out by ourselves and ride. We knew that we would probably never get the chance to just ride bikes through a landscape like this again.
I felt the effects of the altitude for the first time when we started going up hills; it was hard to catch my breath, and I felt a little dizzy. But we rested, and I felt better pretty quickly. Besides, the view was totally worth it.
We were out for an hour, which cost us only 1,000 pesos each. Afterwards, it was finally time to shower! I’ll be honest, we hadn’t showered since we got there. I was too lazy, and didn’t mind the dirt since I had to repeat outfits, and Tracy couldn’t because she couldn’t get her wounds wet.
She went first, while I watched the second half of the Confederate Cup finals game; Chile vs. Germany. Germany won, and the whole town went silent, then proceeded to hit the bars and get drunk. Literally.
When Tracy was finished I covered her thighs in band aids, and re-wrapped the gauze on her hand to cover the stitches. Then I showered; for the record, hot water runs out fast in the desert. The water I showered in was cold but extremely refreshing, as I’m sure you can imagine. For the first time since we got there, we had about an hour to relax around the hostel. It was a nice little place with several rooms that had 2 or 4 beds. There was also a nice outdoor area with tables, chairs, and best of all, hammocks.
That night we were finally able to go on our astronomical tour! It didn’t start until 8pm, so we had quite a bit of time to kill. After relaxing at the hostel for a bit, we went out for our last dinner in San Pedro. We ended up going back to the same chicken place we had gone to our first night. It was so good! No regrets there. It was still early, so we walked around the shops, and Tracy wanted some ice cream. So we wandered around, relaxed, until it was time to go to the observatory.
It was on the outskirts of town; our shortest drive by far. There were 2 astronomers, one from Italy, and one from Bolivia. The Bolivian gave the speech in Spanish, and the Italian translated it for us English speakers. It was quite nice, they had coffee, hot cocoa, and snacks for us. The experience was great; the only downside was that the moon was out, which meant it’s brightness drowned out out some of the stars. On the other hand, I was able to get an amazing photo of the moon through one of the telescopes.
It was a bittersweet feeling as this was our last night in San Pedro. Tracy and I both agreed that we could have stayed longer. We had both been told that 3 or 4 days there was enough, but I would have been happy staying there for 3 or 4 months. I much prefer San Pedro to Santiago. Needless to say I’ve definitely learned that I am not a big city person.
The next morning we got up early, and Daniel was nice enough to call a taxi for us to take us to the bus station. It’s not a far walk, but it would have felt farther with all of our baggage.
This day was a little stressful as Tracy had been unable to check in online with Sky airlines. When we called, the help desk person said that it happened sometimes, and to try again later. We did, and still nothing. So we were impatient to get to the airport in time. I was confident we would be fine, but if the bus would have an hour late again, we would have been in big trouble as the ride back to Calama is an hour and a half in itself. That’s also if everything goes smoothly. Thankfully it did, and Tracy got checked in in plenty of time. Once again I slept the whole way back to Santiago.
It’s been over a week since we returned and I still find myself missing the galaxy every night, and hating the black dirt I blow out of my nose from the smog in Santiago. I definitely plan on returning to that magical place before I leave South America.