The little desert town of San Pedro De Atacama has quite naturally boomed into a tourists favourite for the vast wealth of exquisite natural beauty surrounding it. This now means there are now more hostels and tour operators than anything else and all are pretty much offering the same tours. The town itself is a little oasis in a rather desolate landscape with single story adobe houses lining the narrow dusty streets. It kind of has a festival feel to it with its colourful shops, cafes and bars frequented by the young easy going residents with dreadlocks being a common sight. The streets are packed with people and at times it’s hard to walk which almost feels like trying to get through the crowds to see you favourite band on stage.
There were a few things that we really enjoyed about being in the desert. Every day is sunny and warm and you won’t see any clouds. The air is so clean and clear that the sky takes on an immaculate shade of blue.
We scored in the fact that where we stayed, Hostal Tuyasto, was a really well run place and I’d highly recommend it. We booked a few days before as we’d seen it had great reviews and is very popular. Even though the lovely Chilean owners don’t speak any English they’ll find a way to make your stay as comfortable as possible. We also took the simpler route of booking some tours through our hostel which worked out very well for us.
Valle de la Muerte y Valle de la Luna – Death Valley and the Moon Valley
One afternoon we got picked up from the hostel and were driven just a few kms out of town where we walked up a bit to a lookout point for a wonderful panoramic view the Salar de Atacama with the town of San Pedro in the foreground and the crystal clear blue sky reaching down to the snow-capped Andes peaks and most noticeably the Volcano Licancabur across the valley. The air is so thin and clear in the Atacama Desert that you can easily see the peaks of the Llullaillaco Volcano over 300kms away. Looking the other way we could see the Cordillera de la Sal. Basically it is a mountain range made out of salt and over the centuries wind and rain erosion have formed the most elaborate and beautiful formations. Beyond the Cordillera de la Sal you can see the high barren sand dunes of the Death Valley. Back in the minibus our guide drove us into the Los Flamencos National Reserve where at the first stop we got out and walked through some salt caves that have been formed by water erosion over time. When you consider that San Pedro only receives 3mm of rain each year you can get an idea of just how long those caves took to form.
From there our next stop was the Three Marys (and Pacman) and then just before sunset we stopped at the base of a massive sand dune that we walked up and were treated with the most spectacular view of the Moon Valley with volcanoes and mountain peaks all around us. There we sat enjoying one of the most awe-inspiring sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Geysers Del Tatio
The tour begins at 4am when you get picked up from your hostel (in the freezing cold!) and driven 98kms in the dark along a bumpy winding dirt road with nothing but the stars to keep you company. Just as it started getting light we got out to pay the park entrance fee and the cold and altitude hits hard. The geyser field is situated at 4200m asl and the temperature was around -15’C…
El Tatio (the Geysers), which in Quechua means “Old man crying” are constantly bubbling away and emitting steam with some boiling over when you get there before sunrise but when the sun comes up they really come to life. And so do you. It’s so damn cold at that time of the morning that our fingers and toes were so numbs we could hardly walk or hold the camera still for photos. It’s possible to walk through the geyser field and right up close to some of them. The view at sunrise was something truly remarkable with some of the bigger geysers erupting and creating the most otherworldly scene. Our tour then headed around to the other side of the geyser field when there is a hot spring we could swim in. We skipped that as the air outside was still close to freezing although that didn’t stop some crazy people from jumping in.
Along the drive back we saw some vicunas and other wildlife and around half way back to San Pedro we stopped at the little picturesque town of Muchaca where we finally thawed out and took some more photos.
S.P.A.C.E. – San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations
San Pedro is one of, if not the, best places in the world to view the night sky and gaze at the stars. We had been recommended to go on the astronomy tour with S.P.A.C.E as they were reputably the best agency with the largest collection of telescopes. We were also keen to get a bit away from the town to somewhere dark and quiet to take some of our own photos of the stars. So we booked a spot in the English tour and jump on the bus at 9pm that night where we were driven 15 minutes out of town to a little observatory park with around 20 telescopes all aimed in different directions. We were met by our guide, a very knowledgeable and funny Canadian, and given blankets and jackets to help with the cold night. He then proceeded to talk about the stars and its weird constellations and also give a very interesting history of the human races’ understanding of the stars. What is so great about the talk is that we were standing outside the whole time looking up at the clear sky and when our guide explained where a certain star or planet was or talked about a constellation he’d use a green laser pointer to show exactly where it was. Also every couple of minutes we’d be treated to a shooting star.
When the talk was over we moved on to the telescopes through which we could see a wide range of celestial objects from newly forming “baby stars” to the remnants of an exploded star. Some stars shone with such an ethereal luminescence that the colours we saw were unlike anything one can see on Earth. We could also see Saturn’s rings and a close up of the moon that our guide could take a picture of with our smartphone. We were part of the lucky few that hung back at the end and he took a photo of Saturn for us too. While the rest of the group was queuing up to get a pic of the moon I snuck away to get a couple star photos of my own.