Chile - a country varied in its landscapes; ranging from the high tips of the Andes, the ice caps of the south, sprawling beaches on the west, and extra-terrestrial-like deserts of the north. One can easily find themselves staying until their visa expires or their money starts to run out. Unfortunately for us, it was the latter. As beautiful as Chile is, it is also as expensive to enjoy in all its glory. Our budget gave us only two weeks to explore, and therefore we had to pick wisely. The first week and a half were spent in the capital of Santiago, catching up with our good Chilean friend Michelle Letelier and her amazing family! Sadly there is no post on Santiago for you guys since R&R and friend hangouts can prove to be quite boring for the audience, but the one thing that I can recommend is that if you are in the mood for REAL Texas BBQ head over to El Camino BBQ. Trust me your taste buds will thank me.
Only 5 days left in the country and our next stop was a crucial one for us. We hopped on a plane from Santiago to Calama, where we then took a bus into San Pedro- the gateway to the Atacama Desert. Chances are, that if you found yourself in Chile, you probably made a stop in one of the driest place on earth. And in order to explore this incredible area, one must base themselves out of the only town and major tourist hub, known as San Pedro. Or as I like to call it "San Perro". Because in this town built on mud and dust, you will find that besides rows and rows of tourist agencies and locals trying to sell you something, it is in fact run by dogs (or "perro"- the Spanish word for dog). As a dog lover, I was ecstatic to find out that these dogs were friendly, well-taken care of, and I would even go as far to say that you could actually pet them. So please don't be surprised if you are enjoying a beer in a pub and a stray walks up and joins you. But enough about dogs for now.
Besides the western John Wayne feel one gets when roaming the small streets of San Pedro, one cannot forget that it is also filled with mass tourism, and that you will most likely be bombarded with companies trying to sell you on their tours. Unfortunately, most places in the Atacama are by tour only. And unless you've got a whole wad of cash to rent a car or get in on a private tour (well you wouldn't be reading this in the first place), you need to book with one of the many tour companies found in San Pedro. So how does one experience the desert and all it has to offer without 1) choosing the right tour? 2) without getting scammed? 3) staying within budget? Like in any travels, but especially here, planning is key. Choosing the right amount of days without breaking budget is important, and finding out how to make the most of your time can seem like a tedious task at first. But not to worry! We did all the dirty work for you. After tour-hopping around town for a couple of hours upon arrival, we had a final plan on our 4 days in the Atacama.
First off and a definite must for the explorers! Not only are they 6,000 Chilean pesos for the entire day ($9USD), but you can get the chance to explore certain parts of the desert on your own time, and depending on the time of day, you can have these places all to yourself. Now by all means, bicycling at 3,000m above sea level and on top of that in the driest place on earth sounds terrifying at first, but believe us when we say that it was very doable (and we are definitely no Lance Armstrong). We chose to spend the entire day at Valle de La Luna- located only 13km from San Pedro. 7 kilometers are spent riding on paved roads, and the rest are spend riding on the moon. Upon entering Valle de La Luna, we were left with our jaws wide open. We had the opportunity to climb up to the most outstanding lookout points, ride through salt flats, and enjoy different parts of the valley in complete silence as we pinched ourselves to wake us up from this dream-like scene.
Take a (dreaded) tour!
Like I mentioned before, tours will be of necessity if you are truly looking forward to visiting some of the landscapes. But that doesn't mean you have to dread it! We were very lucky to run into Romain from Locaventuras, after a couple of hours of research, who had exactly what we were looking for. If you are anything like us, and can't stand the thought of being with hundreds of other people while trying to take in the beautiful nature around you, then this is the tour for you. A total of 6 people per car, with unique itineraries, on top of seeing the must places of Atacama. Not to mention they've got all the gear you need for any adventure you sign up for (we really wanted to camp out with them in the desert but it was quite over our budget, so you should definitely do it for us). They are not as cheap as other agencies but definitely well worth it- our Piedras Rojas/Altiplanos tour cost us around 85,000 Chilean pesos pp.
The day began at 7am, as we headed straight through the Tropic of Capricorn and on the the breathtaking Laguna Tuyaito, where we took in the other worldly view and enjoyed coffee with breakfast. From one landscape and on to the next, we climbed over dried lava formed by an underwater volcanic eruption at Piedras Rojas, set against the magical background of the Salar de Aguas Calientes, where hundreds of flamingos come to eat. I swear I can't make this sound anymore fairytale than it really is. For lunch we visited the small town of Toconao, getting a taste of some local cuisine, and toward the evening we found ourselves in Salar de Atacama, drinking pisco sours and watching the flamingoes, as the sun set.
Hang out in San Pedro.
So it might seem that everywhere you look there is a tourist agency, but once you look past the guides, you will find that San Pedro is very laid-back, bohemian, and in fact very quaint. You can stroll the mud ridden streets, hopping in and out of the small shops, sit in the plaza looking out towards the San Pedro de Atacama Church, or enjoy a beer in a small cafe. Don't forget, you still find yourself in the middle of a desert, and when you are surrounded by delicious and cozy little restaurants its really hard to believe it. Here are some of our favorites:
- Grab a real coffee at Roots
- Eat an almuerzo (lunch) special for less than 4,000 Chilean pesos at La Estrella Negra
- Splurge on a tasty dinner at La Estaka
- Drink draft beers at ChelaCabur
Take one last tour?
Before I continue lets review how its come to be that the Atacama desert is the driest place on earth? Its aridity can be explained by where it is geographically located. Sitting between the Andes and the Chilean Coast mountain ranges, the average rainfall is 15mm per year, and as taught by the locals during our time there, it usually rains one week in December and maybe one afternoon once every other month. Why am I letting you in on these interesting facts, other than that they are exciting to note? Well, because upon our arrival to San Pedro at the end of February (shoulder season if you must know), we encountered such torrential downpours coming in from the Amazon jungle of Brazil, that it was hard for us to believe that we were even in the desert. So, when a town that expects 15mm of rainfall on average, gets more than that in a total of four hours, you can imagine its pure chaos. Rivers begin to flood, roads close down, and so do many of the activities centered around the Atacama. All tours were being canceled, the famous geysers, Laguna Cejar, and even Valle de la Luna, where all closed due to excessive flooding.
So, on our final day we signed up with any tour we could find that took us to the only region of the Atacama that seemed to be open to the public; Salar de Tara. The original tour left at 7am to catch the sun rising over the famous volcano, Licancabur. OUR tour, left at 9am instead, since it was too dangerous to cross without the sun do its job by drying up the roads a bit. Actually on our way up we discovered that it wasn't water that was hindering us from leaving earlier, but loads of snow that had collected on the paved roads. So, this isn't exactly Canada where they can immediately send out their sweepers and clear out the snow in seconds, but leaving two hours later helps.
But before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you a bit about our tour and what could potentially happen to you when booking with an agency. It is known that most agencies in San Pedro try to fill up the spaces for each tour, and in case that does not happen they sell you around until each tour is fully booked. I like to think of them as agents. The tour company we signed up for on our very last tour cost around 35,000 Chilean pesos (a great steal), but sold us out to a company called Incanorth. So here is something to note; you could get sold around and feel used, but when you pay way less for a tour that is originally worth 50,000 Chilean pesos and you get the exact same itinerary that you had originally asked for, its ok. In the end, we were truly happy with our tour and could not recommend Incanorth enough! Incase this turns you off, there are a few agencies in San Pedro that don't resell their customers and Locaventura is one that we know of.
So off we went, with a total of 9 people and two (hilarious) guides, blasting electro cumbia, as we drove up and down the desert to the Salar, passing astonishing rock formations at an altitude of almost 4900m above sea level. Vicuñas ran around us, it was windy and cold, yet simultaneously really hot. It seemed that there was little other sign of life until you reached the bottom of the Salar where llamas fed amongst the flamingos and little gerbil like creatures. We were on the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, surrounded by volcanoes and unimaginable landscape. It felt like the perfect set for a science-fiction movie, and we were the stars.
Where to stay:
San Pedro de Atacama is infamously known for being expensive, especially when it comes to finding a place to stay. We found a simple hostal (Casa Toconao) that was exactly what we needed for our time there, but still managed to put a bit of a dent in our wallet. One thing to keep in mind is if you have the budget to spend on a nice hotel, by all means do so. The plus on spending more a night is offset by the incredible tours that are arranged for you and included in on the hotel bill.