San Pedro de Atacama offers endless activities for adventurous backpackers.
Watch the sun set at the Valley of the moon or ride through the desert to float in the salty Laguna Cejar.
The sun seems to touch every inch of the plateau of San Pedro de Atacama, 2,400 meters above sea level, and definitely quite far from the sea. The gridded tourist town is made up of perfectly white, sun-bleached adobe huts that aesthetically match the uniform exterior of brown, wooden lettering on all the buildings and the light tan dirt streets. While the center is filled with great cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, hostels and tour agencies, the surrounding areas of the city are made up of cement shanty towns where the locals who serve the tourists reside, satellites studding the tin roofs and stray animals finding shade under dusty pickup trucks.
The town itself is merely a watering hole for the surrounding sites and activities, nearly all of which you end up booking a tour for. While I didn’t get around to all of them, due to a lack of funds and will, I saw my fair share, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the desert.
Day 1- Town and Valley of the Moon:
Laura and I checked took an overnight bus from Arica to Calama, and then a two hour bus to San Pedro from there. (There are direct buses from Arica to San Pedro, we missed ours.) We checked into Hostal La Florida, a newer hostel in the middle of town that I HIGHLY recommend. I loved the laid back feel, the cheap tours offered, the fully stocked kitchen, the warm beds, and the hammocks. The showers weren’t bad either, if you went one at a time. After a quick jaunt around the plaza and in the markets, buying yet more Inca-inspired gifts for friends and family back home, we went on a sunset tour of the Valley of the Moon, Valle de la Luna.
Through the driest desert in the world we went, the expansive scenery around us looking as if it were painted on. Literally, as far as the eye could see, the orange, red and brown sand dunes rolled like waves against the cloudless blue sky. It looked like a choppy sea had frozen in time and turned to sandstone. Some parts were jagged and treacherous, and others were soft and curved, as if a river were running through the canyons. I wondered if thousands of years ago, it was possible that this desert was once an ocean, but seeing as how it may be the oldest desert on earth, experiencing extreme hyper aridity for over three million years, I began to doubt it.
Our first stop on the tour has us walking for about fifteen minutes to the edge of Valle de la Muerte, Death Valley, where we stood at the edge of a gorge, staring at the surrounding volcanos. The wind was strong and made it impossible to hear our guide as he pointed out some ancient route that the native Atacameña people would take to Calama. All I could hear, besides the whooshing in my ears, was the clinking sounds of million year old, light tan igneous rocks under my feet. I found it interesting that volcanic magma could turn into such a light colored rock, after spending a few months in Sicily last year, where the evidence of Mount Etna’s eruptions was evident in large black rocks studded throughout Catania.
Our next stop was the Rock of the Coyote, as in the coyote from the roadrunner cartoons. We all took our pictures on the jutting ledge before moving on to some caves.
Las cuevas were a cool retreat from the endless sun and wind. The high walls were formed from wind erosion, and you could taste the sand in your mouth as you bent low and stood up when necessary. A few young New Zealanders that Laura and I walked with made us laugh by making Lord of the Ring jokes as we crawled through the tight spaces.
Back on the bus for our last stop, the pièce de rèsistance, the Puerto del Sol of the Valle de la Luna, the gate of the sun in Moon Valley. As we walked the length of a road (unnecessarily in my opinion- we had a van) to the slow climb up the valley, the wind picked up, and sand hit the back of our calves and neck like hundreds of tiny needles. Tourists lined up along the top of the valley’s ridge to await the setting sun. Before it sank, it filled the untouched sand of the valley, making the land below us look like a golden carpet for the gods. The sunset itself, I thought, was a bit overrated. At our high elevation, we were very close to that star, and even with sunglasses on, I couldn’t watch the sunset without being blinded by light. When it finally settled out of our field of vision, the cold was immediate. We huddled in our sweatshirts as we made the steep ascent down back to the minivan.
Day 2- -Bike ride to Laguna Cejar:
In an attempt to save money on tours and to beat the late afternoon rush of tourists, Laura and I decided to rent bikes from the hostel and head over to the Laguna Cejar, in the morning. We were told that the salty lake has an effect like the Dead Sea in Israel, causing you to float, and that it was 18 km from town. It took us an hour and fifteen minutes to make it there. We seemed to be the only ones on the long, bumpy desert road, so there was no one to ask directions from when we wanted reassurance that we weren’t just trailing aimlessly through the desert only to get lost and die of dehydration and be eaten by buzzards or vultures or whatever carnivorous desert bird is common in Chile. Despite my hard pedaliing, I noticed that I barely broke a sweat, as if the thirsty desert air was drinking up my persperation before I got a chance to let it cool me down.
Finally we made it, exhausted and hungry and kicking ourselves for not packing a lunch or eating breakfast. There were two lakes, one for show and one for swimming. They sat like two turquoise eyes on the desert’s face, a proper oasis if the water wasn’t too salty to drink. There were only a few others there enjoying the views. We basically had the place to ourselves, and we realized later on that in this part of the world, the hottest part of the day isn’t actually noon, when we were there. The temperatures usually peaked around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, hence why the tours to the lakes happened later in the day.
Unlike the Dead Sea, the water was absolutely frigid. We waded out slowly, our feet numbing with each step across the shallow plane before we reached the edge of a sort of underwater cliff. The water was so clear. I held my breath as I let my toes curl over the top of the shelf. I turned to face Laura, posed for some pics, and sat into the freezing water, trusting the salt concentration to keep my head above water. I forgot the cold as I buoyed in the water, giggling at the wonders of the world and hovering over the deep, blue sink hole.
Day 3- Puritama Hot Springs
Laura and I were feeling a bit exhausted after biking it to and from the lagunas the day before on empty stomachs in the hot, hot heat, so we decided to treat ourselves to a chill day at the hot springs.
Las Termas Puritamas are located about 40 minutes outside of San Pedro. The babbling creek spreads out in a curving line below you as you walk along a cliff from the parking lot. A red boardwalk lies parallel to the little brook, with the regular platform before each small pool. We picked one and laid out our towels before dipping into our chosen pond. The water was not hot. It was warm, but still pleasant. The rocks along the sides and bottom were slippery with pond scum that also gravitated in furry green clumps to tickle the sides of your body. The water from each pool spilled over the sides of mossy rocks and fell into the next pool, and when we weren’t sitting lazily in a pool, we used the boardwalk to follow the waterfalls, each little paradise more beautiful than the next.
I think you’ve all read enough. Check out my next post to read about the rest of my adventures in San Pedro.
by Rebecca Bellan