San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most visited towns in Chile due to its proximity with the Atacama desert. The town is also the main departure and arrival point for the many tours into/from the Uyuni desert in Bolivia, which attracts thousands of tourists every year. This being said, you can understand that visiting San Pedro de Atacama isn’t a cheap. It’s however a destination that should be on everyone’s list.
Few “budget” backpackers decide to no visit the surroundings of San Pedro de Atacama as the sights such as geysers and highland lagunas can also be seen on the Bolivian side, as part of the Uyuni tour. Well aware of this, we still made the choice to visit a few places on the Chilean side. We didn’t mind much doubling up on visits to natural wonders that can’t be seen anywhere else. We were not disappointed.
San Pedro de Atacama, the town
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town of less than 4,000 people, built in an oasis. The centre is organised around a couple of unpaved streets. Here is the main concentration of touristic interests such as accommodation, restaurants, bar, shops and tour agencies. The rest of town is as you would imagine any other remote village to be, and is not of much interest.
Despite the amount of tourists, San Pedro has kept its soul thanks to its red dusty roads and adobe houses. Ignore all of the advertising signs and you can easily imagine yourself in a western film where you can expect cowboys and sheep herders. Nowadays, it is unlikely to be able to witness such a scene, though.
To help us in our task on looking for the authentic San Pedro de Atacama, we joined a free walking tour that operates twice a day by young volunteers. We joined the afternoon tour which focused on the history of the town and the Atacama people who have lived in the area for more than 11,000 years.
It would be impossible to tell the number of times we walked the same streets up and down. After a couple of days, we started to get fed up of the same sights! In fact, a couple of hours is enough to stay entertained. Luckily we were not here just for the town! San Pedro de Atacama should only be a place to base yourself for Uyuni tours, or like us visit the many landscapes of Atacama desert.
The surroundings of San Pedro de Atacama
On our first afternoon, we walked around the streets and compared the tour agency prices for all of the spots we wanted to visit. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to visit this part of the world without a tour. Renting a car or van was initially our plan, but after hearing the different altitudes of the sights, Jenny preferred not to drive as she couldn’t tell how her body would react to such altitudes. She’d rather take a tour than driving with fatigue and headache.
That’s what led us to booking all our tours with Flamingo travel agency.
The meteorite museum
Our visit stop in town was the meteorite museum to learn more about the space objects found by amateur enthusiasts. Situated in a large tent, the museum displays meteorites that have been found in the Atacama desert and provide plenty of information about their formation. It was pretty interesting as we had never had the chance to touch a real meteorite before. Definitely worth an hour and the small entrance fee.
Valley de la Luna / The Moon Valley
The weather was not good during our visit, with strong winds and even rain. As we arrived, the moon valley had been closed for a couple of days. One option to visit is by cycling however, due to the weather it was unadvised (we saw small tornadoes on the road).
Only 5 km away, the moon valley is the closest part of the Atacama Desert that can be visited. This rough serrated landscape is made of rocky hills covered in salt, which gives a weird sense as if snow had once covered it. In the background, the horizon is made of juxtaposed volcanoes sending their smoke in the atmosphere, these peaks reach above 6,000m.
As part of the tour we walked up a hill to see the “Anfiteatro” before driving to the “Tres Marias”. We took a stroll back to the Anfiteatro and finally hopped in our van to the “Coyote Mirador” to watch the sunset. The tour lasted about 2 hours and our guide didn’t rush us at all, which we really appreciated. The sunset was pretty great and the tour included some food and drinks to enjoy.
Altiplano Lagunas and the Piedras Rojas
Laguna Tebinquiche and Socaire
On day 2, we woke early to join another tour. Our first stop was the “Laguna Tebinquiche” to look for Chilean Flamingoes. As always, the birds were on the opposite side of the lake. Luckily, we still managed to see a couple while walking on the salt paths along the edge of the lake. We then stopped at the small town of Socaire to visit the old adobe church. It was a very relaxing place, where we had the chance to also see a farmer harvesting his”choclo” (large corn).
Laguna Miscanti, Miniques and Tuyajto
After lunch, we headed up to the high altitude lagunas. These are probably the most beautiful lakes we have had the chance to see. Still as we look at photos we are blown away by the deep blue of the lake, the yellow bushes, the red soil and the highland volcanoes topped by snow. Not the type of landscape we get to see everyday. At this time we are at 3,200 metres above the sea level, and we really can feel it! Despite walking very slowly we are still reminded that the oxygen at altitude is limited.
We were suffering… Not only because of the lack of oxygen but mainly because of the wind throwing minus degree temperatures straight at us. Such a shame, that despite our thermal clothes, jumpers, wind jackets, hats, etc. we couldn’t stay outside for too long to appreciate the sights. It was truly freezing.
For this reason we hopped out off the van quickly enough for a short walk, a few pictures and a snowball fight at the “lagunas Miniques” before heading to the “laguna Tuyajto” and the final stop of the day, the “Piedras Rojas”.
The Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) is an amazing place and, despite the cold, we enjoyed the beautiful views that were offered to us. It is so cold at this altitude that the greyish “laguna Salar de Tara”, rimmed by uneven red rocks, is covered by a thin layer of ice.
On the way back to town, we stopped a couple of times to watch Vicuñas running around. They are one of the 4 types of camels that can be found in South America. Contrary to the Guanaco, the other wild camel that lives at low altitude, the vicuña wanders the highlands, always above 3,000m. It is an endangered species that was once hunted for its wool.
Impossible to domesticate like its cousins, the llama or the alpaca, the vicuñas had been hunted for centuries before the Chilean government prohibited it. Vicuña wool is considered the warmest, the finest and the most expensive wool in the world.
El Tatio Desert
On day 3, we left town at 4 am to see the sunrise at El Tatio Geyser. This Geyser is the world’s third largest geyser field and the largest geothermal area in the southern hemisphere. This was certainly the coldest sunrise we have ever encountered… At 4,280 masl, you can expect minus temperatures. That morning we were welcomed by a nice -11°c! But the strong wind made it feel a lot worse.
To warm ourselves up we undressed and took a plunge in the thermal river. You might think we are insane! We probably are, but it worth it so much. Check the photo below and tell us the contrary.
Finally, to warm us up we stopped at the little village of Machuca, to visit another church, but mainly to try llama ! We bought a skewer and really like this meat for breakfast.
The Salar de Tara
For our last day in the region, we decided to visit the “Salar de Tara”, a desert within Los Flamingoes National Reserve. From there, we would have been at the closest point to where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia meet. Located at 4,300 masl, the Salar de Tara was promising incredible rock formations. We are using the conditional tense, as we never made it! The day before, as we came back from El Tatio geyser, we witnessed rain in one of the driest desert on earth… That’s our luck.
However, when it rains a 2,400m, you can imagine that it snows at 4,000m. In the morning we were told that the tour may not go ahead as the roads may be closed. After a few minutes wait, the roads were opened and the police let us go through the checkpoints. We had the green light, which meant the weather was supposed to be okay. Well, not really. After only 40 minutes of driving, rain and then snow started to fall. As we drove further, the snow became thicker and soon enough we couldn’t continue. Our guide asked the driver to turn the van back toward San Pedro de Atacama and the tour was cancelled.
The story unfortunately doesn’t end here. As the driver began to reverse and turn, the van started sliding sideways down the hill. With a ditch on one side and a large drop on the other the driver had no choice other than reversing slowly down until we could reach a flatter part of the road. It took some serious driving skills and around 40 minutes until the car could turn and drive normally!
Where to next?
This snowing episode forced the authorities to close the road to Salar de Tara. However, this road is also used to cross into Argentina and Bolivia. That day, all the 3-day tours to the Uyuni Salt Flat managed to cross on time except for one car that dropped 4 metres off the side of the road. We heard nobody was injured. Nevertheless, for this reason, we decided to cancel our Uyuni tour which was supposed to leave the next morning.
To try keep us as client, our tour agency told us that the road had never been closed for more than 2 days in a row, and everything should be back to normal the next day. We just thought that it wouldn’t be as nice to visit the geysers and lagunas while they where covered in snow. So we decided to leave Uyuni behind and to leave San Pedro that night to Arica on the northern coast of Chile. We would try and go to Uyuni Salt Flats while in Bolivia instead.
We made the right choice. The border remained closed for about two months and the “Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna” (lagunas & geysers) were not accessible for at least two weeks.
Cost and Useful information
Exchange rate (as of May 2017): €1 = 714.20 CLP
La Serena – Calama (night bus): 30,000 CLP (€42.00)
Calama – San Pedro de Atacama (bus): 3,000 CLP (€4.20)
San Pedro de Atacama – Arica (night bus): 13,000 CLP (€18.20)
Hostel Pangea (bunk bed – top): 8,000 CLP pn/pp (€11.20)
Meteorite museum: 2,500 CLP (€3.50)
Moon Valley: 10,000 CLP (€14)
Lagunas & Piedras Rojas: 20,000 CLP (€28) + 11,500 CLP (€16.10) entrance fees
El Tatio Geyser: 33,000 CLP (€46.20) + 5,000 CLP (€7) entrance fees
Salar de Tara: 40,000 CLP (€56) – refunded due to cancelation of tour
Lama skewers: 4,000 CLP (€4.20)
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