Arriving in San Pedro was a major change from our previous stops in Chile, being the driest place on earth set in the Atacama desert, San Pedro acts as an oasis town from where you can go and explore the surrounding areas. Although a desert, this place was far more beautiful and less barren than you might picture, with daytime temperatures in November up to 30 degrees celcius and 6% humidity before cooling to below 10 degrees at night. Sat at 2500m, we were also significantly higher than in Patagonia, surrounded by Volcanoes reaching over 6000m. It also seems we have mentioned or befriended many canine thus far, and as our last stop in Chile, it seems worth mentioning that as a country there are SO MANY dogs, most of which are ‘owned’ but are free to roam as they please in gangs. San Pedro probably took the (dog) biscuit for the most though, with 2.6 dogs per person!
After our overnight flight we were very tired but as there was so much to do in San Pedro, we went straight out to start booking some tours on the main street. The first of which was an astronomy tour, which we managed to book for 9pm the same day, as the Atacama is famous for possibly the best stargazing in the world oweing to clear nights, altitude and low humidity. Arriving in what looked like someones back garden, we had our concerns that we wouldn’t be learning from professionals. Thankfully, this was not the case, and we had three hours of stargazing and tuition! With only 3 nights until the full moon, the milky way was dampened but, we had a great view of the moon through one of the telescopes and learnt about its history. The other telescopes were trained at Saturn with its rings, a binary star and another cluster of stars. The tour was really interesting and we learnt a lot, including how to use a sky map, but the best bit had to be the red wine and cheese at the end!
Our second and first full day we had booked a tour of Valley de la Luna and Valley de Marte, translated to the Valley of the Moon and the valley of Mars oweing to the unearthly landscapes, starting in the afternoon. After nearly 3 weeks with no strenuous exercise, we decided to do a half an hour HIIT workout in our hostel room. Both feeling refreshed after showering we headed out for some lunch, Vegetable Quesadillas with a good coffee, overlooking the pretty main square for people watching. It felt like the best food we’d eaten in a long time!
Our tour guide taught us a lot about how the rock formations were made, the different mountain ranges in the area, and how it was all the results of tectonic plates and a hugely volcanic area. One side, the salt mountains, the other side the Andes, with 2500 volcanoes in Chile! After climbing to the view point overlooking what looked like the surface of Mars, we were invited to rediscover our inner child, and run head first down the sand dune. To end the tour, we headed up a ridge and watched the sunset turn the landscape to a pinky-red colour, just like we imagine it might look on Mars.
The next day, we had a full day tour with a 6am pick from our hostel, taking us to the salt flats, local villages, volcanic lagoons and the red mountains. The slat flats include the national Flamingo reserve, so we got to see these beautiful birds up close and learnt about the different species living here. There was the Andean, with their black tails fishing with their beaks, and the Chilean, completely pink and stirring up shrimp with dancing feet. The next stop was Socaire, a little village at an altitude of 3,500m, where we got to see locals weaving blankets and table cloths from Llama wool and learnt about the mountains medicinal plants. Stepping off the bus at the Lagoons we could barely walk, and thought it must be the altitude, before realising our earlier workout at altitude had taken a heavy toll. Sadly none of the medicinal plants could help, at least not the legal ones. The lagoons were beautiful, once one large lagoon now separated by lava flow, and surrounded by Vicuna (wild Alpaca that live at altitude) and volcanoes. We learnt the white crust around the edge was actually Arsenic deposits, the yellow mounds on the hills Sulphur, and the red streaks were veins of Iron. The idea of this tour was also to help us adjust to the altitude, gradually climbing to a height of over 4500m. At one point we both felt slight throbbing headaches, which thankfully passed, and Alexz’ finger tips turned white. Others in our group were not so lucky, with blue finger tips, Nausea and significant headaches.
Day 3 was a very early start, pick up at 5:30 am, to catch the sunrise at the 3rd largest and the highest Geyser field in the world. Travelling straight from 2500m to an altitude of 4350m in the Andes, the previous days acclimatisation proved important. Temperatures at that time were -4 degrees and so we were wrapped up tightly! The Geysers were beautiful and surprisingly big, with massive billows of steam continuously covering the hillside. We learnt that one woman last year had suffered a steamy end, stepping back too closely in an attempt for the ultimate selfie, before the ground below her gave way. Our guide told us below was a significant network of boiling water channels, never mapped and that no one knows the thickness of the ground on which we stood. Therefore, this place may no longer remain a tourist attraction for long. We had the option to don swimwear and take a dip in a volcanic pool, however with a water temperature of about 25 degrees and outside temperature of -4 degrees, we chickened out…
On the way back we stopped in wetlands, learnt about the birds, and enjoyed a short gorge walk. The gorge was lined by Cacti, which only grow 1-2cm a year, placing these at around 400 years old.
Day 4, and our final day in San Pedro, we rented mountain bikes to go and visit the Garganta Del Diablo which translates to English as ‘devil’s throat’. It was a beautiful ride which followed the path of a dried out river canyon. As the name suggests, the ride through the gorge was particularly hot, with very little flora or fauna on show but plenty of red rock towering high into the clear blue sky. The formations created a maze of paths with tunnels and overhangs which provided us some much needed shade. In parts it was more challenging with sand, that took some getting used to, and a few steep, rocky trails which Alexz thoroughly enjoyed but Emma literally squealed her way down. That evening, we cooked dinner at the hostel before Emma put mascara on for the first time in nearly three weeks, and headed out for some drinks (we had been advised not to drink before the high altitude tours – and therefore, we were now in great need). Buying just an alcoholic drink in San Pedro isn’t that simple as it has been outlawed without the purchase of food, meaning we were required to share the cheapest starter on the menu before we could order the local cocktail of a Pisco Sour. We then moved onto local wine and played cards whilst watching a traditional band play Andean music around the restaurant’s fire-pit.
The next day we headed for the border and into Bolivia. Thank you Chile.
The lyrics couldn’t be better for the Atacama desert…