San Pedro de Atacama.
We took a two hour flight from Santiago to Calama in Northern Chile on Sky Airlines. Then a one-and-a-half hour bus from Calama to San Pedro. A beautiful drive through the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, encircled by volcanos in every direction. You may have heard of the Atacama before as this is the region that the 33 Chilean miners were trapped and survived in 2010. No, we didn’t go to the mine, we only stayed in San Pedro. There was enough excitement there.
San Pedro is nothing short of a tourist town with only two main streets composed of cobblestone and dirt. I was picturing something a bit more commercialized, but was completely wrong. San Pedro only has “2,000 residents and about 4,000 tourists”, our bus driver informed us. The weather was extremely hot during the day, which we didn’t expect given it’s fall, but very chilly at night. Another shocker, there are five star resorts out here with an average rate of $1,500 USD a night. Insane! It better be a Four Seasons Resort for that price! When you look at this town, you would guess only $20 a night for a hostel, which typically it is, but since we were there over the Easter Holiday everything was booked and the prices sky-rocketed.
Apparently, San Pedro is a popular destination for Chileans to relax and get away as well. Then the other side of that is the backpackers looking for adventure, like us. There are plenty of tours, too many in fact. Literally every store sells tours, to the point that you don’t know which one to book. It started to give us anxiety. Too tourist of a place for me — We were overwhelmed by it all. Perhaps it’s because it was Easter weekend, and unfortunately we had to switch hotels three times in five days because everything was booked months in advance. Oh the joys of travel 🙂
For the first time since beginning this trip, both Michael and I felt extremely burnt out. We needed to relax a bit and recharge because we knew we had some long travel days ahead of us. But we also felt the need to tour, see the Atacama Desert, and take advantage of the incredible destination. Three days was plenty though. Get in and get out. We still saw everything we wanted, and even had one relaxing day to recoup. (Thank goodness for Coronas – #FindYourBeach).
Most tours are half day and either start at 4:30am-12pm or 3-8pm, depending on which tour you choose. Here are our three favorites:
1). Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) gets its name because of its astonishing resemblance to, yes, the moon! Valle de la Luna is a part of the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos and was declared a Nature Sanctuary in 1982 for its great natural beauty and strange lunar landscape. The valley is also considered one of the driest places on earth, as some areas have not received a single drop of rain in hundreds of years.
Our tour started with a brief drive to Duno Mayor, a giant sand dune with gorgeous views of the Valley of the Moon. You can see it lives up to it’s name.
The Amphitheater – These rock formations are unique to the Atacama Desert due to the wind and climate in the region, creating this natural amphitheater.
Valle de la Muerte – Valley of the Dead, or otherwise known as The Death Valley of South America, is the driest place in the world. It was actually originally supposed to be called Valle de la Marte (Valley of Mars, because of its similar landscape to Mars), but the Chilean people didn’t understand Marte so instead assumed the discoverer said Muerte. Hence, Valley of the Dead is the name and still relevant. This is also where we ended our tour with a beautiful sunset.
2). Geysers El Tatio
El Tatio is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world and has over 80 active geysers, making it the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world.
A 4:30am pick-up time and a two-hour drive to 15,000 feet is enough to get your blood pumping. The geysers are the most active between 6-7am, which is why the early morning wake-up call. But we arrived right on time for the show, with the first geysers shooting water 10 feet in the air. By 9am, they’re quiet and gone. This is due to global warming.
After the geysers exhausted their energy, we made our way to the natural hot spring where we were able to take a dip to warm up a bit. Unfortunately, this place was PACKED and the water temperature was less than ideal, more like lukewarm bath water. We lasted about five minutes until I was colder inside the spring than I was outside, but we’re all about the experience! #YOLO
We made a number of other stops on our two-hour drive back to San Pedro, including a small rural town (I tried llama meat, which is actually delicious!), and beautiful mountain and valley viewpoints. The landscape on the drive back varied from looks of Patagonia, Colorado and Arizona.
Due to our first tour at Valle de la Luna being extremely packed, we were pretty anxious about this one being a tourist trap as well, which it was. But thankfully, our guide was fantastic and did a great job at staying out of the way of the crowds as much as possible.
3). Horseback Riding and Sandboarding
This was by far the BEST tour we did. It was a little more pricey than the others, and Michael was convinced it was going to be pretty lame, but we were pleasantly surprised! We had the tour to ourselves, roamed on horseback for two hours through Valle de la Muerte, galloping along sand dunes all the way!
Once we arrived at the dunes, a truck delivered our boards and boots, ready for Part Two of our tour. We started the long hike up the dune, which was exhausting. Walking in snowboard boots up a sand dune is as difficult as it sounds. Once up, we strapped in and made a go of it. Michael had done this once before, but it was my first time. I figured I’d have an advantage because I snowboard, but let me tell you, snowboarding and sand boarding are completely different. First of all, carving in sand is virtually impossible so I resorted to just going straight down the dune. And falling in sand is much more intimidating than snow because at least snow melts, sand is stuck on you for days. (I think Michael still has some sand in his ears… Check out his “After Crash” picture below).
We did two runs and called it a day. Sand boarding was on my bucket list so I’m glad I was able to fulfill that one! But I also don’t feel the need to do it again 🙂
After we were thoroughly exhausted (only took two laps), we jumped back on our nobel steeds and road off into the sunset and back to town.
I grew up around horses and forgot how much fun it is to ride. Definitely something I’d like to do more once back home.
We ended our time in San Pedro by renting bikes with Danny and Liz, and riding up to the top of Valle de Muerte to watch our final Atacama sunset and full moon rise.
San Pedro, your town is quaint and full of so much Chilean charm. Thank you for the hospitality, but now it’s time to say goodbye to Chile, and hello to Bolivia… Let the adventures continue!
2015 Bucket List Complete:
- Sandboarding in the Atacama Desert
- Stargazing in the middle of nowhere
- Visit Valle de Muerte
- See the highest geysers in the world
- Horseback ride through the Atacama Desert
- Hike to Lascar Volcano
- Float in Laguna Cerjas
- Visit the San Pedro Salt Flats
- Rent a car and be your own tour guide to avoid the crowds
- Airlines feed you free meals on every flight (Also a con – See below.)
- Huge on fresh juices – And they’re all delicious. This goes for all of South America, not just San Pedro.
- Lots to do – As long as you don’t mind being with a crowd of other tourists.
- Cheap cheap cheap!!!
- Don’t trust the eggs on airplanes!
- Too many tour operators selling the same thing – Difficult to find reviews on them so you don’t know which one is the best option – Shot in the dark. We had a pretty terrible guide on our first tour of Valle de la Luna with Layana Tour Agency, which was suggested by our hotel so we assumed it was a safe bet, but the guide was an asshole. Thankfully, when we took the geysers tour, we had a much better guide who redeemed our faith in Layana. Luck of the draw, I suppose.
- Tours are crowded
- Too many options
- Sky Airlines is cheap from Santiago to Calama – But check to see if the round-trip ticket is cheaper than the one-way. This happens often.
- Layana Tours – We booked through Layana for our tours. The Valle de Luna tour guide was the worst tour guide I’ve ever had. He acted like a teenager and pouted when everyone was talking and not listening to him. Thankfully, our guide for the Geysers was amazing so it restored some faith in Layana. However, I would suggest booking with Latchir as we heard good things from their tours.
- There were many other options for sand boarding, including a night ride during the full moon where they blast music and basically have a giant party in the desert. You could also go with a tour and instructor and drive out there, or rent your own gear and bike your way to the dune. I would highly discourage anyone from doing the latter. The road out to the dunes is long, sandy, and miserable. Everyone we saw was beat before they even arrived at the dune. I think our way was the best – horseback ride there, sand board, and horseback ride back. Perfection.
- Typically, a full moon is a good thing! But when you’re in the middle of a desert and hoping to star gaze, a full moon can be your worst enemy. Because of our timing, all star gazing tours were canceled due to the moon’s cycle. Thankfully, you don’t have to pay to look up at the sky and I enjoyed seeing the stars just as much even with the moon shining bright 🙂
- Three nice restaurants in town – Adobe, Blanco, and La Estaka.
- San Pedro is at approx. 8,000ft and does take some time to acclimate. If you’re planning on traveling to Bolivia from San Pedro, be sure to stay at least 2-3 days in San Pedro as Bolivia jumps to 16,000 and altitude sickness is the worst.