For our last stop in Chile, we headed up north to the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. We were told that some areas of the desert receive only 4 inches of rain… every 10,000 years – a statement we had no problem believing after we stepped off our bus and took in the arid, dry air.
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is situated in the basin of what was once a post-Ice Age lake surrounded by the Andes mountains on one side and sand dunes, rocky cliffs, mountains and valleys on the other. Translation: the landscape is absolutely surreal – rolling sand dunes morph into mars-like rock structures amongst a backdrop of massive snow-capped volcanoes.
We spent two full days enjoying the terrain, scenery and weather of the Chilean desert:
- After booking our activities, we set out on a short walk from town to visit Pukar de Quitor, the ruins of the Atacameños. After a 40 minute walk through the desert, we unexpectedly found ourselves at the base of a major hill. With the heat of the mid-afternoon desert sun beating down on us and the altitude of the city (~2,500 meters) forcing us to acclimatize, Alie sat down and refused to get back up. So Michael headed up, took plenty of selfies to show Alie what she missed out on, and then together we walked among the ruins while debating which rooms had served as the Atacameños bathrooms (none seemed too logical a choice).
- Upon arriving to town, we ran into two couples we had met in Mendoza (remember those Brits who drank us under the table?). We decided to all sign up for stargazing that night. Surprisingly, the desert nights are freezing, so we bundled up and headed out of town (well, after a bit of a complication in which we completely missed our bus to the observatory despite being 20 minutes early, then recruited a local man on the street to call the head of the company for us, and eventually convinced her to send a second bus for the idiots who missed the first bus). With next to no light pollution around us, the starry sky proved jaw dropping. Under the moonless sky, we viewed the clear haze of the Milky Way, set our eyes on new stars only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and, given it’s positioning in the sky, were lucky enough to see the striped planet of Jupiter and four of its moons.
- The following day we hesitantly followed the recommendation of Dan Rudofsky to go sandboarding in Vali de la Muerta (aka followed the recommendation of a fearless skier to board down massive mountains of sand in a place literally called “Death Valley”). We nervously stared up at the steep sand dunes wondering how we ever thought this would be a good idea. Surprisingly, after a quick lesson from our guide, we were racing down the slopes and hurrying back on up (as fast as one can climb a mountain of sand) to take them on again. A few tumbles left us (mostly Michael, who decided each ride should involve more, more and more speed) sandy, but the activity proved to be an exhilarating and breathtaking way to enjoy the Valley.
- In the late afternoon, we headed out to Vali de la Luna. Given that it had rained just days earlier (apparently some parts of the desert do get rain?), much of the valley was covered in a thin white layer of salt that had risen to the top of the earth, revealing quite clearly why it was called “Moon Valley”. We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:
San Pedro de Atacama proved a perfect send off from Chile – a country with glacier-filled Patagonia, the volcanic Lakes District, lush wine country, modern cities, and otherworldly deserts. We can’t recommend enough a trip to the Atacama Desert and well, all of Chile.
Things To Do: There are plenty of activities to keep you busy in San Pedro. We highly recommend:
- Star gazing in one of the best places in the world. Spaceobs is widely considered the best company in town but you need to make reservations a week or two in advance. Even if you can’t get a spot with them (we couldn’t), stargazing is a must!
- Sandboarding was a completely unexpected highlight of San Pedro. Atacama Inca Tours is the only company offering a legitimate operation (with helmets, boots and lessons) and we highly recommend them.
- Sunset viewing in Moon Valley is spectacular. Countless operators offer tours that will all show you around the valley. We may recommend seeking out a smaller operator that takes you to more private spots and spoils you with sunset drinks.
In addition, you can take a day trip to visit geysers and lagoons or ride horses through the valleys.
Accommodations: The town is riddled with hostels given its backpacker-focus. We stayed at the edge of town at Hostal Mama Tierra which offered a comfortable room, a good crowd and a fantastic breakfast spread (any time a hostel offers more than a slice of cheese & bread we are happy, and Mama Tierra blew us away by serving up eggs, peanut butter, fruit salad, cereal and more). The town is pretty pricey so be prepared.
Days Stayed / Recommended: We only stayed two days in San Pedro since we were staying in the Atacama Desert for 3 more days on a 4×4 ride through Bolivia. If you aren’t continuing to Bolivia, we recommend 3 to 5 days to take advantage of everything there is to do and see around San Pedro.
Local Food: There is nothing particularly local in San Pedro, but we did find the absolute-best seasoned rotisserie chicken for a fairly reasonable price at Tchiuchi.