Published: July 31st 2010July 31st 2010
From Santiago de Chile I flew with Sky Airline north to Antofagasta, then jumped on a 5-hour bus there to San Pedro de Atacama. I arrived there at 22:45 and went straight to the hostel. Then I went outside to have some food, then back to the hostel to rest. San Pedro de Atacama
It’s a little town in the middle of the Atacama Desert. Atacama is the driest and most arid desert in the world. While in San Pedro it does rain 4 or 5 days a year, in many areas of the Atacama Desert it didn’t rain for 100 years or more. Like the northernmost city of Arica, near the border with Peru. The last time it rained there, was after 14 years! San Pedro is located on a height of 2400m. During the day temperatures go up to 22°C these days, while in the night and morning it could drop below 0°C. The town is home to about 3.000 people and draws thousands of tourists every year, who, like me, come to enjoy the beautiful landscapes around the town. The town consists of almost only dirt roads. The buildings are mostly brown, built with
bricks made of the desert sand. The roofs are made of wood, covered by mud and the mud is covered by hard, strong straw. The town is unique, never seen something like this before....very charming. The town has two or three banks, ATM’s, school, churches (also Jehovah Witness and Pentecostal churches they have here)....it has all the basic needs. The town lives out of tourism, obviously. Especially between 7pm and 9pm the main street, Caracol, is crowded because at this time all tourists are in town and are going for a dinner. During the day most of them are on a tour and the town is much less crowded. At night it’s dead, quiet and boring. There are bars opened with music, but that’s it. I heard they sometimes organize open-air parties out of town in the desert.
My first excursion was to the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). This beautiful valley got that name due to the many deaths occurred late 1800’s and early 1900’s in the area. Both people and cattle died in the area while travelling through it.
The Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) I visited just before sunset: amazing views, just beautiful! The
sun reflects on the rocks and the hills in the background, giving them different colours (in pictures it’s hard to see though). Just ten minutes after the sunset, there was the moonrise, full moon! Spectacular! Both Death Valley and Moon Valley are located in the so called “Cordillera de la Sal”...the “Salt mountain range”. We walked through a valley where you clearly see salt crystals in the rocks, covered with clay. You could clearly hear a lot of cracks, ad the rocks were contracting due to the temperature dropping.
The next day I visited El Tatio Geysers. They are located on an altitude of 4300m. Geysers are hot water springs, spewing hot water from below the surface into the air. We departed early in the morning to go there because the geysers are the most active during early mornings. The temperature while I visited was -15°C but I was well prepared: two jeans, two pairs of socks with paper in my shoes, a poloshirt with two pullovers and a jacket, gloves, a thick hat and a scarf. So the cold didn’t bother me that much, only my fingers a bit and my toes too. They advised everyone to keep
distance from the biggest geysers, at least 2 meters. I felt dizzy one time, after I was “covered” with smoke from the geysers and when I walked out of the smoke, I felt dizzy and had to stop walking and control my breath. Due to lack of oxygen on these altitudes, you need to walk on a slow pace and breathe deeply. Near the geysers we had breakfast and then we went to other geysers, where there was a natural hot water pool and many went in. I didn’t want to go in, it would have taken too much time to remove all of my clothes and then put them all back on. I just felt the water, which has a temperature ranging between 26 and 32°C. On our way back down we stopped at a tiny village called Machuca which has about 25 houses! Most inhabitants don’t live here permanently, but they go to San Pedro and come back. Here I had some llama meat for the first time, grilled, and it was good! Near the village there are many llamas living in their own, natural environment.
The most exciting experience to me was the trail up to
the summit of El Toco, which is a mountain a little big higher than 5600 meters. We we’re just four, including our guide. We drove to an altitude of 4900 meters, from where we started with the climb. It was a simple trail, not steep at all. You just walk all the way up, stepping on sand, stones and rocks. Although it looked easy, it was the hardest trail I’ve ever done. Due to the lack of oxygen, you get tired immediately and you need to advance step by step, slowly. It took us about 1,5 hours to reach the summit. I was well prepared for this trail: I had three pairs of socks on this time, with paper in my shoes, one poloshirt with long sleeves, two pullovers and the jacket, two gloves and of course also the thick hat and a scarf. That morning I didn’t have breakfast, just an apple. I took a small bottle of water and we got all got a bottle of Gatorade from the guide. All of us reached the top successfully and I still can’t believe I actually made it! I was the slowest of all, lagging far behind. But, I reached
it and that’s what counts! The feeling I had when I reached, and the views during the trail and on the summit were priceless! I didn’t feel dizzy at all during the climb, but you feel so tired all the time. You need to control your breath all the time to be able to advance higher. When we came back down, in San Pedro I had a bad headache which stopped after I took a pill and drank coca-tea. Coca-tea is a tea made from the plant out of which they make cocaine. It helps a lot against altitude illness and I actually bought a small bag of coca leaves to chew before we started the climb. It’s nothing compared to cocaine, so no worries. The coca leaves are ok, you don’t feel high or so whatever. When making cocaine they actually mix the coca leaves with a lot of other crap, that’s why it’s addictive. Then I also visited Lake Miscanti and Lake Miñiques, which are located on an altitude of 4450 meters. Both lakes are mostly frozen and offer spectacular views. Around the lakes there are several vicuñas, animals like llama's, walking around in their natural environment. We
had lunch near another lake; I forgot the name of this lake. After the lunch we had a walk along the shore of the lake, very nice! It was a bit windy here which was a a bit annoying sometimes! We also went through the tiny village of Toconao, where they used to have agriculture in a valley called "Valle Jere", since before the Spanish invasion. In the valley there’s water running which is the reason why agriculture is actually possible. But now there’s almost no agriculture as most men work in the mines, where they earn much more money. Therefore you see mostly women and children around. The belltower in the middle of the town is a national monument because it was built in the 1700’s out of cactus wood and other fragile materials. We visited another village but I can’t remember the name. Another site we visited was the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Lake). It’s a huge area with partially frozen lakes, surrounded by salty rocks and stones. The lake is situated on a flat basin and it’s formed due to water full of minerals it receives from the mountains around and also groundwater. The water reaches
the basin and doesn't have an exit. Due to evaportion, salt is left behind. At an altitude of 2.300 meters, its home to many different birds, primarily the flamingo, and also mice and foxes. Antofagasta
After I left San Pedro de Atacama, I took a bus back to Antofagasta. The bus ride took almost 5 hours; all you see along the whole way is sand and hills, sand and hills: the Atacama Desert! Antofagasta lies at the coast and has around 300.000 inhabitants. It’s the main port for this whole part of Chile, which is home to many copper mines. For those who don't know, in Chile, copper is the main export product of Chile and the current high prices of copper give a tremendous boost to the Chilean economy. Therefore Antofagasta is the city with the highest average income in Chile. The city is just ok, not very touristy so you don’t see many tourists around. In San Pedro many locals asked why I wanted to go to Antofagasta, saying that they don’t like the city, that it’s awful, its ugly etc. The reason I came here was because I wanted to combine the Atacama Desert with a
short visit to one of the northern cities, and Antofagasta was the nearest one to San Pedro I could fly to. Many said Iquique is more interesting etc. but that’d be a next time. Antofagasta was not as bad as people made it appear. It has its nice parts and I enjoyed my short stay in this city. There are some artificial beaches that are crowded during the summer. The Mercado was also a great place to hang around and have lunch. Another nice site was the boardwalk along the “Terminal Pesquero”, where you can observe many pelicans and seals! The city is full of bars, also bar with dancing women, strip etc. Since it’s a place where many mineworkers spend their free time, you’ll encounter such places around. I’ve seen many coloured people here in the city and I found out that almost all of them are Colombians, who work and live here (legally and illegally). So in shops/restaurants in this city most of them thought that I’m Colombian too. I tried the well known “Pastel de Choclo”, which is a typical Chilean dish. It looks like a "porridge" made out of corn, filled with pieces of boiled egg,
pieces of chicken, olives etc. The taste is very good!
In Antofagasta I met Marco through Couchsurfing. Together with a big group of his friends we went to a beach in the evening, where we just hang around, have a few drinks. One of the friends had a guitar so they were playing and singing. Further down the beach there were more cars doing the same, so it seems like a very common way to spend time with friends in this city. On my way to the airport I visited “La Portada” shortly. It’s a natural rock arch in the sea, a few hundred meters off the coast. Back in Santiago
So now I’m back in Santiago.I flew in from Antofagasta and went to see Constanza (who I met in a club in Santiago last week). Now I'm at the hostel to take my big backpack which I left behind, and Marcial will pick me up to go ti his house. I’m staying at his place the rest of afternoon and evening to rest, and in the night we’re going out again. Afterwards they’ll bring me to the airport as I have to be there at 5:25am. All
by all this vacation was outstanding, can’t complain at all. My experiences in both Uruguay and Argentina were great, of course in Chile too. I will definitely come back to this part of the world in the near future because I want to see more and I’d like to spend more time with my friends here.
Now it’s back home, back to work, back to reality hahaha. I really needed this vacation, now I feel completely ready to start the new schoolyear. I already started to think about possible next destinations: Brazil? Peru? (Roadtrip in the) USA? Bolivia? Ecuador? Colombia? Mexico? We’ll see what time will say :) Meanwhile, let’s work and start saving again!
There are more photos below