Atacama Desert: Reaching new heights

Published: March 24th 2008
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Llama & LicancaburLlama & LicancaburLlama & Licancabur

In the Atacama desert you'll see your fill of volcanoes and llamas.
Goodbye to Santiago
Leaving Santiago behind, it felt like we were closing the chapter on the first part of our trip and moving onto the second half, which up until now we've thought little about and planned even less. We have just under six months left and in that time we hope to see 12 to 14 countries between Chile and Mexico. Given that we've only seen 5 countries so far (plus Antarctica), we realised we had to pick up the pace. With that thought in mind we travelled 1700km north from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama in the far north of Chile, a trip that involved 24 long, painful hours on a bus, our longest South America bus journey so far, and took us from Chile's most populous region to one of its remotest, the Atacama Desert.

While the south of Chile is impenetrable owing to glaciers, mountains and ice, the north is inhospitable for almost the opposite reasons. The Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth, stretches up to the Peruvian border from just below San Pedro. In fact, this area was once part of Peru and Bolivia, and today its ownership is still a
Ruth on the summit of Cerro TocoRuth on the summit of Cerro TocoRuth on the summit of Cerro Toco

It was windy, cold and we were both breathless, but what a feeling it was to reach the 5604 metre summit.
contentious issue for Peru and, especially, Bolivia. It's among the least populated parts of Chile, and in parts of this desert no rainfall has been recorded - ever!

Hello Atacama Desert
San Pedro de Atacama is a small, but growing, village in this desert. Almost everyone in town earns their living from tourism and it felt to us that there were as many tourists here as locals. The reason for all these visitors: San Pedro is surrounded by stunning scenery, salt flats, geysers, very high volcanoes and mountains, beautiful lagunas and traditional Atacaman villages to name just a few, making it a required stopover if you're coming from or going to Peru or Bolivia. The altitude is 2500 metres but even in March the days were very warm, though as soon as the sun went down it became much colder. San Pedro has grown in recent years though it seems to be mostly people from other part of Chile running the restaurants and the tour agencies while the real locals remain unaffected by the tourist influx.

On our first day we took it easy and concentrated on the sights in the village, all of which lie in or
Flamingo on the Slat FlatsFlamingo on the Slat FlatsFlamingo on the Slat Flats

Flamingos are one of the few species of animals who can live off the salt water in the salt flats.
around the main square, with the Le Paige museum being the best known. This museum contains collections of items excavated by Gustave Le Paige, a Belgian priest and archaeologist, who spent much of his life working in the area. The museum's biggest attraction used to be "Miss Chile" a child mummy found on one of the mountains, but this has been removed since May 2007 in keeping with the wishes of the locals, though there were still plenty of other things to see here. We next went to the main church on the opposite side of the square, an attractive building with white adobe walls. The rest of San Pedro consists of hotels, restaurants and tour agencies spread over two or three main streets, while away from the centre its much less touristy. That evening we found a fantastic restaurant on the main square, called Todo Natural, which served great-value, delicious meals. After the first meal we both declared it the best restaurant we'd been to in two and a half months in Chile. By the end of the week we were regulars, we knew all the staff, and we revised our opinion upwards and declared it the best restaurant
Laguna MiscantiLaguna MiscantiLaguna Miscanti

Laguna Miscanti is a high altitude laguna, 4200 metres above sea level, with Volcan Miscanti in the background.
we'd experienced in all South America! If you come to San Pedro I recommend you go for a meal here, you won't regret it!

A week in San Pedro de Atacama
The next day we hired bikes and cycled to Valle de la Muerte, one of the closest sights to town, easily reached on foot or by bike. As soon as entered the valley we were impressed by the fantastic, other-worldly scenery. The name was given to the valley by Le Paige, though he meant to call it Mars Valley not Death Valley - something was clearly lost in translation. The name is suitable, however, as nothing grows here. The bizarre, wavy rock shapes and the effect of light on the sand, salt and rock is mesmerising. This is also a popular sand boarding spot, something I would love to try as it looks great.

Bike hire in San Pedro was quite good value - 3000 pesos per half day - so again the following morning we went north on the bikes to Pukara, a former village, now a UNESCO monument, used by the locals during a siege by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The ruins
Valle de la MuerteValle de la MuerteValle de la Muerte

This is a mini salt lake on the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley).
of the village lie on a steep hill, making it a natural and fortified defense. Even more impressive was the climb to the next door hill whose summit was marked by a cross and from where we had more good views over Death Valley. We continued on as far as the Quebrada del Diablo, an impressive gorge between the rocks, 8km from San Pedro. Getting here involved fording a rather fast flowing, knee-deep river - the summer season in San Pedro is also the rainy season and you need to be prepared!

Seeing all the sights around San Pedro is not really feasible by bike so we realized we'd have to take organized tours. Later on in the week we did hire a car but unless you've an excellent guide book or a great sense of direction it would be very difficult to find your way to all the sights. The cynic in me thinks that the tour agencies are conspiring to keep most of these sights unsignposted! Anyway, we went to talk to a few of the agencies and ended up booking two tours with Atacama Connection. There is so much competition between the agencies that prices aren't
Sunset over Volcan LicancaburSunset over Volcan LicancaburSunset over Volcan Licancabur

I don't think any picture could capture just how good the sunsets were over the Atacama Desert.
too high (by Chilean standards), but it's worth shopping around for the all day tours as quality varies.

Our first tour was to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) for sunset. As 30 gringos got on the bus, the guide tried to start explaining what we would be seeing, but the noisier lot down the back kept talking so the guide said the Spanish equivalent of "sod this" and we didn't hear from him again until Valle de la Muerte. So much for us not liking organised tours, now we had a guide who didn't like them! He had cheered up a bit by the time we reached Valle de la Luna, but overall he wasn't much use, and I listened enviously to another guide tell his group all about the geography and history of the place, while our chap stayed by the bus and smoked! The sights around Valle de la Luna were fantastic. We first saw the "Three Marias", rocks sculpted by the strong winds of the valley. The best was saved for last of course. Sunset on Valle de la Luna was very special, and it lived up to all expectations. The colours over the mountains
Ruth looks over Death ValleyRuth looks over Death ValleyRuth looks over Death Valley

View from the hill with the yellow cross, near to the Pukara
and the salt flats were stunning, making it the best sunset I've ever seen.

Bright and early next morning we had a full day tour to the salt flats and the lagunas on the Altiplano and to a couple of other sights in between. Luckily, our guide for this trip was much better: he looked a bit like Che Guavara and he was a fountain of knowledge. We stopped off near Toconao village in a valley unique in that it was watered by the only arsenic-free water in the whole region, allowing abundant fruit growth. We then travelled on to the salt flats where we spent an hour looking at the flamingos and the salt rock formations. The part of the tour I was most looking forward to was the visit to Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques, located at a breathtaking 4200 metres above sea-level. These lagunas were indescribably beautiful, and I could have spent all the tour in this area. We planned to use the time here to acclimatise for some of the high altitude hiking we wished to do later in the week, but, unfortunately, our guide gave us very little time here. We were allowed quickly out
Cerro near PukaraCerro near PukaraCerro near Pukara

The summit of this mountain is a popular pilgrimage site. We had it to ourselves the day we hiked up and had fantastic views over Licancabur (the volcano in the background in the picture) and Death Valley.
of the bus to take a pictures at Miscanti, and then given 20 minutes to walk around Miniques. So much for acclimatizing! Myself and a German girl had set off to walk between the lakes but the bus stopped and the guide insisted we get on - it was like a school tour! Still, the views here were superb, and the sight of the lagunas, framed by the volcanoes in the background, was among the most impressive sights I've seen in Chile.

We had a few more stops along the way home, including one in Toconao, a lovely village with some nice buildings and an impressive church. I was a bit disappointed with the crafts shop he had chosen for us to visit as outside it they had two llamas locked in a small pen for tourists to photograph. The pen was so tiny that the llamas could barely turn around, and it was a bit sad to see everyone taking pictures of the unfortunate animals. It's this kind of activity that especially puts me off these tours.

Well, I've had a right old moan there about organized tours, but I have to say some of the sights
The road to Cerro TocoThe road to Cerro TocoThe road to Cerro Toco

This is the view of Cerro Toco from just after leaving basecamp.
we saw were fantastic, and, more importantly we met some great people too. That night, we went for dinner back in San Pedro with Andy & Jill from England, and Grant & Anina from Australia and Switzerland respectively. Todo Natural was of course where we ended up and we had a great evening swapping travel stories. I was supposed to be off the beer so as to help adjust to the altitude but I couldn't resist one or two (or was it three?) that night.

Reaching a milestone
The next morning we decided to try rent a car to see some of the remaining sights. Euro Rent a Car is well hidden away from the main streets in San Pedro, but you can save money on the tours and travel independently by hiring a pick-up truck or 4x4 here. We went for the pick-up and headed out along the Jama Pass towards the Salar de Tara and the Cerro Toro basecamp. Our plan was to drive to the base camp on the first day with the car and then continue on to the Tara salt flats to acclimatise, and then return to attempt Toco on the second day. The
Path to Cerro TocoPath to Cerro TocoPath to Cerro Toco

This is the route we took on Cerro Toco. The summit is just out of view to the left of the picture. Once you reach the pass you can go either side of the hill. We followed the path behind as it looked easier.
drive out to Toco is beautiful, leaving San Pedro you climb from 2500 metres to 4600 in under 40 km, passing close to Volcan Licancabur, one of the world's finest volcanoes, along the way. We'd have never found the way to base camp without the detailed instructions from the Cerro Toco entry on summitpost - certainly the tour guides in San Pedro would never have told us and as for the tourist information, it was closed most of the time, and even while open it had very little helpful information.

We turned off the main road and made our way along a dirt track to the base camp which is at an old abandoned sulphur mine at 5000 metres. Nearby was one of the many radio observatories in the area. Despite the high altitude and lack of oxygen, we both felt fine - it was surprisingly warm when we left the car so the original plan of checking out the base camp for the following day changed into a summit attempt for today!

Only 604 metres separated us from the summit, but it was very tiring and difficult owing to the altitude. The path was easy to find
Main street in San PedroMain street in San PedroMain street in San Pedro

This is Caracoles, the main street in San Pedro. You can see Volcan Licancabur in the background.
and we walked at a steady pace, but the reduced oxygen levels meant we had to make frequent stops. The higher we went the worse it became and we were reduced to taking 20 or 30 steps slowly, then taking a break for a minute or two to catch our breaths! We made it to the top of the pass after 1.5 hours and once here we were both confident of reaching the summit. As we hadn't acclimatised properly, as we had no guide and as we were the only ones on Toco that day, we took lots of breaks and paid close attention to symptoms of altitude sickness. But all was going ok, and we made our way across the penitentes field and finally made it to the summit. What a feeling! As the air in the Atacama desert is so dry you can see great distances, and from the top we had excellent views of Licancabur, of Laguan Verde in Bolivia, while across the altiplano a whole host of peaks revealed themselves.

Reaching Toco's summit was the highlight of our time in San Pedro. One of the aims of our trip has been to hike to higher
Fording the river near Quebrada del Diablo Fording the river near Quebrada del Diablo Fording the river near Quebrada del Diablo

Summer is also the rainy season and many roads, such as this one to the Quebrada del Diablo, are difficult to cross. The water was knee deep in the centre so we had to remove shoes and socks and walk across with the bikes.
altitudes than we've reached before and by reaching the 5604 metre peak of Cerro Toco, we beat our previous record (Jebel Toubkal in Morocco) by over 1400 metres. While Toco is seen as one of the easier 5000 peaks in South America, it's certainly not easy to do anything at that height. Even talking at rest tires you out! Going back down I had a bad headache as the altitude was beginning to kick in. But I felt fine back at 2500 metres in SP and I remember thinking, as we had a celebratory drink that evening, that 6000 metres was our next goal!

We had the car for one more day so we drove out along the Jama Pass again, this time beyond Cerro Toco, to visit lagunas and salt flats. Once again it was a day of breathtaking scenery and breathless hiking as again we were well over 4000 metres. That evening was our last in San Pedro, so of course we went to Todo Natural! Our favourite waitress was there and we chatted to her for ages, and they even gave us a free dessert at the end.

Farewell Chile...
The end of our travels
Church in San Pedro de AtacamaChurch in San Pedro de AtacamaChurch in San Pedro de Atacama

The nicest building in town? Most of San Pedro is restaurants, tour agencies and hotels, so the church on the main square really stood out.
in San Pedro de Atacama brought to an end two and a half months of travelling in Chile. While I won't miss Chilean prices or border crossings, I will miss the Chilean people and most of all the spectacular landscapes and scenery that have followed us over 5000 kilometres from Punta Arenas all the way up to the Atacama Desert. We left San Pedro the next morning and moved onto Salta in Argentina, facing another huge delay when the bus broke down near the border. But that's another story!

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Three MariasThree Marias
Three Marias

The "Three Marias" are rocks sculpted by the winds in Valle de la Luna.
Sunset over Atacama DesertSunset over Atacama Desert
Sunset over Atacama Desert

Nice colours at sunset on Moon Valley.
Ruth at Laguna MiscantiRuth at Laguna Miscanti
Ruth at Laguna Miscanti

These stunning lakes (Miscanti and Miniques) are at an altitude of 4200 metres and lie below two volcanoes of the same names.
Dinner in Todo NaturalDinner in Todo Natural
Dinner in Todo Natural

From left to right: Ruth. Grant, Andy, Jill, Anina and Me. Todo Natural was our favourite restaurant in San Pedro, in fact it's probably the best restaurant we've been to in South America!
Cerro TocoCerro Toco
Cerro Toco

This view is from the basecamp at 5000 metres
On the path to Cerro TocoOn the path to Cerro Toco
On the path to Cerro Toco

The weather was fine at basecamp but became much colder and windier as we climbed.
Ice Penitentes near Cerro Toco summitIce Penitentes near Cerro Toco summit
Ice Penitentes near Cerro Toco summit

Penitentes, which resemble vertical ice blades, are formations often seen at high altitudes. The ones we saw on Toco were small but still very impressive.
Volcanoes Licancabur & JuriquesVolcanoes Licancabur & Juriques
Volcanoes Licancabur & Juriques

Licancabur (5950) & Juriques (5704 m) are two stunning volcanos near San Pedro on the border with Bolivia. On the road to the Jama Pass you get great views as you approach and pass them.
Watch where you walk!Watch where you walk!
Watch where you walk!

Some of the desert around San Pedro de Atacama is impassible owing to landmines planted by the Chilean dictator, Pinochet. It's sad that such a beautiful landscape has been destroyed in this way for no real reason.
Can you see the face?Can you see the face?
Can you see the face?

The wind sculpted rocks at km 100 on the road to the Jama Pass resemble human faces (if you look closely at the centre of the picture).

24th March 2008

Very impressed!
Hi Guys We just wanted to say we're well impressed with the hike up to 5600m you did. In our first few days in Bolivia we were staying at 4000m and hiked up to just over 4600 and it really took it out of us. Know exactly what you mean about stopping every 20 paces. The peak sounds like an excellent find; I think we'll be checking out summitpost when we get to Peru. Not sure how long you're planning to stay in Bolivia but we really recommend Sajama national park if you get the chance. To get there you need to go to Patacamaya on the La Paz-Orouro road and find the minibus to Tambo Quemado/Sajama (Must leave around midday, 1pm). From there, well throw yourselves into the welcoming arms of the locals and enjoy the scenery. Cheers Andy and Gill

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