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Published: December 2nd 2012
When we arrived in San Pedro we had a little bit of trouble finding our hostel, their directions wanted us to turn and walk towards the mountains. San Pedro is surrounded by mountains on all sides, so the directions were a bit rubbish. The hostel turned out to be quite nice in the end, though it was about a ten minute walk in to the centre.
San Pedro de Atacama is, what's known as, an oasis town on the edge of the Atacama Desert, the highest desert in the world. Nope not dessert, desert. Sorry. It's a very popular place for travellers and tourists for the trips that you can do using San Pedro as a base. You can visit geyser fields, salt water lagoons, salt flats and valleys full of all kinds of weird geological formations.
San Pedro itself is at 2600m, so this was our first bit of acclimatising time, mostly we were fine, just out of breath easily, after this we stay high for about 18 days in total, the highest being 5000m in Bolivia, and we will be walking between 3000-4000m when doing the inca trail, so we really have to get used to life up
So once we'd dropped our bags off our first job was to sort out a tour for the afternoon and evening. We had hoped to go on a stargazing tour, which would take us out into the desert and we would look at the night sky through telescopes. As the Atacama is so dry the night sky is almost always clear. Unfortunately though, it turned out that the stargazing tours don't run around the time of a full moon. The moon is too bright and stops the stars from really being seen.
Anyway, we got ourselves on a tour of the Valle de la Luna and Valle Muertes, or Valley of the Moon and Death Valley. We went on a mini coach with about 20 other people and a guide. The tour started at the Three Maria's in Moon Valley and whilst they were interesting looking rocks, I couldn't really see any resemblance to anything. Particularly not the one that had collapsed in the 90's when a Japanese tourist decided to climb up it.
We were then shown other rock formations, created by dust and sand blown by the wind. Moon Valley is, perhaps not surprisingly, named for it's
similarity to the surface of the moon and as well as funky rocks, is full of sand dunes and salt mines. We were taken to a few of the salt caves and then to a large lump of crystallised salt which had just gone into shade and as it was cooling was making loud cracking noises. Only slightly concerning. We were told that we definitely would not be going underground as it was unsafe, but the route we took did indeed go underground into parts of the cave, it was fun though!
The tour ended with us being taken to a vantage point over Death Valley to watch the sunset, which was really nice but it was nowhere near as the one we saw the night after. The town is full of tourists and everyone does day trips, ending back in town about 8pm, so at that time of night it is packed with people in outdoors clothes, covered in sand or salt. So we joined the masses and had some tea before heading home for bed, voting against alcohol to help with the altitude!
In our wanderings on the first day we managed to organise a two hour horse
back ride out into the foothills around San Pedro in the morning of day 2. It was something that Rach really wanted to do and as it was two people minimum, she managed to convince me to go along, despite having never been on a horse before (Honestly he took surprisingly little convincing!). We were met outside the booking agency by our guide with with two horses in hand. We had a quick introduction to the horses and he got us both straight on them. He lead mine by the reins, Rachel followed and we went back to the ranch where he picked up his horse. Off we went, my horse was tied to his and Rachel was left to her own devices. It was really, really good. It was so quiet and our guide was very forthcoming with information about the local area. We got to trek through e valleys and up and down the hills around the desert, it as a great way to see things without the masses around us! About an hour or so into the ride he decided that my balance was good enough to untie my horse from his. I'd expected him to tell
me some basics of how to control a horse but nothing was forthcoming. It was soon clear that the horse knew exactly what it was doing and didn't need any help from me thank you very much. So I stopped worrying and let it take me where it went, which thankfully was their direction. (I tried to give him some advice the night before, but didn't want to confuse him, thinking he would be given some information! - Rach)
For that evening we'd booked ourselves onto a tour taking us to a couple of salt lagoons and then sunset at another salt flat. The first lagoon was the really salty kind that you float about in and the second was much less salty and involved a running jump to get in. The first lagoon was completely ace, it's a very strange feeling though. You had to wade out to about calf deep and then the floor fell away to the depths of the lagoon, so we went for easing ourselves in like you would when swimming and found that we were so floaty that swimming didn't really work. The only downside was that after about ten minutes the salt in
the water had found it's way into every cut We knew and didn't know we had.
The second lagoon was only really memorable for the need to take a running jump to get into. The guide was adamant that the water was very deep in the kind of way that meant he had no idea how deep it was. So we stood around looking at each other wondering who was going to go first, eventually someone went for it, in a backflip style, nutter!. After enough people had gone and I was fairly sure I wasn't going to come to harm I went for it. It was freezing and I got out wishing I'd not bothered, Although it cleared the salt from the last lagoon!. Rachel sensibly stayed fully clothed and watched from the side.
When we were all dry we were taken to our final lagoon for the sunset. The lagoon was barely covered in water, with pure salt below and when the sunset came turned a light shade of blue, the desert beyond went bright yellow and the mountains a shade of red. The contrasting colours made it look like a painting and really was special. We we
also given a pisco sour and snacks to help make it more special!
When we finally got back to San Pedro at about 9, we had a much needed shower to rid ourselves of salt. Then we headed out for some quick tea before an early night.
For the day after we had decided to cross the border into Bolivia via a three day 4x4 tour of desert and the Uyuni salt flat. We did a fair bit of research both on the net and in San Pedro and booked with the best of an iffy bunch. Fun and frolics await.
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