Chile - San Pedro de Atacama

Published: June 30th 2017
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Suzanne here...

The journey to San Pedro de Atacama was fine. As it got light we could appreciate the amazing scenery. The border crossing at Paso de Jama was closed when we arrived, which was a bit of a worry. But after a two hour wait they opened it up. Such a relief as we didn't fancy turning back. It took the best part of an hour to pass through both border controls, but in the end we were on our way.

We arrived a couple of hours late, but we were just delighted it had all worked out. Because of the uncertainty we had not booked a hotel. Luckily the bus station had wi-fi so we did a bit of research and headed off to find our prefered option. It was a bit expensive at $85. We knew that accommodation in Chile in general and San Pedro in particular was expensive, but even so. We walked around the corner to our second choice. A bit better at $50 but still less than ideal as hotels add 19% tax. We were about to walk away, but were both dreading slogging around town in the heat, at altitude, with backpacks. We asked to see the room, which looked pretty decent. So when they agreed to drop the tax, we decided to take it. Actually, Casa Flores is a nice place and as it is slightly out of town it's cheaper than similar hotels so a good choice.

Almost immediately we went into town for a look around. I'd read that the town could be a bit of a shock to the system if you've been off the standard backpacker trail for a while. Glad I was forewarned. The place was heaving with tourists. But much as I'd love places like this to myself it's just not feasible. If you want to see some of the world's best scenery you have to be prepared to share it.

After our long bus journey we were hungry so stopped at the first café we saw, Cafe Peregrino. We both ordered quesadillas, and I must say they were particularly delicious. A good start. We then wandered around the town. Nice enough, but small and as mentioned very touristy. But then you look up, and see the Andes and it's all worthwhile, it's an awe-inspiring sight.

Back at the hotel we debated on what to with our time in San Pedro. The reason for visiting the area is to go on some of the many tours around the Atacama Desert. We picked two potential tours for the next day. The one I really fancied was the Atacama Salt Flat to see the flamingoes. Frankly I've been obsessed with seeing flamingoes for months. We couldn't find anyone doing that the next day though. So we went with our second choice, Valle de Luna. Once that was booked we went for dinner at Ckunna. We shared a meat platter, which was very nice, and had a bottle of wine.

One thing to note, it is almost impossible to get alcohol in San Pedro except with a meal. There is one tiny, crowded bar, and none of the shops sell alcohol. The reason for this is that due to the huge number of young backpackers the town was getting an unwanted reputation for drunken partying. This is not the image they wanted, so they had a massive crackdown on alcohol availability. Having been to Kuta (shudder) I have to say I think they have done the right thing.

There was no rush the next day as the tour wasn't until 3pm. So after breakfast we had a quick nose around the local cemetery before walking to the Meteorite Museum. We nearly didn't bother when we got there and saw it was basically a large tent! I'm glad we did though. It was really interesting, with lots of information and meteorites on display. Well worth a visit.

So, on to the tour. Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon) is an exceptional landscape. The mountains, stones and sand dunes shaped by volcanoes, wind and water look totally alien, well, like the moon I guess. The former location of an ancient ocean (ironic as the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth), massive amounts of salt remains. For miles you can see a white salty residue on the earth. Closer up you notice huge chunks of salt crystals. It's an amazing place, but not somewhere you'd like to lost. Next up was Valle de La Muerte (Death Valley - although apparently this is a mistranslation and it should have been Valley of Mars). Equally fascinating. We finished up at a spot where we could watch the sunset, with a couple of hundred others of course. Still, more space than in high season I'm sure. Watching the changing colours of the Andes was something special and unforgettable.

We'd taken the tour with Desert Adventures. They were fine. Reliable and reasonably priced. It was a big group though, and the tour was a little shorter than promised. We'd have been ok with using them again for convenience. But we were not devastated when the next tour we wanted was fully booked. Just up the road was TuriTour. They had places on the Tatio Geysers tour the next day so we booked with them. Then it was a light vegetarian dinner at Estrella Negra (ok, not exceptional) and an early night ready for an early start.

The early start was 4am, ugh. Two day's out of three we'd had to get up in the middle of the night. We managed though, and got outside the hotel for 4.30am as arranged. By 4.45am we were picking up the others and were on our way. It was a smaller group this time, just seven of us. They were ok. I did get rather narked at the Aussie woman who kept correcting the guides English. I think our guide was a bit annoyed at the group who were being a bit rude I thought. She found it very difficult to keep her temper. Which wasn't very professional but as it wasn't directed at me or David (goodie two-shoes teachers pets that we are) it was quite amusing.

The geysers are at high altitude which affected a couple of people, but we were used to it. However it meant it was COLD, about minus six. We'd been warned of this, but what could we do? We're not dragging winter coats with us on our trip. So we just put on four layers and dug out our gloves from Korea. Not really enough but we're pretty hardy and we managed without much discomfort. Just our toes really. The area had been closed for a while due to snowstorms (the same that closed the path from Argentina I guess) so the vicunas had re-colonised the place, which was nice to see.

The geysers themselves were really good. Not the towering columns of Yellowstone, but still impressive - bubbling pools of boiling water and lots of steam. They exist due to the proximity of magma, from the nearby volcanoes, to the earth's surface. Nobody seemed worried that we were so close to an active volcano so we presume it's safe enough! Geysers are quite rare, certainly we've never seen anything quite like them, and it was well worth getting up early for.

On the way back we stopped briefly at a place where there were viscacha (of the chinchilla family) sunning themselves. We'd seen one at Machu Picchu but there were loads of the little buggers here, including a baby. Very cute. We then passed a small salt lake. I held my breath... and there was a group of flamingoes! I was so excited I danced around in my seat. Admittedly there were only a dozen of them, not the huge flocks you get on the bigger lakes. But still - flamingoes! It made me very happy.

Before driving back to San Pedro we stopped at Machuca village. A bit boring to be honest but at least we saw another herd of vicunas. We were back in town at 11am. Again earlier than expected. Often we don't leave the hotel until that time, and we'd already had a full day of activity. After another stroll around town we decided to grab lunch at Burger Garden. Probably the best burgers we've had since the (unbeatable I reckon) Burger Station on Koh Chang. We didn't fancy another tour that day so just pottered around for the rest of the day.

Our prefered dinner options were closed so we ended up at Las Delicias de Carmen. It was actually very tasty, but the $58k bill (£70) was a bit of a shock. San Pedro is a tourist trap though. We hope the rest of Chile will be a bit cheaper. It has to be, we can't afford to spend that on dinner every night.

Our time in San Pedro was at an end. We could easily have done another tour or two, but we have a whole country to see. The first half of the seven hour bus journey flew by as I gazed at the scenery. Then the attendant put a film on. This is usually something so cheesy and throwaway that we can follow it even in Spanish. What did this guy chose? I Spit on Your Grave. I wish I was kidding. Not even the original, but the 'even more rapey' newer version. We could not quite believe he thought this was appropriate but we could see the funny side and just let it go. But as the film progressed it got worse and worse. I watch a lot of horror films and would have been fine with zombies, werewolves or vampires. But this was something else and really quite harrowing.

A screen always draws the eyes, so I got the Kindle out. The sound was bothering me, so I put my earplugs in. But as the film got worse even they didn't block out the woman's screams. It was horrendous. Suddenly David stood up and marched down the bus. I wondered what he was doing for a moment. He was looking for the attendant who had disappeared. So then he started knocking on the door to the driver. He got in and told the driver in no uncertain terms to turn it off. This was obviously in English, but there was no doubt in any language that he was absolutely furious. Eventually the driver got it and turned the film off. Nobody complained, and the woman in front of us thanked him. I was very grateful too, my hero. The rest of the journey was much more pleasant.

So there you go, onto our second stop in Chile, Iquique.

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