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Published: October 31st 2015
We decided to take the bus to San Pedro de Atacama from Santiago; we travelled with Tur Bus, a Chilean bus company, and had 'cama' seats which were pretty comfortable. Tur Bus also offer semi-cama, but since we were travelling over night, cama seemed to be the best option.
After a 23 hour journey, we finally reached hot and sandy San Pedro de Atacama. The town of San Pedro is made for tourists; they have over 30 tour agencies in the main town and they offer various excursions. If you plan on visiting the Atacama desert, I suggest booking your excursions with agencies when you arrive in San Pedro; it is much cheaper than booking online. This way, you can ask them questions about trips and can negotiate if you are booking more than one trip with them. There are some agencies who keep reservations for you via email, which is a good idea for the astronomical tour during peak time / holidays. San Pedro was very busy during the weekend as it was a 3-day weekend; so there were a lot of Chileans and other South Americans visiting the area at the time.
We really enjoyed the Valle De La Luna excursion as we got the opportunity to trek for a bit, see beautiful landscapes from a height and we also got to walk / climb through a cave. The colours and landscape of the Valle De La Luna resembles scenery on planet Mars. We took so many pictures here as the colours of the valley, the sky and the mountains in the background created a stunning view. The climb up to the viewpoint was a bit steep and rocky, and we had to be careful and watch our step even more as we climbed down.
We got a lot of sand in our shoes which was uncomfortable; we emptied it out before entering the mini van. It really reminded me of Bahrain when my dad would make us empty out the sand from our shoes before we entered his car! I would suggest wearing hiking boots or trainers if you visit this place, as you will do a fair bit of trekking.
We also got to visit the famous Tres Marias, which are three tall stones structures. Right next to it, was a stone that looked like
Pac Man or T-Rex. We only stopped here for a few minutes as there wasn't much else to see here.
The cave, called Cavernas de Sal, was spectacular and the walls had salt all around it, which made it look very pretty. The cave was pitch black inside for most of the journey through it and the space inside was very small and so was not recommended for those who are claustrophobic or are afraid of the dark. One good thing about being short meant that I had no trouble getting through the cave. Others, like Alex, had to do a fair bit of bending and ducking. The tour ended with watching the sunset with the volcanoes and mountains in the background; there were clouds in the sky and the colour of the sky was absolutely astonishing due the colour of the clouds. Piedras Rojas
Before we headed to see the red stones and Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti, we stopped at Salar de Atacama, aka the salt flats, which were surrounded by beautiful mountains and volcanoes. There were a few flamingos here, but they were pretty shy, so didn't stick around for too long.
The highlight of our day trip to see the lagunas and Piedras Rojas had to be Aguas Calientes. Don't be fooled by the name, the water is actually freezing. Aguas Calientes was absolutely beautiful, white sand, blue/green water and the mountains and volcanoes in the background made it very picturesque. The red stones 'Piedras Rojas' were in fact a nice shade of red and was situated by Aguas Calientes. It was very windy in this area and we walked against the wind back to the coach. We saw quite a few other lagunas too, which were also very scenic, such as Laguna Chaxa. We've seen so many lagunas on our trip now! It just goes to show how many beautiful lakes and lagoons South America has.
We decided to do this activity in the morning as the sun would be more bearable on our skin and also because the morning session was recommended for beginners. Alex had the opportunity to ski as a teenager but I've attempted nothing as such, so it was all very new to me. The company we went with provided us with good safety gear; helmet, long boots and
good sized boards. Some of the other tour agencies did not provide helmets or boots, and the board they provided was significantly smaller.
Our instructor showed us how to sand board down the dune, including how to wax the board so it gives a smoother ride, how to fasten our boots onto the board, how to fall, and most importantly the different techniques to use when sand boarding. Most people sand board with their left foot forward, and this was the case for both Alex and I - however, I preferred the backward fall technique and Alex preferred the forward fall technique. This just meant that I balanced myself leaning backwards and Alex balanced himself leaning forward.
At first, it was frightening but I eventually got used to the feel of the board. I managed to go down with a few falls, but I enjoyed it. The hardest thing about this was climbing up to the top of the dune. It was hard enough walking upwards on sand in the heat, but walking upwards on sand in the heat with a big sand board was even harder.
Dune bashing in a 4x4 in Dubai has nothing on
sand boarding in Atacama! If you get the opportunity to sand board, do it! The company even put together a video of our group session, so we could see how we performed and it was great to just watch ourselves in action.
We visited two more lagoons: Cejar and Piedra. You are only allowed to take pictures of Laguna Cejar, but are allowed to swim in Laguna Piedra; both are right next to each other.
Though I can't swim yet, I was brave and entered the Laguna Piedra aka the 'floating lagoon'. Alex convinced me that it was very easy to float in it without any effort, and he was right. The colour of the water showed its depth; the deep parts were dark blue and the shallow parts were brown with green undertones (stones on the water). The water was very cold and very salty, so we didn't stay in it for too long. The entrance ticket for Laguna Cejar was the most expensive entrance fee we have paid, at $15000 Chilean Peso. However, it was worth experiencing the floating lagoon, which is San Pedro's equivalent of the Dead Sea.
Geyser del Tatio
We set out at 5:30am and reached the geysers about an hour and a half later. When we first got to San Pedro, we were told that the Geysers had been closed to the public for a five-day investigation as a lady fell into one of the geysers as she was taking a selfie. Luckily, they opened the attraction just two days before we left Atacama. For our safety, every geyser had yellow-painted stones around it to indicate where we were not allowed to cross.
The geysers were phenomenal; we'd seen nothing like it before. The water was bubbling inside and let out bursts of steam towards the sky. They came in all shapes and sizes, tiny ones to gigantic ones, and they had a mind of their own; the geysers are always doing something different and that's what's fascinating about them. The smell of the geysers reminded me of rice being cooked. Though it was warmer as you got closer to the geysers, it was freezing outside. Everyone wore warm clothes, a scarf and a hat. Well, Alex didn't come as prepared but he had a hood to cover his head.
Close to the geysers site, there was a thermal bath. We didn't bring any swimwear so could not take a dip, however, it wasn't that warm so it worked out well for us. Just before we headed back to San Pedro, we stopped at the small village of Machuca, where we tried llama for the very first time! We ate them on skewers, barbecue style. We also tried a cheese empanada here; the pastry part tasted more like a puri (Indian deep fried bread), so was even tastier and reminded me of food I haven't had in a long time.
Astronomical star gazing tour
We were initially supposed to experience this tour the night we arrived in San Pedro, but the star gazing was cancelled due to the sky being overcast with cloud. We went with a company called Space Obs who have a good reputation for this particular tour; it is run by a French astronomer and his wife, and the tour is conducted in Spanish, English and French. Thankfully, the night before we left San Pedro, two places were available in English and the sky was clear and so we had the
chance to experience star gazing. Generally, in Atacama, the sky is filled with stars and it looks absolutely magnificent. We spent nights walking home staring at the sky, nearly bumping into lamp posts!
On this particular tour, we were shown the different constellations of stars, their names (Aries, Scorpion, Sagittarius - ring any bells?) and how to find them. We even had the chance to look through different sized telescopes to see the stars a lot closer. We loved the telescope part but felt the guide spoke for too long; we were standing for over an hour in the same spot and it was cold. They did give us a blanket though, to keep us warm, but my attention span is not that long and since it was dark and late, I was tempted to fall asleep. The guide / owner's knowledge of the stars was phenomenal and we could tell that he had a strong background in astronomy. We were given a hot chocolate when we sat inside, after the tour, which was lovely.
Things we noticed
There were a lot of stray dogs in San Pedro. Santiago had a fair amount
of strays, but San Pedro had more. The stray dogs were quite entertaining though: when we were dining one evening, we saw about 10 dogs chasing a car as it drove past the restaurant. Another incident involved a dog brushing up against the back of a man's leg. The man was startled and I found it so funny that I started laughing and others followed; the man was not impressed.
The food in San Pedro was much tastier than in Santiago. Perhaps this was because of their target audience: tourists. Restaurants served Terremoto, Pisco Sour and other 'Sours' too. We enjoyed natural Chilean fruit and nut ice cream from Babalu which was delicious - I can't remember what the flavours were but one had chocolate chips in it. We tasted the Rica Rica flavoured one, but we were not too keen on it.
Grocery shopping in San Pedro was generally more expensive. You were paying double or more for mineral water, biscuits and savoury snacks compared to the UK, perhaps due to the area being a tourist trap. We found a fruit and veg market in the area, and the produce was being sold for very reasonable prices;
the locals seemed to be shopping here!
Accommodation was expensive and hot water was not always available - actually water was not always available. I remember waking up quite early one morning, to find no water flowing through the taps, flush, shower - anywhere! I spoke to a staff member about this later that day and he said that when there are too many people using the water supply in San Pedro, the water supply can be turned off for the whole area. It was the desert after all!
The climate was extreme in the day and night time; during the day, it was very hot and in the night, the temperature dropped so much that you'd be mad not to wear a warm coat and layers.
Most restaurants accept credit card (AMEX, Master Card, Visa) but most tour agencies only accept cash. There are plenty of ATMs in San Pedro, we used BCI (Banco International) and we were not charged any ATM fees by them.
We absolutely loved our time in the Atacama desert, and had we had more time, we would have checked out the volcano hike and also would have hired a bike (cycle) to explore the area. We wanted to check out the Puritama hot springs, but chose to experience Laguna Cejar instead, so that's another place we would have experienced had we had more time in San Pedro.
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