We initially planned to bus up the coast of Chile from Valparaiso to our next spot, San Pedro de Atacama, likely doing a stop or two along the way since the direct bus takes 24 hours and that’s just past our threshold. But last minute we found a smokin’ deal on plane tickets for $40/person. So after an hour bus ride from Valparaiso to Santiago, Uber from the bus station to the airport, a two hour flight from Santiago airport to Calama airport, then a 90-minute shuttle transfer….we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama is set in the Atacama Desert, the driest and highest desert in the world at 13,000 feet above sea level. The small town has a few dusty dirt streets lined with restaurants, little shops and tour companies, all in Adobe brick. It’s actually pretty cute and almost feels like a movie set. We could feel the effects of high altitude right away after arriving, doing small things such as carrying a backpack or going up stairs left us breathing hard. But we’re lucky as some people get super sick from the altitude, for us it just felt like a mild hangover you couldn’t kick.
The main attraction in San Pedro are the plethora of tours to the surrounding desert area to check out the insane landscapes. You could easily spend a week plus doing this but we only had a few days before departing for Bolivia, so we chose what seemed to be the most popular. Our first day we did a tour of the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) and Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). At Valle de la Muerte you hike up the rocks and sand dunes to catch the views from above which were surreal. Then at Valle de la Luna we were there for sunset and it was completely breathtaking as you can see by the pictures below. It is appropriately named moon valley because it seriously looks like the surface of the moon.
Our second day was an early wakeup for a half-day tour to check out the Tatio Geysers and surrounding area. The reason for the 4:30am pickup was to be there in time to catch the sunrise. The geyers were really cool to see up close and personal, there were tons of them all around the valley bubbling and spewing out hot water like mini volcanos. We were told it would be cold since it was at higher elevation than town but we completely underestimated just how chilly (try 30 degrees F). We didn’t dress appropriately for those temps, so cue to Trav wearing his towel as a head turban and attempting to warm his hands by holding them over the steaming geysers. Luckily once the sun rose over the mountains it warmed up dramatically! After checking out the bubbling geysers, we put on bathing suits and took a dip in the nearby thermal pool which is naturally heated by the geyers. It was cooler than a hot tub so to stay warm you had to dig around for hot spots in the gravel and just stay put. Not as “spa-like” as I was hoping for, but fun to try. Then we boarded back on the shuttle and drove through the scenic areas with volcano and desert landscape and saw flamingos, llamas and birds. We also stopped at a tiny village and tried llama meat a local guy was grilling on skewers. It tasted pretty good, similar to beef but saltier.
Last up on the tour circuit was a stargazing tour, a must do if you ever find yourself in San Pedro. The Atacama Desert sky is ridiculously clear and actually one of the best places in the world to see the stars. As such there are numerous observatories. With us from the northern hemisphere and being accustomed to seeing stars and constellations in certain spots, seeing everything flipped from the southern hemisphere was pretty crazy. The Milky Way was so clear it felt like you were inside a planetarium or something! We also got the chance to take a peek through massive telescopes – some 20 feet long – you had to stand on a ladder to get to.
Our final day in San Pedro was a “break” day, we slept in and did some necessary trip planning including finally buying our plane tickets from South America to Europe for end of June. First Europe stop is Turkey! We start in Istanbul then fly to Cappadocia to go hot air ballooning (do a Google image search to see pics of it – we’re pretty excited!)