I spent four days in and around San Pedro de Atacama, in the far north of Chile, about two hours north of Santiago by flight. Atacama is one of the strangest, most beautiful, rugged, remote, stunning places I’ve ever been. Normally, I really dislike tours and prefer to go out on my own, but San Pedro is the exception. I went with my friend Katie’s business called Pathway Chile which takes mostly young people on trips around Chile. I paid about $400 for four days of hostel, flight, day trips and a few meals. Our group consisted of 12 people from six different countries and was really fun. Fellow startup chile-r Paige Brown of Tripeezy gets credit for most of the photos in this post.
I think it would be extremely hard to do San Pedro on your own because of the terrain, weather and impossibility to get around. Over our four days, our guides drove rugged buses and 4x4s over mountains, volcanoes, salt flats, desserts and much more. The network of mostly dirt roads can be deadly for even the most experienced drivers who know the area. The roads were lined with little shrines to mark previous accidents.
San Pedro the town is a bit strange. It’s in the middle of nowhere, with the closest airport about 1.5 hours away in Calama. It’s made up of restaurants, hostels, bars and tchotchke shops. It’s a tourist trap, but the scenery more than makes up for it.
I saw more weird/stunning things in four days that I think I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. Our first day, we went for a drive to Valle de la Luna, aptly named because it looks like the surface of the moon. We played around on huge sand dunes and sprinted down to get to the bottom. Liberating. People were sand boarding, which looked cool, but I bet hurt a lot.
We went to the amphitheater to watch the sun set, which was absolutely unreal. The sky was on fire. It was truly the best sunset I’ve ever seen, even better than Cape Town. We hiked through a cavern and looked at the star filled night sky while the moon came up in the sky. The night sky in Northern Chile is the best in the world and there are international telescopes all over the place.
The second day, we went for a drive through small towns and ended up at two lakes at the foot of a perfectly conical volcano. It was beautiful. There were lots of flamingos, which are pink because of the creatures they eat. They eliminate the beta carotene via their feathers, hence the pink. The redder the flamingo, the older (or fatter) he is. We ate lunch at a tiny town of about 100 people where they grew all of the food in a garden out back.
Lunch was quinoa, rice, bean soup, followed by potato, bean and quinoa main dish. It was hearty, spicy and good. that night we ended up at a flamingo sanctuary, where we saw our second amazing sunset in a row. It reflected off the water and outlined the flamingos against the backdrop of the mountains.
We got up at 330am the next day to find it raining. We took a 2 hour ride up to about 4500m to see hot springs and geysers. The mountains had a fresh coat of snow, which almost never happens. We ate breakfast high above the geyser field under the cover of the snow capped mountains. We hung out in the hot springs to warm up. Before we left, we check out the active mud vents and sulfur vents. Since we were so high up, it was a bit hard to breathe if we did any sort of extended exercise.
In the afternoon, we went to the eyes of the desert, which are two random holes in the middle of the desert believed to be caused by meteor strikes. These two perfectly circular holes are about 40 meters across and super deep and filled with water. We jumped from about 20 feet up into the refreshing, salty water.
Next, we went to Laguna Cejar, the saltiest lake in the world, even more than the Dead sea. We floated around and enjoyed the sun. You can’t even go under water if you try and it was comical to see people try. When we got out, we had to get hosed down because there was so much salt on us.
We ended the day at salt flats to watch the sun set. It was a great scene with the mountains in the background. The salt flats had a bit of water on them, so they reflected everything. Luckily they were only a preview to the salt flats of Uyuni. On our last day, we went for a drive up to the Bolivian border and through the mountains. The weather was amazing. Rain, snow, hail, sun, lightning in a short period of time. We saw an amazing red sunset, capped off by more flamingos and Vincuñas, which are sort of like llamas. The beauty and force of nature was humbling and reminded me how lucky we really are. I’ve never seen colors and such quick changing weather like that.
That night, we packed up to head out to Bolivia the next morning. It was an incredibly interesting trip and not very expensive. If you’re going to San Pedro, I recommend 3-4 days, it’s worth it.