Cracked lips, dry throat and sunseared skin. You grasp for water on the verge of dehydration, its taste heavenly as it kisses your lips.
These are just some of the many sensations you’ll encounter roaming around the driest place on earth. The sand dust kicks up from every step you take and when a car rolls by you hold your breath. Your hair feels coarse and your eyes are burning. If there’s anything you don’t want to forget on this trip, it’s lots of water and sunscreen.
What you need to know before you go…
San Pedro de Atacama is a bizarre place to visit. Mostly all the dirt roads that run through town are bumpy, so a 4×4 is a must.
The architecture is a mix of one story homes, hostels, souvenir shops, over-priced restaurants and, of course, tourist agencies by the dozen. It’s not hard to tell that this town is run for the sole purpose of tourism.
It’s exhausting trying to choose the right agency to embark on the numerous tours offered in San Pedro; lucky for Margot and I, we made some amazing friends that just happened to have rented a car. It certainly saved us loads of cash & time and made the experience way more enjoyable. No longer sheep pushed along by a shepherd (tour guide) from place to place, we now had the luxury to spend as long as we pleased at our desired locations.
If that’s not in the cards for you, I suggest reading up on Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet to choose the most suitable tourist agency. The Lonely Planet book (2015) is outdated so Tripadvisor is most helpful for critiques, though the book was indispensable for planning out our itinerary.
My suggestion when visiting San Pedro is rent a 4X4 truck and make some friends at a hostel; they’ll keep you company, help with gas and create unforgettable experiences.
Day 1: Dizzy at 5400 meters
What a whirlwind of a day. To start off we had been on a bus from La Serena to San Pedro de Atacama for sixteen hours. For this trip we took the cama (first class “bed”) seats on the bus because we had to catch some rest on the way. Upon arrival, we quickly jumped off the bus and decided to walk to our Airbnb because the taxi driver was really pushy and making us extremely uncomfortable (and sadly, no Ubers). Thank God this town is small. It’s really eerie walking through this town when no one’s around on a Sunday morning.
Note: Staying in a hostel is the popular choice in San Pedro and most tourist agencies will pick you up and drop you off if you book with them. Accommodation in San Pedro is more expensive than any other place we visited in Chile.
As the day progressed, we contacted our friends to touch base. They immediately invited us for a drive through the high mountain plains. Little did we know it would be the highest altitude we both had ever ascended to and the highest we would experience in San Pedro de Atacama. Our friend had a mission to drive to the top of Cerro Toco Mountain to get a vantage point to look at the ALMA observatories’ radio telescopes. All I can say is, it’s really hard to move around at 5400 meters above sea level. You get dizzy and a bit of a headache. Your body has the balance of a drunk and your head feels like you smoked something funny. Although it sounds fun, altitude sickness can be a serious issue, not to be taken lightly. Lucky for us, we didn’t get majorly affected because we descended the mountain after an hour or so.
Note: I suggest you bring Acetazolamide (Diamox) pills, Advil and/or Tylenol & perhaps drink some Chachacoma or Coca tea to aid with altitude sickness. In serious cases, however, medical attention is needed. The city of San Pedro is 2,408 meters, so it’s a good idea to spend a day or two acclimatizing.
Day 2: Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos (Solar de Atacama & Lagunas)
Salar de Atacama (2,305 meters above sea level)
The second day started off by driving out to the salt flats (Salar de Atacama). Much smaller than the ones you’ll see in Bolivia but still a wonder to set your eyes upon. You feel like you’ve been transported to another world filled with strange salt rock formations and a lagoon of bizarre colours. There are three types of flamingos on this reserve and you can read up on them in the small museum. You can easily spend an hour and a bit here, so bring a snack.
Stopover in a Canyon near Socaire
On our way to the other lagoons we stopped on the side of the road to visit one of the many canyons you see along the highway. Another thing to observe if you’re driving past the small town of Socaire is a tonne of ruins of old stone homes left by the natives. It kind of reminded me of Ireland and the way they pile up rocks to make fences. On our way back through Socaire, we stumbled upon a funeral. People were walking behind a truck with a casket loaded in the back dressed in traditional Chilean clothing and black dresses singing religious songs. We didn’t take any pictures out of respect, but it was quite touching.
Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques (4,130 meters above sea level)
Here the lakes run salty; the salt comes from the minerals of the volcanic peaks that surround it. I was disappointed by the fact that I couldn’t go swimming in these lagoons but it would have been stone cold anyways. No need to worry though, there are tours that bring you to swimmable lagoons to enjoy.
Lagunas Miscanti & Miñiques are beautiful and bright blue with an amazing view of surrounding mountains and volcanoes. These lagunas were once joined but became separated by a volcanic eruption that split them some time ago. It’s for sure worth the 110 km drive and the time spent there.
Note: All national parks charge an entry fee but luckily it isn’t overpriced, plus it includes bathrooms (bonus!).
Day 3: Hunting for EL Tatio Geysers and relaxing in Termas de Puritama
EL Tatio Geysers (4,320 meters above sea level)
Waking up early has never truly been my calling but this one was a must. Our friends picked us up at 5 am and we headed off to the geysers. The stars hanging high and sleep still in our eyes, we made it. It was a wonderful display, not the geysers shooting steam into the air but the fleets of minivans arriving with eager tourists rushing out, only to cringe at the freezing weather. Even our friend wrapped himself in a sleeping bag. Luckily we were prepared, because being cold just sucks and as a Canadian I can vouch for that.
The geysers are quite nice but not exactly what I expected. I imagined giant jets of water shooting up from the ground but only found bubbling water, steam and one or two geysers that shot up about 6 feet of water. Also, getting closer to the hot water will not get you any bit warmer. The best part of the experience is watching the sun rise over the mountains and eventually mixing with the steam from the geysers.
Termas de Puritama (3,475 meters above sea level)
The termas’ relaxing scenery, hot springs and under-crowded pools make it a great place to relax. The pools are set up to run into each other from top to bottom. It’s like a river with pools and small waterfalls. We enjoyed a few relaxing hours there to warm up after the geysers before calling it a day. It really is a great way to recover from the frigid cold of the geysers, so don’t miss out or you’ll be kicking yourself for it.
Note: EL Tatio Geysers (CH$10,000) and Termas de Puritama (CH$15,000) are quite expensive and are located at high altitudes, so don’t plan this excursion on your first day in San Pedro de Atacama.
Day 4: A miner’s life of copper (Chuquicamata copper mine)
Thanks to our friends, we booked a free tour to see the largest copper pit mine in the world. You must book in advance by e-mail (VISITAS@codelco.cl) a few days in advance before heading to their office in Calama. You also need to confirm a day in advance and they will give you more details on what to bring for the excursion. They provide you with an orange vest and helmet for protection and make you sign a waiver. The tour also includes a visit of the mining town that neighbours the copper mine with the same name. The mine and town has a rich history between the United States and Chile.
Note: The strict dress code for the mine visit is long pants, long sleeved shirt and sneakers. Calama is about an hour away, so it is difficult to reach without your own car.
The mine is around 4.3 km by 3 km and 1 km in depth – and growing. Next year it will convert into an underground mine to lower costs but the gigantic hole will still be visible for visitors. Standing at the view point, you feel like you’re looking into the depths of the earth. You really can’t put it into words or photos.
Here are a few fun facts about the abandoned town of Chuquicamata. It was built for the workers of the mine in 1910 and was abandoned in 2007 due to new environmental laws. The government preserves this ghost town by making sure most of the buildings are maintained but there are quite a few that are in ruins.
Chuquicamata was the first Chilean town to have Coca Cola and other Western traditions such as Christmas and Halloween because the mine was previously owned by an American company. It has however been nationalized since then.
This day was amazing; the tour lets you walk around the town as they explain important buildings and after brings you to see the mine. I didn’t think visiting a mine could be so much fun.
Note: You will notice lots of roadside graves as you drive along the highways, like the one we encountered on our way back to San Pedro de Atacama from Calama.
Day 5: Burned out bus, Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la sal
Cinder of a bus
Day five marked the last day we had with our friends and we felt deeply saddened that we had to go our separate ways. I think San Pedro de Atacama isn’t the same without them.
A few days before, we had seen a burned down bus on the side of the Bolivia-bound highway and we decided we had to come back and take pictures.
Yes I know what you’re thinking when looking at this picture; did anyone die and if so, you’re thinking I’m insensitive for taking pictures with an abandoned bus. Well I’ll be honest, I have no clue if anyone died or was hurt, I just thought this was the coolest bus I’ll probably ever see.
Cordillera de la Sal
If you’re looking for an amazing lookout, this place is breathtaking. The geology is incredible and if you go before sunset, there’s hardly anyone around so it can be rather peaceful.
Valle de la Muerte
I enjoyed this place much more than Valle de la Luna. Mostly because of the lack of tourists, but I also found the views amazing. You can only drive part way up and have to hike the rest, which can be a bit demanding depending on if it’s a hot day (BRING WATER). There is also a massive dune where sandboarders go to enjoy the sport; it was really cool watching them. Also expect to get sand in your shoes. If you don’t, you were probably wearing flip flops.
Sunset at Valle de la Luna
This place is a great tourist attraction (it’s also the cheapest excursion in town). There are several viewpoints and a cave to feed your sense of adventure.
This place is known for watching the sunset, and for good reason. I’ve been reading the book Dune by Frank Herbert and this place made me feel like I stepped foot into this world. It is absolutely amazing to climb to the top of the great dune and look out over the horizon. If you don’t visit Valle de la Luna, people will question if you were really in San Pedro.
The last excursion: Pukara de Quitor and Stargazing with a funny French man
Our friends are long gone now and we have spent 4 days in Bolivia, but we came back to San Pedro for some rest and a final adventure. If you want to read about our adventure in Bolivia, look out for our next blog.
Pukara de Quitor
Margot and I booked an Airbnb and it has its perks. We have a private room, access to a kitchen without tonnes of people and best of all bikes. So we decided to take a 3 km bike ride out of the city to Pukara de Quitor. If you’re not lucky like us, there are dozens and dozens of places to rent bikes.
Pukara de Quitor is a wonderful place to visit if you’re into ancient native ruins, lookouts and my personal favourite, caves. The cave was really the cherry on the cake. It is by far better than the cave in Valley de la Luna and best of all, there are almost no tourists. I suggest keeping your bike helmet on and bringing a headlamp (we didn’t have ours, so we just used our camera’s light) because this cave has some walls that can be low at some points and it’s almost pitch black. The ruins were also interesting and had some billboards with historical information about the native culture of Atacama.
Stargazing with Space Star Tours
There are an uncountable amount of stargazing tours in San Pedro but if you want the cream of the crop, Space Star Tours is the place. It books up quickly but we were lucky to catch a late cancellation. The company is mostly operated by a hilarious French man called Alain who is an astrophysicist. We were at first astounded by the price (CH$25,000), but you really get what you pay for – plus, most companies charge the same rate.
They have up to 11 telescopes ranging in all sizes and what’s even cooler is that the crazy French man built some of them; he truly is a genius. If you book with this tour, you get the best explanation you can imagine about the history, how to view the stars, constellations and much more; you even get to learn about black holes and the history behind the research. What I enjoyed the most about this tour was how Alain could make almost every subject interesting and comedic. You don’t only pay for the stargazing, you also get your good share of laughs to go along with it. Also you get to view nebulae, galaxies, planets and the moon up close. I can’t recommend this tour enough. At the end, he invites you into a room that has an amazing skylight for hot drinks. You can have whatever you like but I suggest the hot chocolate, it was amazing and made all the others jealous.
I know this blog was packed with information but I hope you enjoyed it. If you come to Chile, San Pedro de Atacama is one place you really don’t want to miss. Look out for our next blog on our Uyuni tour in Bolivia.
Like always, safe travels.