Before heading to the famous San Pedro de Atacama of Chile we were forced to spend what seemed like an eternity in the small beachside town of Iquique as we waited for both our bank cards to be sent via Parcelforce – or should I say Snailforce.
Both our cards had been cancelled on account of fraud and we had no choice but to wait for eight long days. This wouldn’t have been so bad had Iquique not been out of season and the weather overcast on many days so we couldn’t even sunbathe or swim in the super-fresh sea.
Finally, on Tuesday the 12th of April, after a very long journey of 12 hours we made it to San Pedro de Atacama for a whirlwind three day stop.
San Pedro is a small, bustling touristy town made up of adobe (a building material made from earth and organic material) buildings and built in defiance of the dusty landscape.
At 2,400 metres above sea level it was our second encounter with altitude.
Altitude is kind of strange…the air is in fact thinner because it contains less oxygen, but it actually feels thicker, to me anyway, which has the effect of making it slightly harder to breathe. Your body notices this change straight away – your nose gets blocked and you head can feel heavy at times.
Apparently, as altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. I’m not sure if this is what was responsible for our roll-ball deodorants popping and our packets of crisps expanding like helium balloons or why I got a sudden and uncontrollable nose bleed (not the first one I’d have) while in San Pedro.
We arrived late and despite our plans to get an early night and not drink too much because of the altitude (staying hydrated is the best way to treat the headiness the altitude can cause) we were, of course, lured in by the nice restaurants offering three-course meals for $7000 pesos per person (around £7) and the local Cerveceria (beer house). But we didn’t have an early start, so that was fine.
Sexy sunset and wild sand dunes
The first trip we went on was the Valle de la Luna trip which takes you into what I thought was the desert but it’s actually the Atacama salt flats area. The landscape is like nothing I have seen before – it’s ubiquitously beige, curvaceous, dusty and dry. It’s not really beautiful like in El Chalten, but rather just impressive, like something from a David Attenborough documentary or from the Lawrence of the Arabia film.
The sun was strong as we explored the sand dunes by foot (Converse were not the best choice of footwear), tracing their curves and edges
The best bit of the tour, however, was watching the sunset from a view point.
As the sun sets intense hues of purple, peach and blue can be seen over the tan coloured mountains. At first, the colour is like in HD, really strong and intense, and then it fades into a soft watercolour painting, all blurry and hazy.
Geysers, flamingos and llama meat
The next morning we got picked up at 5.45am (after the guide got lost several times trying to find us and was half-an-hour late, bless him) and drove an hour and a half to see the Tatio Geysers.
It was cold – toe numbing, eyes stinging and nose hurting cold. Minus five degrees in fact. It hurt my fingers to take my gloves off for photos. I also mistakenly wore converse which offer no protection from the cold whatsoever.
The geysers themselves are pretty amazing, however. They’re in a massive volcano crater. Water flows below the crater, like a river, and is brought to boiling temperature by heat and pressure under the earth’s crust. Once at boiling point the water explodes up creating holes in the surface of the crater, letting off steam and spraying boiling water. More water then flows beneath and the cycle starts again.
The geysers are actually very dangerous if you’re not sensible. Our guide told us that three months earlier, a 60-year-old Belgium woman, feeling curious, stepped over the small stone barrier for a closer look at one of the big geysers and fell full into the hole, burning her skin off up to her neck. She was basically boiled alive. There are no helicopters for rescue, so she had to be driven back to the town, an hour and a half away. She died a week later in hospital. So tragic.
At our next stop we had the opportunity to swim in a natural hot spring. I wasn’t sure at first as I was so cold the thought of taking my clothes off and making the, probably six steps, to the pool seemed like a turnoff but as soon as the other Europeans decided to do it I thought I might as well, so my husband and I both braved it. It was nice, but not quite as hot as you’d like.
Afterwards, we dr0ve to some view points and a village of 15 houses – created as a way to protect some indigenous families from being taken as slaves by Spanish colonisers. Here we ate barbequed llama – possibly one of the nicest meats I’ve ever had, a sort of mix between lamb and beef.
My favourite thing, however, was seeing wild flamingos! We watched them fish for small shrimp – a task that takes up about 8 hours of their day and which gives them their beautiful pink colour.
Desert star gazing
That night we did a space observation tour. I’m not usually big into astronomy, but my husband was very keen so I went with it.
For the tour our guide Jorge drove us into the desert at 8pm to a sort of make-shift classroom made up of wind-breaker sheets, seats with blankets, and all different impressive telescopes. We were an intimate group of four Americans, two Geordies and us.
First our guide, or more like a teacher, gave us a lesson in astronomy for about an hour. He was quite animated and physical, waving his arms dramatically about as he taught us orientation and about important people in astronomy such as Galileo and Isaac Newton. He was also a bit intimidating when he put you on the spot and acted overly disappointed when you couldn’t answer his questions.
If you ever go to San Pedro and do his tour (which I recommend) remember that there are 88 different constellations, because if you can tell him this he will remember you forever. He actually listed the names and nationalities of all the people who could answer this question – a staggering 9 people in 15 years.
After tea, coffee and biscuits it was time for some observation through the big telescopes. The first stars we saw weren’t all that impressive, but they got better. The impressive ones were the ones that can’t be seen with the naked eye. I think the furthest star cluster we gazed at was 30 million light years away, which is pretty far. But my favourite was seeing first Saturn and then Jupiter, including its four moons! We could actually see the rings around Saturn.
Then finally we saw the moon through a replica of Galileo’s telescope, just as he had observed it many years ago, and then through gradually more sophisticated telescopes so that the moon became clearer and clearer until it looked like it was in HD and its craters were easily visible.
I left the tour, four hours later, completely fascinated with the solar system, the universe and astronomy in general. Jorge’s enthusiasm is infectious. How long this will last, or how much I’ll remember in a week or two, is debatable, however.
And that was our whirlwind tour of San Pedro. The next day we left early for Calama, a mining town, where we had an appointment to visit the Chuquicamata mine – one of the world’s biggest copper mines.
Travel: The bus from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama takes an hour and a half. From Iquique to San Pedro you have to take a seven-hour bus to Calama and then catch another bus from Calama to San Pedro. At the time of writing buses left Calama for Uyuni, Bolivia on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays via either Fronterra or Atacama2000 (both ticket offices are in the centre not in the bus terminal) leaving at 5:30am/6am arriving around 1pm. You have to change buses at the border, but don’t worry this was completely painless. However, the quality of bus drops significantly on the Bolivian side.
Trips: We did our trips with Whipala, which I highly recommend. It’s worth booking in advance for the trips as some people we met couldn’t get on them. You can book the stargazing tour with Jorge here.
Food: Delicious ‘menu del dias’ can be found all over San Pedro ranging in price (3500 – 9000 pesos) and quality. The more you spend the better quality but the lower priced ones are decent enough.
Drinking: A beer (bigger than a pint) costs around 2500 pesos (£2.50). Wine about 14000 pesos (£14) for a half decent red.
Accommodation: We stayed in Casa Ancestral. It’s newly renovated and really nice with excellent facilities. It’s a bit hard to find at first and is a ten-minute walk from town but this shouldn’t put you off. However, the woman who runs it barely says two-words so she won’t tell you about the huge common lounge and Parilla – so just ask. She also disappeared the day we left forcing us to leave our money with a note under the kitchen door!
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