South America Travel Tips

San Pedro de Atacama: Another Planet

There are deserts. And then there is Atacama desert. Yes, the driest desert in the world. So dry, that some of its 6,000m and higher mountains have no snow. So dry, that on the first day I got there, hailstones, thunders, lightnings and rain knocked out the town.

From Santiago de Chile to San Pedro de Atacama

It was hard leaving Santiago. A place where I was able to settle, get a lot of work done and reset a little after 3 long months of travelling. Santiago ended up being a feel-good medicine.

But I wanted to move on with my plan. And next on the map was San Pedro de Atacama, a little town in the middle of nowhere in the North of Chile. To avoid another mad bus trip, I found a good deal with Sky Airlines to Calama, about 1 hour drive from San Pedro.

Flight was pleasant apart from the last 25 minutes (grrrrr I hate those landings…), that in my head lasted an eternity. Reminded me of a mental landing in Palermo, Italy when I was a chico; yes, I now remember why I’m not a big fan of planes.

My sweat dried up quickly soon after we finally touched ground. In Calama Airport it was already hot. I bought a bus ticket for San Pedro and while waiting for the departure I took this picture (and another one on the bus… mental!) 🙂

After my hyper caloric Santiago Airport breakfast I decided to skip lunch (also because Calama airport had nothing but crisps and chocolate). I was so looking forward to cooking some vegetables that night 🙂

Once in San Pedro, I found my hostel easily and checked-in. I even relaxed for a few minutes on a hammock… but at that moment the weather changed drastically and I went inside to get some shelter.

Then, it started hailing. And you could clearly hear noisy thunders and see incredible lightnings. Yep, in the world’s driest desert.

The power cut off, and the rain started to come down heavily – the whole town got immediately flooded.
Water started to filtrate through the hostel roof, and our kitchen and bathrooms were now out of service. At 7.30 pm the whole town was underwater, restaurants and shops had no power, and I started to regret not having bought crisps and chocolate in Calama… yes, even for dinner I couldn’t eat.

To avoid getting even hungrier, I went straight to bed.

I got up the next day hoping for a marvelous breakfast, but no, all I could find was sugary cereals and UHT milk. In San Pedro there are no supermarkets (why?), so you buy fruit at the fruit market and the rest, well, you hope you’re going to find it in a minimarket (kiosko).

During the day I tried working a little, but the connection wasn’t great so I got the necessary bits done
and went out to optimize my time.

I wanted to buy some guided tours and also organize my trip to Bolivia, just around the corner from San Pedro. 155,ooo Chilean Pesos and my next 3 days were now sorted: a half-day tour to Valle de la Luna and Valle de Marte, a full-day tour to the Tatio Geysers and -finally – my “escape” tour from Chile to Bolivia, a 3 day tour on a 4×4 that takes you to unbelievable places at 5,000m of altitude..

Valle de Marte & Valle de la Luna

You really think you’re on another planet. First, on Mars. Then, on the Moon.

But yes, you’re in Chile 🙂

Just a few kilometers from San Pedro, volcanic activity, erosion, heat, cold, water and wind transformed the landscape into something unique.

Valle de Marte is literally a dry, rocky, salty, sandy, huge area from where you can also admire a few
volcanoes. There are not many words to describe the atmosphere – you’re alone in the middle of
nowhere and it looks like you’re on another planet.

Then, our tour continued towards Valle de la Luna, with the main goal being watching the sunset. As Wikipedia says, “[Valle de la Luna] has various stone and sand formations which have been carved by wind and water. It has an impressive range of color and texture, looking somewhat similar to the surface of the moon“, so I won’t bother you any further; here are some other amazing pics:

Overall, a half day tour well worth the expense.

I met great people on both Mars and the Moon and made a few friends, together with enjoying one of the most beautiful landscapes of Chile.

But, hey, the next day I had to get up at 3.30am, so I went straight to bed (hoping the hostel guests would not be noisy again).

Geysers del Tatio

I mean, they call them “Geysers”, but Chilean people have possibly never been to Iceland 🙂

So, knowing this from the very beginning, my expectations were very low (and I’m delighted, because it was a great day). Besides, I was not impressed with the 3.30am wake up time. And with the 45 minutes delay of the tour guys.

Well, the goal was to get up to the Geysers before sunrise, when volcanic activity is stronger and colours are brighter once the sun rises.

Tatio” means “oven” in Quechua language – indeed. It’s located at 4,320 metres above sea level and I thought I was going to suffer the altitude sooooooo much. But I didn’t. Call it a miracle.

Our tour came with breakfast included, making it my highest-altitude-breakfast of all time. They even cooked scrambled eggs. And there was hot tea. Ideal for sub-zero conditions, of which I wasn’t exactly ready for.

“Geysers” done (the highest is like 75cm, and most of all there is a lot of steam), we continued our tour of the valley. This, my friend, was the big highlight – I wasn’t expecting anything after the geysers, so a big surprise indeed.



Flora & Fauna.

Just beautiful.

Disclaimer to my Italian friends: “Putana” is a volcano, don’t get me wrong OK?????

(Ahah I had to take this picture…)

Overall, this tour was worth it, however the 3.30am wake up time was really hard. Back to the hostel I was wrecked, and the day after my Bolivia tour was scheduled to start at 7am.

San Pedro de Atacama was great, but also the most expensive place in Chile after Torres del Paine. So, 3 days were ideal – also because connection was terrible and couldn’t get any work done.

Needless to say – I didn’t know I would have spent the next 5 days without any sort of connection and phone signal.

Yes, my first 5 days without technology since I was 18.

Good? Bad? Well, you’ll find out in the next article. As well as finding out how I got on on my 3-day 4*4 tour towards Uyuni, Bolivia.

Spoiler alert: if you thought these photos were awesome… nothing compares to Uyuni.

Hasta luego!