First time I ever heard of this place was in Standard VI Geography text book – Atacama Desert, the driest place on planet Earth! Falling in the rain-shadow region of Andes, this area in northern Chile receives only average annual rainfall of 15mm. Enough of Geography revision! When we initially planned our South America Trip, we planning only Peru & Bolivia. But when we realised that there is an option to cross to Chile at the end of the Salar de Uyuni tour, via the Atacama desert we decided to add an extra week and include Chile to the itinerary!
Journey to San Pedro de Atacama : Crossing the Bolivia-Chile land border
So, on the third and final day of our Salar de Uyuni Tour (Read here), our Driver/Guide dropped us at the Bolivia-Chile border high up in the Altiplano. After stamping our passports at the Bolivian Border post, we boarded the mini-van which was supposed to take us to San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA for short), the nearest Chilean town and main gateway to the Atacama Region. The drive is a slow descent, from 4500m+ to 2600m! Not only does the landscape change, but also the infrastructure! Chile is one of the most developed countries in South America, while Bolivia is one of the poorest.
The mini-van took us to the Chilean Border post, at the entrance to the town of SPdA. The officials were happy to see the pre-issued visa and filled forms and stamped the passport without any delay. The baggage had to be unloaded from the van and screened. It is advised not to carry any Food or Organic material from Bolivia to Chile. Post that the driver dropped each tourist to their respective Hostels in the town
San Pedro de Atacama – Desert Tourist town in the foothills of Andes
The small tourist town has a desert theme, most buildings and establishments have a shade of brown or yellow! Tourism is the major livelihood and there are many restaurants, hostels, tour operators and souvenir shops, all catering to the passing tourists – meaning higher prices everywhere!
We stayed in Hostal Desert, a small cozy Bed & Breakfast, 10~15mins walk from Centro or the town centre.
There are Four major attractions – Geyser field, Moon Valley, Altiplanic Lakes and Green lake, each of which can be visited as part of half day guided tour – requiring 2 Full days to complete. There are other places of interest, but not worth exploring unless you intend to stay longer. We visited only the first two (described in detail below), as the last two were similar to the sights we saw during our Salt Flat tour.
Tatio Geysers field and Town of Machuca
This is the most spectacular attraction and must see if you are here. World’s third largest active geyser field with more than 80 geysers! They become super active when the sunrises, venting out steam and bubbling gases. To see this sight, you have to start very early – at 5am – braving sub-zero temperatures. But it’s totally worth it!We opted for the Tour Agency Turismo Grado 10. They are slightly expensive, for a valid reason. They have a unique Mercedes Truck-Bus for transportation, which also doubles as a mobile kitchen. So when other Agencies give you cold breakfast boxes, here you get a freshly cooked hot breakfast! Also, they give blankets to keep yourself warm!
Once the sun is up and shining, the steam vents die down and people head over for a dip in the hot springs on site. The water is not ‘hot’ as we know it. It is just warmer than the surrounding temperature. We didn’t brave to go anywhere near as it was still freezing for us.
On the way back, we stopped at a Machuca village. It is a small settlement of Atacama people, who have inhabited this region from historic times.
Here I finally got a chance to taste Alpaca meat! Swati couldn’t bear the thought of eating cute Alpacas so she decided to stay inside the bus!
On our way back we made couple of more photo stops.
Moon valley or Valle de la Luna
This is another must do tour in SPdA. The arid nature of the region has provided it the features of an Alien landscape, most comparable to surface of the Moon. Located 30 minutes outside the town, both this region is located in the Los Flamencos National Reserve. The trip is again best taken as part of an organised group tour in an evening.
First part of the tour consists of crawling through caves. These are covered in salt deposites. Looks like mud, but it is solid rock. Our group consisted of 20 odd people. Best is to either be in the front, or better be at the back. This helps in capturing some good photographs. Otherwise there would be people in front and back. Also try to arrive before the tourist groups come in truckloads, then it gets really cramped!
After emerging from the cave, we board the van for a short drive to see sand dunes. After a short walk and climb on a sand hill, you get to a vantage point from which you can appreciate the desert landscape!
Penultimate stop on the tour were some rock formations that formed as a result of wind erosion. These were termed the Three Marys, but one tourist broke a figure while posing. Since then people are not allowed near them.
Last stop was the most scenic – the panoramic view of the Moon Valley, with Andes in the background. Here you wait and see the sun set. The most interesting phenomenon is when the sun goes below the horizon. You’ll see that the Andes mountain range change colour from brown to pink!
With that, our time at San Pedro de Atacama came to an end. We opted for a transfer to the nearest airport – Calama – and took the evening flight to Santiago de Chile.