A very good friend of mine persuaded me to visit northern Chile. I was quite hesitant at first because it’s a desert region and I’m not a big fan of deserts! They’re very dry and extremely hot; elements which I guess most people won’t find comfortable. It just so happens that the Atacama Desert is the driest and one of the hottest areas on the planet. Parts of the desert are so inhospitable, even bacteria can’t survive there! I was still in a doubtful mood when I left Santiago for Calama, the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, or if there were things to do in San Pedro de Atacama that I would enjoy.
The flight to Calama, the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama (map), was about 1.5 hours and we had some amazing plane window views of the Atacama Desert and the Andes. As we approached Calama, the desert slowly came into view. Even from the air, the brown, seemingly lifeless landscape looked bizarre. Flat expansive plains stretched as far as the eye could see, interrupted occasionally by canyons that looked like huge cracks in the earth. Calama’s airport is nothing more than a runway and a small terminal building in the middle of the desert. As I stepped out of the plane, the cold wind made me shiver a bit but it was the sun that caught my attention. Specifically, the strength of the sun’s rays. They’re so strong, I could feel a stinging sensation on my face and arms almost immediately – I was warned beforehand to come prepared for this: bring sunblock that’s at least a factor 40. I arranged my transport to San Pedro de Atacama and stepped out of the terminal. The sun was now slightly higher and the cold wind had made way for a dry, hot breeze. Conditions here change very quickly indeed!
San Pedro de Atacama
The drive to San Pedro de Atacama (about 100km from Calama) through the desert was quite surreal. We passed a barren moon-like landscape full of just sand and rocks that seemed to go on forever. As we neared San Pedro de Atacama, the huge peaks and volcanoes of the Andes came into view. We crossed the foothills and entered a vast valley and caught our first glimpse of San Pedro de Atacama: a green oasis in the middle of an expansive valley hemmed in by the Andes, the Salt mountains (a chain of rocky mountains and towering sand dunes) and a huge salt lake (the white-green Salar de Atacama). The spectacular Volcan Licancabur (a 5,900m symmetrical cone) towered high above the valley floor.
San Pedro de Atacama turned out to be a small, dusty village with charming mud-brick houses, a very photogenic church, gurgling streams and ancient-looking trees. It could’ve been the set for any one of those spaghetti westerns. The only thing I missed were the cowboys galloping through the main street. Instead of cowboys, there were loads of backpackers from all over the world – it’s fascinating how groups converge in specific places.
I found my hotel, checked in, chucked my bags in my room, put on some sunblock and went for a walk. By that time (early afternoon), it was scorching. I would say the temperature was in the mid-30’s but the sun’s rays were extremely strong. At about 2,400m, San Pedro de Atacama is not very high but the altitude combined with the dry air and the scorching sun sent warning signals through my system: walk at a slower pace, stay in the shade as much as possible, drink lots of water and concentrate on my breathing. I found myself taking sips of water every few minutes as the air dried out my nose and throat in an instant.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama
The main street, Caracoles, was wonderfully atmospheric and had lots of shops and restaurants. I popped into a travel agency and booked a variety of tours around San Pedro de Atacama. That evening, I joined a group on my first tour to go star-gazing just outside the village. The Atacama Desert has only 30 cloudy days each year (while it rains only a few times a year, if at all). Combine that with the high altitude and the dry air and you have perfect conditions to easily observe the star-studded sky. As soon as the sun set, the temperature gradually dropped from 30+ degrees to just under 10 degrees! I put on my thick jacket and off we went into the desert to see the stars. It was fascinating. A Frenchman owned the small observatory and spoke very passionately about the stars. With a laser pen, he pointed out the various constellations, planets and stars. Very cool!
Sunset tour to the Salt Mountains
The next day, I went on my second tour: the Salt mountains for a sunset tour. The scenery, consisting of craggy peaks, bizarre rock formations and massive sand dunes, was quite astounding. The guide explained the history and geology of these mountains and said that we were going for a one to two hour walk to explore the area. The trek started with a climb to a 2,840m peak. After several hundred meters, my head started pounding heavily, my lungs felt like they were going to explode, I had trouble breathing and my legs started to feel like lead. It was pure willpower that got me up to the top. Once at the top, I steadied myself, concentrated on my breathing and tried to enjoy the view (because it was spectacular).
The Death Valley
We then continued along the rocky mountain ridge. One side of the mountain was bare rock and the other side was covered by huge sand dunes that reached almost the top of the mountain. At a certain section, we hopped off the ridge onto the top of the dunes and walked along its edge. It was a narrow path with the rocky face of the mountain on our left and the steep flanks of the dunes on our right. It was a steep drop, several hundred meters to the valley below, appropriately called the Death Valley.
After a while, the guide stopped and said,”Ok, this is where we go down”. I looked down and saw the steep sandy slope and thought he was joking. I think everyone thought he was joking as there was some laughter mixed with a puzzled expression. He continued by saying that there were two ways to go down: step by step or a sprint down the slope. Before I knew it, he said “Ready?” and off he went, running down the slope. We looked at each other and decided we didn’t have a choice so off we went too.
It wasn’t as bad as it looked. It was steep but the soft sand slowed our descent and kept us from falling over. By the time I arrived below, my shoes, socks and trousers were heavy with sand! We paused for a bit to catch our breath. We sat on top of a sand dune, halfway between the mountain top and the valley. The guide asked us to close our eyes, keep quiet and just listen. It was unforgettable: we heard the flutter of the wind and the mountains seemed to whistle. Wow! After a few minutes, I opened my eyes and the sight before me was just staggering. In front of us, the sand dune trailed off to the valley below while the Salt mountains loomed large behind us. In the distance, the Andes mountains with the spectacular Volcan Licancabur shone brightly in the late-afternoon sun.
From there, we walked another two kilometers (a gradual descent) past the fascinating rock formations to a spot where the van was waiting for us. By the time we reached the van, we’d walked six kilometers and I had several blisters. I felt elated and relieved.
Valley of the Moon
When we got into the van, the guide had another surprise for us. “That was the warm-up”, he said. “Now we go to the Valley of the Moon where we will walk nine kilometers from the top, down to the valley and through the salt canyon”. I now had very serious concerns about this tour. When we arrived at the starting point of the second trek, I seriously considered pulling out but for some reason decided to go ahead anyway – and I’m glad I did.
The Valley of the Moon was totally mind-blowing. From the top, it did indeed look like the rugged landscape of the moon’s surface. We walked along the mountain ridge, then went on a similar clamber down the sand dunes down to the valley and trekked across the salt flats of the valley to the salt canyon. The salt canyon was carved by an ancient river which carried huge amounts of salt and other minerals down from the mountains. The river dried up and what remained were the salt crystals which covered the surface of the canyon. From afar, the canyon looked like it was covered in a thin layer of snow.
The walk through the canyon is one I will never forget. The imposing reddish-white walls of the canyon rose high above us on both sides while the ground beneath us was completely covered with salt. The sun shone directly on one side of the canyon and that resulted in an astounding phenomenon: the expansion of the salt crystals (they expand in the heat and contract in the cold). We stopped and the guide put a finger to his lips, signalling us to be quiet. What we heard was just out of this world!! The expansion of the salt crystals resulted in a cracking plastic-like sound. Imagine that cracking sound and multiply it by a thousand. The whole canyon cracked in what seemed like a giant symphony. The whole experience was simply bewildering.
Along the way, we stopped now and again to listen to the symphony of this canyon. I had a massive headache, my muscles were aching and the sand in my socks were tearing up the blisters on my feet but this experience was truly worth it.
The van was waiting for us at the end of the canyon and took us to another spot to see the sunset (finally!!). We had to do another short one kilometer trek up a hillside (this climbing activity at a high altitude was excruciating!) but the views from atop that hill were phenomenal. The colourful valley spread out below us while the Andes formed an impressive backdrop. As the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, the colours of the valley changed from ochre to a bright orangy-red. The shadows of the Salt mountains grew longer and soon enveloped the valley and reached the feet of the Andes. From there, the shadows rose up the flanks of the Andes. It was so magical and so surreal that I had to pinch myself to convince myself that I was actually witnessing this spectacle.
Visiting Chaxa lagoon & the altiplano lakes
The following day, I woke up in time for my 7am pick-up – this time for a tour of the altiplano lakes. The tour began with a drive out to the Salar de Atacama (Atacama salt lake). We stopped at the Laguna Chaxa, in the midst of the salt lake. It was a bizarre landscape. The blue lagoon was completely surrounded by a white expanse of rocky salt crystals. The lagoon itself harbours an amazing variety of birdlife, including two out of three types of flamingos found in South America. There were lots of them, their pink feathers and black beaks forming a sharp contrast with the blue lagoon, the white salt edges and the ochre mountains in the background.
We had breakfast at the shore of the lagoon. The views were truly mesmerising. After breakfast, we headed up into the Andes. We passed the villages of Toconau and Socaire (where we made a brief stop to visit the quaint church made of cactus wood) before proceeding higher up into the imposing mountains.
After about an hour, we reached the entrance of the Laguna Miscanti. This turquoise lake is about 4,500m high and is completely surrounded by volcanos with peaks touching 6,000m. The scenery was spectacular. One thing I noticed was the lack of snow. The guide explained that it is so dry and hot here that snow only falls at these altitudes several times a year, and when it does, it only lasts a few days. We got out of the van and walked the last kilometer or so to the lake. I was completely out of breath (at these altitudes, the air is quite thin) and my head was pounding again (due to the lack of oxygen) but the scenery more than made up for that discomfort.
From the Laguna Miscanti, we walked a further two kilometers, this time a gradual ascent, to the next lake, Laguna Miniques. It was a tough walk but I took my time, one small step at a time and got there in about 30 minutes. I’ve never experienced anything like it before: due to the altitude and sun factors, I had to ensure that I consciously controlled my breathing and movements. My breathing had to be constant and deep while my movements had to be measured – I felt dizzy each time I made a sudden move, like turning around or bending down. During lunch, I gulped down several cups of coca tea – it really helps against altitude sickness. After lunch, we slowly made our way back to San Pedro, stopping at Toconau and the Jerez valley (a beautiful green fertile valley fed by clear mountain streams) along the way. By this time, my headache had become worse and I was feeling nauseous and dizzy. Back at my hotel, I took a few aspirins and went to bed. I was starting to get tired of these high altitudes!
Early-morning tour to the El Tatio geysers
I had an even earlier start the next day: 3:30am!! The tour van came by at 4am and we headed up north to the El Tatio geysers, about a two-hour drive from San Pedro. We slept most of the way. The reason the El Tatio geyser tours leave so early is because you have to see the geysers at sunrise. At that time of day, the temperature is below freezing and that’s the best time to see the steam vents. During the day, when it’s hot and dry, the steam evaporates immediately. This was another high altitude tour. At 4,500m, these geysers are one of the highest in the world. When we arrived there at 6:15am, the temperature (I checked at the park entrance) was minus 8 degrees!! Lovely! I had a shirt, two sweaters and a thick jacket on… I forgot to get some gloves so my hands froze but I later found a small steam vent that helped warm my hands and feet!
I’ve seen other geysers around the world like in Iceland and New Zealand and I must say, the El Tatio geysers themselves were not spectacular compared to the others. What makes these geysers special I guess is the altitude and the surroundings. The geysers are in a volcanic crater surrounded by rocky brown-ochre peaks that are at least 6,000m high. At this altitude, when the sun rose, the colours were just awesome. The contrast between the steaming fumaroles, the colour of the mountains and the clear azure blue sky is just unforgettable. I’ve never seen that colour of the sky before: an azure blue that is so pure. Unbelievable stuff.
We left the geysers after several hours and headed down the mountain, passing more barren volcanic peaks. The panoramas that unfolded at each bend in the road were just mind-blowing. We spotted some vicunas (wild llamas), llamas (the domesticated sort), flamingos and other birdlife. We stopped briefly at a village called Machuca where I got to taste grilled llama meat (on a skewer). It was surprisingly tender. From there, we continued on our way down the mountains. It was just so amazing to see the dramatic effect water has in this barren region: a small mountain stream can turn a dry rocky area with nothing more than a few shrubs into a lush green oasis where llamas roam and where fruits and vegetable are grown.
As we neared the foothills of the Andes, the shrubby vegetation made way for giant cacti. Some of these cactus trees were at least five meters high! We stopped briefly and went for a walk around the hills to see the cacti. By that time, it was around noon and the temperature had risen to more than 30 degrees: imagine that, a temperature change of close to 40 degrees in a few hours!!! Some of the people in the group didn’t even bother getting out of the van; they were too exhausted (or too ill) to move. On our walk, the guide pointed out a single cactus tree that was 7.5 meters high. He said that a cactus grows by about one centimeter a year, so that particular cactus was more than 700 years old. Really astonishing.
I left San Pedro de Atacama after four days of tours there. Despite the altitude sickness, the dry heat and the long treks, I had the time of my life and the wonders I experienced in this desert kingdom were truly unforgettable. If you’re visiting this region, I highly recommend joining tours from San Pedro de Atacama spread out over several days so you can enjoy the experience in a relaxed manner.