One of the defining landscapes of Chile is the Atacama Desert. The driest desert in the world draws droves of tourists each year, but the sights of the region extend beyond the sand and jagged rocks and mountains. San Pedro has geysers, lakes, salt flats and flamingos. While many excursions from Santiago require a solid week, San Pedro de Atacama can be done easily in one weekend, at any time of the year.
Valle de La Luna, Photo courtesy Meera Pandit
Not only is San Pedro a year-round destination, but it also requires virtually no planning. My friends and I booked a flight just five days prior to the trip. We took an early morning flight to Calama, less than two hours by plane (CP$70,000 round-trip). Some bus it up to San Pedro, but this can take up to twenty hours. From Calama, we hopped on an hour and a half bus ride to San Pedro (CP$2,500).
Upon arrival, we wandered the quaint, dusty town of San Pedro, which is not more than a few streets. The town is completely set up for tourists, with restaurants and tour agencies, which can make it a pricy destination, yet it still retains its rugged charm.
The town is almost entirely made of earth and is reminiscent of an old Western with a Peruvian twist. We booked a three-day tour of the major sites through Atacama Connections (CP$40,000, plus about CP$10,000 in entrance fees to the sites), and found one of the less expensive hostels (CP$8,000 per night).
That afternoon we visited Valle de la Luna, which offered sweeping vistas of desolate landscape, transporting us to the site of the first landing on the moon, or at least where it may have been filmed. It was followed by a climb through the Cavernas de Sal salt caves. We then drove to see the Tres Marias-- rock formations that are said to be three Virgin Marys, although they hardly resemble anything beyond PacMan, a tree trunk and Krumm from Nickelodeon’s Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Then we headed to la Gran Duna to watch the sunset. Although west coast sunsets can be unimpressive, the way the sun hit the distant mountains produced brilliant colors of red, purple and pink, changing every few minutes.
The following morning we were up at 8 a.m. for a full-day tour of the Lagunas Antiplánicas and the Salar de Atacama. We saw several sites that day, although the most remarkable were the cerulean Miscanti and Meñiques lakes, and the Laguna Chaxa, where salt and flamingos abound. The vast stretches of salt clusters were fascinating formations, almost like a field of coral reef. The flamingos livened up the scenery in the interspersed pools. We made some other brief stops that were rather unimpressive, but a nine-hour tour can easily diminish the splendor of some of the less striking sites. However, because the tour was so lengthy, it did include a late lunch at a local village.
Sunday we concluded the tour with a 4 a.m. trip to the Tatio Geyser. We had to bundle up because after the rocky bus ride up, it was about -7?C at 6 a.m.
After spending some time at the geysers and receiving breakfast, we headed to the hot springs and had about forty minutes to bathe in the springs. By that time the sun was up and it was gradually becoming warmer. Later we stopped at local village called Machuca for llama skewers and goat-cheese empanadas, which were completely worth the extra two or three lucas.
Since we returned around noon, we had time to rest and book a sandboarding tour (CP$12,000). Late that afternoon we took a short drive out the dunes and our group of six received a crash-course in the sport. We were surprised that the temperature was relatively comfortable despite the sun, probably due to the breeze. Sandboarding was fun, except for the hike back up the dune between each run, but the experience was worth it. Tours are generally offered in the late afternoon, although some companies do it in the morning in case you want to do Valle de la Luna and sandboarding on the same day.
There are also plenty of cozy cafes and restaurants in the center town. Although a meal can cost around CP$6,000, the food tends to be good and the atmosphere of the restaurant and café scene is pleasant, often creating a cozy ambiance with open fireplaces, dim lighting and rustic furniture.
Although a weekend to San Pedro de Atacama stretches the budget a bit, it is a great option to get out of the city and experience Chile’s wonders without having to do too much planning beforehand.