San Pedro de Atacama – now officially the most touristic town I have ever visited. In fact, I think there may actually be more tourists in San Pedro at any given time than locals. Nevertheless, I was happy to be back in Chile, after nearly a month of exploring Peru and Bolivia. After waiting around at the most unsecure border post in the world for about an hour, a bus finally showed up to take me down to San Pedro. And I mean literally take me down, as San Pedro sits at a more normal 2500 masl, 2000 meters below the border with Bolivia. As the bus drove down the steep highway, I could feel the air replenishing my lungs after nearly 3 weeks above 3500 masl.
San Pedro itself basically consists of one main street and a couple of side streets. Nearly every single doorway leads to a tour operator, restaurant, hostel or internet cafe. Bolivia this is not, as by comparison, the price of things in San Pedro seems almost exorbitant. Nevertheless, I settled into my really nice hostel, Hostal Sonchek, complete with hammocks in the courtyard for relaxing under the desert sun. I planned to stay three days in San Pedro and do a tour every day. In fact, you could stay here a week and never get bored, there are so many tour options around San Pedro.
First up, a look at the stars. The Atacama desert is world renowned for astronomy as it is almost never cloudy here at night. Most major American universities with strong Astronomy departments have an observatory somewhere in northern Chile because of this. But one man, a Frenchman named Alain Maury, brings tourists to his home, where seven massive telescopes sit on his front lawn. Along with his wife, he taught us about constellations, planets, galaxies, nebula and much more, all in the pitch black of the Atacama desert while we witnessed amazing sights through the viewfinders of his telescopes, including a crystal clear view of Saturn, rings and all. The lecture was as much humour as astronomy, as Alain never missed an opportunity to poke fun at the English, or relate astronomy to romancing a girl.
The next day, I got a little hiking in as part of a small organized group heading to two amazing valleys, the Valle de la Muerta and the Valle de la Luna (Death Valley and Moon Valley). For nearly two hours, we walked through massive valleys and down sand dunes in the Valle de la Muerta while our guide explained the geology of the area to us. Many of the rock formations are salt based – you can tell by licking the rock. As the valley experiences high temperature fluctuations between night and day, the salt contracts and expands, such that when you are walking through the valley, you hear constant cracking sounds coming from the valley walls. After the hike, we drove to the Valle de la Luna, where we hiked up a cliff to watch the sunset over the valley. The agency that ran the tour, Cactus Tours, was really great, as they planned their tour to not go where the rest of the tour groups go. As such, while there were hundreds of people on a lower cliff behind us, we seven were left alone on our cliff and most likely a prominent figure in everyone else’s pictures.
The next morning I awoke at the crazy hour of 4 AM for my tour to the El Tatio geyser field, the highest geyser field in the world at over 4000 masl. We arrived about an hour before sunrise, as the cool tempertatures produce more dramatic geyser steam. It was about -10 celcius here and the coldest I’ve been since leaving Canada. Once it warms up, the amount of steam produced is lessened and the wind starts to disperse it. But before the sunrise, walking through the geyser field was an awesome spectacle of the sheer power of nature. Some crazy people even went for a dip in one of the thermal pools. Having already done this a couple of days ago in Uyuni, where it was nowhere near as cold, I wasn’t even remotely tempted. After an hour or so of walking around the geysers, the sun lifted over the mountains and it was amazing how quickly the air warmed up.
On to Antofagasta, where I’m splurging on a room at the oceanfront Holiday Inn and then flying to Santiago for a quick pit stop before jumping on a bus to Pucon, the city I skipped on my way up Chile in March.