San Pedro de Atacama is a confusing place. In the middle of the driest desert in the world, it seems to exist only to satisfy the thousands of eager Gringos who pass through its dusty streets every year.
And it’s easy to see why they – and we – came here. You just have to glance over at the horizon.
The landscape is uniquely beautiful. Conical, snow topped volcanoes; orangey, almost Martian rock formations; bewildering green oases amongst the extreme dryness. It’s other worldly in its beauty.
The town itself is also unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been. All single storey brown brick/mud buildings and dust roads, it should feel authentically Chilean. Yet the only businesses here are hostels, tour operators or restaurants.
What should feel like a quintessential Chilean frontier town feels at times like a Wild West pastiche at Disney World, with backpacks.
That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy it. But we’re glad we visited before we embarked on our epic three day tour of the Bolivian salt flats; many of the tours from San Pedro emulated, but just fell short of the unbeatable views we’d be treated to over the border.
Our first trip in to the desert wilderness around 60km north of San Pedro was to the El Tatio geysers, a collection of steaming, bubbling, sulphurous crevices best viewed at dawn when temperatures were bitingly close to freezing and the geysers’ heat spewed most impressively out in to the open.
The night drive to get there also afforded us probably the most vivid view of the Milky Way in the sky we’ve ever seen.
The sun had barely emerged over the giant peaks around us when we dipped ourselves in to the supposedly hot springs adjacent to the geysers.
Trouble was, it was more a luke warm bath than natural hot tub. Getting out and dressed again was less than fun!
The trip back to San Pedro was punctuated by stop offs at impressive canyons and valleys, before a final stop at the one-horse village of Machuca, which sells dozens of Llama kebabs to the tourist hoardes.
Having now eaten llama across South America, this was easily the tastiest we’ve had, marinaded long and slow in lemon and herbs and grilled over hot coals.
We couldn’t resist taking a bite next to the grazing brothers and sisters in nearby fields! Sorry to any vegetarians!
San Pedro encourages strenuous activity despite the constant sunshine (although it never hit 30c), so we also rented bikes for a fiver each and headed to the hills – the Valle de la Muerte to be exact. Yes – that’s Death Valley in Spanish.
It was only 4km outside town but the ascent through the valley was gruelling. James moaned as usual, Chris belligerently sped off ahead, before the excessively sandy paths eventually forced us both to walk to the top.
The views from the summit really were breathtaking and worth the toil. And Chris’s cockiness was rewarded with a spectacular over-the-handlebars crash on the way back down!
San Pedro was also the place we desperately searched for like-minded people to embark on our Salt Flats adventure with.
It can be bewildering trying to decide which of the dozens of companies to choose, and which other travellers to go with.
We spent three days obsessing over which option to go for, and were promised the world from many of the tour operators, even though essentially every tour is the same.
Our main concern about our upcoming Salt Flats adventure was being stuck with a bunch of dullards on our trip into one of the most amazing landscapes on earth. We needn’t have worried. More on that later!