The first port of call for many traveling through Chile, and located in the desert, San Pedro is, as you might imagine, shockingly expensive (especially having come from Bolivia, where you can buy a 3 course meal for £1). My first lunchtime, I naively sat in the square and ordered a coffee and a sandwich, making a tidy bill of around £9 plus an ever-present service charge of 10%!
However, I would not let this put me off strongly recommending San Pedro. I planned to stay 2 days and ended up staying for 4, quite a luxury on a trip as time-constrained as mine. The best way to explain my time there is like a holiday within my trip (which yes, I know, already is a holiday of sorts!). The reason is simple – since there is no sightseeing and no culture to the town itself, there is nothing to do there except to either relax and enjoy the desert sun, or indulge in a whole range of activities taking you into the heart of the desert. So like a holiday!
There is lots and lots on offer, including volcanic hiking, sandboarding, visiting geysers and hot springs, and even crossdesert road trips. However, I will stick to talking about what I did!
Day 1 – Relaxing
After a jam-packed few days crossing the salt flats and desert, plus a hectic border crossing, resting in the square and sunbathing in my hostel’s outdoor court was the perfect remedy. And the cheapest day I had, of course! Don’t be afraid to take some time out while here, because chances are (especially if you come to Chile in the autumn months, like me) you won’t see sun as nice as this in a while, nor be in a place where you don’t feel guilty about simply ‘doing nothing’.
Day 2 – Valle de la Luna tour
A tour into the Moon Valley or Valle de la Luna and its surroundings is the perfect introduction to the mystical Atacama Desert. While it officially holds the title of the driest desert in the world, actually that’s only a small part of the desert, quite far from San Pedro. The parts where we were know or have known water and even plant life, and so there are incredible rock formations and valleys. The Moon Valley is so named because, well, its landscape is reminiscent of what you might think the Moon to look like. Take a look for yourself!
The area is also particularly distinctive because of the salt deposits everywhere – yes, more salt. The tour took us first into salt caves, climbing through and inbetween huge slabs of salt rock, which was fun but not for the claustrophobic.
We then hiked to a sandy viewpoint to see the (also salty) Moon Valley. Rocky and dark and set against the surrounding sand dunes and mountains in the horizon, it really is a strange phenomenon! If you’ve seen my earlier post about the Two Brothers Volcano legend, you might be interested to know that the two volcanoes concerned are also clearly visible from there – that should give an idea of just how varied the nature of this area is. Not your typical desert!
As if to prove that the area really is a geologist’s dream, not far from the Moon Valley is also the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). This area couldn’t be more different – a kind of canyon, lined with steep walls of clay. Many suppose the name of this valley is because there can be no water in that area and therefore no life – they suppose wrong! Every year it does rain around there, and the walls of the Valley ‘melt’ and fill the whole canyon with a kind of clay-water mush. Eventually the clay dries out, but if you dig with your hands, as we did, you’ll find wet clay just a few inches under the surface. This also accounts for the faint crackling noise in the valley at sunrise and sunset – the clay expands and decreases in size as the temperature changes at these points in the day. So then, why the name? Funny story – the man who discovered it was French (need to check his name) and he in fact named it Mars Valley, or Valle de la Marte in Spanish, because of the red clay everywhere. But his French accent was so strong that the locals thought he said the similar word Muerte and it has stuck ever since!
Day 3 – Lagunas Escondidas and Stargazing
Everyone knows the Dead Sea, and how it is so salty that you can float in it. But did you know that the Atacama Desert plays host to salty lagoons up to 3x more salty? My friend Hazel and I took a trip out to 7 fairly small lagoons grouped together by salty and rocky shores, about an hour away from San Pedro. They were simply beautiful, so blue thanks to the very salty water reflecting the sky. We walked about 30 minutes to the furthermost one and then took a very cold and salty dip. It was the weirdest sensation as you can’t help but float. The water is so so dense from the salt that even turning onto your belly or back is extremely hard as it feels like you’re being pushed upwards. An interesting experience although the water was awfully cold and as you couldn’t get fully immersed it was hard to get used to. Also, even after a shower my skin was still salty and my bikini took 3 washes to get back to normal!
Later that day, or rather right at the end of the day at 11pm, we then ventured into the freezing cold air of the desert by night, to do some stargazing. Since it is so high, so flat, and so unpolluted, the Atacama is widely considered the best place in the world to observe the night sky. I’d been treated to thousands of stars while on the salt flat crossing, but this was still very special. Our guides drove us to a more isolated spot and from there explained about some of the stars and also what they meant to the Atacameñan people who lived there in ancient times.
Wearing 3 jumpers and 2 coats, and sipping pisco sours to stay warm, I felt quite comfortable looking up and seeing all there was on offer. What I had foolishly thought was the Morning Star (as it was brightest in the sky) was in fact Jupiter – the Morning (otherwise known as North) Star is only visible in the Northern hemisphere! So the stars we saw are completely different to the ones I know, in fact. We got to look into the telescope and saw Jupiter closer – so close, you could see 4 of its moons and a brown mark on the planet’s body which was a massive storm. We also saw clusters of stars, older and therefore darker stars, and even Saturn, where the rings formed a faint blur but were still visible. Lastly we got a photo with Milky Way, where it appeared even brighter than visible with the naked eye, thanks to some long exposure photography. I must say I found the whole thing to be a little long when I was so tired, and getting in at 2am wasn’t the best – but we went later to ensure we would see Saturn, so I suppose it was worth it! Overall I recommend it very highly.
Day 4 – Biking through valleys
Renting bikes in San Pedro is surprisingly cheap in comparison to the other activities (3500 Chilean pesos, or around 4.50 GBP for a half day). It also permits you to go at your own pace, as you may be a little tired of being shuttled around in tours after a couple of days. With my friends Marek and Pauline, both of whom I met in my hostel back in Sucre, we went and got some fairly old (and uncomfortable, I might add) mountain bikes from a strange shop which doubled up as an internet cafe. We knew there were quite a few sights around San Pedro that you can get to, so just picked a rock formation that took a scenic route, and which was about 7km away. I guess our thinking was that 14km would be a nice 3 hour ride or so… wrong!
The man provided us with a paper map which was quite literally hand drawn, and inaccurate to say the least – for example, it depicted one river crossing, when in reality we did about 5 each way! Somehow, though, we successfully made our way to the open valley trail and there was incredible scenery to be seen all round. However, the ride was certainly not as easy as we had anticipated… cycling through sand is not only difficult but incredibly tiring and slow, so in reality we rode for around 5 hours including a short lunch break. It was a really fun day, the kind where you have to laugh and embrace all the mishaps that come up. As well as the dodgy map neglecting to mention them, some of the river crossings were fast-flowing, and had sandy bottoms, so there was no way to cycle through for the average cyclist. We ended up taking our shoes and socks off and walking the bikes through a couple of them!
We never did make it exactly to our specific formation we had in mind but we in no way felt short changed given the fantastic surroundings. It was an exhausting day, which actually worked out perfectly for me – for the first time, I drifted off with no problems at all on my night bus later that evening. After 4 fun days, for me it was time to say goodbye to San Pedro – next stop, La Serena.