Covering 40,541 sq miles, it’s physically impossible to imagine how vast the Atacama desert is. There were so many views in which the camera couldn’t even begin to capture the depth that the eye can see and there was countless ‘look Simba, everything the light touches’ moments…Similarly, I have never seen a night sky so dark with so many bright sparkling stars, it was absolutely sensational! No wonder so many astronomers head to the desert, it’s a feast for the eyes.
Arriving late in the evening, we met up with Jolyon (Amy’s university friend) who we would spend the following few days with. It was pancake day and we had spent about 30 gruelling hours travelling, so being 6661 miles from home was not going to stop us enjoying such an important tradition. We took over the hostel kitchen and cooked heaps and heaps of pancakes to share with the local Chileans who were on a lively carnival tour of the town. They were a fan of our pancakes, or at least they said they were! After a well needed sleep, we got up the next morning to head into town to arrange our trips for the duration of our stay and our get-out journey to Bolivia.
San Pedro itself is a tiny cluster of mud/brick one-storey houses centred around a small tree lined plaza and a church that looks like a large sandcastle. It is of course, entirely developed for tourists – which is not something you can ignore. Prices for everything everywhere are naturally higher, and at least 2 of the main streets are entirely filled with tour companies selling pretty much the same packages. The town is very basic and reminded me a little bit of something out of a western movie.
It goes without saying in a place like this: shop around and barter with the price. Tour companies, hostel owners, even people on the street are ready to sell to you. And trust me, they’re convincing and often very kind. If you can, take your time and be picky. Ultimately it’s your money that you’re spending, so work out what destinations are important to you and how much you actually want to spend. We ended up getting 2 tours for a total of £40pp, about £30 less than our hostel quoted and £10 less than the tour company advertised. Also most tours will not include the park entrance costs (anything from £2-£15) so make sure you factor these into your tour price! That being said, after the first entry experience we found that when arriving at the park entrances it’s very easy to pretend you’re not there…
Being a tourist town, you need to head to Calama if you want to connect to anywhere (about 2 hours away, £3 bus). Our next stop was Uyuni in Bolivia, but having planned some similar tours in the desert we were disinterested in spending £100/150 on the the classic 3/4 day tour and much more interested in heading straight to Uyuni (8 hour drive) and doing a salt flat day-tour from there. Let me tell you this, South American buses aren’t the easiest to coordinate, especially in the more remote areas like San Pedro de Atacama. Buses to Uyuni leave Calama 3 or 4 times a week at about 5am, making tours or direct transfers from San Pedro to Uyuni the only real option unless you’ve got time on your hands and willing to spend a night in the stop-over city of Calama. Direct transfers from San Pedro de Atacama are a standard 30,000 Chilean pesos (we shopped around!) plus the 150,000 bolivianos necessary park entry (although more on dodging that too later in this post…).
Jolyon had a friend who had walked to Valle de La Luna and said it had been the highlight of their desert trip, so we decided to save the £15 odd pounds and do it ourselves. Google maps said 1 hr walk, which was absolutely fine by us, so we headed out early evening to avoid the heat and hopefully catch the sunset. Others in the hostel said we were mad and that we should at least hire bikes, but we’re English so we took absolutely no notice. Despite certainly having the potential to be an ‘Inbetweeners 2’ moment – where we were stranded and dying on the side of the desert road – our optimism and enthusiasm didn’t waver one bit. Upon arriving at the park entrance around 6pm, the ladies on reception confirmed that we had lost the plot and we wouldn’t be finished until the next day if we intended to walk there, something that was looking increasingly clear. Doh. Thanks to Amy’s impeccable linguistic skills once again, we begged and blagged a ride in the back of a pick-up truck belonging to a cute French family on their holidays. We were incredibly lucky/jammy, and got to see absolutely everything for free! The sunset over the desert was absolutely breathtaking. I’ve never been to a desert before so every single view point along the way excited my senses.
The next day we left at 7am for a tour to see the flamingos at the salt flats, numerous volcanoes and Lagunas Altiplanicas. Apparently the Atacama desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world, which is difficult to believe when you see these lakes and all the greenery surrounding them. But as I said, we only saw a snippet of the area in question so it’s difficult to fathom it’s full terrain.
Arriving back in the early afternoon, we decided to chill out with some day-time drinking and card games in the hostel courtyard. We made an outrageously large bowl of guacamole (and demolished it) and drunk many glasses of sangria in the sun. We’ve sampled a lot of avocados on our South American journey but Chile has by far had the best so far! They are creamy, perfectly ripe and in abundance. Most burgers/sandwiches when eating out will be smothered in avocado, which is making me a very happy bunny. We have been told that the more North we head the better and cheaper the avocados get which is definitely something to look forward to!
The next morning we woke up at silly o’clock to visit the steaming geysers before sunrise. A very bumpy 2 hour minibus ride got us to the park where it was only just above freezing. Not going to lie, at this point I was pretty miserable. Our tour guide was a bit of a prick and their totally inefficient system meant we spent the sunrise waiting in this god forsaken and not much warmer minibus. The geysers and natural hot water spring baths were so underwhelming, I was pretty ready to go home. Luckily the tour picked up and we visited some incredible view points and a local village where I tried a goats cheese empanada and a llama kebab which was so tasty and tender!
Arriving back around midday we headed to town, had the biggest and tastiest churrasco ave (chicken, lots of avocado, mayonnaise and tomato in a bun, nom) for about £3.50 and said farewell to Jolyon. With our transfer picking us up at 7am the next morning, and the desert completely draining us, we got an early night.
Or at least we were told 7am…it actually arrived at 8.15am…South Americans are VERY optimistic with their timings and are rarely, rarely on time (something that niggles me beyond belief!). The 4×4 ‘jeep’ (or ‘Jeff’ as one tour guide called it) of maximum 6 people turned out to be a 20 seater bus, taking us to the incredibly inefficient Chilean border control.
But once we had reached the Bolivian border our luck changed. We got off the cramped bus to find a row of Jeffs waiting for us all. Jammy moment #2: a huge breakfast was displayed out on a table and although we’re pretty certain it was only for the people who had paid hundreds for the tours, we were invited to eat a lot. So we did. It was glorious and full of avocado! Jammy moment #3: someone on the bus had left a big bag full of snacks for the journey, and although we asked everyone on our bus twice, no one claimed it. Thank you whoever you are for the bread, nuts, cereal bars, biscuits etc etc. Jammy moment #4: we were shown to our Jeff and met the friendly driver named Antonio. Turns out we were the only ones taking this trip so we essentially had a private transfer! We knew we’d be friends with Antonio when we hopped in and he was playing the likes of Major Lazer. Antonio told us to wait 5 minutes as his mate was going to come too. This mate turned out to be the jolly little man who had just stamped our passports to let us into Bolivia…he was even wearing a baseball cap that said ‘migracion’ on the front.
Although you don’t officially get out at any point, to take this direct route to Uyuni you are required to pass through the national park and thus pay the fee equating to about £15. As we drove up to the park entrance a guy lifted up the gate to let us through and gestured to the other 4x4s parked up outside the payment hut. Jammy moment #5: Antonio looked around for a parking spot, decided he couldn’t see one and with migracion in tow just drove straight through. So off we went!
The views from this journey were on some other level and like no other drive I’ve taken before. Reaching heights of 4500m above sea-level was also an interesting experience. We saw lots of flamingos, vicuñas and of course llamas. All the llamas are tagged in the ear with brightly coloured tassels and look a bit like they’re wearing party boppers, which didn’t stop being funny.
About 4 hours into our drive the migracion guy, Johnny, asked us if we fancied any cervezas. With the 3 day salt flat tours, people and publications strongly advise to not go cheap as it’s likely that the drivers will be drunk and crashes are relatively common. But after witnessing 4 hours of very cautious sober driving, we decided ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. So we did. Antonio stopped off at the next little hut they called a shop and picked up and array of ice old beers, all branded differently for carnival. We enjoyed the road beers, the scenery, Latino remixes of Justin Bieber, Cher – Do You Believe In Love and numerous nature wees along the way.
Uyuni is a bit of a strange town, with a deserted train cemetery right outside and not much else seemingly going on. Staying in a motel style hotel on the very outskirts, we had our second ‘Inbetweeners’ moment wondering which drab building we were going to get dropped off at…
As much as I appreciated the unique experience of staying in the desert, it has made us all a little bit ill. A mixture of tiredness, high altitude and gritty dust has resulted in a constantly sore throat and being bunged up, in all senses of the word. Most likely due to the altitude we have been having minor nose bleeds which isn’t very pleasant either. Still, no altitude sickness as of yet!
Love, Lottie xx