San Pedro de Atacama, one of the northernmost towns in Chile is an intriguing place. Although there are more tourism agencies in the three streets of the town than actual people living there (20% are operated by robots) and it’s crazy expensive, the natural beauty surrounding the town more than makes up for it.
6 days in the town gave me the chance to get to know the driest desert on earth and the unusual natural phenomena in it, including otherworldly valleys, dried up salt lakes, and steam pouring out of the earth at one of the coldest places I’ve been to in South America.
Valle de la Luna
One of San Pedro’s most popular tourist attractions, Valle de la Luna is only a short journey away. You can do it as part of a tour, or even better, you can rent a bike and tackle the valley and its sandy roads yourself.
The road takes you to a place that doesn’t feel like Chile, or anywhere else in the world (probably where it got the name from), and the mesmerising landscape under the cloudless blue sky does feel like you’re on another planet. The first stop and most impressive stop in the valley was the great dune, a massive sand dune that had to be seen to be believed. The curve was so perfect that it looked like it had been drawn to separate two natural amphitheatres, like massive stadiums on either side of the mass of sand.
In the other direction was the massive Licancabur volcano, its snowy peak standing above all of the others on the ridge, many of which were active volcanoes. The views were stunning, and Moon Valley was a great way to spend half a day.
So, it turns out that you don’t need to go all the way to Israel if you can’t swim but want the experience of floating in the ‘sea’. Not that that’s helpful, as the majority of the people who read this blog are my friends and family who are much closer to Israel than Chile. BUT NEVER MIND.
Laguna Cejar is a lake in the Atacama Desert where the salt content is so high that you just float. Perfect for reading a book or having a quick nap.
Of course, I didn’t want the lake to win, and I had to try swimming. The sensation was odd. Yes, you could dive in or try to put your feet down towards the floor (where it was much colder without the heat of the sun warming the surface), put it was as though an invisible hand had taken hold of the back of my swimming shorts and pulled me back to the surface.
The one downside? You’re not allowed to wear sun cream if you want to swim here. Even though there was no cover, and it was well over 30 degrees. If you really want to visit, don’t stay in the water for more than half an hour. Sounds easy, but it’s very easy to get carried away and spend a long time just enjoying the unique floating sensation!
The Laguna was one of several salt lakes which sat close to the town of San Pedro. Others weren’t possible to swim in, but flamingos waded across the water in the fading sunlight, as the ground turned golden below the majestic Licancabur volcano, sat in the background.
The highlight was undoubtedly watching a Spanish teacher who I met on the bus shout and scream at a bus who had quite cleverly parked right in front of where the sun was going down. After it moved, another parked in the same place. The noise that came out of this woman was incredible!
Geysers del Tatio
South America, Chile and the Atacama Desert in particular are home to lots of superlatives. The driest desert in the world. The longest country in the world. The tastiest empanadas in the world (not recognised, but they’ll probably claim it). It just so happens that the Geysers del Tatio form the biggest geyser field in the southern hemisphere, and the place was absolutely fucking freezing.
Getting up at 4am and spending an hour driving around San Pedro de Atacama wasn’t what I had in mind for the day, and it turned out that because some people had forgot to read the bit of paper and wear warm clothes, we had to go back meaning that we missed the sunrise. Since there’s literally no other good reason to be up at that time other than to see a sunrise, a few people were a little pissed (in the American sense, not British). Myself included.
However, the geysers were still a pretty spectacular sight. They covered an area of 12 square kilometres in total, where steam billowed across the flat land in front of a mountain called el abuelo (the grandfather). Tatio actually means the crying grandfather in the indigenous language from the area.
A quick dip in a natural swimming pool afterwards was a perfect way to warm up in the biting cold of the morning. The only problem was getting out was like stepping straight into a walk-in freezer!