My trip across the Bolivian salt flats and lagoons led me to the border of northern Chile, just a short distance from Atacama de San Pedro – the driest desert in the world. Having been in the desert in Peru a few weeks before and really enjoyed my time there, I was looking forward to the warmer climate and obscure landscapes. I didn’t get off to the best of the starts after finding I had booked the wrong dates for my hostel and so was made to pay for the night before my stay as well as three more nights (in the most expensive town of my trip so far). But the hostel was at least a nice place with an eclectic style and friendly staff. More bad news came when I was told that the full moon was making it too bright to do the popular stargazing tour throughout the entirety of my stay. Bummer.
Except for Chile turning out to be a very expensive country, this was the end of the bad news. My hostel had heaps of information on day trips and expeditions you could do from the town and fortunately some of them were half day trips so I could pack quite a lot into my three and a half days. The first thing to note is the food is much better in Chile than Bolivia (and more expensive) and I ate really well the whole time I was in the desert – lasagna, pizza and a BBQ. It’s funny how in remote places like the desert you can easily find some delicious food but in big cities like La Paz it’s really difficult.
Valley de la Luna
In the afternoon of my first day in the Atacama desert, I signed up to do the Valley de la Luna tour (it was highly recommended by the hostel and also the cheapest). If you’ve been following along closely you’ll know I have already visited a place with the same name in La Paz. I was assured that it was very different and that’s certainly what it was. The Valley de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the Atacama is a magnificent range of rock formations and sand dunes surrounded by so many different mountain ranges. With the guide, we hiked up the ridge of one of the rock formations and walked along the top surveying the amazing panoramic views. It felt like a scene out of The Martian, if you haven’t seen the movie it’s about a man who gets trapped on Mars, with the deep orange-red sands and the desolate landscape all the time framed by endless mountains. I think they should rename it the Mars Valley.
We also visited the Three Maria’s, a famous rock formation that looks like three Mary’s praying to God. It’s surrounded by a strange area of the national park which looks like it’s been dusted with snow, but it’s actually salt formations. After that we visited a canyon where you can hear the salt stalactites being formed, like a ticking or crunching sound, by the thermic energy from the volcanoes nearby.
The day finished with a stop at the Piedra Del Coyote lookout point to watch the sunset. I’ve watched more sunsets in this trip than I have in my whole life and some have been nothing too special but this wasn’t one of them. The pinks and peaches thrown across the horizon in the shadows on the mountains and volcanoes surrounding the canyon were beautiful and the perfect way to finish my first day in Chile.
Sandboarding take two
The next day I was up early, ready to tackle my nemesis from Huacachina, the illusive sandboarding. Yes, I signed up to have another go at the activity I had least enjoyed in Peru, not because it wasn’t fun but because we weren’t given a proper chance to try it out. I was determined not only to have another go, but to master it. In San Pedro you don’t have a buggy ride included in the package, just an instructor, a helmet, proper boots and an actual snowboard/sandboard. This was exactly what I wanted. To safely learn how to actually sandboard.
You are driven to a place called ‘Death Valley’ (very reassuring) and helped to choose a board and learn how to mount it. You’re then made to climb the sand dune with your board in hand – this was the only bit I didn’t like. Once you finally reach the top, the instructor explained some basic techniques and then one at a time you take your first ride (or slide in most cases) down the sand dune.
Although a little tentative at first, I soon got the hang of it and people were even beginning to ask me if I had been snowboarding before! I got more and more adventurous, going from steeper and steeper parts of the sand dune. I was disappointed to be coming to the end of the session all too soon (time flies and all that) and tried to really enjoy my last go down the dune. Relaxing just a little too much near the bottom I had a massive wipe out that later caused me a lot of neck pain – thank God for the helmet! I think it’s fair to say that sandboarding take two was much more successful, despite the big crash at the end.
In the afternoon I had booked to go to the hot springs which was definitely necessary after repeatedly walking up the sand dune and crashing at sandboarding. The hot springs were in a really nice location, in the bottom of a volcanic valley, and they had several different pools you could try out. Unfortunately at this time of year they weren’t very hot and the cold wind outside the pool meant I ended up staying in the same one for the whole time (nearly two hours – I was very wrinkly at the end). It was kind of like being in a wam natural swimming pool, very relaxing but not like the hot tub I was expecting and hoping for. Still I enjoying floating about there and I was glad of the excuse to do nothing else.
The next day I was up early again for a full day trip to see the Piedras Rojas (Red Stones) which also included seeing some other landscapes such as more lagoons, salt flats and mountains. You’d think I’d had enough of seeing them but the hostel staff had also really recommended this tour so, after seeing some pictures, I booked it too. It was quite a long day trip starting with smelly, sulphurous salt flats before breakfast which looked completely different to Bolivia’s. They were dark in colour and if I remember correctly formed by the volcanic matter instead of an evaporated sea like Bolivia’s.
Next we drove on to a lagoon that had snow around its edges. It was extremely windy which meant that the water’s surface that was normal like a mirror was rippling instead of reflecting. It was a very light blue in colour but still pretty to see even when it wasn’t at its best.
On to the main attraction, next we went to the red stones lagoon. This was without a doubt the best lagoon I have ever seen. The water was a bright blue with touches of turquoise in the light. It was actually a salt water lagoon so that’s why it was so blue and the crusty salt shore formed amazing crystals. The red stones themselves were great but not as fantastic as the pictures I had seen. Apparently this is not the best time of the year to see them. I mean, they were red, but also a bit salty and dusty. The mountains that were the backdrop to the beautiful lagoon and red stones were amazing too. They looked like they were taken straight from a chalk drawing, with smooth lines that faded into nothingness. If you imagine the most ragged rocks imaginable, then these were the complete opposite. It was worth the whole day trip, just to see the mountains almost.
After this is was finally lunch time in a local village and we were shown how the local community uses cactus wood for building – I didn’t even know there was wood inside a cactus!
There is so much more to see in San Pedro de Atacama but as it was so expensive, I couldn’t afford (time or money wise) to stay there any longer. Next stop, big city time in Santiago and Valparaiso!