Getting to San Pedro De Atacama from Argentina involves a stunning bus ride up across the Andes to the border post (at a breath-snatching 5000m) and then down through desert dunes to the oasis of San Pedro.
The first impression getting off the bus is of heat and the extreme dryness – my mouth was like sand after a few minutes. People walk around the street with 1.5l bottles of water and you never really sweat as it just evaporates away instantly. After five days my feet were cracked and it even drew blood!
The town itself is a laid-back backpacker town with a few long term semi-hippy style residents. Most of the main street are tour companies, cafes and hostels catering to the itinerant crowd but it has an end-of-the-road feeling where main drag just tapers off into sand dunes in the distance.
There is also however a lovely town square beside a mud and cactus wood church where there was a lively and noisy parade and celebration the day I arrived. This was all presided over by the holy family (sans Jesus in the crib) in the middle of the square.
The town is just a really chilled out base for various day trips out to the surrounding landscape or organising onward travel. Here’s a selection of the trips I enjoyed during my 5 days there.
Valley Of the Moon
One half-day trip to the ‘Valley Of The Moon’ which involves visiting rocky lunar-style landscape with snaking sand dunes some clambering through caves and finishing up with sunset over the valley with picture perfect cone volcanos in the distance at sunset.
The only downside is that all the buses converge on the same ridge for sunset so you share it with 300 other people which detracts somewhat from the peaceful nature of it!
We heard of people who cycled out to the Valley Of The Moon but that seemed like madness given the heat and no shade. I met a German lady Maike in the hostel and we headed out the next day to mountain bike the nearby ‘Devils Gorge’ which is a winding narrow path through the rock with some wonderful views which we had completely to ourselves.
Hostel Chilling And Stargazing
The hostel was a very chilled out place with hammocks and nightly open fire over which to chat and have a few drinks. I met some English students and we all headed out to view the stars – Atacama due to its lack of light pollution and moisture is one of the best spots in the world to go stargazing. It’s so good in fact there is the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array) telescope just outside town. That night we had a barrage of shooting stars under a dark sky and milky way by just walking 10 minutes out of town.
It was an early start the next day at 4am to go and visit the geysers. We arrived just before dawn and it was around -6c and I was tired and freezing and totally not in the mood for it at all as can be seen in the photos. After a bit of breakfast and the sunrise warming things up a bit I was back on track! Apparently the steam from the geysers is only visible in the early morning and hence the painful start time.
We stopped by some lagoons and local Andean tourist villages on the way which were fine but felt somewhat like filler.
Just on the north edge of town is the Meteor museum where a local enthusiast has collected and arranged the various meteorites found in Atacama giving a little information about each and how they relate to the formation of solar system, earth, etc.
Can all be gotten around in 45 minutes and had a useful audio guide and curator was on hand at end to answer any questions.