Country Chile | City San Pedro de Atacama | Dates May 31 – June 3 | Accommodation Hostel Base Camp
We took an overnight Pullman bus from La Serena to San Pedro de Atacama, which was grueling and awful (17+ hours). We had to run to the station and missed dinner, so we hoped for a meal onboard. I was excited each time I heard rustling from the front, but we only got snacks. We made many many stops in the night, at sketchy stations with rogue dogs and even roguer people searching trash cans. Each time I pulled the curtain back feeling the frigid air through the glass to observe. The bus attendant went around spraying deodorant/disinfectant periodically.
Driving Through the Atacama
At sunrise we started to glimpse the Atacama desert, of which we were driving through a huge portion. Each time the door opened my eyes stung with severe pain and watered. Along the way we stopped in Calama to change buses and took a quick walk around the not-so-nice downtown. We also experienced [through the window] Antifagosta’s dirty roadside, dark brown sands, and buildings on the side of the mountain spilling into the ocean.
San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro is the most-visited tourist town in Chile, and thus crowded and pricey. We knew this going in, but hoped it would be more empty in off-season which it was. It’s a cute, desert town with dusty streets, clay walls lining tour shop after tour shop…after tour shop, with aggressive salesman trying to sell countless variations of the same 10 tours, and of course many a restaurant. We immediately searched for a cheap meal as we hadn’t eaten much in 24 hours, and the sun was strong (thank god warmth!).
We found a local spot and ate a lot, and I tried the bliz soda. We then set out to book our salt flats tour. You can book in advance, of course, but it’s more expensive and you cannot negotiate (booking in advance is more necessary in busy season). We went to a few agencies and wound up buying from an exceptional salesman named Boris of Ivero travel who sold us on the “special” tour unlike others with a stay at the “Salt Hotel.” He even offered me his sweatshirt as I was freezing (desert temps dropped dramatically after sundown). While his tactics were strong and we booked with him, I did not accept the sweatshirt.
Around the Town (Nightlife)
The first night we were freezing and remained antisocial in our hostel. Our second night we checked out some beer spots. First Chelacabur, with local selections (we had Kuntsman), wood tables with writing and a warm fire. Then a tiny local brewery with not-so-tiny prices, Cerveceria St. Peter, with beer that tasted amazing and gross at once and may have contained herbs. We also got free stickers.
Both days we enjoyed an exceptional breakfast at our hostel, sitting next to the heater as we froze to death. Additionally we drank pisco, got into an argument about bookings, ate peanut butter sandwiches with stolen bread from breakfast, printed items for our Bolivia visa (details coming soon), bought warm items for our tour (llama leggings!)), encountered boys from our previous hostel and quickly averted our eyes to avoid chatting, and woke up the man in our hostel room at 5 am packing our bags.
Biking in the Atacama
We stayed in San Pedro 2.5 days, and I opted to bike as I prefer to explore on my own and we had our 3-day salt flats tour coming up. I rented a bike for about 5 USD (all the places had the same price – not bad value), which came with a yellow vest, air pump, repair kit, and lock. The man gave me a shoddy photocopied map that was illegible, showed me some photos of the trail, and then I set off.
Pukara de Quitor & Catarpe
I choose to see the ruins Pukara de Quitor on my first ride. A small entry fee and secured bike and I was off, hiking briskly up the stone trail on the brown rocks the heat burning my cheeks. I got amazing views of the entire desert, including an arched stone structure and cross at the very top. I hiked fast and passed everyone, keeping good time and getting fit (finished in half the recommended time).
Next up, a cave! Towering stones lead me in on either side of the small canyon, leading to a small, triangular opening – pretty cool. The bike ride continued across some streams into the Catarpe Indigenous Community, muddy desert water spraying my legs as I went through. About 9km down a rocky road I continued on to a remote chapel, Chapel of Saint Isidor. I was slightly nervous as no one was around for most parts, although some other tourists did pass in their vests which was a relief. On the way back I stopped to see more ruins, the Tambo de Catarpe, again hiking entirely alone up and around rocks to an amazing view.
Valle de la Luna
My second day I biked to the moon valley, feeling more confident as I survived day 1. So confident, in fact, I put on the stylish vest. I rode to the moon valley, Valle de la Luna, starting on the road. Early on, a slight hill presented a challenge and I was weak. Soonafter, I reached the first viewpoint where I had to wheel my bike uphill aggressively (then ride down over rocks at a steep incline). Again, feeling weak.
Valle de la Muerte
I then entered Valle de la Muerte, or the Valley of Death, with a dirt path and deep cutting canyons in orange on either side of me. There was a small hike/viewpoint through the muddy peaks and not a soul in sight. I continued around the bends to a new, sandy area, rocks shining in the sun and looking like valuables. I attempted to climb a dune for a view but became immediately exhausted, turning back down. And good thing, as there was next a gigantic sand roadway that seemed to go on for miles at a sharp incline. The guide described this as a “short walk with the bike.” It was not short. I alternated between motivating myself, “You can do it, you’re almost there!,” yelling insults “Don’t be so weak, try harder!” and complaining, “This is god awful.” Noone was around to hear this commentary, luckily.
Finally, I rounded the bend to the viewpoint and was faced with a[nother] steep rocky uphill so I affixed the bike to the street sign and ascended. At the top, I spotted several bike racks and wondered if I’d gone the wrong way and yelled loudly. Then I heard laughing as the park man I failed to see heard me.
I asked the man how to get to the Valley of Coyotes, the next stop, “caminar con la bicicleta?” I asked sadly thinking about dragging my bike up the hill. He shook his head. I dragged my bike up the hill. I then entered the Valle de la Luna, where the ticket lady thought I was a student and had an extreme language barrier, which resulted in a discount (yes!). A quick stop at some additional panoramas and lookouts, and I was heading back on the road into town on a steep downhill. My sweat dried on my arms and I was freezing.