I got the hell out of bar-brawling Calama as fast as possible on an airport transfer (9,000 CP). It’s a winding, empty road through desert country to get to San Pedro (think Thelma & Louise as they’re nearing the Grand Canyon) and everyone was gossiping about the fact that we’d all shared a plane with a famous Chilean model, her handsome boyfriend and a TV crew. I still have absolutely no idea who these people were.
The tarmaced road runs out as you hit San Pedro. Suddenly it becomes a dusty dirt track and small adobe houses line the few streets that make up this tiny town. It really did feel like I was in the middle of nowhere about to enter a shoot out with the sheriff. I was John Wayne, only with breasts and a giant backpack.
Reality dawned the next morning. San Pedro de Atacama is tourist central. The one main street running through the town, Caracoles, is lined with tour agencies, restaurants hustling for business in English, souvenir shops and launderettes. Normal life facilities like cheap supermarkets, ironmongers, chemists and banks are few and far between. It was all quite a shock after Chiloe.
What I also hadn’t bargained for is that San Pedro is at altitute (2400m) and many of the tours take you to places at over 4,000m. That and the intense heat meant that I felt a bit weird when I got there, although I was lucky enough to not get sick. You seriously need to take a day or two to adjust before going to the geysers or the lagoons and grab some coca leaves from the market (500 CP) if you start getting headaches.
San Pedro is a pretty enough town but there’s not a great deal to do once you’ve wandered around the shops, museum and church. This place is sadly all about the tours. What everyone has come here to see isn’t that accesible without a 4×4 and a good map, which means the tour agencies make a killing and you have to troop after your guide for the day and do as your told.
I spent three days in San Pedro at the lovely Hostel Sonchek (C/Gustavo le Paige 170. 10,000 CP per night for a single) and ended up having to book tours with 3 different agencies. Lonely Planet recommend Cactus Tour and Cosmo Andino. Both of these book up really fast and after taking Cactus’s Tour to the Altiplano Lakes, I can see why.
Valle de la Luna
Famous for its beautiful sunsets and moon-like landscapes (hence the name), everyone does this tour. The cheapest (around 7-8000 CP) and closest of all the excursions out of town, it’s hard not to feel like a sheep being herded around by an over-enthusiastic border collie. Our tour guide didn’t actually say ‘ARE YOU ALL HAVING A GOOD TIME?!, I CAN’T HEAR YOU! but I’m sure it was on the tip of his tongue. Saying that, it is a beautiful other-worldy place full of ghostly crackling salt formations and gigantic dunes. We climbed up for a view of the sunset with at least a hundred others and then got whisked off onto the bus just as it was getting good. A bit of a let down to be honest. I went with Turis Tours (Cactus and Cosmo Andino were both full). Word on the street is they have a reputation for rushing. Cactus apparently don’t climb that dune and go to a secret spot where they get the view to themselves.
I did this with Cactus Tour and it was a joy from start to finish. Stopping at Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama to see the flamingos, Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti and the towns of Socaire and Toconao, they deliberately set off way before any0ne else to get to the flamingos first. These weirdly proportioned pink-feathered creatures quite rightly don’t like being stared at when they’re eating their breakfast, so when all the other mini-buses start arriving, they all fly away. We crept in at first light and got to observe them in their natural habitat, a lagoon in the middle of a crusty salt flat, surrounded by mountains. An extraordinary experience and well worth getting out of bed early for. Cactus charge considerably more than other agencies for this trip but if you want to see the flamingos, have a knowledgable guide whose English doesn’t make you wince and a decent breakfast, they are a fine choice.
El Tatio Geysers
You don’t to see many geysers in Europe. El Tatio is one of the reasons you come to San Pedro and I can’t deny they are impressive. However getting up in the middle of the night and dressing for minus 10 is not normally my idea of a good time. In fact, I realised as I got up at 3.3oam that I’d never actually been out on the streets at that time sober. I did this tour with Atacama Connection. The guide was the handsome moody type, which I’m normally all up for, but a silent tour guide doesn’t leave you very well informed. As I boarded the bus at 4am, I was told that it would take 2 hours to get there and we could all have a nap. However the road was so eyeball-shakingly rocky and the van’s suspension having seen better days, I didn’t sleep a wink. The geyers are at 4300m above sea level and three of our group were feeling decidely rough. One little boy’s reaction to seeing his first geyser was to vomit sadly as his older brother, who was utterly unaffected by the altitute, gaped in wonder. My favourite part of this trip was spotting the wildlife on the way back. We saw a viscacha (like a big rabbit with a squirrel-like tail), vicuña (the sort of animal you normally see getting ripped apart by lions on wildlife documentaries), llamas and a whole load of birds I don’t know the names of.
Accomodation: Hostel Sonchek for clean and comfy rooms, friendly staff, a nice patio and a garden with hammocks.
Trips: Cactus Tour get a double thumbs-up.
Food: Two places not in the guide books are El Tribu on the corner of Calama and Gustavo le Paige for great vegetarian food and Chilean classics (2,800 CP for veggie fajitas with rice and salad) and Terra Oasis for fine food with a gourmet touch at a fraction of the price of the places on Caracoles (3,800 CP for a 3 course set lunch). The food stalls behind the museum knock out a fine Cazuela de Ave for 1,200 CP and the tomato, basil and cheese empanadas sold around town are very special indeed.
I’m currently in Arica and have paddled in the sea. Next stop, Peru.