Our night bus from La Serena saw us rolling into San Pedro de Atacama at about 9 in the morning. As we awoke and peered through the curtains for our first glimpse of the desert, we were all a bit bemused. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on the planet was covered in snow. This rare event occurred two days before and due to the low temperatures there was plenty around to play with. Sam had survived his first overnight bus despite a brief spike of fear when he found out he was sitting in front of a 10 month old baby.
San Pedro de Atacama sits at around 2,400 metres on the Bolivian and Argentine borders. This tiny little town sits on an oasis and is one of the biggest traveller hubs in Chile. The town has a dizzying number of natural wonders within easy reach and it’s proximity to Bolivia makes it a popular stop for backpackers heading out on to the Bolivian Altiplano.
From the moment you get off the bus, you get the impression of the old American wild west. The setting of the tiny town is on an oasis, with small single story buildings and one long main street. There are plenty of horses wandering around and numerous rustic drinking establishments. The only thing missing was a gun duel…yet the whole effect was somewhat ruined by the snow…
The whole town is set up for tourism. Tours operators, hostels, hotels, restaurants and tourist shops are found all down the main street. Most importantly there are plenty of places to buy those supplies for your trip in to Bolivia. San Pedro might be rustic by Chilean standards but compared to the three day salt flat tour it’s luxury.
Tours and excursions can be arranged all over town and we quickly set up our expedition to El Valle de la Luna. Moon valley is well named as the landscape is surreal. The whole valley is a national park and there are wardens to make sure you don’t walk (or sandboard) on the giant sand dunes. All that perfect sand is incredibly tempting but the lack of human marks really does make it a stunning view.
We spent 3 hours travelling around the valley running down our camera batteries before heading up to the cliffs that overlook it for sunset. As the sun sets the shadows and colours change all across the valley. After the sun has set you get the incredible colours all along the mountains that form the Chilean – Bolivian border.
Whilst it was warm in the sun, the moment it set the temperature dropped sharply. We bundled back in our bus and headed back to the hostel. Like most of Chile, the hostel of course had no central heating. Our fears were calmed when a wheelbarrow full of wood was rolled out, lit and everyone cosied up around it. Plentiful Piscolas (pisco and cola) definitely helped as well.
The next day we’d booked on for a stargazing expedition. Even just standing in the lit streets of San Pedro the nights sky is stunning with the full sweep of our galaxy clear to the eye. We’d managed to be in San Pedro when there was no moon (intentional of course) so the spectacular sky was even more visible. We’d be viewing the stars from a spot just outside of town. Upon arriving we were served some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had by the worlds most enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Over the next two hours we looked through the two powerful telescopes at nebula, white dwarves, star clusters, the rings of Saturn and even other galaxies.
Tune in to see how we got on on the Bolivian Salt Flats…