From Santiago de Chile a 1.5 h internal flight (around 50€) took us to Calama. Apparently Calama is very unnoticeable so no need to stay there^^. Once you arrive at the airport you’ll see a lot of agents proposing transfer services to San Pedro de Atacama, San Pedro being the first touristic destination in Chile there is a vast supply of services. Official price for a minivan is 12000 CLP pp with a drop off at your hotel of choice, there is also the bus option for 8000 CLP with drop off at the bus terminal. We (very easily) negotiated 8000 pesos for a van with drop off at our hotel. This is also where we met our Scottish friends Gary and Susan, a soon to be married couple with whom we got along very well and have since travelled parts of Chile, Bolivia and Peru together. After 1 hour of a nicely scenic drive we arrived at the oasis known as San Pedro de Atacama.
The Atacama desert is known as the driest non polar desert on Earth – with an average 15mm rain per year, even though evidence suggests that there was no rain between 1570 and 1971. The town in itself is – as my friend Susan said – ‘a mix of Thailand and what I imagine Afghanistan to be 😂 . Meaning adobe houses (some of them in a bad state), dirt roads but plenty of hotels restaurants, bars, street artists and souvenirs shops.
We stayed at a small guest house which kind of has no name, just the address ‘Tocopilla 19A’ run by a very nice local family, spotlessly clean, adobe walls, constructed by the owner, not fancy but it’s just nice to give them your money instead of huge hostels and we’ll established hotels with most of the time foreign owners.
You can surely spend a few days in San Pedro, there are a lot of restaurants and bars and also a nice coffee shop for breakfast “Roots”.
If you want to buy souvenirs, buy them at the artisan shops close to the bus station! They are good quality and much cheaper than in town! Also we found items that are different from the stuff everybody sells. Last but not least you are helping the locals (the stuff in town looks sometimes like made in China and actually is made in China ). We spoke to an old lady who told us that she is struggling as a lot as people don’t visit the shops there and stick to the city centre. Go off the beaten paths!
On the 3rd day we rented some bikes and visited the Valle de la Luna and Muerte, 2 areas in the Atacama desert known for the stunning landscape. You can easily do it with a bus tour for sunset, leaving at 4pm at 10000 CPL (usually plus entrance but we’ve seen one sign in town saying they include it). The bikes cost us 6000 CPL for the day and the entrance is 2500 pesos before 1.00 pm. I definitely recommend doing it by bicycle as you can take in the scenery much better. Also, the same as with hiking, you just feel like you earned the sights much more than those sitting comfortably in the bus 😜
I won’t lie though, it was really though -ups and downs – especially with the sun (the Scottish girl Susan got a pretty bad sunburn but also a Chilean girl we met!). As the name suggests you will encounter moon like landscape, rock formations, salt covered terrain and caves. It felt like we were cycling on a different planet! After the Valle de la Luna I was dead (see picture^^) but we still had the Valle de la Muerte to do…
We had some drinks and a good rest at the checkpoint/entrance gate of the Moon valley and headed off to the Death valley. Here landscapes changed, more reddish and the tracks were less in the open and more between rocks, amazing as well! Entrance was 3000 CPL but the Chilean girl negotiated it at 2000 CPL. If you want to skip the fee it is also possible to access the main viewpoint ( Torre del Coyote) by following the road towards Calama and follow the signs.
In the valle de la Muerte, at one moment you have to ditch the bikes (as its mainly sand and impossible to ride) and walk the last half an hour up the hill to catch the sunset at the Torre del Coyote. The views from up there are spectacular and worth all the efforts. We only stayed at the beginning of the sunset as not all of us had flashlights so we wanted to head back before nightfall.
The next day we allowed ourselves a rest day and went to look for agencies to do the 3 days 2 nights Uyini tour, which takes you from San Pedro to Uyini in Bolivia while visiting lagunas, hot pools and the famous salt flats in Bolivia. At first we were reluctant to do it as with tours you never know what you get. But as we’d be going with Gary&Susan as well as Patrick, a Swiss guy who was with us during the cycling day, we knew that at least we’d be in good company. We found an offer at 90000 pesos instead of 115000 pesos as we went the 5 of us. This includes the ride, all the sites, 2 nights and food for 3 days.
The bus directly to Uyuni would have been 18000 pesos, considering the day tour in Uyuni, the food and accommodation we were nearly even with the tour and we saw loads of things along the way.
When you are leaving Chile with the tour you will pass at the boarder post in San Pedro – keep some last pesos, there is a nice food truck with coffee and pastry for the waiting time!
Also, make sure you keep the paper that you receive when entering Chile, they’ll need it to process your way out if the country!!
I will be back soon with more on our tour to Bolivia!