Thursday, 1 May 2014

All the Tours Ever, San Pedro de Atacama

On Monday I took the eight-hour journey from Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama, with a change in Calama. I went with TurBus, which is considered to be the most reputable bus company in Chile, followed by Pullman

San Pedro is a desert tourist town, sitting at 2,500 metres above sea level, close to the Bolivian border. This makes it an ideal spot for jumping off into a salt flat tour, and either stopping in Uyuni to explore Bolivia, or doing a full circle back to San Pedro. I'm doing the circular route because my flight leaves Santiago in a couple of weeks so I need to come back to Chile. That route cost 1116,000 Chilean pesos with Cordillera. By all accounts that's the most trustworthy company. Be really careful who you go with, because tales of faulty jeeps and drunk drivers abound when it comes to the salt flats. 

But there's so much to do in San Pedro itself too. There are a lot of tour companies offering various packages, but they basically all do the same things. 

Two days ago I did a tour to Moon Valley, where it's rumoured George Lucas filmed some of A New Hope. And walking through the jagged peaks and sandy rocks, I was half expecting a Jawa to pop out. We also went into a really tight salt cave, where I had to bend double to one side to get through. And that tour ended with one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. The sun goes down behind the mountains on one end of the valley, and illuminates the volcanoes on the other, sending them orange and then purple, while the clouds above turn red and the ground below glows yellow. Absolutely amazing. And there's a section of rock that juts out over the valley, which makes for a pretty great photo. 

That cost me 10,000 plus 2,000 pesos for entrance to the national park, with Maxim Tours. Note that the tour I did didn't include Death Valley, even though I´m pretty sure they said it would. 

Yesterday I got up early to do a tour to the El Tatio geyser field and watch the sunrise. We got up to leave at 4.30am with a hostel pick-up, and did the 90 minute journey, climbing 2000 metres to 4,300. And it was so cold! Minus 13 Celsius. And thanks to the mild winter in the UK this year, I haven't felt cold like that for almost two years. And I didn't have gloves. Not fun. 

But the sunrise and the geysers were really interesting, and there was an option to swim in the hot spring there. On the way back we stopped at Machuca village, a beautiful place which is home to a total of six people. 

That tour cost me 17,000 plus 5,000 pesos for entrance and included a good breakfast, with Desert Adventure

And tonight I'm going star gazing. The Atacama desert is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky, due to the lack of light pollution, the amount of cloudless nights and the predictable winds from the Humboldt current from Antarctica. 

Everyone I've spoken to has said it's amazing, and through the largest visual telescopes in South America you can see galaxies, shooting stars and the rings around Saturn. 

I went with SPACE (San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations), which is highly recommended by Lonely Planet. That cost me 18,000 pesos for a two and a half hour tour in English including a hot chocolate. The tours are weather-dependent. 

As an update, the star gazing was absolutely fantastic. The sky is a complete blanket of twinkling lights. I heartily recommend this tour. 

There are a whole host of other things you can do, but I just don't have the time or budget. Other highlights for me would be sandboarding, a late-night desert party (so disappointed I can't do that!) and Cejar lagoon, which is Dead Sea-level salty. A lot of people hire bikes and do the trails round here, which is a lot cheaper than doing organised tours, so that's a good way to keep the cost down, because catering to tourists, this town is not cheap! 

After star gazing this evening I'm going to get an early night and then it's off into Bolivia! So excited to see the salt flats. I'll be back on Monday, hopefully with a good story or two! 

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