One of the tours I wanted to make based on all the recommendations I got was to see the Geysers del Tatio, very close to the Bolivian border.
The day before the tour, as I was visiting the Lagunas Altiplanicas, our tour guide kept telling us how some people have gotten killed and a few more badly burned when they fall into one of the geysers. I couldn’t quite comprehend at first and then became slightly horrified as he kept describing scenes he had witnessed of people who fell in. The gory details of what happens after someone falls was not settling well with my stomach and I think my arms and legs were hurting just from thinking about burns.
So, with that talk as an introduction to the geysers, I prepared myself the night before for a wakeup all of 345AM to be picked up so that we could trek over to the geysers and catch them in their early morning glory, when they “blow”. The pictures of the scene and others’ recommendations made me sign up for this torture of little sleep. I did not realize the road there was going to be its own version of hell, not because of scary curves and cliffs but because it was very very rocky. Now, I have been on dirt roads for hours in places like the Andes and Tanzania but this was way worse than anything I had experienced. Perhaps it was my body not feeling well with the lack of sleep but I could swear I could feel my brain bumping against the inside of my skull!!!
We finally got there and it was absolutely freezing (something I was expecting). The altitude also could be felt but didn’t really negatively impact me. What did impact me was that the geysers, for some reason, did not blow that morning. Sure, they spit out a little but nothing like what was expected. Weeks later I heard from someone else that this time of the year isn’t propitious for visiting them – but the tour agencies in San Pedro de Atacama would never tell you that in advance… I did get to snap some neat pictures that captured the colors the various minerals bring to the soil and water pools and the coffee the bus driver served us was heaven-sent on such a cold morning.
The way back was not as bad as the way up because we went another way. Thank God! We visited a small village where the highlight, for me, was the church on the hill.
Having gone through no sleep, the bumpiest road on earth, and no “geyser show”, sure, I did regret taking the tour (something rare for me). I am not sure I would gamble it again should I return to the Atacama. I would say the landscape was pretty impressive, short of spectacular but to see it, one does not need to wake up that early!
As was recommended to me, I booked tours with a local agency from San Pedro de Atacama. I certainly love driving myself around but this was a trip I am glad I didn’t do that in. Perhaps on a future trip I would drive but the area is not consistently well labeled and some of the places to go are quite remote. Our first day took us to the Valle de la Luna and the Laguna Cejar.
Valle de la Luna
A short drive from San Pedro, it was an ideal place to watch the sun set. The mountains in the distance, anchored by Volcan Licancabur, changed colors as the sun set. We also had a small amount of clouds which “wore” spectacular colors as the sun set. We hiked up to a sort-of ridge and sat there until the sun went down. It was a bit cold but we had coats and hunkered down against some rocks. There was also a large sand dune next to the ridge and it provided me some good photo opps! It was indeed a majestic sunset…
View of Volcan Licancabur
This laguna is a spot to enjoy the salty water by jumping in. Of course, it was cold when we were there but apparently, it was tolerable. I didn’t go prepared to jump in so I observed as others dipped in and floated in the salty water. Of course, photo opps kept me entertained…
The sun and clouds above
Observing tourists observe the ever-present Volcan Licancabur
Of the two places, I could have missed the Laguna Cejar and not have missed tons but that could be because I didn’t jump in. However, the Valle de la Luna is a must for sure! I did not get to see the Valle de la Muerte or the Valle del Arco Iris but now I would look forward to visiting them should I ever return…
Visiting a desert? Isn’t it all just like dry and sandy? Why? I had been to the Sahara desert but mainly in the vicinity of the Nile River in Egypt. And while it is likely not representative of the rest of the Sahara (opinions, readers?), I thought how different can they all be from each other?
Since I had the opportunity to spend a holiday weekend away from Santiago late in June, I decided to explore the Atacama. There are 3 main areas of Chile that I want to see. One I saw partially in 1991, the other 2 I had not seen. The lake district down south near Puerto Montt I visited in 1991 but not fully. In fact, I probably only “sampled” a fraction of the area. But it is winter now and not the best time to go (I was set to go in March but the earthquake happened and killed the trip…). The other area I am wanting to go to is Tierra del Fuego and las Torres del Paine. But, again, it is winter… So the third area on my top 3 was the Atacama and this seemed a great time to go.
I heard it would be cold since some of the places to visit are in altitude (over 12,000 ft above sea level) but, at least, down in San Pedro de Atacama, things would not be so bad. In another entry I cover the details of my “getting there”.
I didn’t have a strong notion what it was I was going to see prior to doing some research but it sounded different. I was up for different. I figured that seeing the desert at different times of day would offer great colors and images. I also knew there were “salares” (salt lakes of sorts) that could offer great photo opps for a creative type with a brand new camera based on the pictures hanging on the wall of my hotel in Santiago.
Research, including talking to other visitors in Chile who had been there and locals as well as Internet research, showed me there was indeed quite a good bit to see and do. My mind was more made up than it had been. Among the key recommendations were:
- Valle de la Luna
- Valle de la Muerte
- Valle del Arco Iris
- Geysers del Tatio
- Salar de Atacama
- Lagunas Altiplanicas
- Laguna Cejar
- Night sky watching
So, the trip was born…
Other entries cover some of these (links above) and some learnings acquired along the way…
Any other suggestions for places to see in the Atacama?
Last weekend, I got to travel on the Chilean holiday to San Pedro de Atacama to explore the desert around it and its sights. The flight from Santiago, bought in Chile, was under $250 and I could have gotten it cheaper had I bought it earlier. Two co-workers were planning to travel with me but one “se rajó” so only two of us ended up going.
To get to San Pedro, we flew to Calama, a mining town, I believe sort of halfway between San Pedro and the coast (where Antofagasta is). The airport is one of those small nice airports we all dream of flying in and out of but that we don’t want to live close to as it would offer few direct flights… A $9 bus ride each way based on round trip purchase and one hour plus bus ride and we were in front of our hotel.
Hotels in San Pedro can be quite pricey, relatively speaking and especially on a holiday weekend. However, I found Casa Don Tomás which at $106/night was quite reasonably priced. The rooms were basic (no TV) but were clean and adequate with good sized bathroom. Having no TV was actually quite nice as we had a few early, early mornings so not having TV prevented me being temped to watch it when I went to bed… The hotel included breakfast but, also, they would make you a take-away breakfast for mornings when one woke up too early to go off and explore. They also served dinner but I did not try it. I did try their happy hour drinks and those were a good deal at 2 for 1… From the hotel, we walked about 5 mins on a residential street to reach Caracoles, the main street in San Pedro.
We were advised to not rent a car and just shop around the various local touring agencies to arrange our trips to the main sights in the area. This was really good advice for a number of reasons including the routes are not all properly signed and it would have been easy to get lost. Also, not all the roads are in good conditions so someone more experienced in those roads was going to have an easier time of going around. I did enjoy getting to meet other travelers along the way so that was another plus of going on these tours which ranged from 10 to 20 people in size. We used the NOMADE agency whose owner, Mauricio, was very attentive to detail and on time.
San Pedro as a town has few of its own attractions but it is a perfect base for a large number of places to go see and experience. While Calama is a larger town with probably more options in terms of accommodation, San Pedro likely has more charm, more of a tourist crowd (in the good sense of that term), and is closer to the places to go see which shaves off a good deal of time.
Main Street San Pedro (with restaurants, shops, tour agents)
There are some really good restaurants intown so just walk up and down the street and check them out. One even has an inner courtyard with a bonfire going on at night!
More about San Pedro de Atacama: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Pedro_de_Atacama