Life on Mars. Otherworldly Chile
It’s just barely dawn. You are up almost 14,000 ft (4,200 m) at the highest geysers in the world. The sun is barely a sliver and already the light starts pouring into the vapor filled landscape where mud pools noisily bubble & everywhere you walk, the earth hisses at you. It’s a scene straight out of the dawn of time. During the day, pink flamingos crowd altiplano lakes while volcanoes look menacingly on. Later, the sun sets across the desert, the valley of the moon is full of oranges and yellows which transform into pinks and purples as you watch the shadows of the sunset dance across the mountains. At night, the stars come out in such alarming numbers, you swear you just discovered ten new galaxies.
This is your average day here in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. And we got to experience all of those things. San Pedro is the name of the town in the northeast of Chile sitting on the border of Bolivia & Argentina:
From this town, you can take tours to the surrounding landscape that is filled with deserts, geysers, volcanoes & high altitude lakes. In 2 words, stunning scenery. The downside to this is that you have to take tours to see the landscape! Well, you could also rent a car but you will be surrounded by the tour buses anyway. San Pedro is indeed a beautiful place but you have to pay the price (both figuratively & literally!) for visiting.
What exactly is this price? First, the town is crowded with tourists from all over the world. I mean, like really crowded and we visited in the alleged ‘off-season’. This has resulted in tour companies lining the streets, one after another after another (literally!) all beckoning you to come and take a tour with them. It’s dizzying and overwhelming especially when you first arrive.
Secondly, the town has hugely inflated prices because it can get away with it. Any area that tourists flock to, the prices are usually much higher. San Pedro is no exception. Third, the town itself lacks charm because of these factors. You get the feeling the town exists just for the tourists and unless you are going to a place like Disneyworld, then it’ s not usually what most visitors to this area are seeking.
But this is a problem everywhere in the world. We encountered it at a lot of the national parks & other popular destinations. It’s a shame when nature feels like Disneyland but such is the case when the ‘word’ gets out and things get popular.
All this aside, the nature surrounding San Pedro is stunning and the night sky….well, you are just going to have to go to see it for yourself! It’s really indescribable with almost 350 cloudless nights per year! That coupled with the fact that the nearest big city is hundreds of miles away provides perfect star-gazing opportunities. It’s so perfect they are in the process of building an extremely large telescope.
In the area near San Pedro, sitting up at over 10,000 ft lies the un-originally named European extremely large telescope (EELT)-(yes it’s really called that!) In June 2012, construction began on what they hope will be the largest and strongest telescope on earth. It aims to observe the Universe in greater detail than even the Hubble Telescope! It is funded by various countries in Europe and won’t be ready until the early 2020’s.
Here are some of the images we captured of the other-worldly landscape that surrounds San Pedro de Atacama. See below for our top tips of the area.
Top tips for visiting San Pedro:
1. Only stay in the town for as long as you need to (include one day to acclimatize-see below). Pick which places you really want visit and then afterwards choose your tour company. For us, we chose to do the obligatory Valle de la Luna, Geysers de Tatio and Salar de Tara. The Salar de Tara is a bit off the beaten path and it’s much more expensive than the others but I felt like it was worth it.
2. The most expensive companies are not the best. If you are going on tours to places like the Geysers or the Valle de la Luna, you are going to meet up with hordes of tourists on buses no matter what. It doesn’t really pay to go with expensive or private tour guides to these areas because you aren’t going to be alone anyway. We mistakenly paid a lot of money for one tour (thinking that it would be superior) and actually had a better experience with the guide on a cheaper tour. That said, dirt cheap is almost never better! It’s probably dirt cheap for a reason people!
3. If you book with one tour company, ask for discounts for multiple tours. They usually give a discount if you book more than one tour with the same company.
4. If you really want some solitude, try renting a bike. There are numerous companies scattered all over town renting decent bikes for the day. If you get up really early, you can beat the crowds and go to the Valle de la Luna for sunrise instead of the popular sunset time. You could rent a car in the nearby town (1 hour west) in Calama but again, you will have to deal with the crowds anyway at these popular areas.
5. There are no supermarkets in San Pedro and the prices in the small bodegas are as steep as the altiutde around here. For fruits and vegetables (great quality and price) head to the end of Caracoles (away from Tur Bus station)and make a left. Soon you’ll see big tents with ladies selling quality, fresh produce underneath them. Also, on Tuesdays and Thursdays there is a market almost at the end Caracoles on the right hand side. For a real treat, go to the end of Caracoles and make a right. On your left hand side you will see a truck selling fresh (and so delicious!) olives, olive oils, nuts, honey, spices and cheese! All amazing quality; not the cheapest but worth every cent!
6. Remember that San Pedro is at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet (2,400 m). It’s a good idea to spend at least a day acclimatizing to this altitude before heading up another 6,000 feet to either the geysers, the Salar de Tara or the altiplanic lakes. Even though we acclimatized and drank lots of water, we got altitude sick (AMS) after our tour of the Salar de Tara (altitude sickness has an onset of about 3 hours). Stay hydrated and avoid alcohol. You can read more about AMS here.
Where we stayed & which companies we used:
Where we stayed: Hostal Tuyasto. Located way off the beaten path on the outskirts of town (near the customs office-if you are coming by bus from Argentina, then you know where I’m talking about). If you are looking for somewhere quiet, peaceful, clean with nice, helpful owners for a very reasonable price, then this is your place. It is NOT in any way, shape or form a party hostel. We got upgraded to a room with a private bathroom & kitchen (!) with piping hot showers and pretty reliable wi-fi.
Which tour companies we used: For the Salar de Tara tour we wanted a special experience. So we forked over the 60,000 CLP ($119 US) each to Cosmo Andino Tours who are reputed to be one of the best. We expected the tour to have only a few people and were dismayed to have 12 other people on the tour with us. The guide was well-informed but lacked some personality and the lunch sucked. I’m sorry but for 120 bucks, I better be getting something more than dried chicken and cold pasta. We loved the Salar de Tara but not for that price. Look elsewhere.
For the Geysers de Tatio & the Valle de la Luna we went to the HI hostel in town on Caracoles and booked both of those tours there. The HI hostel uses 3 different tour companies for their tours (this is the standard in San Pedro-tour companies sell their tours through other companies so what you see is not always who you get). We were lucky to get Terra Extreme for our tour to the geysers and our guide Philipe made the excursion one to remember. We paid 8,000 CLP for the Valle tour & 17,000 CLP for the Geysers (reduced by 3,000 CLP because we booked 2 tours through the hostel-remember to ask for a discount!). Don’t forget the entrance fees to Valle are 2,000 CLP extra and 5,000 CLP for the geysers (not included in the tour prices).
No matter what you decide to do, although you have to put up with a crappy town, high prices & lots of tourists, San Pedro is not to be missed and you will understand why when you see this unique landscape.