When I was in the Atacama Desert, “wow” was my word of the day…every day. The scenery was unreal. And the stars at night? Unbelievable. It was such a contrast from NYC, where I never even bothered to look at the night sky because I wouldn’t have been able to see a single star anyway. No wonder the desert houses one of the world’s most advanced observatories.
I stayed in the town of San Pedro de Atacama for five nights, but I could have easily spent at least a week there. Since I don’t want this to be an overly long post. I’ll try to let photos do most of the talking.
I booked three tours with Sorbac, the guesthouse where I stayed. I got a 20% discount because I was staying at the guesthouse, but prices ranged from 40,000 CLP/$64 for a half-day tour to 96,000 CLP/$154 for a full-day tour. Not cheap. However, when I look back on my stay, I don’t think about the money I spent; instead, I think about the spectacular scenery. That said, you can certainly find cheaper tours in the center of San Pedro.
Sorbac’s strength was finding more secluded locations. Guests who went on some of the less popular tours reported that they were the only visitors at many destinations. I went on the more popular tours, so it was inevitable that we would see other groups at some sights. But, overall, the crowds didn’t feel stifling. The only time I got annoyed was when I had to wait 30 minutes for a restroom in a tiny town called Machucha – but hey, that’s just a part of travel, especially in an isolated area.
A full-day lagoon tour was my favorite outing in Atacama. Our guide, nicknamed “Papas Fritas” (French fries – I don’t think I ever learned his real name), drove us to Laguna Minique, which was about an hour and 45 minutes from San Pedro. Minique was next to another, larger lagoon called Miscanti.
So, I know people love llamas and alpacas, but I never understood why. I had met travelers in South America who would whip out their phones and cameras any time a llama or alpaca was within a 200-foot radius. Me? I just said, “Meh,” and moved on.
But then I saw vicunas for the first time at Laguna Minique. And, OMG, it was love at first sight.
They’re small! And fluffy! You can keep your llamas and alpacas. I’ll stick with vicunas, thank you very much.
After a lunch of beef with vegetables and quinoa (the food served by Sorbac was on point), we visited Laguna Tuyacto.
Our next stop was supposed to be Piedras Rojas (“Red Rocks”). However, Papas Fritas warned us that we probably wouldn’t be able to visit because an ignorant, disrespectful, stupid tourist had etched graffiti on the rocks the day before our tour. In protest, a group of locals cut off access to the rocks and pelted stones at passing tour buses. The locals’ anger was understandable; I couldn’t believe that someone would even think about drawing on the rocks.
As Papas Fritas drove toward Piedras Rojas, we saw a few locals stationed at the entrance. Papas Fritas grabbed some bottles of beer and spoke with them. After a few moments, he gleefully returned to our group and reported that the locals would allow us to stay at the rocks for 40 minutes in exchange for the beer.
Thank goodness the trade worked. Piedras Rojas was another planet.
With no other groups at the rocks, we could take in the fabulous views in complete silence. The 40 minutes flew by, but I was grateful to have gotten a chance to see the rocks in the first place.
On our drive back to San Pedro, we spotted a couple of suris, desert birds that resembled emus.
One of my other tours was a half day in Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte. The afternoon was straight out of Mars.
My favorite part of the afternoon was looking over Duna Mayor, the highest point in the valley.
My last tour was a visit to El Tatio Geyser and Guatin Canyon. Groups head to the geyser before sunrise because that’s the best time to see the steam. After an hourlong drive, we arrived at the geyser a few minutes before the sun was out in full force.
It was freezing, but the steam provided some warmth. And the views – unsurprisingly – were gorgeous.
We then drove near Volcano Putana, where yet another lagoon was located.
Our final stop was an hourlong hike through Guatin Canyon. After having done a few hikes in Asia, Bolivia, and Peru, this was a piece of cake. Sure, I was sweating like crazy, but that’s just par for the course. No leeches? No gasping for breath every five minutes? Yeah, no problem.
On a free morning, a couple of generous Chilean travelers offered to drive me and a British guy to Laguna Chaxa. It was a scorching hot day (duh, we were in a desert), but we walked around part of the lagoon to admire the colors.
Flamingos hang out at Laguna Chaxa, and we got to see a few in the air.
A few final thoughts about Atacama:
- ALMA Observatory hosts free tours on Saturday and Sunday mornings and offers transportation from the center of San Pedro. You have to register online in advance, but if a particular date is full, you can put yourself on a waiting list. If you’re more interested in nighttime activities, plenty of stargazing tours are available in San Pedro. I was content with plopping outside my guesthouse, tilting my head back, and looking at the crystal clear night sky.
- Bring enough cash for your stay in San Pedro. This should have been a no brainer. I had miscounted the cash I had on hand (math clearly isn’t my strong suit), so I didn’t have enough to pay for my accommodation and tours. I tried visiting the two ATMs in the town center, but one didn’t accept my card, and the other had run out of cash. Thankfully, the owners of Sorbac accepted payment via PayPal, but I was still embarrassed to have run out of money. This happened to me before in Malaysia, so I’m just dumb.
- Unless you’re determined to “get away from it all,” think about staying in the center of San Pedro. Another no brainer, right? Sorbac was a couple of miles from the center, which didn’t seem like much of an issue at first. However, its remote location meant wifi and cell phone service were spotty at best. Normally, I’m cool with being off the grid for a few days, but this ended up being problematic. My bank placed a hold on my debit card after I tried using it at an ATM, and I couldn’t get in touch with the bank to explain the issue. I also hit a couple of snags with my airport transfer out of San Pedro, and I was unable to call or email. Walking to the center took about 45 minutes, which wasn’t bad on paper, but the heat made it more difficult. Sorbac could book cars to take you to the center, but staff members weren’t always around during the day (not their fault – the owners were busy). If you plan ahead and no issues arise, being in a remote location is fantastic. However, if something goes wrong, the isolation can be really frustrating.
- After my stay in San Pedro, I learned that I’m a fan of structure. I know this makes me sound boring, but it’s true. The owners of Sorbac were really friendly, welcoming guys who made sure all guests felt included. However, it was hard for me to tell when someone was working or just hanging out. I don’t like to be a nuisance, especially if someone is on a break. Sometimes I would hesitate to ask about a tour because I felt guilty about bothering one of the owners. Traditional hostels are easier for me to navigate because I know that the staff member at the front desk is on duty. There’s no question about whether he/she is working. The communal vibe at Sorbac was great, but now I know that I need at least some organization. I want to emphasize that this is my quirk; other guests seemed perfectly comfortable.