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Nature is brilliant! Its is clever and creative and colourful and can fill up your senses till they want to burst. I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most beautiful places on earth, but the sights we have seen in San Pedro de Atacama are just other worldly.
Horizons filled with all the colours of the rainbow, snow-capped volcanoes piercing the brilliant blue sky, pink flamingos, white vicunas, yellow flowers and dazzling aquamarine lakes. My camera clicked furiously, the GoPro recorded hundreds of scenes and Thor stopped innumerable times to give us time to drink in the magnificence of the scenery around us.
San Pedro de Atacama is bucket list stuff and a must visit for everyone – nature lover of not. This fantastical place will keep you spellbound, so make sure you stay for at least a week!
THINGS WE DID IN SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
For years I’ve heard about the bright pink flamingos that live in the salt lagoons in Chile and finally I got to see them in all their wonderful glory! The road to get there was gravel and bumpy so we felt a bit rattled by the time we arrived, but a wonderful gentleman managed to explain what the flamingos eat, how they nest, raise their young and the different types of flamingos. He didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow, I completely understood everything he was saying – and not because I could understand his Spanish!
The flamingos live on phytoplankton that is richly abundant in these super salty lagoons. It is the phytoplankton, also known as Sea Monkeys, that adds the rosy pink hues to their feathers. There are actually three types of flamingos – Andean Flamingo, Chilean Flamingo and James Flamingo. The Chilean flamingo is the most abundant and the pinkest of the bunch, the James is the smallest and the Andean has yellow legs.
These birds live in one of the harshest climates in the world. Freezing temperatures at night, boiling heat during the day and wild winds that whip across the Atacama Desert. They are gentle and majestic and I could have spent hours watching then scoop their beaks through the water.
Laguna Chaxa was cleverly laid out, with a hard-packed salt walkway taking you from sight to sight. The information boards were really interesting and in English!! From these we learnt that we were surrounded by 150 volcanos, otherwise known as the “Ring of Fire”. 30 of these are in fact active, although the last eruption was a good few years ago.
We spent more than an hour here and could have stayed much longer.
Entrance Fee for Laguna Chaxa: 2500 CLP for adult and 800 CLP for kids
LAGUNA MISCANTI AND LAGUNA MINIQUES
Had I known what was required in order to reach the Miscanti and Miniques Lagunas, I’m not sure I would have attempted it, but completely oblivious, off I went. Leaving the main road, the first clue should have been the gravel road snaking its way up over a very steep “hill”. The scenery was so stunning with vicunas grazing alongside, that I tried not to think about it.
We had been driving uphill most of the day, but this last steep hill would take us up to 4200m above sea level. At that altitude, even Thor struggles for oxygen and as we continued uphill, so Thor got slower and slower and slower, until we were crawling at 5km per hour. Being an automatic, I had no choice other than to keep my foot on the accelerator and pray we wouldn’t start rolling backwards!
The view as we crested the mountain was amazing and so worth the scary drive. The hugest blue lake, surrounded by snow-capped volcanos. Just beautiful. The sun came out to warm our faces, but there was an icy wind blowing, as it does at that altitude.
Just over the next rise was the smaller but equally stunning Miniques Lake.
Entrance Fee for Laguna Miniques & Miscanti: 3500 CLP for adult and 2000 CLP for kids
CHEWING COCO LEAVES
By this time the altitude was definitely affecting us and a headache was starting, so we grabbed a handful of coco leaves to chew. They really do work to take the headache away, although you have to keep chewing otherwise the headache comes back. It was like having a ball of chew tobacco stuffed in your cheek, which you needed to give the odd bite on. After a period of time, the cocoa leaves start disintegrating and you end of with a mouth full of green bits that then take hours to keep spitting out the window – lol!
Piedras Roja or Red Rocks are huge red boulders found alongside the Agua Calientes salt flats. Unfortunately, there was a security guard who told us we couldn’t walk to them. I’m not sure why? Perhaps it was getting late? Anyway, we never got to see them up close – pity.
As I crested a hill, the sight before me was so unbelievable that I immediately stopped the car to get out and stare. The colours! Oh my word! Multi-coloured mountains of purples, blues and reds surrounded a dazzlingly white salt flat with a glistening aquamarine lake in the centre. It was straight out of a picture book!
We drove closer and stopped at a viewpoint, the icy wind whipping at our hair. It’s hard to comprehend that nature can be quite so exquisite and it made me all the more grateful that we were blessed enough to be able to experience its magnificence.
The final laguna for the day – Laguna Tuyaito. We’d been on the road since 9am. It was now 5pm and we still had the whole return journey to do, so I took a few minutes to debate going the final stretch. As usual, curiosity got the better of me and I think it was one of my better decisions.
A huge lake of heavenly aquamarine awaited us. Literally the most dazzling sight we’d seen so far! Sometimes it really does pay to go the extra mile!
We were only a few kilometres from the Argentinian border, but that would have to wait for another day and a different border crossing. For now, back to San Pedro de Atacama
VALLE DE LA LUNA
The Valle de la Luna is very close to San Pedro de Atacama, so lots of people hire bikes and ride out to it. It was stinking hot and on this occasion I was grateful we had wheels. They say that the Valle de la Luna is the place on earth that has a landscape most similar to that on the Moon. It certainly was bizarre! A white crystalline substance covered sections of sand and rock. Layered rock formations, giant sand dunes and deep cut valleys were the order of the day.
There were marked parking spots along the way, from which you could walk to the viewpoints. Actually, I should say hike, not walk. The first stop took us along a winding sandy path that was as hot as volcanic larva. Well, that’s how it felt when the sand touched my toes! And yes, I guess we are the only people who go hiking in flipflops!! It took us a good 20 minutes till we arrived atop a rocky outcrop with deep valleys on either side of us. We could see this weird crazy landscape and then even further, right across the Atacama Salt Flats.
It was here that we met 3 travelers – from Andy from USA, Stephanie from Austria and can’t remember his name now from Sweden. They had ridden bikes to Valle de la Luna and were dying in the heat. So, we offered them a lift. They left their bikes at the car park and continued on in Thor. It was great company for us and they had fun, so a win-win.
We stopped a few times to walk to viewpoints from which to best view this strange place. The final stop was the rock formations called the Three Maria’s.
After the dust and heat of Valle de La Luna we were ready for a swim, so off we set for Laguna Cejar. Probably the most touristic spot in all of San Pedro de Atacama, the lake was packed with people enjoying the uber salty waters. It was so salty that to try and stay under the water was impossible, as you just bob up all the time. It was wonderful to lie back and float a bit after a busy days sightseeing.
The beauty of having our own vehicle was that when all the buses left, we got to stay and enjoy the lake, which we had almost to ourselves.
The ALMA Observatory tour happens every Saturday and Sunday, but you have to book online 4-5 months in advance! It is a free tour, so perhaps people don’t feel beholden to arrive, thus leaving a few seats empty on the tour, very luckily for us! We arrived at the bus departure stop at 7.30am, put our names on a waiting list and crossed fingers and toes in anticipation. True as Bob, ten people didn’t arrive, so 10 of the 28 on the waiting list managed to get on the bus. Yay!
The ALMA Observatory has two parts. The observation and maintenance station, located at an altitude of 3600m and another site at an altitude of 5600m where the 66 satellite dishes do their receiving magic. Due to the high altitude, it wasn’t safe for us to go to the top station. In fact, workers at the top station all had to use oxygen.
The reason why they chose this particular place on earth for this project is twofold. Firstly, they receive light transmissions and water refracts light, so they need to have the lowest possible humidity levels. This spot in the Atacama desert has less than 15% humidity and has been known to go to as little as 2% humidity. Secondly, there are very few places at an altitude of 5600m that have such a huge flat area on which to setup the satellites.
The tour was absolutely fascinating! ALMA is a collaboration between 22 different countries all searching for the Origin of our Universe. They have had numerous incredible discoveries already and in 2014, ALMA took the first ever photograph of a black hole, which was an enormous breakthrough in the astronomical community.
We ended the tour in the observation deck, where one of the astronomers answered all of our difficult questions with great ease.
The tour left San Pedro at 9am and we returned at 1pm.
EXPLORE THE TOWN OF SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
The town of Sand Pedro de Atacama is a funky little place. Busy and bustling with dusty tourists and cyclists. The red mud walls of the buildings belie the often chick interiors with many upmarket restaurants and wine bars. Music fills the air and hundreds of dogs laze on the streets. It’s the kind of place where you could get stuck for a while – if the prices weren’t so high!
This is a serious tourist town and the prices reflect it! We found a row of restaurants near the stadium on the outskirts of town, that were a third of the price, so that’s where we ate.
On our first day in San Pedro, I met Mariano, a Venezuelan. He was an incredible help explaining all the attractions in the area, telling me which routes to drive and where it would be dangerous e.g places where obsidian could slash my tyres. He also gave advice on where it was and wasn’t safe to wild camp. It was all excellent advice and I’m so grateful.
DRIVING RUTA 27
The day had come for us to leave San Pedro de Atacama and Chile and head for greener pastures in Argentina. We decide to drive along Ruta 27 which would take us through the Paso Jama border post. As we were leaving town, we saw two young backpackers hitching, so we stopped to give them a lift.
Alex and Alba were from Barcelona in Spain and were also doing a 12 month trip through South America. It was wonderful having some new company in Thor and Alex in the front seat, was put to work taking photos of the amazing scenery as we drove.
We’ve driven many incredible roads in our travels and Ruta 27 has to be in my top 3 ever. It is so hard to put into words these vast plains of innumerable colours. Everything is absolutely crystal clear, as you are so high and there is no humidity. Yes – we were once again at above 4000m.
The climb from San Pedro to the top of the plateau was intense. Thor was doing his usual 10km per hour story with the lack of oxygen, but this time I had others with me in case things went sideways, so I wasn’t concerned. Once at the top we started cruising and the sights just kept hitting us, one after the next. Huge salt flats with bright pink flamingos, llamas, vicuanas and alpacas. A small fox came wandering down the road and stood peacefully staring at as when we stopped.
The Monjes de la Pacans (Monks of Pacans) are a row of huge rock formations that supposedly look like monks. These looming red figures tower over the Ruta 27 en-route to the Paso Jama border of Chile and Argentina.
We stopped lots and took hundreds of pictures – it was a magical drive that took us across the border to a small town of Susques, where we spent the night.
CHILE – ARGENTINA BORDER CROSSING
Once again the paperwork for both countries was done in the same office, but luckily this time we didn’t have to worry about changing the registration plates, so for once I wasn’t nervous. I’d read stories about them confiscating fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, honey, meat and dairy, but they gave a very cursory glance under the bed and sofa – looking for contraband he said – and took some onions and tomatoes. That was it, so another plain sailing!
The town of Susques could be walked in 5 minutes. A dusty place with not much going on. We parked Thor outside a hotel, where we had a good meal and a dish of dulche leche (caramel) to put on our toast with breakfast!
Thor is an incredibly self-sufficient vehicle. Between the solar and gas, we have no need to hook up to electricity. We have a toilet and a shower, so no need for bathrooms, except to wash hair. That uses so much water that we wait for proper showers for that. We have a gas stove, a fridge and a kitchen sink for doing dishes. Really, the only reason we ever have to go into a campsite is for safety and then really only in the big cities.
It was surprising then, in the little town of San Pedro de Atacama, that we kept being told not to leave our van unattended? I read no complaints on iOverlander App (our Bible) about any thefts, yet the fear mongering from the locals was relentless. So much so, that I was afraid to leave the van at all. So, then you may ask, why did we not go into a campsite? Well, being the spendthrift that I am, it really irks me to spend, what could be a big meal at a good restaurant for both of us, on a campsite that we don’t really need.
As a result we moved the van around a lot, always keeping it in eye’s view and on the days we went exploring by foot in town, we went into the campsite. It was a bit disruptive, but it saved me a bundle!
- Request clothes get washed on a cold cycle. My dress would now fit a doll and it’s a good thing I’ve lost some weight otherwise I’d have to go shopping!!
- Double check the amount on the credit card machine at petrol stations. The guys in San Pedro de Atacama like changing zero’s into nines!
- Set aside a few hours to re-screw everything in Thor after being on dirt tracks.
- Chewing cocoa leaves really does take away headaches caused by high altitude.
- You cannot buy fresh milk in Northern Chile. Only long life milk available!
- Ticks can survive for 4 weeks without a host!
WHERE WE STAYED IN SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, CHILE
LA CASA DEL SOL NACIENTES CAMPING: This was a large space with clean bathrooms, great hot showers and a kitchen. It is affiliated to the hostel in the next street, so you can use the facilities at the hostel as well. Water is scarce in the desert, so they charge 3000 CLP per person to fill up the tank in a motorhome. Joy and her husband run the camping area and they are super friendly and helpful.
Cost: 7000 CLP per person per night
GPS: S 22°54.465′, W 68°12.172′
BUS TERMINAL: We spent 2 nights opposite the bus terminal. There was great kids playground and we could access the free Chile wifi. There were bathrooms in the bus terminal. Across the road was a nice restaurant, La Pica Del Perron, with absolutely brilliant wifi. We hung out here for a whole day working and schooling.
GPS: S 22°54.788′, W 68°11.673′
POLICE STATION: We found a great spot next to the police station. It is reserved for municipal cars from 8am – 6pm Monday to Friday, but if you are there over a weekend it is probably the safest place to leave your van in the whole of San Pedro de Atacama. Lots of people around, public toilets and showers, if you need and right next to the cheap restaurants and the stadium.
GPS: -22.9091873, -68.2003788
WHERE WE STAYED IN SUSQUES, ARGENTINA
LA UNIQUILLAR HOTEL: This hotel just outside the town of Susques, allowed us to stay in our van for free. They had great wifi and we could use the bathrooms. The restaurant made good food at very reasonable prices, so we had supper and breakfast here.
GPS: S 22°24.658′, W 66°22.441′
We drove some big distances during our outings to lagunas, etc and then did the big drive along Ruta 27 into Argentina.
Total Distance: 825km
I will be providing our basic travel costs per week, so that you get an indication of what a trip like this entails. Bear in mind that we are budget travelers, so your budget could vary depending on your lifestyle choices. For example, we always opt for the cheapest and often, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and only require very basic accommodation.
For us, the experiences are where it is all at, so we’d rather spend money on activities.
The costs below are for the full 7 days.
The costs below are shown in Chilean Pesos (R1 = 50 CLP) ($1 USD = CLP).
- Fuel = 143 200CLP
- La Casa del Sol Nacientes camping = 3 nights = 42 000 CLP
- Laguna Chaxa = 3300 CLP
- Laguna Miscanti and Miniques = 5500 CLP
- Laguna Cejar = 17000 CLP
- Valle de la Luna = 4300 CLP
- Bicycle Hire = 3000 CLP for 6 hours
- Restaurant = 64 750 CLP + 450 ARS
- Supermarket = 5900 CLP + 140 ARS
- Bottled Water = 6400 CLP
Van Supplies and Living
- Laundry = 11 800 CLP
TOTAL = 307 150 CLP + 590 ARS = (USD $402) or (R5985)
WHERE TO NEXT
We’ve been in dry, dusty deserts for a while now and it’s time for some greenery. So, we’re leaving the Atacama Desert and Chile behind and will be doing our first crossing up over the Andes and into Argentina. Cheaper prices, fresh milk, no dust and ENORMOUS steaks! Argentina, here we come!!!