San Pedro de Atacama

Posted by on Jun 4, 2013

San Pedro de Atacama

I don’t like Calama. It’s a larger regional centre, it has the airport and it might be important for mining but it is a boring place with a few expensive hostels and little to see. I was also very nearly robbed. That had been the experience on my first visit and I was keen not to repeat it so ahead of time I booked a hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, 100km to the east and the touristic centre of northern Chile. I arrived just in time to miss a scheduled bus from Calama to San Pedro and faced a three hour wait for the last bus of the day that would have me arriving at the hostel at a little past midnight. Thankfully, I was saved by even shonkier schedule by the bus company who, after a little probing, admitted that the bus I had ‘missed’ was in fact late, but didn’t stop at this branch unless you waited on the side of the road and hailed it as it past. What kind of system is this? Nevertheless, that’s what I did. On this bus ride, I met a local of San Pedro and it was she who told me about the tour offerings, restaurants and things to see and do. Being a local, she knew many of the tour operators and after explaining what I was doing she offered to help me. She rang on my behalf and once we arrived in San Pedro, she accompanied me to the agencies and, being a ‘friend’ I was given discounts on two tours that I was going to do the next day – the one day I had in San Pedro de Atacama. So something that started badly ended well.


Busy day. Picked up a 9:15 and whisked away to the thermal pools of Puritama to steep for some hours in a series of warm pools along the Puritama river – Puritama meaning ‘warm water’ in the indigenous language . The day was a crystal clear 10 degrees at 3500 meters so the instant I exited the pool thin, cold, dry air wicked the moisture and ripped the temperature from my body forcing me to totter shivering down the boardwalk and plunge into the blissfully warm water of the next pool. To hover in the 34 degree water with a small waterfall massaging my back while looking up at the clear blue sky from behind reeds and stalks of flowing mountain grasses was a singular experience in which I floated happily up and down sections of the warm stream, testing just how little of me was required above the surface of the water to remain conscious. I was a first time and I enjoyed it greatly, although I could have stayed there more time to justify my $30 entrance fee.


Sandboarding – Valle de la Muerte y de la Luna

Back in San Pedro, I had 1.5 hours in which I booked a bus ticket for the next day, returned to the hostel to change for the next tour, walked a good portion of the town as is my custom and along the way stopped for lunch before sprinting through the narrow dusty streets lined by low-rise mud-brick buildings to arrive breathless and sweaty at the agency of my next tour: Sand-boarding in Death Valley or ‘Valle de la Muerte.’ Happily I survived my fist attempt at sliding down a sand dune on a board clipped to my feet. My first attempt was characteristically undignified as I filled my pockets with sand but I did improve with each attempt. I’m a left-foot-forward sort o’ dude with this stuff and see that just pointing my board directly down the dune and gathering heaps of speed before bailing forward or back to come to a sliding, tumbling, gritty stop on the side of the dune is not the way to do it. There is a balance and a grace to the correct technique that I certainly didn’t achieve, but could appreciate.  Despite numerous soft sandy sit-downs I was not among those unfortunate participants who, realising they had more speed than they had skill to control, launched themselves forwards into the air, flying a brief distance before landing heavily on their chest, hands outstretched and completing a few sandy summersaults. Moments later this dishevelled mess would rise spitting sand and wiping grit from its eyes. Looking forward to some snowboarding in due course, but after skiing which I promised myself I would undertake first. From there a plastic cup of Pisco Sour looking out over the Valle de la Luna or Lunar Valley at sunset.


San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is a small, low-rise town at 2,400 metres above sea level, located in far north-eastern Chile close to Salar de Atacama, the world’s fifth largest salt basin. Lithium is a rare and valuable ingredient of the salt and is found in the salt flat of Atacama in higher concentrations than other salt flats around the world where it is extracted. Despite the presence of this modern gold, tourism is the driving economic force of the town. Its desert setting and proximity to the Andes provides unique and dramatic landscapes full of stark contrasts and soft colours, wide-open spaces, thermal pools, volcanos, geysers and a myriad of activities and tours that explore these natural wonders. The town itself small, cute and expensive. Despite the humble appearance of its mud-brick or rendered cement block buildings and narrow streets, the presence of tourist money is unmistakable in the gourmet food offerings, endless memorabilia and handmade clothing of quality materials and a large variety of tours with unpleasingly high price tags.

Despite the somewhat spectacular outflow of cash that my savings experienced, one day as I was passing through was not enough and I am determined to return and experience more of the desert beauty of San Pedro de Atacama.