San Pedro de Atacama – Visiting the driest desert on earth

Visiting the driest desert on Earth – San Pedro de Atacama

 

San Pedro lies in the north of Chile, acting as a gateway to the driest desert in the world, the infamous Atacama. In San Pedro and its surrounding there are a lot of activities related with adventures, gastronomy, amazing landscapes and local culture, you simply must go if you’re ever in Chile.
Using San Pedro as a base, you can easily explore the otherworldly valleys, high-altitude lagoons, and ancient hillside ruins. You can also gawp at the night sky – possibly the clearest in the world – by taking an astronomy tour, or simply walking a little away from the light of the town. A starry night here is something you will never forget.
Ideally, you will need 4 days to make the most of your time here. The town is small and easily walkable. There are tour agencies and empanada shops (the best kind). More time will allow you some relaxation and wiggle room, less means you will need to select your activities wisely. Without further ado, here are the best things to see and do around San Pedro de Atacama.

 

Where to Visit

1. Valle de la Luna

Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, is a spectacular valley located just 13km from San Pedro.
The information desk at the entrance provides maps of the valley, taking you all the way to Las Tres Marias, three unusual rocky formations that jut out of the desert floor.

 

The first stop, around 3km from the entrance, is the salt caverns. They’re a winding and narrow cave system, containing unearthly geological structures. You can walk the snaking trail in around 20 minutes and either carry on along the main road, or take a right as you exit the caves and explore a less visited part of the valley.

 

There are more surreal cliffs and caves, but the further you head in this direction, the less people you will encounter, and the more it begins to feel like you are truly isolated in the desert. The midday sun beats down on your face and neck, no matter which way you look.

The main view that everybody comes to see in the Valley of the Moon is the sunset, particularly from the top of the giant sand dune. The path is sandy but well worn; it shouldn’t pose a problem to anybody. The view from the top makes you understand the logic behind the valley’s name. It was also here where NASA tested the prototype for the Mars rover, due to its strikingly similar terrain.

 

Watching the sun drop behind the ridge is beautiful on its own, but it doesn’t compete with the red-gold afterglow that engulfs the desert. At the top of the dune, you can walk along the ridge in either direction. The right allows you a view of the sun setting behind the sand dune, and if you turn around, you have the full chain of the Andes mountains, complete with several large volcanoes in the distance. The left has a view of the craggy hills and the interminable desert. The path goes on further, too, meaning there is more space to find your own spot, away from the crowds. This is the busiest time on the sand dune, but the view is remarkable all-day long. A sunset here is one you will remember for the rest of your life.

 

How to get there

Getting to Valle de la Luna can be done in a several ways, depending on your preferencesThe best option is to take a tour, which will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and transport you to the entrance, visiting each of the locations with a knowledgeable guide, before dropping you back off at your accommodation. They usually start at 2 or 3 pm so that you can catch the sunset, but an earlier one is possible.

Cycling is easy as well. In your free time you can rent a bike in town and start your trip. The ride from the centre of town to the entrance takes about 25 minutes. However, upon entry into the actual valley, the road becomes rickety and there are steep sections, too. A helmet and visibility jacket are essential for you to take the bike into the valley. I made the mistake of cycling there without either, and was told upon arrival that they would not let me take the bike inside without them.

 

 

2. Valle de la Muerte / Valle de la Marte

The Valley of the dead, also known as the Valley of Mars, is closer to San Pedro than the Valley of the Moon. Its surreal landscapes are just as astonishing, but they have the bonus of being less crowded than their bigger and more popular neighbour. That’s not to say that nobody visits the Valley of the Dead, but it doesn’t get as many as the Valley of the Moon.
The entrance is on the right-hand side of the road to Calama, approx 2km from the centre of town.
This valley is the perfect place to sandboard. The Valley of the Moon also has a huge sand dune but you are not allowed to sandboard on it. As well as climbing the dune to ride back down, it is also worth going up for the view alone. The desert rolls out before your eyes, stretching all the way to the jagged Andes mountains, cowboys ride through the rugged valleys, kicking up dust in their wake, and bizarre outcrops defy logic at every turn.

 

I made the mistake of climbing the dune in a straight line, from the base to the highest point. Don’t make the same mistake as me. I had to use both my hands and my feet, as the surface was almost vertical. My feet sunk into the sand a good 30cm with each step, making the whole ordeal unnecessarily demanding.  I had half the desert in my shoes by the time I made it to the top. Luckily, I had enough water to make sure I didn’t pass out from the midday heat. Despite taking the most difficult route (there is a well-trodden track for sandboarders, which takes you up diagonally), it was well worth the effort. 

 

You can also continue on the path further into the valley, which winds its way up to the opposite side of the sand dune, giving you a view of what lies beyond the towering ridge. It looks like an extreme Motocross track, built for giants. I still struggle to get my head around how these valleys were formed.

 

How to get there

You can travel here using the same methods stated for the Valley of the Moon.
A way to get to the Valley of the Dead is with a tour departing from your hotel. Your van will stick to the main road towards Calama. The sandy hill, directly in front of you as you leave the town, is the entrance. It should not take longer than a few minutes to get there. If you have enough time it is possible to reach very good viewpoints. Take plenty of water and some snacks.

 

There are tours combined with the Valley of the Moon, if you prefer to visit both at once.

Finally, you can cycle. It’s easy to get here, despite a little up-hill section. Cycling in the actual valley can be quite difficult however, as the sand can be thick. I walked to the top with my bike, then rode down (without peddling), but my wheels jammed in the sand and I flew over my handle bars, almost rolling off the steep road and into the Valley of the Dead below. It would have been a fitting place to die, but it was not to be. You can also cycle from here to Pukara de Quitor in a relatively fast time, as there is a path directly from entrance to entrance.

 

3. Pukara de Quitor

This fascinating hill-side ruin was once a mighty fortress, perched in a great defensive location, destroying the element of surprise for invaders. You can find it 3km north-west of San Pedro. Like most of the attractions here, there is an entrance fee of a few thousand Pesos. If you have a bike, there is a place to lock it at the entrance.

 

You can choose between climbing the ridge that runs along the 700-year-old ruins, or the hills in the distance. The hills contain several view points and shelters to rest, as well as a few interesting structures at the top. From the peak, you can look down on the Valley of the Dead to see it from a different perspective. You can also gaze into the valley that leads to Catarpe – an interesting and adventurous bike ride away.
The view from the top of the hills is worth seeing. You see everything from an inferior angle, and whilst you can get a lot closer to the ruins, you can’t go inside them. Having said that, the path is short and is probably worth the 15 minutes it will take to walk.
Near to the entrance of Pukara de Quitor, is another path. Instead of taking the ramp up to the bike storage and ticket office, go the opposite way, sticking to the wall of the rock, and follow the path up to a cave and some amazing archaeological carvings. The cave is pitch black at certain points, so make sure you have a torch handy. Be careful with your head, too, especially for tall people like me. You’ll be bending a lot. On the other side of the cave is a small open area, where you can witness the unusual rock formations up close, and add your own cairn to the masses already there, before heading back the way you came. It might be a good idea to take something to cover your nose and mouth, as you will inhale a lot of dust. Outside, you can marvel at the two giant heads, that have been carved from the cliff face.

 

How to get there

All the above options apply for here. You can take a tour, walk or cycle.

 

4. Stargazing

Arguably the best activity to do here, based on the area’s pristine skies, is look upwards. Within the next year, over 70% of the world’s astronomical observatories will be based here. From this desert, you can see the Large Magellanic Cloud with the naked eye, a foreign galaxy that orbits the Milky Way, over 150,000 light years away. You can also see the Small Magellanic Cloud, fainter and even further away. It’s the farthest visible object in the southern hemisphere, without the aid of telescopes. You can also stare into the heart of our own galaxy. Do you know that strip of cloud-like substance you see in films and the best astrophotography? You can see it with your own eyes.

 

It takes a brilliant camera to be able to pick any of it up, but luckily for us, almost all astronomy tours will take a group photo on their own cameras. You can ask for one on your own, too.
I went on a tour and  couldn’t recommend it enough. They took me on a 2-hour tour, pointing out all the visible constellations of the zodiac and explaining the reasons behind them. They also showed us a short documentary and allowed us to feast on little sausages and snacks.
It obviously helps if you have an experienced guide who can point to Saturn as soon as you ask him and tells you everything about all the stars you see.

I visited in August, the tail-end of their winter, and Saturn was the easiest to see. Early at night, it is possible to spot Mars and Jupiter, too. At different times throughout the year, it’s possible to see all the first six planets with the naked eye.

 

 5. High Plain Lagoons and the Atacama Salt Flats

The high-altitude lakes are definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area.  You have the opportunity to watch pink Flamingos in Chaxa National Reserve, walk on a frozen lake at Red Stone, and see Vicuñas (a relative of llamas and alpacas) in their natural habitat – the hills above 3,000m.

 

It’s best to start early for these places, as they’re a bit further away than the majority of the attractions. I drifted in and out of sleep on the ride there, catching dreamlike glimpses of snowy peaks, sprawling desert and grazing vicuñas, half-listening to the guide talk about how vicuñas are still hunted for their fur, despite it being illegal.
I woke up when the smooth road swiftly changed to a jolting sandy track. I bounced up and down, bashing flailing limbs off parts of the jeep that I didn’t even know existed. Then I was hit by the cold. Mornings at high altitude aren’t pleasant for the half-dressed. Luckily, I was prepared.



How to get there

The best way to go to these places is by taking a tour. It’s worth it. We visited all the aforementioned places, as well as Toconao, a traditional village. The main square has large cacti that grow 1cm per year. These cacti were over 2 metres tall, meaning they were planted in the early 1800s! You can explore the handcraft shops and go souvenir hunting, check out the old church, or taste local homemade ice cream. They have Rica Rica flavour, which is a mint-like herb that grows in the shrubby area of the desert. The driver makes a short stop here, too, for you to harvest your own supply.

 

Other things to do in the area include:

Tatio Geysers – Expect an early start if you visit these. They’re most active around 4.30 am.

Hot Springs / Aguas Calientes – There are lots of hot springs near San Pedro de Atacama. I visited hot springs in Peru and Bolivia – there is nothing quite like bathing in hotter-than-bath water in the middle of the freezing cold Andes. (As Termas Puritama and Tatio Geysers.)

Hot Air Balloon over the Atacama –  Ballooning over the Atacama Desert is a breathtaking and unique experience. You will start the tour right before sunrise to see all the colors and rocks of the desert in the morning light. Every tour is different because you don’t know where the wind will take you but you can be sure that you will have an impressive view over the stunning landscape of the Atacama Desert. This is definitely a memory you will never forget!

The Flowering Desert – A lot further south from San Pedro, but still in the Atacama, near to La Serena, there is a natural phenomenon taking place in the desert, causing flowers to blossom everywhere. It only happens once per year and this year is supposed to be the largest ever.

 

How to Budget
Generally, San Pedro is slightly more expensive than other towns of similar size in Chile. The customers are predominantly tourists, which means the prices are inflated. It’s possible to find all type of vegetables, meat, fish and local food. There are many options of restaurants, accommodation and activities for your stay in San Pedro de Atacama.  

 

When to Go
The Atacama is dry, with clear skies all year round. You can count the number of clouds you see in your time here on one hand – most likely, you won’t need any hands. On the astronomy tour, the guide said that only 30 nights of the year are cloudy, and even then, they’re not terribly intrusive.
Chilean summer runs from December to February, and their winter, from June to August. However, the climate here doesn’t change that much. Due to the altitude (2,408 metres above sea level), San Pedro experiences cold nights all year round, with the lowest being in July and August, at -1° C, and the highest, around 5-6° C, in January. In the day, the winters can reach 20° C, and the summer, 25° C. The altitude makes the days seem hotter though, because the sun’s rays have less of an atmosphere to cut through before reaching you. Combine this with the unusual clarity of the sky, and basically, you will frazzle.

 

If you want to avoid the crowds, then the best time to visit is just before winter (northern summer holidays), but after southern summer. April – June is classed as low season here. There will be less people, but never expect it to be empty. San Pedro is a tourist hot spot.

 

What to Bring

Altitude Sickness Tablets – Depending on your attitude toward altitude, you may wish to bring some medicine. Some people simply don’t agree with being at higher elevations. While 2,408 metres isn’t ridiculously high, some of the activities can go well over 4,000m. You can also buy local remedies for altitude sickness all over town. Coca leaves are helpful for long uphill hikes. Just don’t swallow them.

Vaseline or Lip Balm – This one is fairly self-explanatory. You’re in the driest desert in the world. Without it, your lips will crack, bleed and split. I speak from experience.

Sun Lotion – The altitude makes you burn a lot faster than if you were at sea level.

Map App – While there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned paper map, it won’t help you if you don’t know where you are in the first place. MAPS.ME is a good choice as it allows you to download the maps for offline use (like most apps), but it also shows walking trails and footpaths that are mostly invisible on Google Maps, for instance.

Water and Snacks – Again, it’s self-explanatory. You need lots of water in the driest desert on Earth. If you’re stranded, don’t count on rain to save you. Certain areas here receive less than half an inch per year. Some native people have never seen rain in their entire life, particularly closer to Antofagasta. A little snack is helpful, too, as there aren’t any shops outside of the towns.

Camera – This is an unforgettable place, but it doesn’t hurt to keep photos.

 

 

Top 5 bicycle tours of Chile

Chile’s glorious terrain is rich with colour, lakes and waterfalls and the best way to see them up-close is to cycle through its lands. It may seem like an arduous feat, but there are many ways you can cycle through Chile, enjoy the landscape, wineries and beaches all at the same time.

What’s great about travelling by bike is the freedom. You can simply stop anywhere you want and take photos, and you can rest-assured that your travelling is not impacting negatively on Chile’s unimaginably beautiful landscape.

Here are the top five bicycle tours you should take to see Chile at its finest:

BikeTours
BikeTours

 

Lakes And Volcanos District

Take to Chile’s southern region by bike and see the volcanic rocks and glistening lakes from the most natural mode of transport of them all – a bicycle. It might seem like an impossible feat to cycle across the glacial landscape of the south, but in fact the terrain of ripe farmland and dense forest is the perfect ground for a cycling adventure. Get close-up to the spectacular Andes mountains, as well as some of the region’s most mesmerizing national parks. You can also cycle close to the Lanin Volcanoes, through the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve and the newly-paved roads that run around the stunning Lake Ranco – taking the old German settlers route. The climate is also perfect for cycling, at around 65 degrees most of the year.}

Puerto Varas Mountain Bike tour

 

Bicycle the border

Take to the border between Chile and Argentina by bike and see some of the region’s most stunning sights along the way, including glaciers, national parks and ancient forests. The Andes mark the stretch between the two countries, and this tour takes you along some of the original indigenous trails that were created by some of the first people on the continent. This tour is uniquely local, with stops at local villages, as well as untouched forests and as far across to the Pacific coastline trails in the Region de los Rios.

BikeTours
BikeTours

 

Chile’s wine country

Take this cycling wine tour from Santiago to the beautiful village of Zuniga and enjoy cycling through the vineyards of this quaint little town. The cycle takes you through many other beautiful Chilean towns along this wine celebration, with traditional windmills and the most famous wine region in Chile, the Colchagua Valley. The tour also stops in the wine capital of Chile, Santa Cruz, which is located in the Valle de Apalta. Try some of the most historic wines of Chile here, as well as some of the newest selections of eco wines. The tour travels as far as the stunning shores of the Pacific Coast, where the rugged, beautiful and isolated beaches provide some much-need respite from cycling, before returning via shuttle back to Santiago.

Bicycle tours patagonia ecochile

 

Patagonia bike tour

Start your tour in the stunning lake lands of Bariloche with stunning views of the Andes and the lake. Enjoy a magical boat ride and journey through the Arrayanes National Park, home to South America’s unique myrtle sand, before cycling from Lake Espejo to Cardenal Samore Pass. When you finish the ride there will be a divine thermal baths waiting for you to unwind and rest your aching muscles. Take in Lake Llanquihue by bike, with views of the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes. The tour will also head through stunning farmlands, including spectacular waterfalls, such as Saltos de Petrohue, and Puertos Varas – a small lake town where you will complete your cycling journey.

santiago bike tour

 

Santiago and its surrounds

Leaving from Santiago head into Casablanca Valley, known for its delicious wines and untouched eucalyptus groves. Cycle next through the Andes-lined trails of San Antonio Valley, where wine tasting and horse riding are popular pursuits. A stop at the colourful city of Valpariso is also part of this itinerary, before heading over to the coastline at the beach town of Matanzas. Head back into another beautiful wine region, this time the Apalta Valley, where you finish the tour at the premium winemaking destination of Chile before heading back to Santiago.

10 Best Day Tours From Santiago, Chile

 

1. Snow Hike (Winter)

This unique experience provides an excellent alternative without Ski for people who want to visit the Andes mountains, see snow and are eager to be among nature without being surrounded by a lot of people. The snow hike is a guided tour that leaves from Santiago to Cajón del Maipo regularly during winter and includes everything needed for a snowshoe hike.

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snow-hike-los-andes-mountains

 

2. Cousino Macul Bike and Wine (All year round)

This tour is an excellent alternative for those who want to get involve with good Chilean wine, take a bike ride and appreciate an old vineyard without having to escape far from Santiago. There is different ways to visit this place, you could combine the public bus with a taxi, rent a car or to take a private excursion.

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bike-tour-winery

 

3. Trekking Cerro Pintor (Summer)

For the more adventurous and hike lovers, this is a tour we recommend, as it is possible to experience high mountains in one day – exceeding 4,000 meters above sea level – without spending the night. To visit this part of the Andes, a good physical condition is required, and it is recommended for people with previous experience in hiking. It is also highly recommended to visit this places with a profesional who knows to lead the way.

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trekking-cerro-pintor

 

4. Ski Day in Valle Nevado (Winter)

This is one of the best alternatives for a good ski day from Santiago, as it is the highest ski center with incredible views, the largest ski area in South America and the best quality of snow because of its orientation. If you really enjoy snowboarding or ski, we highly reccommend to plan a journey to this ski field that belong to the Andes mountain range from Santiago.

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valle-nevado-ski-center

 

5. Patagon Loom Workshop and Peumayen restaurant (All year)

Through this initiative, attendees participate in an introductory class to the art of Patagonian loom-finishing work. A lunch prepared with ingredients traditionally used by indigenous cultures of our country at the exquisite Peumayen restaurant located at Bellavista neighborhood is also included.

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6. [Top Rated] Cajón del Maipo Roadtrip (All year round)

This tour is great for those who want to appreciate nature and see Cajon del Maipo without a hard trekking. You will arrive at the beautiful Embalse El Yeso and also visit different places as restaurants, coffee markets and wilderness. Try local products as cheese, wine, season fruits and craft-beer.

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7. Flavors of Chile (All year round)

This tour takes you through the most typical cuisine of Chile and also gives you the opportunity to learn directly and be actively involved in the preparation of typical dishes and snacks, accompanied by a chef who will introduce you to the secrets of Chilean cuisine.

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chilean-cuisine-tour

 

8. Santiago Photography Tours (All year round)

Guided by professional photographer and city specialists, A Photography tour is perfect for anyone who wants an alternative day in the city, exploring must-see sights – as well as some of its undiscovered locations – whilst learning about photography. Ideal for all levels and experience.

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photography-tour-santiago

 

9. Glaciers and Hot Springs (Summer)

In summer (November to May) the glaciers and hot springs tour is one of the top rated attractions to depart from Santiago, here is combined a trekking to visit a Glacier in “El Morado Park” with the natural Hot Springs from San José Volcano at Baños Morales, you can get this only a few hours from Santiago.

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glaciers-tour-hiking

 

10. Valparaiso and Casablanca (All year round)

During this full-day tour you get to know the city of Valparaiso and the Casablanca Valley. You can get involved with the colored hills and paths that the cultural city of Valparaiso have to offer. Afterwords a half way between Valparaíso and Santiago you can find different wineries and the best white wines samples from Chile.

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valparaiso-army-building