San Pedro de Atacama: Desert Tourism

San Pedro de Atacama sits at about 6,000 feet above sea level and is home to the driest desert in the world. There are so many beautiful landscapes in this area that San Pedro has become a hotbed for desert tourism. It attracts Chileans and foreigners to its small outpost in the desert, an hour south of the nearest airport in Calama. You can visit colorful lakes, geysers, ancient moon-like landscapes, and go stargazing. 

All of the desert homes are one story, connected in one long block, and made of adobe mud with tin or thatched roofs. It’s extremely dry, windy, hot during the day and cold at night. It is the Disneyland of the desert and totally worth a visit. 

We visited for four days and the first two days the entire town was in a frenzy, because all of the ATMs in town were out of money in a cash-only town. Luckily, we were prepared and could make it two days without getting cash out. For others the situation was more dire. These things tend to happen during high season, because the town is very isolated and quite popular. 

If money is no object then San Pedro can be your playground for a week of fun-filled tourism. You can start the day at 3am with a sunrise geyser tour to Geisers de Taito, north of San Pedro, and watch the geysers erupt from the earth as the sun makes its ascent. They provide breakfast and you can shiver your way into the early morning with the scent of rotten eggs as you watch the stream of sizzling hot air burst through the earth’s surface. 

Then you can rent a bike for the day and ride out to several locations accessible from the town. Bikes are only 3,000 pesos ($3) for 6 hours and will take you around the gravel dusty roads to Cejar Lagoon, a lake with similar properties to the Dead Sea, where you can float buoyantly on the extremely salty water. Just don’t stick your face in or you may burn your skin. You can also take an organized tour here. 

You can also ride your bike out to Valle de la Luna only a half hour from town. There you can take a 6 hour ride to the end and back, stopping along the way to climb through the salt cave and visit all the attractions of rock formations and dunes. You can even hitch a snowboard to your back and go for a ride down the steep sand dunes for some sandboarding. 

We visited Valle de la Luna for their sunset tour. They pick you up at 4pm and drive you through the park to visit three main attractions and watch the sunset at the Stone of Coyote. We would have preferred to ride bikes through the expansive park, but got too late of a start. This is the second best option to seeing it on your own. 

This valley received its name from its resemblance to the landscape of the moon. It is extremely dry and covered in craters, rock formations, and dunes. The red brown earth also glistens with salt crystals. The whole area once sat under the sea two million years ago and then the water evaporated as the plates shifted and pushed up against each other, forming the Andes Mountains. 

Our first stop on the tour was to pay the 3,000 peso entrance fee then head to the salt cave. This cave is not underground, but it cuts narrowly through a thick rock formation waving out of the earth. For most of the path you can see the blue sky shining through the cracks above. Parts of the path bend your body in a limbo around twisting red rocks glistening with salt crystals hanging like stalactites from the ceiling. At one point we did need our flash lights to crawl through the mini boroughs through the cave. You finally reemerge at the top of the rocks with a sliver of daylight moon staring down at you. 

Next we drove across the bumpy, dusty road to the end of the trail to find the Tres Marias. This rock formation was named by an Archeologist Priest, because the three figures resembled three women praying. The middle woman stands facing the sky with her hands in prayer. The one to her right kneels in prayer and unfortunately the one on the left was toppled by a careless tourist who climbed on her. We posed in prayer with the rocks. Next to the Three Marias sat a rock resembling T-Rex’s head roaring. 

We piled back in the car and drove to our third stop, Duna Higher. Along the way, you could see for miles in either direction. At our backs rolled the cordillera of the Andes Mountain range painted red against the blue sky. The landscape dipped and fell into deep craters and climbed heights to create smooth sand dunes. NASA once tested the Mars explorer here, since the area resembles the face of the moon and Mars. 

When we arrived at the Duna Higher, we could already see little ant-sized people standing at the top of the dune. The climb up was full of heavy breathing and the harsh kiss of the bright desert sun. The sand loosened beneath our feet, making it hard to move very fast. Jagged rocks painted in red and white lines jutted out at our left. Once we reached the ridge overlooking the park, we could see mini mountain ranges or red rocks pointing up below. White salt pools sparkled in the sun. We teetered on the narrow white rocks along the ridge for views of the volcano at our back and the rolling dunes and red rocks at our front. We weren’t given enough time to fully explore this ancient masterpiece and would’ve loved to have spent more time here. 

The tour rushed us off to the Stone of Coyote for the sunset over the Valle de la Luna. Before the crowds of other tour buses arrived, we could see out across the great expanse of the moon valley with all its dips, waves, and curves of red rock, golden sands, and sparkling white salt. Then the other buses arrived and the ridge was flooded with tourists pushing for the best spot to view the sunset. 

Everyone stared at the setting sun like you do at a pot of water trying to will it to boil. Just like a pot of water, it appeared to move slower as we watched it. The air was full of the languages of the world. Finally, the sun took its last breath and dipped behind the dune, sending a bright orange outline across all of the dunes. Then everyone bolted to the other side of the ridge to capture the red illumination of the Andes mountains and volcano. I remained in position, staring at the remnants of the suns rays as they painted the bellies of the low hanging clouds hot neon pink. Everyone abandoned the sun without even a farewell. I paid my respects to it, watching alone as the sky took on a reddish peach hue. Eventually, I turned around to see the red glow of the mountains. Before I could fully absorb its warmth, we were rushed back on to the buses to return to town. 

If there wasn’t a nearly full moon, we could have also gone on the Astronomical tour. They take you out to the desert and set up telescopes for you to view the Milky Way and other star formations. They can only go when the moon is far from full to get the best viewing opportunity. 

There are other tours led from town to the Rainbow Petroglyphs, the Tara Salt Flats, and hot springs. We chose to not spend our money on these tours though, because San Pedro is also used as a gateway to the Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia that takes you to many similar landscapes. People who already visited Salar de Uyuni suggested not wasting money on most of the tours in San Pedro if you plan to go to Uyuni. The two tours they said are worth it are Valle de la Luna and Geisers de Taito. It is a beautiful desert town worth visiting though. 

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