The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world. It is gorgeous, photogenic and just a really cool place to be. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t be able to live up to the awesome experience I had in Bolivia and was worried that much of the scenery would be similar. Of the tours I looked at, many actually went up into Bolivia and many saw Lagunas, salt flats and other things I just saw. However, there were plenty of other choices to see the dryness and beauty of the desert. I based myself out of San Pedro de Atacama and explored the small tourist town. I also did a comprehensive Valley of the Moon tour for a great sunset in the desert.
I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama a tired and hungry man. After a long downhill from the border with Bolivia, literally like 2000 meters while the driver blasted Guns N’ Roses on his tape deck, the bus dropped us off in the center of town. I needed a place to stay and didn’t feel like looking around. I also wanted to watch the NFL playoffs and the Barcelona match. There was a hotel right on the main road called Hotel Geiser del Tatio that had Direct TV, wifi and decent looking accommodation but for the outrageous price of $80 for a private room. Reluctantly I agreed to pay it because I couldn’t be bothered looking for anything else and just needed a shower and to chill out. This ended up being a huge mistake…don’t stay there.
Long story short, the wifi didn’t work, the room was kind of gross and the bed full of hairs and most annoyingly, there was a restaurant next door that blasted techno music until midnight when I went to bed at 10, right after the Patriots debacle against the Jets. Needless to say, I got a pretty good discount the next day when I checked out and explained the situation to the staff. Even though they were pissed, it was still a nice win for me. So I moved to a new guesthouse that was equal in quality and much cheaper.
San Pedro de Atacama is not a cheap place by any means. After days in Bolivia you’d think it would carry on but San Pedro is a bustling tourist Mecca for excursions into the desert and into Bolivia. Most people will base their Bolivian adventure out of Chile because it has a much better reputation than Bolivia. True, however, you will pay more for the privilege and miss out on other things in Bolivia.
San Pedro is a dusty little tourist town (above) that has seemingly endless amounts of tour operators offering every kind of tour imaginable. However, there are no travel agents who can book flights (mental note that). This was a problem for me as I tried to book a flight to Santiago online with PAL or SKY because they don’t accept foreign credit cards and don’t answer their phones after 5pm. However, it eventually worked out, well sort of, as PAL left me stranded for hours in Calama but that’s a different story for a different day…or later.
Across from the first hotel I stayed at was a bar with Direct TV and I sat down to watch the Bears game because I figured I would fall asleep in bed watching the game. This proved to be a great move because I met some really cool people. First, there was a Chilean guy named Camilo that didn’t speak English or understand the NFL so I had to try and explain all the intricacies of American football to a Chilean guy who has never seen a game in Spanish. That was tough but he was funny so it made it fun. Another American guy from California soon joined us named Jarrod and then a Chilean guy named Jose.
Jose and I got along really well and he was also a huge Barcelona fan so we watched as Barcelona dismantled Malaga in a very festive atmosphere. Then we watched the Jets/Patriots game at his sister’s restaurant after we got booted from the first bar for a Chilean under 20 soccer game! Jose and his sister were very nice to me and we all became fast friends. The next night I ate at his restaurant called La Cave which was excellent. I had some kind of lomo steak with Atacamena sauce that he recommended. It was really good and tasted a little sweet because of the fruit that was used in the sauce. I forget the name of the fruit but if/when he reads this I am sure he will correct me!
After dinner, I joined them for some drinks and they made me try the Chilean favorite called a Piscola. It smells like tequila, tastes like rum and when you add coke it tastes like a rum and coke but apparently it is all the rage in Chile and I had to try it. I am glad I did. The local Chilean beers are excellent by the way; Escudo, Crystal and Austral which is my favorite (the dark one).
On the second day, after finally sort of sorting out my travel plans I did the Valle de la Luna tour or the Valley of the Moon tour which was an excellent 5 hour tour of the Atacama Desert culminating for a full moon sunset atop a centrally located mountain. It was a lot of fun albeit a lot of information from the guide about rocks, geology and things like that that you’ll never retain. I was just happy to see the scenery and was ecstatic to see the gorgeous sunset and fabulous vistas of the desert. It made me miss Arizona a little bit and reminded me of the wide open areas of the painted desert.
San Pedro de Atacama is a nice place to spend a few days but be prepared to spend more than you thought as it’s not quite the dusty little backpacker outpost you expected, or at least I did. It is a full-fledged tourist Mecca with prices to match. It also has excellent restaurants and a lot to do.
I finally made it out of Calama, which is the airport that services San Pedro after a lengthy delay and then PAL Airlines (Possibly the worst airline in the world) decided to make two unannounced stops in Antofagasta and Capiopo before mercifully arriving in Santiago 6 hours after it was supposed to. Needless to say I missed my scheduled bus to Mendoza overnight and had to stay at the hotel across the street from the bus station. It was a very nice and cheap Ibis which are always nice.
So as I await my bus to ride through the Andes to Argentinean wine country, I wish I had more time to head further south into Patagonia and Antarctica but that will have to wait until next year. I am looking forward to Mendoza even though my time there will be shorter than expected because of PAL’s incomprehensible delays. I then head to Buenos Aires to eat steak and fly home just in time for the NFL conference championship games Sunday!