The first day in San Pedro we spent adapting to the strong and bright sun and heat, an altitude of 2.400 meters above sea level and a lot of dust in the air. San Pedro de Atacama is a really cozy, tiny town, the streets with adobe (Lehmziegel) houses, a main square with a pretty church and the main street only being 400 meters long, blotched with travel/tour agencies and little comfy restaurants. Once you stay here for a few days you know all the faces and funny people who live in this town. It even has a bit of a hippie feeling to it..a lot of dreadlocks-folks who hang around in the streets all day, no idea what or if they do anything for their living, but they all seem to be very relaxed and happy. We instantly felt comfy in this town and decided to stay here for a whole week since you can do tons of things here. And a day of doing “nothing” was a treat as well! I was lucky that Michel agreed to take me along on his bike for the next few days to do all the sightseeing (thanks again, Michel! It was the BEST way to experience this wonderful area!) so I needed to find a motorbike helmet in tiny San Pedro. Didn’t think it could be such a big challenge but YES it was! There was only one tour agent that rented 4 motorbikes and therefore also 4 helmets but they were all reserved for the upcoming days so we wandered from one tour agent or hostel to the next, asking around if they knew anybody who knew anybody who would have a bike and would be willing to rent us one for a few days. After 4 stops I was lucky and found one but it soon turned out that my head fitted twice into that helmet and so the search went on. Finally in the end of the day we found a guy who runs a hostel and he rented me his helmet – so from that moment on Calimero-Brita was ready for a new adventure! The next day we headed out to one of the highlights of the Atacama desert, the Salar de Atacama, the world’s second largest salt lake (after Uyuni in Bolivia). We visited a section of the lake (it’s not really like a normal lake but only up to 50 cm deep) where we got very close to beautiful flamingos and other water birds. One of the things that amazed me most was the incredible views you get when you drive around in the Atacama desert. There is an endlessly seeming number of mountains and snowcapped volcanoes lining up next to each other, running north to south along the border of Argentina and Chile (and also Bolivia and Chile). We spent one day driving up to the Altiplano to visit Laguna Minique and Laguna Miscanti, 2 gorgeous Lagunas at 4.300 meters, surrounded by volcanoes and snowy mountains, with Vicunas (a wild relative of the Llama) strolling around the plains and Flamingos and numerous waterbirds inhabiting the Lagunas. It was one of the most beautiful and peaceful sceneries I have ever seen and all the tour buses had already left so it was only the 2 of us sitting on the top of the hill, looking down at the water and the landscape. We saw a tiny refugio (like a mountain hut, with 4 beds in it) and asked the ranger if it was possible to stay there over night. YES, it was and so we decided to spend a night there rather than camping in the tent (at 4.300 meters it got quite chilly in the evening and we opted for the more comfortable versionJ) because you just couldn’t beat that view. We cooked some pasta and then went to bed quite early – and the next morning I woke up with a MAJOR headache, feeling really nauseous due to the altitude. We quickly packed up and made our way down to 3.500 meters to the next town and then to San Pedro to 2.400 meters where I fortunately recovered within the next few hours. That evening we went for a star-gazing tour: a French guy set up this tour (www.spaceobs.com) where you drive to the desert and get a little speech on the stars and where the astronomer points out various star constellations and where you get the chance to view them through 20-60 mm telescopes as well. The Atacama desert is one of the best places to view stars and there are some of the most renowned observatories in the world – due to the high elevation and the non-existing air pollution this is the place to be. We had some of the few cloudy nights that exist per year in the Atacama and we also had full moon so it was not quite as good to see the stars as it usually is but nevertheless it was a great experience and seeing the moon through the telescope with its craters was very impressive to me. We returned from the tour at 2 a.m. in the morning and only got 2 hours of sleep because at 4 am we took a bus going to another one of the highlight of the Atacama – the Tatio geysers. It is a 2-3 hour drive on bumpy gravel roads, heading up north to 4.200 meters again where you see a field of 20-40 geysers puffing steam. You have to be there before and at sunrise because this is the time with the highest temperature difference and therefore the strongest pressure=steam. As soon as the sun and temperature rise it gets foggy and the steam decreases. Due to the fact that all the tourists go there at the same time it was busier than all the other sights and it took a bit of the mysterious aura it could have had, but nevertheless it was nice to see.
Some of the other things we did during our stay there was riding to small towns which seemed completely deserted (but there were actually people living there), only a few dogs chasing the motorbike (and one seemed to confuse my leg for a sausage because it was really going for it –luckily the bike was faster!), driving to Laguna Cejar which was in the middle of the desert and which is a really cool place to visit: there are 3 tiny lagunas and due to their extremely high concentration of salt you float in them like a rubber ducky! You walk on pure white salt and hop into the laguna and just float around for a while, once again looking at the line of mountains and snowy volcanoes in the distance. The sun was really strong though so we only stayed for a short while and as soon as we got out of the water and the salt dried we were completely white and you could have scratched it off from the skin and filled a whole bag and made that a life-long support for your cooking! That day we also visited the Puritama thermal bath which is a 33.5 degree warm river flowing in the middle of the dry desert along a narrow valley. As we made our 35 km way from San Pedro to the thermal bath we just couldn’t imagine that there would be any water coming up anywhere because we just saw sand, sand and sand. We parked the bike. Walked 500 meters along a steep path and all of a sudden there was this narrow, lush stripe of green, bushy plants, growing so high that you couldn’t even see the water. The Thermal bath consisted of 8 small natural “pools” of water, with little cascades from the highest to the lowest pool….we hopped in one of the approx. 10 square meter small pools and enjoyed crystal clear, warm water, looking up to the arid, steep walls of the valley (and 2 hours later our shoulders were pretty fried!)
We also went to Valle de la Luna– the valley of the moon – for sunset. It is a beautiful very strange mix of soft, big sand dunes and grounds which are rough and which make it look like you were on the moon (or at least on some other planet).
The time in the Atacama desert was really beautiful and very diverse-highly recommendable for anyone visiting South America. On Friday the 13th I took a bus from San Pedro to Salta, Argentina. This 10 hour ride includes crossing the border over a high pass (~4.600 meters) and it was the most beautiful bus ride I have ever done. The landscape covers every kind of scenery you can imagine: from volcanoes and snow-capped mountains across flat, deserted plains, passing another huge salt lake and then slowly descending into a windy road with beautiful views of green, red and then multicolored mountains. It was such a strong contrast, going from one week of sand and only brown colors to lush, green views which made it even more special.
P.S: this post is dedicated to a few people:
First of all to a very special person who I know would have loved to see the Atacama desert – particularly the stars and observatories 🙂
To my dad: I am sure those thermal pools with their warm water would have been very enjoyable for you to spend the whole day in –the only thing missing though were the cocktails:)
To Michel: thank you so much for taking me on your motorbike to experience this beautiful area in a very (to me) unusual way, for sharing those experiences in this diverse and mesmerizing landscape and for hanging in there with me when I had altitude sickness!:(