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Review: San Pedro de Atacama


San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Amazing scenery in the driest desert in the world

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2320 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • Apr 2010
  • Husband

52 people found this review helpful

This is an amazing place. Parts of it are completely dry with no recorded rainfall. Nearer the mountains are a few streams with trees, vegetation and small settlements. If lucky there may be 2" rain a year during the summer months. The main air flow is across the Andes from Argentina and most of the rain has been dropped before it arrives in Chile.

We were planning a long trip to South America in 2008 through Argentina and Chile, flying home from Santiago. We had discounted the Atacama desert as we don’t like hot places. Almost as an after thought we asked the travel agent how much extra it would cost to add a few days in San Pedro de Atacama. We decided to go for it, working on the principle that we would never be back in that part of the world.

In fact we loved the area so much we were back in 2010 to spend a few nights there before heading into Bolivia.

We made all the arrangements through Audley Travel in Witney who we use for all out long distance trips. On our fist trip we had group trips arranged for us. The second trip we asked for our own driver and guide, so we could go at our own speed.

There are daily flights from Santiago to Calama (an industrial mining town) and then a bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama. Sit on the right hand side of the plane for views of the Andes and salt flats, although morning sun can make photographs difficult.

San Pedro is a small town in the middle of the desert surrounded by high mountains and volcanoes. These are no longer active although some still steam gently. At 2438m (8000ft) altitude does need to be taken seriously. Most people suffer a headache for the first couple of days (treated with paracetamol), although a few people may have more severe symptoms. Advice is to take things slowly and not to rush. Coca tea is available everywhere and is supposed to help. Don't try bringing any home though…

San Pedro is a tourist hub with guest houses and hotels. The main street is lined with tour agencies selling day tours. The town is always quiet during the day as everyone is out on the tours. There are plenty of tourist and craft shops and prices are reasonable. There are a couple of ATMs but they often run out of money.

We were booked into Hotel Altiplanico about 20 minutes walk from the centre of San Pedro. This is a new adobe building designed to look like a traditional village. Each of the rooms is different and has tremendous character. We had a small private sitting area outside the room and an outside shower (as well as one in the bathroom). This was great for cooling off at lunchtimes. There were shaded outside sitting areas and a small swimming pool. All staff employed are locals so we knew money was going back into the local economy, unlike hotels like the Explora who ship in staff and put little back into the economy.

The white washed CHURCH in the main square is 17thC. It is surrounded by a low wall and entered through a large archway. The thick walls are made from Adobe bricks and the inside always stay cool and is a pleasant place to sit away from the heat of the sun. The pastor does not like photography and the old lady who looks after the church discourages picture taking.

There is an excellent ARCHAEOLOGY MUSEUM covering the history of human civilization in the Atacama desert. The mummies which used to be displayed in the museum (and are still mentioned in some guide books) are no longer on display as it was felt this was disrespectful to the dead. The museum runs tours in different languages during the day and it is worth joining a tour as there is only a limited amount of information in English. Photography is allowed in the museum so it is worthwhile going round by yourselves afterward to look at exhibits again, read the English information and take pictures. It is always cool in the museum and there are toilets.

HALF DAY TOUR TO PUKARA DE QUITOR AND TULOR This may be run in conjunction with a tour of the Archaeology museum.

Pukara de Quitor is a 12thC fortress built up a hillside about 3km to the north west of San Pedro de Atacama. The walls are adobe bricks which are now dusty and eroded. The lower walls were mainly defensive with the remains of 160 houses and grain stores higher up. The lord’s house was at the top of the site and had carefully constructed walls. There are excellent views from the top of the fortress over looking the small settlement of Quitor below with fields and trees and the green river valley.

Tulor is about 8km southwest of San Pedro reached along a dry dusty road. Beyond the present village are the partially excavated remains of a large settlement dating back 3000 years which were found buried beneath the sand. There is a viewing platform overlooking the remains of round houses surrounded by a large perimeter wall.

On the entry to the site a house has been rebuilt to show what it might have looked like.

HALF DAY TOUR TO VALLE DE LA LUNE This is an afternoon excursion which ends by climbing to the top of a sand dune to watch the sunset over Licancabur volcano. There are stops to photograph Salt Mountains and the badlands scenery seen along the road from Calama to San Pedro. The trip goes down Valle de la Muerte where tall thin rocks look like the spines along a dinosaurs back. There is chance to walk down a gorge through Valley de La Luna with amazing rock formations. There were pristine sand dunes covered by ripples in the sand, until two youngsters decided to run up and down them destroying their natural loveliness.

The highlight of the trip was watching the sunset and the rocks changing colour as the sun went down. Although there were several hundred people watching, nearly everyone was quiet.

EVENING TRIP SPACE STAR TRIP The tour starts from the office on Caracol. We had been told it would be cold and to wear plenty of layers. The tour is run by a French couple who have eight telescopes in a field in the middle of nowhere on the way to Toconao. The tour begins with a brief introduction and talk about the stars – their changing positions and use by the ancients as a calendar.

It was very clear and the Milky Way really did look milky. There were almost too many stars to be able to identify constellations. It brought home to us just how few stars are seen in England due to light pollution. It wasn't 100% dark as we could see the glow of San Pedro and a small settlement to the south east. It was quarter moon so there was little moonlight to mask the stars.

Positions of the stars and constellations were pointed out using a laser beam. We were told how the Southern Cross is used with Alpha Centauri to find south. The constellations of Orion, Taurus, Sirius, Cancer, Leo, Gemini were identified. (They are 'back to front' compared with the northern hemisphere.) Mars and Saturn were also visible and we could see the rings of Saturn and a couple of its moons.

We had time to look through the telescopes and ask questions. There were always two people on hand to check telescopes were set up correctly and had not been moved out of alignment.

This was a very well worth while trip and we learned a lot. It was not as cold as expected and we were definitely overdressed.

TRIP TO EL TATIO GEYSER FIELD It is a two hour drive to the geyser field leaving at 4.30 to arrive just before dawn. It is bitterly cold and temperatures can be as low as minus twelve. Even with all our layers we could feel the heat being sucked out of our bodies. The geyser field was steaming gently in the gloom. The tour takes you among the geysers and bubbling mud pools. We had seen geysers in Iceland and were beginning to feel distinctly underwhelmed by these as they were only about 2m high.

The sun came above the horizon and for a few magical moments the water vapour caught all the light of the sun. There was also the glorious feeling as warmth from the sun soaked into our bodies. As the temperature warms the air the steam is no longer visible after about 9.30.

A light breakfast is served and there is a hot spring which the brave can swim in. At 4300m (14,100ft) there is a need to take things steadily.

On the way back to San Pedro there is a short detour to visit Manchuca with traditional adobe houses with grass roofs and a small white washed church. The population is about six and the houses now seem to be used for tourists.

The tour stops at Puritama hot springs dropping off people wanting to visit the springs. These are in the bottom of a rocky canyon and pools have been made with wooden walkways. The canyon sides are covered by the remains of long disused terrace fields. We spent the time wandering above the canyon looking at the vegetation. We particularly likes the cushion shaped cactus with vicious spines, which rejoiced in the name of ‘mother-in-laws cushion.’

There is also another tour to El Tatio which visits the Altiplano towns of Caspana and Chui Chui before dropping people off at the airport at Calama and picking up passengers off the plane. This makes for a very long day.

FULL DAY TOUR OF SALAR DE ATACAMA AND THE ALTIPLANIC LAGOONS We did this as a group tour in 2008 but asked to do it as a private tour in 2010.

The Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile. The surface of the salt is very rough and much of it is brown from blown sand. In places the salt crust has broken and there are small lagoons with flamingoes and other wading birds. There is a small information centre and a nature trail around part of the salt flats.

The road goes through Soccaire with its terraced fields and begins to climb up past disused fields to the altiplano with the lakes of Miscanti and Minique dwarfed by volcanoes of the same name. These are are bare of vegetation and the rocks are muted shades of yellows, beige, pale pink with splashes of red.

The only vegetation around the lakes is puna grass. This is pale yellow green with golden tips to the leaves. The pictures showing golden hillsides are accurate – they really do look golden.

The lakes are deep blue surrounded by white deposits of borax. Vicunas can be seen grazing along the sides of the lakes. There is a short nature trail which drops down along the side of Laguna Miscanti. There are 4300m (14,100ft) and we found it impossible to walk and talk on the slight rises.

Most group tours head back to Soccaire for lunch but we asked for a picnic lunch up at the lakes.

On the way back we visited Quebra de Jerez on the outskirts of Toconao. Water collects in the bottom of a deep canyon, irrigating fields and orchards in the canyon and providing water to the village. A made path drops steeply into the canyon and follows the stream up the canyon. There are gates through stone walls into the gardens with crops and fruit trees.

This is a popular walk for the locals and the stream is dammed making a small pool which local children swim in. Beyond there are steps to a BBQ area with tables and chairs. It was lovely and cool in the shade of the canyon but very hot once out of the trees.

FULL DAY VISIT ROUND THE VILLAGES TO THE NORTH OF SAN PEDRO We did this as a private tour as this meant we could visit some villages not on the usual itinerary.

We started with Caspana, an old settlement on top of a hill above a canyon. Houses made from stone and mud with adobe roofs covered with grass, were built in rows up the sides of the canyon. There is no tapped water into the houses. All water is brought in by tanker and stored in huge tanks for villagers to collect. Tracks between the houses are narrow and donkeys are used for transport. Large pine trees are planted for shade.

There are long, narrow terraced fields up the sides of the valley with carefully built stone irrigation channels between the terraces. All work is done by hand as the fields are too small for machines. ‘Tunas’ cactus is grown along the field boundaries. The fruit is edible and sold at the local market.

Next was Ayquina. This is a huge settlement and from the road it looks as if it ought to be a town specially built to house workers from the big copper mines around Calama. The total resident population is about 30. The houses are shut up and only used for a few days each year for the major festival of the Celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe on 7 & 8th September. As many as 40,000 people descend on Ayquina. The main celebrations are held around the church, which has a huge courtyard. There are religious dances and the Procession of the Virgin plus much celebration and drinking. Each family has its own house where they stay. Many houses are tiny without windows and just a door. There is a big communal bath house and toilets.

At the far end of the village is a deep canyon of the Río Salado. This is lined by dark green Inca terraces irrigated from the river. Many are no longer worked. Corn, wheat, alfalfa, onions and carrots are the main crops with llamas, sheep and goats.

Our next stop was Toconce reached by driving across the plateau, with little vegetation and no agriculture, followed by a steep drop down hair pin bends to an oasis in the bottom of the canyon. There are a few stone houses surrounded by many now disused stone terraces on the edge of the village. There was a large water tank in the centre of the village and a football pitch (bare earth with no sign of any grass) next to the police station.

We then headed to Lasana, a small village straggling along the River Loa where corn and sunflowers are grown. We had lunch in a local restaurant before visiting Pukara de Lasana. This was a 12th century pre-Columbian fortress built on the side of the river with terraces running up the hillside and along the valley bottom. The huge stone walls surrounded a village of houses and narrow streets. The stone buildings were held together with mud and still stand six feet high in places.

Our final stop was Chui Chui, a large settlement with small shops along the main street. There was a large square with the school on one side and the church on another. The church is surrounded by a thick adobe wall painted white. It has two large bell towers and a beautiful cactus wood door with cross ties of llama hide holding it in place. The church is long and narrow with pews along the sides of the walls. We visited just after Easter and many of the statues were still covered. In a side aisle near the altar is a glass hearse with a model of the crucified Jesus in it. This is paraded around the streets at Easter. The arms are articulated so the statue can be removed and hung on the cross.

Our pictures can be seen below:
Photos 1
Photos 2

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