San Pedro de Atacama – a little oasis in the driest desert in the world

My first real adventure in South America was to the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile. It started with a 24 hour bus journey which was actually better than I thought it would be. Super comfy, big reclining seats and snacks on board. I think I was still actually exhausted from my crazy last month in SA and then my first week in South America, so I slept most of the way. I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama on Good Friday and tried to find a hostel with camping facilities as I had not booked ahead. First time I have not had accommodation booked somewhere in my life, Guillaume you should be proud :-). I was wandering down the main street and obviously looked a little lost because some guy asked if I needed a hostel and he took me to one with camping just a few streets away. Very, very very basic but I can´t ask for much for less than R50 a night and I was tired and hot and laidened down with too much stuff to be fussy. I call San Pedro a town, but it is really tiny with one main street (all dirt roads), a plaza and the obligatory Catholic church and a couple of small side streets. It has quite a cool atmosphere despite being very touristy and full of tour companies mainly.

For my first full day I decided to take it easy and hire a mountain bike and just ride out to some Inca ruins about two kilometers outside town. But I met a French guy at the hostel who decided to join me and we had an epic day of mountain biking. Picture this – a French guy who could speak no english and me who could speak no French, so our only way of communicating was in very broken Spanish. This made for an interesting day, but we managed to ¨chat¨ quite well and it was great to practice my Spanish with someone who didn´t talk so bloody fast. We started off at the Inca ruins and climbed this quite steep hill which had a beautiful view over the oasis below and onto the salt flats of the desert. But climbing a hill at nearly midday in the blazing desert heat was probably not such a good idea. I felt exhausted after just that, but the day had alot more in store. From there we rode on for another few kilometers to a gorge called Devils Gorge which involved cycling through these amazingly beautiful and very narrow gorges. But on the way there I got a puncture. Thank goodness for my French companion who saved the day and changed my tyre. I realised that if I had been on my own, it would have been fun and games trying to do this as I had no clue what to do. Unfortunately the tyre was a bit damaged and bulging, but we carried on anyway. The second puncture came in the gorge and so after that we had no more tubes left. We rode the 5 or so kms back to town and I swopped bicyles. By this point it was nearly 4pm and scorching hot, but we still decided to ride out to the Valle de la Luna which in total was a 30km round trip. I was totally exhausted already, but my pride (which some of you know very well) would not let me say so and we did the trip. It was unbelievable and beautiful and amazing and all the adjectives you can think of. For much of the ride it felt like we were the only people on earth and just like in mountains I think the desert makes us realise as humans just how tiny we are. The going was tough at some points, but the scenery was worth it. At times with a long open road infront of me I thought of the guy who cycled around the circumference of Africa and I had a new found respect for him. My piddly 30kms obviously doesn´t compare, but the open road can seem very daunting, no matter what distance you are doing. On the way back, the sun had gone down and as is the norm in the desert, it suddenly got freezing cold. We arrived back in the dark and I was totally finished. Camping that night (on a super thin mattress) was not fun as my butt and pretty much every muscle from my ankles upwards were aching. But it was the most fantastic day and reaffirmed again that whilst travelling alone can sometimes be lonely, you meet fantastic people along the way and have the most awesome adventures, even considering language barriers…

San Pedro is one of those sleepy towns that you lose track of time in and the outside world does not seem to matter. I decided to chill on Easter Sunday, mainly due to the fact that my butt was not used to being on a mountain bike for a full day and every muscle ached. Hardly slept that night as every time I turned or moved something in my body complained. So lazed around the campsite chatting to other people there. Met a really cool German couple and the French guy was still there. Great fun chatting to them in Spanish and I realised I can understand more than I thought I could, just not when it is spoken by Chileans. Some locals here have told me that there are actually two languages – Chilean and Spanish. Other Latin American people can´t even understand Chileans, so I don´t feel quite so inadequate anymore.

I also met an American guy from Washington State called Cody. He was really cool and we did a couple of tours together and also mountain biked to Devils Canyon as he hadn´t seen it. Thankfully my body had recovered by that stage so I could get back on a bike, but I had a cold most of the time I was there and breathing was a little difficult on the bike with such a blocked nose etc. Tours I did included one to the salt flats in the desert and some lagunas. One of them was super salty and you could float in it and admire the most amazingly beautiful volcano in the distance. It wasn´t as salty as the Dead Sea thank goodness because I had a few recovering blisters and cuts on my feet and I was dreading the salt, but it didn´t sting that badly. We watched the sunset over the white salt flats and it was lovely to see the changing colours of the mountains.

The second tour was to the El Tatio Geysers which are the highest geyser field in the world. The tour leaves at the ungodly hour of 4am. The night before Cody and I had a few drinks with our tour guide and we only got to sleep at 1am. I found out right at the end of the night that you are not supposed to drink alcohol the night before as the altitude is quite high (4300m). I only had 2 beers though, so was fine with the altitude, just not the lack of sleep. Being so high it is unbelievably cold when you arrive as it is just before sunrise. The temp was minus 5 degrees and it was icy. But the geysers were really cool and amazing to see so many huge plumes of steam rising from the earth and also hear the bubbling water below you. There was an option to swim in some thermal baths, but there was no way I was getting into beautiful warm water and then having to get out into -5 degree air. Plus I was still sick so thought it best to stay wrapped up in all my layers. The trip back down to San Pedro was amazing as you saw all the different landscapes that make up such a high desert.

On one of my last nights there Cody and I joined a Chilean family for an Asado (braai) in our campsite. It was fun again to practice my very broken Spanish, but they understood me and were really amazed at how much I knew after only two and a half weeks on the continent (sorry, blowing my own trumpet here a bit, as the Spanish has been really daunting and frustrating and I really didn´t think I was actually making any progress). It was great how much they encouraged me and helped me along. As soon as anyone hears I am from South Africa, the first thing they usually say is ¨Ah, Mundial¨, which is world cup in Spanish. On two occassions in San Pedro people have told me about a couple of programmes on local TV that are focusing on South Africa and they were saying how it is telling people about the different tribes and cultures and just general info on SA. It was great to hear that because many people said that before those programmes they knew nothing about South Africa. Great to see that the reach of a sporting event that be so much further than just the sport.

While this whole year still seems very daunting at times and I have doubts often about what I am doing, many experiences this week in the desert made me realise that I am totally on the right path. People you meet travelling in this way have such a different perspective on life and have so many amazing stories to tell and experiences to share. One afternoon in the campsite the only 4 of us there (Cody, myself and two other Americans) were sitting chatting and discovered that we were all environmentalists. That lead to a very interesting conversation – contemplating how to deal with the complex issues the world faces etc etc. Who would have thought such similar people would all pitch up at a campsite in the middle of a desert in South America at the same time. I love the surprises that backpacking can bring.

My 24 hour bus ride back to Santiago was not fun as my cold was only getting worse. I don´t think I helped it along by doing exercise in the heat of the day and then camping in the freezing cold at night, but oh well. Before I left I found a pharmacy and asked for something to take. Have no clue what the guy gave me, but it looked fine and I am still here to tell this tale.

I am now back in Santiago and trying to get rid of a thick layer of desert dust on everything. Also preparing for my next adventure which is happening sooner then I thought and will involve heading far south to Patagonia. Certainly no dust there, only icy wind and possibly lost of rain. I am going to meet up with a Belgian guy who has bought a really old Citroen and is driving around Argentina. We are meeting up in the world´s most southern city and then travelling up the Argentinian side of the Andes. Will keep you all posted…

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2 Responses to San Pedro de Atacama – a little oasis in the driest desert in the world

  1. Mariel says:

    Great tips! Really useful info to visit the beautiful chilean north. You can find more about San Pedro de Atacama tours and also attractions in Torres del Paine for your next adventure in Patagonia. Good Luck!

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