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19 Dec


The Driest Desert in the World

December 19, 2013 | By |

The Atacama Desert is the driest in the world, making for spectacular moon-scapes, Mars-scapes, and causing marvel at every patch of green. The town itself is far over-touristed, but the natural beauty of the surrounding area is worthwhile!

We spent 3 ½ days there after finishing our tour of the Salar de Uyuni (to note, the tours from Uyuni get you to San Pedro at midday) at the urging of travelers we met who loved the region and suggested we stay a while.  It was lovely and a gorgeous part of the world to see and explore, but if we had it to plan again, we probably would stay for a day less since some of the sights were repetitive with the landscapes on the salar tour and the area was too touristed for us.  Some more details from our time there….

Bienvenidos a Chile!

The border crossing from Bolivia into Chile was uneventful – a long and steep downhill drive from approximately 4,300m to 2,300m in the town of San Pedro de Atacama (or SPA). The entry into Chile was easy, and we were spared Bolivia’s exit fee (which should have been approx. $2 USD) and Chile’s entrance fee (which, for Americans, is $160 USD if you enter the country by the air but free if by land).

We are still dealing with culture shock and sticker shock. Usually border crossings feel like imaginary lines, but here, it truly is a shocking entry into a seeming first world culture. People told us to expect that the prices would triple the second we crossed from Bolivia into Chile, and it’s about right. San Pedro is a serious tourist town (it seems more tourists than residents are here), which inflates the prices even more, but Chile is going on a first world country and the prices reflect it. The other major border culture shock is the language – the clear, slow Andean Spanish that I learned and love seems like a completely different language from this Chileno Spanish.

Hostel Sonchek

We quickly found the hostel where we had booked a room, Hostel Sonchek. At $40 USD per night for a matrimonial room with a shared bathroom, it’s apparently a very reasonable price for this overpriced town. The room was totally nice and sufficient, but not fantastic by any means. The bathrooms are quite lovely and clean, particularly for a hostel shared bathroom. Most exciting, the hostel has a very nice kitchen for guests to use, and a lovely garden where you can sit, eat, and read. The wifi only works in the garden and kitchen areas (not the room), which was a slight annoyance but not terrible. Also, there are a few cats who live in the hostel and enjoy coming over for head scratches.

San Pedro and the Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama is situated in a little strip of greenery (from a small “river”) in the middle of the driest desert in the world (or, thanks to wikipedia’s correction, the “driest hot desert in the world”), and it’s a totally bizarro place.

There are more tourists than locals, and the locals who run tourism-oriented companies don’t seem to be functional professionals. The town is a tourist-trap, but the surrounding area is gorgeous. Unfortunately, the best way to see the surrounding area is through a guided tour. We went into a few places asking about hikes (almost all tours are by car) and the people at most agencies whose signage said they do treks is were totally useless. Literally, we had conversations that went like:  “I’d like to hear about the options for volcano hikes.” “It depends on which volcano you want to hike.” “How difficult are the different options?” “It depends on which volcano you want to hike.” “Can you tell me about the different volcanoes or show me photos?” <blank stare> <face palm> (Ultimately, we decided that the cost of volcano hikes, which seemed to bottom out around $110 USD per person for a half day hike, was unreasonable.)

We did do a few tours and checked out some local attractions. Our biggest lesson is that the tour companies combine trips – so each tour will have people who signed up through 3 or 4 different agencies at 3 or 4 different prices. So, since you get the same service regardless of price, just go with the absolute cheapest you can find.  (Alternatively, rent a car and check out the attractions on your own.  It’s probably not much more than the cost of the tours and you can avoid the tourists.  We were jealous of a family at our hostel that had rented a car.)

Food is stupid expensive as well. We tried to save money and eat healthier by cooking for ourselves. There don’t seem to be any supermarkets but there are a variety of little minimarkets around town. One day, we found a fruit and veggie market (reasonably priced!) which is open Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, down the street that is one over from Caracoles.

One night while cooking dinner and refilling our water bottles (from the tap, to be purified with the Steripen), the lady from the hostel reception informed us that the water here may still not be good to drink. We looked it up, and lo and behold she was right – the water in San Pedro is already bacteria free… there is far too much arsenic and other nastiness in the water for any bacteria to survive. (We bought bottled water the rest of our time there.)

In our wanderings around town, we stumbled across a few neat things, including an awesome marching band street parade, a flock of sheep (and very dedicated shepherd dogs) crossing through town, and some fabulous (albeit US-priced) ice cream shops (with local flavors like chañar and rica-rica (which literally means “tasty tasty”).  It’s strange to see the Christmas preparations here:  the nights are chilly but the days are sweltering dry heat, yet the hotel has a little Christmas bush, the town plaza has a giant mock Christmas tree, and there are Christmas carols being pumped out of speakers in the town center day in and day out.

Also, we had heard rumors that there are parties in the desert out here, and we were eager to see what a Chilean desert rave felt like. (We do have a penchant for desert raves…) One night, we went for dinner at a bar/restaurant where they have ½ liter cherimoya coladas for $6 USD and music videos on a big screen (including one by the guy who started Zumba), and got our hands on a little white photocopied flier for a “Party in Desert.” (Apparently the bar scene got shut down in San Pedro so it went underground with illegal desert parties.) After much deliberation on awesomeness vs. safety (plus a youtube video indicating lack-of-awesomeness), we decided to walk to where the meet-up spot was for the bus to scope it out. What we saw were a ton of people in an otherwise deserted street and heard some guy shouting for everyone to chill out (calmate! calmate!) at which point we decided that we wanted zero to do with this situation and went to the hostel to go to sleep. Alas, such high hopes!

To note, when we left San Pedro we got a flight from the nearest airport in Calama to Santiago. The ride to the airport is approx. $24 USD per person (craziness). We got to the airport a full 1 ¾ hours before our flight and got our tickets quickly enough, but the line for security literally went out of the airport building and to the passenger drop-off area. People were still waiting to go through security whose flights should have departed 2 hours prior. It turns out that there is a larger airport in construction (thank goodness), and they were letting people through security flight-by-flight, and then from there you effectively waited 5 minutes before walking onto your plane. But instead of telling anyone that you had to wait to go through security instead of waiting after security, it was a massive mess of confusion. Ultimately, our flight only took off an hour late, which is not bad considering that we were not allowed through security until 45 minutes after the flight was supposed to take off.

Valle de la Luna Tour

We went on a tour of Valle de la Luna, Valle de Muerte, a nifty salt cave, and the “tres Marias” (three Mary’s). We booked our tour with an agency for ch$7,000/person (approx. $14 USD), which was the cheapest we found and the group was combined with other agencies that charged more. Note that for this tour, it is useful to bring a light jacket, comfortable shoes for walking, and a headlamp (they do not tell you this when you book, anywhere).

The guide was a bit odd, and there were a million tourists everywhere, but the landscapes were gorgeous! We started the tour with a view from a mirador over the moon valley, which truly looks like a moonscape, or maybe a Mars-scape of colors, rock formations, staggering designs from Pachamama stretching as far as the eye can see. We met a few people who literally came into Chile just to see the Valle de la Luna – it’s pretty awesome.

We went through Valle de Muerte (the Valley of Death), where we walked for about an hour and experienced the striations of the rocks, interesting minerals, including a fibrous mineral the guide said was calcium (although based on our salar experience, we were wondering if it was borax), expanses of dust, sand, rock, hills, crevices, etc. We saw a ton of people on sandboarding trips, and while it looked like the equipment and sand conditions were better here, I think we got our fill when we tried sandboarding in Nicaragua.

From there, we went to a cavern/canon situation, where water and fierce rainstorms thousands of years ago formed salt into crazy sharp ribbons and textures, and through a little cave, where the salt crystals formed a smooth sheen over everything. The landscape was just beautiful, if not for the million tourists.

We made quick stops to see the rock “amphitheatre” which was pretty amazing in terms of the sheer magnitude of the rock striations. Then we stopped by the Tres Marias, where some priest looked at a few rocks and saw three Mary’s (kneeling, holding up a baby, and praying) – some people really do believe!!!

Finally, we went to a place where we climbed up a fairly large sandy hill to this crazy rock crest and watched the sunset. Despite the billion tourists, it was a gorgeous landscape. And while there were few clouds to make for an awesome sunset, there were spectacular views in all directions, including looking at the hill we came down to enter Chile. The wind and sand blowing were brutal, but they were also a perfect reminder of the power of Pachamama.

Bike Trip to Quebrada del Diablo

Annoyed with the tourist culture, the next day we decided to rent bikes to get away from it a bit. We rented bikes next door to our hostel (guests get a discount) and rode for about 4 1/2 hours in total. We started along the (dirt) road toward Pukara Quitor, a Pre-Colombian ruin where there was a last hold out against the Spaniards. Instead of stopping there, we continued onward up the road and decided to take a turn into the Quebrada del Diablo, or Devil’s Gorge.

The Quebrada del Diablo was a spectacular, life-less desert canyon with tons of interesting ribbing and veining in the rocks, overhangs, etc. It was pretty chill as far as mountain biking goes (when we reached the harder areas after 1 ½ hours up and had no sign of an outlet, we decided to turn back… in retrospect, a good idea).

After the gorge, we continued up the road to a little church that’s adorably positioned in the middle of nowhere. For some reason, bike shops mention the little church as a neat destination (meh) but not the Quebrada del Diablo (gorgeous).

It was pretty fascinating that here, in the middle of the driest hot desert in the world, is one little “river” – looking on Google Earth, you can see where there is a ribbon of greenery cutting through the desert, and it was interesting to ride along that little patch.

The way back was mildly painful. After a few hours of mountain biking, the bumpy dirt road was less than pleasant, but we were so thrilled to see the natural beauty without hordes of tourists (we saw a handful of tourists, and only one other person inside the gorge), and we were fine to have our butts and hands be slightly sore the next day.

Laguna Cejar

Once again, we chose a tour based on the cheapest option we found (ch$10,000/person, or about $20 USD) and once again, we were pooled with people from other agencies who paid different prices. Interestingly, the tour was supposed to involve only one entrance fee but it actually involved two. The guide said that this was the very first day the second fee was implemented, proving that, while Chile may seem somewhat first world, it still has the planning and communication issues that are prevalent throughout South America.

The tour was quite lovely – it essentially is a “chill out and drink” tour. We went out to the Laguna Cejar first, which is a 4-part lake with a 25-35% salinity, meaning that you float in it the same way you do in the Dead Sea. The setting is super gorgeous, the water is comfortable, and the floating is great. Our guide, Raul (who was awesome) said that there are two shelves of depth – 24m deep and 1km deep – which is total craziness since it’s impossible to sink.

After the Laguna Cejar, we went to the Ojos de la Salar (Salt Flat Eyes), two circular pools that are naturally formed because of some crazy geologic something that is unique to this salty desert. The walls are super steep so they are like cylindrical pools with a salinity of around 6%, or slightly less than the Pacific Ocean according to our guide.

The third stop was Lago Tebenquiche, which was pretty amazing. It’s a mini salt flat that ranges from dry to lake, and currently has the 2 cm or so of water over the salt crust to make it into a giant mirror. Even though we had just been through the Salar de Uyuni, it was still pretty epic. The ground at the edges was salt-slush, and then the rest of the “lake” the salt with the slight layer of water. Our guide talked about a rock he called evaporate or something like that – which is a regular (slightly porous) rock, from which the salt travels up to the surface to make a solid white coating in the heat. Tebenquiche was beautiful, and I’m glad we had an opportunity for a “farewell” to the salar.

After that, we went back to Laguna Cejar for sunset. It was really nice to be there without any other tourist groups. Throughout this tour, to be fair, there were other tourists around but it didn’t seem nearly as swarmed as on our Valle de la Luna tour. Watching sunset, we all had pisco sours, effectively the Chilean national drink (as well as the Peruvian national drink; the two countries argue for rights of the pisco sour, although I liked the one we had here better than in Peru). The sunset on the salty lake, the clouds, and the Andes was beautiful.


  1. Amy gerbus

    what great adventures! so glad you are taking this tme to explore the world. the landscape is breathtaking.