San Pedro the Atacama is a city in northern Chile, located 106 km southeast of Calama by the frontiers of Bolivia and Argentina. Once a quiet desert town, now a major hub for tourists seeking to visit the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth. Arriving to the city, it doesn’t take too long to notice it is packed with all sorts of tour companies. Each to their own, but I’d rent a camper van instead.
And so we did. Although, I hate to admit that the van was from Wicked Campers, an Australian camper van rental company. I have been avoiding them in the past mostly because of their tasteless and unfunny marketing. Slogans like “Fuck Me In A Wicked Van”, “Virginity Is Curable” and “Life Sucks If Your Girlfriend Doesn’t” might attract some travel folk. Maybe it’s just Aussie humor. Instead, we got attracted to the freedom on traversing Atacama at our own pace.
We decided to rent the van for three days and two nights. The car was a two-seater “Daft Punk” Chevrolet N300. It came with a gas cooker, pots and pans for cooking and multiple blankets and pillows, basically everything you need for such a short time. The cars come with terrible batteries: I managed to kill the battery by leaving the lights on for five minutes!
Journey to the Desert
Chile is situated on the “Ring of Fire”, a basin in the Pacific Ocean where most earthquakes and volcanic eruptions take place. Talking about volcanoes, Chile has a fair share of them. There are about 500 volcanoes in Chile, with 123 active ones. That’s 10% of all the volcanoes in the world. Just by sipping a coffee by the main square in San Pedro de Atacama, you can spot at least three on the backdrop.
But, instead of sipping on fresh coffee, let’s pack up our Nesquik instant coffee and head towards Salar de Atacama (the largest salt flat in Chile) and our first stop on the roadtrip, Laguna Cejar.
2300 meters above sea level
Laguna Cejar is a sink hole in the middle of the salt flat, around 18 km south from San Pedro de Atacama. Admission to the lagoon was 15.000 Chilean pesos (around 23$).
The special thing about the place is that you float on the water just like in the Dead Sea. For me, it was truly the “Dead Sea Simulator 2016”. Floating in the lagoon, you get amazing views to the surrounding volcanoes.
The trick here is to go before the tour groups show up. Before 4 p.m. we had the lagoon for ourselves.
Stopping in Laguna Cejar is a great way to start the trip, but also a great stop to do when you are coming back from south.
2300 meters above sea level
65 km from San Pedro de Atacama lies Laguna Chaxa, a flamingo breeding site, also located in Salar de Atacama.
Here, you can spot all the three flamingo species in the area (James, Chilean and Andean). I didn’t have much luck with my Sony a6000 16-50 mm kit-lens, so if you can, bring your zoom lens with you!
Sunset is the best time to go when the tour groups are calling it for the day and the light is perfect for some breathtaking pictures.
Climbing to 4000 meters
2300 – 4200 meters above sea level
We left Laguna Chaxa after the sunset. The next step was to find a place to stay for the night. The perfect spot was in the salt flats, halfway between Toconao and Socaire, two small communities south of San Pedro de Atacama. It is a small road inside the salt flats and the traffic after sunset was non-existent, guaranteeing a quiet night. Mind you, it is completely OK to stay overnight in the salt flats. Just, of course, don’t litter and leave the place in the condition it was before.
After a well-slept night it was time to start the climb to 4000 meters, towards the village of Socaire and Piedras Rojas, the Red Rocks.
4200 meters above sea level
Piedras Rojas is an altiplanic lagoon 150 km from San Pedro de Atacama and the southernmost point we visited. The combination of red rocks, white shore, blue skies and volcanoes makes the landscape incredible.
It gets extremely windy down south and I would suggest to put on as many layers of clothing as possible.
Geyser del Tatio
4300 meters above sea level
After driving up north from Piedras Rojas and refueling the car in San Pedro de Atacama, we spent the night on the road leading to our final stop. Geiser del Tatio, situated 80 km from San Pedro de Atacama, is the third biggest geyser field in the world with 80 active geysers and the most visited attraction in San Pedro de Atacama.
Since the geysers are located in over 4300 meters above sea level, it is advisable to drink coca tea or chew on the leaves before starting the climb. It is better to buy coca teabags from a local store than making your own mix using the leaves. You might just make the tea too strong, resulting to stomach aches and diarrhea.
We woke up to the sound of tour groups whizzing towards the geysers. It is wise to leave to El Tatio early to see the columns of steam from the geysers condensing in the bitter morning air. We left at six o’clock and arrived at the same time with the last tour groups at around eight o’clock.
For me, the geyser field was underwhelming after visiting similar sites already in New Zealand and Iceland. Nonetheless, the surroundings by the geysers are spectacular. Just the two-hour steep climb to 4300 meters is worth it. After seeing the geysers, there is also an option to visit the natural hot spring by the geyser field.
2300 meters above sea level
Since we had still a couple of hours of car rental left, we headed to Valle de la Luna, The Moon Valley. It is another must do in San Pedro de Atacama.
Nearest attraction to the city, Moon Valley is a mixture between Tatoinee from Star Wars and a landscape from Mars. There are sand dunes, caves to explore and kilometers of landscape formed by wind erosion.
The place is completely packed during the time of sunset, when people flock to the viewpoint. The best time to go is before 4 p.m, since that’s the time when the tours start.
The Night Sky
This one is pretty simple. Go outside the city on a clear night and voilà: you got yourself a free stargazing tour!
Atacama is one of the best places in the world for stargazing because of it’s high altitude, few clouds and lack of light pollution. Also, situated near San Pedro de Atacama lays Alma (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), a global collaboration study researching the matter between the stars. They also organize tours on weekends. We would have joined one if there would have been more time. Check their website for more info.
When I think of deserts, I imagine large dunes with the same uniform landscape stretching for kilometers. Atacama Desert is not like that. You got squirting geysers in the north, Atacama salt flats with grazing flamingos and sinkholes to swim. You got the windy Piedras Rojas in the south and the landscape of Mars in the Moon Valley.
A major highlight for sure was the ability to see the desert with our own car, with a slow pace, sometimes stopping to make some coffee, and sleep underneath the stars.