After 5 long years, my parents were coming to visit me in Chile and I was racking my mind thing about the best place to take them. We had two weeks and I wanted it to be the perfect trip. I ended up choosing 5 days in San Pedro (north), 4 in the Puerto Varas area (south), with a few days at my house in Santiago to start and end it all, for a total “real Chile experience.”
Our plane got into Calama at 7:30, so I had planned on us getting into San Pedro relatively early, bumming around town, having dinner and having a generally relaxing evening. Well, upon arrival I realized 2 things, San Pedro is a really remote place on another rhythym and two, that this place thrives on tourism. The transport to get from the airport to San Pedro is one hour and costs $19! We bought round trip so we got both for around $32USD (each person). Anyways, we ended up waiting quite awhile for them to round up enough people for the transport, traveled to San Pedro, and finally turned on an isolated pitch black road to arrive at our Hostel “El Amigo Lucho” (the friend Lucho). We opened the gate and were greeted by Lucho, the owner himself. In a stroke of good timing, he was just heading out and offered to drop us off at the end of the road, so we dropped our bags and hopped in his truck, off to get a bite to eat in town (it was just an 8 minute walk, but hey, it was still appreciated).
By the time we were having dinner, it was 11:00pm and the kitchen was going to close, so we ordered a quinoa salad, a delicious sweet/salty stone oven-baked pizza topped with blue cheese and quince fruit (a typical fruit here in Chile) and obviously some beers.
Even though it was way dark, just walking the downtown streets of this 5,000 person town gave a good, positive vibe for the days to come. I guess, however, it would have been impossible to be any other way, as, afterall, there I was, cheers-ing my beer with my mamá and my papá.
San Pedro de Atacama – the little town itself
We woke up and had some fruit and crakers with our coffee at our hostel for breakfast. After a leisurely morning, we walked into town to check it out in the daylight and, of course, start picking up some souveniers :) San Pedro is dusty, adobe constructed little town that lives off tourism and the main streets are lined with tour agencies, restaurants, pubs and artesean craft stores. The art/culture in this area is very, very different from that of other parts of Chile, since this area was actually originally part of Bolivia until the late 1870s. The indigenous tribe of this region, the Atacameños, are more similiar with the Aymara and Quechua and other tribes in Bolivia and Peru than they are with the Mapuche, for example, which is the other main indiginous tribe Chile (south). That said, the colors, the fabrics, the materials, the art, the culture in general is very unique to this Andean part of South America.
San Pedro is a little dot in the middle of the Atacama Desert, surrounded by many 20,000ft+ colorful, mineral rich mountains, lines of towering volcanoes, salt flats, geysers, hot springs, and all types of rough, raw nature. The Atacama Desert is the driest, and the oldest, desert in the whole world. Average rainfall is just 15mm (0.6in) per year… with some places receiving just 1-3mm (.04-.12in). And, history says that some parts of the desert have never received rain. That’s crazy! This aridness is because the desert is precisely situated between two massive mountain ranges – the Andes and the Coastal Range.
A little bit like Mars
Part of the reason I wanted to bring my parents here, and why it’s a great place to visit, is because no matter what, you have the WOW factor. There is no place like the geography that you see in San Pedro de Atacama. In fact, it’s so unique, that a certain part of the Atacama desert has been scientifically linked to similiarity with Mars. Yes, Mars, the planet. If you’ve watched movies that have scenes of Mars/space, there’s a good chance those were filmed in the Atacama desert.
There’s a region of the Atacama Desert that has had it’s soil compared with the soil on Mars, and tests that have been done by the Viking Mars landers’ to detect life have been replicated on these soils. That said, this region may actually be unique on Earth in this regard, and is used for future mars missions. Pretty cool!!
NASA level star gazing
The altitude of San Pedro de Atacama (2408m/7900ft above sea level) and its extreme aridness (which means there’s basically no clouds), mixed with the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere (which means that there is very low light/radio interference), makes it one of the best places in the world for star gazing and astronomical observations. In fact, it is home to to major European observatories and also the most advanced telescope in the world, known in Chile as ALMA – the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. This telescope was builty by Europe, USA, Canada, Chile and Japan. This mega telescope sees what what telescopes have never before been able to see.
ALMA operates as a little site in the middle of the Atacama desert and visitors can take free tours. Unfortunately, this was something we did not get to do, and I definitely need to go back and experience. Check out the link to ALMA and see what kind of observations are happening there. It’s literally… out of this world! (bad pun, I know, but I couldn’t help it, haha).
There’s so much to do in San Pedro that really, you’re only problem, will be deciding to cram as much as possible into however many days you have. Check out my other article on my experience with different tours. Check out my other article on my experience with different toursCheck out my other article on my experience with different tours :)