My parents were visiting me in Chile and I knew that taking them to San Pedro de Atacama would be a total hit (check out my other article on why). I started talking to people about what to do, how long to be there, you know, trying to get good tips. When I told them that I was planning on 5 days there, many told me “whoa, that’s too long, a few days and you’re good.” Well, let me tell you, those people were wrong. We had 4.5 days in San Pedro de Atacama, which was just right due to our agenda, considering my parents were only in Chile for 2 weeks and I had jam packed our itinerary with exploration of both the North and the South of Chile… but easily, I tell you, easily, you could stay weeks on end and have enough things to do.
So, I’ll share a bit of my experience and insights, because we had a blast and I’ve already made notes for when I go back.
For starters, tours or no tours?
We decided to take tours for the duration of our stay in Santiago. I think that if people speak Spanish, are in a small group, and good about auto-educating, renting a car is also a good option. But, for us, the tours were perfect. The key here is booking various tours through the same agency and getting a package price. Many had deals of teh top 4 tours for around $100USD, which is waaaay waaaay better than booking individually. But, we booked all our tours through our hostel, which got us a fantastic price of 4 tours for $200USD total, for all 3 of us.
Day 1 – The Hidden Lakes / Lagunas Escondidas
Our first tour was to the hidden lakes, located in the Salar de Atacama / the Atacama Salt Flat. This is an afternoon tour starting around 2:00pm, so we had all morning to be in town, shop and bum around beforehand. The Atacama Salt Flat is the 4th largest Salt Flat in the world. Salt flats can form when there is a highly arid climate and there is more evaporation than there is precipation. In the Atacama Salt Flat, for example, there could average 26ml / 1.5in a year of precipitation, but there is over 2000ml / 122in a year of evaporation. How that happens, I have no idea and don’t necesarrily understand it, but, that was what I learned.
The trip to the hidden lakes in this salt flat is unmissable. There are 4 truly outstanding lakes (Laguna Cejar, Ojos del Salar, Laguna Tebinquiche) with colors so intense, you’d think it’s a filter. Two of them are fully formed, so you can swim in them and experience what it’s like to float, and two of them are still forming, so you can’t touch/contaminate them. How they know what is forming/formed, I am not sure. The middle two lakes (the ones that are still forming) just took my breath away, and it was surreal the difference in their colors, considering they were right next to eachother. In the deeper one, it was very interesting to see the salt formation and texture under the water.
I, totally missing the boat on this one, forgot my swimsuit. My dad, however, was more prepared and dove right in the last lake. It was hilarious, because he truly just hit the water and I saw him trying to dive in, but he just couldn’t, instead flopping like a whale, trying to force himself under. Staying literally right on the top of the water, he waved to me and screamed “I feel like a human bobber!”
At the end of this tour, they take you to the Cordillera de la Sal / The Salt Mountain Range to watch the sunset, have some snacks, and watch the sunset with a pisco sour.
Day 2 – Tatio Geysers & Moon Valley / Geysers del Tatio & Valle de la Luna
To go to the geysers, you get picked up at your hostel around 4:00-4:30am and head an hour and a half up into the mountains, at about 4,000m/16,000ft. The desert, at this hour, is very, very cold. We went at the begging of summer and were facing temperatures around -12C / 10F. We arrived as the sun was starting to come up, stepping out of the bus and watching our breath immediately freeze in the air, mimicking the smoking geysers filling the landscape in front of us. The Tatio Geysers are the 3rd largest geyser field in the world, with over 80 active geysers on its floorbed.
Why do you need to go see the geysers so early, when its so DAMN cold?! Well, all around the Tatio Geysers are active volcanos, and under the earth, is hot, hot magma. So, what happens, is that the freezing temperatures of the morning contrast with the heat underground, causing the eruptions and the rising steam. Also, there are 2 types of geysers, the flat ones that are just cracks in the ground, and then the “cone” ones that are tall cone-shaped formations. And, there are geysers that steam constantly, and others that are periodic, pulsing or exploding every certain time period. Interesting! There are your geyser facts of the day.
After the sun’s up and you’ve taken a million pictures, they give you a nice little breakfast. We had an amazing guide, who coincidentally used to be a mountain guide on Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in this hemisphere, which I will be climbing in January. So, that was convenient, we exchanged information and I’ll be excited to get some important tips from him. After leaving the geysers, you head to an old village, which is now just used for tourism, but used to occupied by mining families. Here you can see the Machuca church, which was built around 1933. On the straw roofs of these houses you see colorful crosses, which is because in this region, there is a lot of sulfer, which at that time was thought to attract the devil. So, these colorful crosses were supposed to help scare him away.
This tour brings you back into San Pedro around 1:00pm, so we had a couple hours of much needed nap time before heading to our next tour, Valle de la Luna / Moon Valley around 3:30pm. On this tour, you start by going to see and walk through huge, magnificent salt caves. Waaaay back millions of years ago, this whole region was covered in ocean. As the Andes Mountain Range started rising, it “trapped” the ocean in this area, pinning it between the Coastal Mountain Range. Well, as the millions of years passed and the ocean disappeared, these salt caves formed from the rivers that formed at one point. Literally, these caves were all salt. The formation was stunning!! We could walk through many of them, sometimes having to be on our knees or ducking almost on our stomachs as we moved through. It was really crazy to think about these massive formations, the caves, the ocean that used to be….
After this, you head to see the “Three Marys” which I later learned that, before the Spanish conquest, were really originally the “Three Vigilants”. These are different rock formations that have been created due to pressure, when the whole area used to be covered in sand dunes. The pressure caused parts to break off, and then with erosion, wind, etc, you eventually have the three indpendent fomations that, if you use your imagination, are three “Marys” (Mother Mary) that “watched over” (ie” vigilants) the area.
Finally, you had to Moon Valley to climb up the sand dunes and through the mountains to watch the sunset over one of the most unique landscapes on Earth, which deserves its Mars-like comparisonsMars-like comparisons.
Day 3 – Bikeriding
We wanted one day with no tours, to rent bikes (6000CLP/$12USD for 6 hours) and experience on our own pace. This was a great idea, there is so much to see!! One of the options was going to “The Devils Throat” / “La garganta del diablo”, which takes maybe an hour to get to, then from what I understood, you can climb through caves for as long as your heart desires. I would like to see this at another time, because with my parents we decided to head to Pukará de Quitor, pre-colombian archeological ruins from over 700 years ago, that are about 30 minutes bike riding from town.
We arrived to the ruins and there are two parts you can hike up to go up and into the ruins, which the original Atacameño people built and used as they fought against the Spanish. And, typical Atacama Desert, there’s so much more than meets the eye, when we went to see the Main Square, which is famous for the face and arch carved into the mountain, you can go back in much further, exploring caves. Very cool!!
The ruins were also very cool, so you’d need to be a fast bike rider and ride bikes and explore all day to do them both, or consider multiple days.
It was nice to have a day more “leisure” without the rythym of the tours, to do things on our own schedule. After riding bikes, we returned to San Pedro and got ice cream and then sat in the main square, listening to people making music and dancing, and ordered a pitcher of local beer to chat and reflect on our beautiful days.
Day 4 – Red Rocks and the Altiplanic Lakes / Piedras Rojas y Las Lagunas Altiplanicas
So, this tour, to the red rocks and altiplanic lagoons, is a full day, can’t miss tour. This was hands down, so awesome. You start early in the day, getting picked up at 7:00am and getting back around 5:30/6:00pm. The altiplanic lakes are the Chaxa, Miscanti, and Miñiques Lagunas. It’s about an hour and a half in the bus, until you get to the first destination, with a route constantly looking at a line of 5 volcanoes, most prominently Volcano Licancabur, Aguas Calientes and Lascar.
We went first to the red rocks themselves, which was this surreal oasis of a turquoise lake, next to the red rocks, and colorful, mineral rich mountains. This was called the “Salar de Aguas Calientes” / “The Salt Flat of the Hot Waters.” The color combinations were just so contrasting, the scene so serene, with a perfect reflection of the mountain on the still waters. It was hard to believe it was real, I just sat on one of the rocks and breathed and took in the moment for a bit.
Here our tour agency provided a delicious breakfast of bread, avocado, homemade jams and hot coffee. There is something that makes breakfast so much more delicious when you’re in a place like this.
After leaving this magnificent lake, we headed towards two others – the Miñiques and Miscanti Lagunas which was right under the Miñiques and Miscanti Volcanos. Miñiques in spanish means “pinky” as in your pinky finger. That is because it is the 5th in a line of beautiful, 20,000ft volcanos. These lagunas were a very deep rich blue.
After this, around 2:00pm we headed to a small town called Socaire, which in the indigenous language means “protected from the winds.” And very protected it is, sitting in the “palm of the hand” of the 5 surrounding volcanos. Here, we stopped for a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, having a typical lunch of chicken, rice, salad and of course, bread with “pebre” (a delicious salsa).
With full bellies, we headed to the Laguna Chaxa and the Los Flamencos National Reserve, where groups of flamencos migrate to feast on the food rich water in the middle of the salt flat. We arrived at just the right time, that the reflection of the flamencos over the water was a special sight to take in.
Lastly, before heading back, we stopped in a small typical town called Toconao. Here we were able to see a very old construction of a church and it’s separate bell tower, and also cactai over 200 years old! These cactus grow just 1cm per year, and in this area, the were multiple over 2 meters!!
As we learned about this town and its religion, they mixed the Catholic and their original indigenious practices. For example, they would have a typical Catholic funeral, but then would afterwards conduct a ceremony burning a locally growing desert plant which was said to help the spirit pass from one world into the next. Also, they would literally take the saints from inside the church and run them around the village, trying in incorporate as many people as possible into the ceremony, which always ended in a gathering with music, alcohol, dance, etc. Also, there are various of these little towns not too far from eachother, which is because, back in the time when bartering was the way of the land, people would walk with their llamas, which were carrying all their goods. However, the species of llama here in this region is one that sleeps at night time, so it was said that they needed to have the towns built close enough to travel in one day, otherwise the poor people would be stuck in the middle of the cold desert, with their llama asleep!
So much to do, such little time. Trips still on my list.
There is so much to do in San Pedro de Atacama. With our 4 full, full days, we did as much as we possibly could, but so much remains on my list. For example:
- Rainbow Rocks / Valle de Arcoiris: beautiful multi-colored rocks about 1.5 hours from San Pedro, this is a half day trip
- Meteorite Museum: well, the name speaks for itself. This is right in town, I just didn’t find out about it till we were leaving.
- Visiting the ALMA observatory: San Pedro de Atacama is home to the most powerful telescope in the world and you can take free tours.
- Stargazing Tour: This is a night tour where they take you to observe stars, I believe also with telescopes and of course this is tourism… wine :)
- Hot Springs / Termas Baños de Puritama: from what I’ve heard, they are beautiful but more warm than hot.
- Salar de Tara y las Monjas de la Pecana: Tara salt flat with rock formations, the “Monks of the Pecan.” This is located on a crater of the Vilma Volcano, and has a more rich ecosystem. This is a full day tour.
- Valle de la Muerte / Death Valley: Visually, this is similiar to Moon Valley, and can be accessed on a bikeriding day, although it is in a different direction than the ruins I went to and also the Devils Throat “Garganta del Diablo.”
And there’s lots more, this is just my next time list. As you can see San Pedro de Atacama is an abundant, unique, magical place with endless exploration opportunities.
Can I go back yet?