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San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: A rugged oasis in the desert

sunny 21 °C
View South America 2014 on DeeandZarius's travel map.

Saturday 29th - Monday 31March 2014

It was another scenic bus journey. More climbing narrow winding roads carved out of the mountains. We travelled some of the road we would have had we rented a car and the scenery was beautiful. The colours! Incredible.

This next leg was going to be our first experience of Altitude. To put things into perspective, the highest mountain in Ireland is 1,038 metres and as we drove we watched the climb on Zarius' watch, hitting 4, 600m at the highest point. Only to dip straight over the mountain and descend again. But not for long. The border crossing is incredible. A small concrete building in the middle of nowhere. It was absolutely freezing. All the officials were bundled up in layers, their jaws never stopping with the coca leaves they were chewing to ward off altitude sickness. As we queued to get stamped out of Argentina at one counter and into Chile at the next we noticed our breathing was laboured. The first signs we felt. It's odd, feeling breathless from doing nothing.

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Steadily climbing
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Another border crossing in the middle of nowhere
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First class my foot
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And there it is in the distance
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San Pedro de Atacama
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Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama was like nothing we have experienced before. It appears from nowhere, in the desert, this small dusty town. Some of the streets are unpaved and the white houses all look a little unfinished and unkept. It's places like this, that are so different to what we know (or expect) that get us excited. We wandered the unmarked streets with a group of guys from the bus all trying to find our hostels. Ours, Aji Verde, turned out to be on the outskirts of this tiny town. The room was minute with low ceilings and weird angles and random steps and I can't tell you how many times Zarius banged his head off something or other (including the sink?!) and we both tripped on the killer step. We couldn't wait to get out of the place in the end! Another weird thing, while we're talking about the room, was the static electricity because of the dry air. I woke Zarius up one night because the sheets were actually sparking. Or so it seemed. Every time I moved, the room lit up with explosions of static. Mad. But the best thing about the intensely dry air was my hair. It just dried, frizz free, 100% straight and for the first time I could wear it down. Amazing!

The town itself is packed with travellers and lined with shops selling tours to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), and to visit Geysers, and of course the reason most of us were there, the 3 day salt flats tour in Bolivia. But despite the fact that this is such a touristy place we loved it. Firstly the food was amazing, expensive like everything else here, but so good. So we feasted. It was a welcome break from chicken, steak or fish with chips.

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Another town with an amazing backdrop...
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It was safe to eat the greens
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So I made the most of it. As soon as we left Chile there was to be no more salads...
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We booked our Valle de la Luna tour through our hostel, the first and last time we give the responsibility to someone else. They got the collection point wrong and even when we had been waiting 10 minutes and went back to ask they insisted it was correct. And after 30 minutes they insisted it was 'Chilean time' but I made them call the agency and of course we had missed the collection. It was our last day so our only chance and it's something I had wanted to do since the outset. Zarius was MAD. And ordinarily under such circumstances its best to steer him clear of the intended recipient of his anger but I really really wanted to do this tour so I stood back, not a tactic I use lightly, but on this occasion it had the desired affect and we were quickly bundled into the back of a paid for taxi zooming across the desert chasing the bus which had an hour head start on us. When we caught up they had stopped and were waiting for us at the entrance of the valley. Perfect timing and well worth fighting for. The second part of the tour is Death Valley, equally as impressive and we were dropped off to watch the sunset.

Where we finally caught up at the start of the canyon
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NASA used Moon Valley as a testing ground for the Mars rover because of the similarities in terrain
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We all stood silently listening to the sound of the rocks contracting after a day in the desert sun
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Moving on to Death Valley
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Warming up after watching the sun set in the desert
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Another amazingly clear sky
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In between eating and exploring we had our salt flats tour to book. We had read endless, I mean endless horror stories about this 3 day, two night tour. Every review you read slates some element of it. Be it drunk drivers, food poisoning, or sub par living conditions. It's enough to make you not want to go through with it. But then in the same breath, all these people claim it's life changing, the most beautiful and otherworldly scenery you will ever see. It would seem that despite the drunkeness, bad food and bad board, everyone had a ball. From the get go, this was the 3 days of the 3 months that I was most looking forward to. The largest salt flats in the world. It was hard to comprehend or even imagine what that would be like.

We reviewed agencies offering this tour to within an inch of their life and quickly established that for every one good review, there were 5 bad. We knew this in advance, I had done some research, written down company names that hadn't been completely slated, only to discover in San Pedro that none of the chosen ones started the tour in San Pedro, so it was back to the drawing board.

We wasted HOURS trying to decide what agent to go with, even though we both knew it really didn't matter. You could have the slickest, nicest sales person ever, waxing lyrical about the tour but at the end of the day it came down to the driver, and the sales person would be nowhere to be seen at that stage. Other than the driver and the car, they all took the same route, all stayed in pretty much the same hostels and served the same food. We ended up going for the slickest, smoothest salesman ever. Haha, well that combined with the fact that we saw the list of people who had already signed up and we saw two Germans, two Swedes, one Irish, one American, two French and a Brazilian. The Brazilian never materialised but the others did. Our thinking was, at least in a mixed car, the likelihood of people speaking English was high. Simple as that. And as confident as that. That all the mainland Europeans would speak English! And they did!

The agencies make it clear that the first night will be spent in a shelter with limited electricity and no hot water never mind showers. At least they tell you. Still, for someone like me, it's hard to picture. Actually impossible. I had no point of reference, having never even camped in my life. So it would definitely be an adventure.

San Pedro was somewhere that we both could have spent another few days but we would have had to move hostels (too much head bumping) and also...I had that nervous feeling where I just wanted to get the tour over and down with. I was excited but dreading it all at once. And that is why people who do no research in advance are often in a much better position...

Posted by DeeandZarius 12:49 Archived in Chile Tagged san_pedro_de_atacama valle_de_la_luna atacama_desert

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Comments

Laughed out loud at the image of angry zarius letting rip at the sales person! :) so glad you got to go on the trip. Photos are fabulous and the geology stunning! Such lovely pics of u both looking so happy! I am looking forward to hearing about your 2 nights camping.... Did you survive, did you love it? I just got off a big sea kayak trip on the west coast, no showers for 7 days!! We all smelled delightful :) xx keep it coming girl, loving the blog x

by Jo Fitzpatrick

Another great story! Amazing views (i couldnt help but actually say 'wow' out loud a few times!). Such stunning moon landscape! And yummy looking salad. Cant wait to read about your 3-day trip now :) xxx

by Ria

Wow!! Wow!! What magnificent scenery!! You realy have the time of your lives!! Dee, good idea letting Zarius fly (must admit I'm glad I wasn't on the receiving end!!), sometimes it is necessary!! You two look absolutely happy and how wonderful to have a 'honeymoon' like this!! Can't believe you got such a lovely salad there in the midst of nothing and nowhere, but you must have savoured it!! Love you lots!!

by Alvira Marx

Thanks all! It was fabulous, we loved every minute of it. And you haven't had to wait too long for the next instalment! It's now live! We're running out the door of our hotel here to catch a bus to Ecuador. Galapagos here we come! Xxx

by DeeandZarius

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