After a long bus-and-car journey, we got to San Pedro de Atacama, a small tourist-dominated town in northern Chile in the Atacama Desert. Very near the Bolivian border, it was in fact part of Bolivia until the Pacific War, involving Bolivia and Peru on one side versus Chile on the other, from 1879 to 1883. Chile won and thus took a significant amount of land from both Peru and Bolivia; as a result, Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific and became a landlocked nation. To this day there are parts of Bolivia that aren’t real friendly towards Chile.
The main reason to go to San Pedro – presumably the only reason unless you’re one of the 12 people in the world with relatives here – is to explore the Atacama Desert. Comprising about 41,000 square miles, the Atacama Desert is reportedly the world’s driest non-polar desert and makes up a significant part of northern Chile. To say it’s dry is really an understatement. On average, the desert gets barely over a half inch of rain per year, while in the central part of the desert periods of up to four years have been reported with no rainfall. Some of the weather stations in Atacama have never reported rain. That’s dry.
So what do you do in a desert like that? We stayed in San Pedro for three nights and in that time did three hikes and went horseback riding. The horseback riding was kind of boring; the horses were huge and beautiful Arabians, but all you did was sit on them while walking or occasionally cantering through dry, rocky terrain. It didn’t seem like anything we couldn’t have done on our own and enjoyed more without the horses. The three hikes, though, were all pretty exceptional. We were fortunate in that we’ve been up in the Andean highlands for weeks now and so we’re completely acclimated to the elevation. San Pedro itself is about 8,000 feet above sea level, with the surrounding hills and mountains reaching far higher. So while newbies in the area typically have to work their way into hiking in the area we could just jump right in.
The first hike was only 60 minutes or so, but was pretty amazing. The Valley of the Moon is about a half-hour drive out of San Pedro and looks as though you were, well, on the moon. In fact, because of the dry and forbidding terrain here, NASA tested an early version of the Mars rover here.
By far the coolest thing about the hike was walking barefoot on a hill through the deep sand; it was one of those “OK, this is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before” moments. The sand was so soft and dry, it was like wading in warm water, almost like there was no resistance on your feet. With the views of the desert and the mountains in the background it was just a truly otherworldly experience.The second hike was down into a canyon through cactus-studded hills and along a beautiful little stream fed from mountain runoff. I wasn’t expecting to find anything like it in this driest-of-all-places desert, but it was beautiful (and pleasantly cool down in the shade of the canyon). I was amused, as we were scampering over and around rocks on pretty challenging terrain that while helmets were required on the horseback and bike rides offered in the area, they’re not on hikes like this. There was no question in my mind we were in a lot more danger of slipping and seriously bonking our heads on that hike than we ever were on the horses.
Finally, the third hike was a good three- or even four-hours out into the vast nothingness of the highlands, upwards of 15,000 feet above sea level. The first stop, before we even got to the hike, was the El Tatio geyser field. At 14,200 feet above sea level the locals claim it’s the highest geyser field in the world. Whether that’s true or not, the central area is pretty impressive site, with lots of additional geysers spread around a wide area. Our guide was careful to let us know that the geysers are dangerous; just two months ago a woman leaning over the stone barricades to get a better picture fell into one of the geysers and died. Boiled like a lobster, you might say. So we were careful.
From there it was off to a long hike through utterly isolated areas. All very exciting. The real highlight, though, was lunch (of course). They drove us back toward the hotel but then turned off toward the Puritama Hot Springs, a series of eight geothermal pools. Because our hotel manages the site, they reserve the top pool for just their customers and, as we were the only ones on the hike that day, we had it to ourselves. And by “it” I refer not just to the naturally heated pool, but an incredible lunch they provide, including pisco sours and wine and great food. It was really an over-the-top-great experience.
I’d have loved to have stayed in San Pedro longer, as there are a huge number of hikes to do. But we were committed to going on a five-night tour up into Bolivia through the Uyuni Salt Flats and so we left early the day after that hot-spring-lunch trek north back into Bolivia for five days with no Internet, no electricity, and presumably very few people. So far, though, our decision to come down into Chile to see the Aticama Desert was pretty successful.