Chile: Atacama Desert

We flew north from Santiago to Calama, a city a little over an hour away from San Pedro de Atacama. We arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon (not thanks to our illiterate “driver”, who could drive nor read), and after finally finding our hostel (we were dumped on the street by that same driver, and hostel no name signs anywhere), we went into the city to book a tour for the next day. We noticed quickly that San Pedro is at a high altitude (2400m), as just walking was exhausting. This is a good thing, as after San Pedro we will take a tour to Salar de Uyuni, which lies above 4000m. So our 4 days at this place are perfect to get acclimatized.

We had done some research on Salar de Uyuni tours, and found online that you couldn’t book tours starting the 25th of December. This as there could be drunk driving in the desert around Christmas & New Year. However, Jos already went to the Salar before, exactly at this time of year, and had no problems. So we took the gamble, and looked around town for a tour. We stepped into the office of the first agency we recognized online from good reviews (White & Green), and guess what? They offered a tour!

With a little haggling we quickly booked the tour with them. And then also the trips for the next day: The Lagunas Altiplanicas morning tour, and the Valle the la Luna tour in the afternoon.

Satisfied, we ate a good Lomo Saltado at our hostel (the owners are Peruvian!), and got to bed.

The next morning we left for the 2h drive to the Lagunas located at 4000m. Once there, we could walk around to take pictures (which was incredibly hard as we also had to walk back uphill).

Laguna Miscanti – over 4.000m high
Laguna Meñiques

A long time ago, the lakes used to be one. Until a big eruption happened and the landslide split them.

From there, we drove back down to 3700m, to an old church from the 1600’s. It’s the oldest church in the region. Inside are votifs from the 15th century.

Old church #1 (17th century)

Our next stop was Laguna de Chaxa, Flamingo lake! We loved being up close with the hundreds of flamingos. They had 3 different species there, and we took way too many pictures;)

The flamingo’s of Chaxa
The flamingo has landed
Angry pink bird
Beautiful reflections
Spot the lizard at Chaxa lake

From there, we went to Toconao, a small desert city. We saw a cacti, a church bell, and a llama. Worth it;)

One of a pair of slightly obscene cacti in Toconao
Old church #2
Happy lama

In the afternoon, we went on our second tour of the day: Moon valley. It’s a desert valley close to San Pedro that resembles the moon’s surface (or Mars, in our opinion). We stopped at various points, and were really impressed by the alien landscapes.

Quite a hike to reach this point (Gran Duna)
Valley of the Moon
Perfect dune
3 Marias formation (What was the priest who found/named this on?) + random dinosaur
Slot canyon & cave system
Formations created by the (very sparse) rainfall
Sunset from Coyote Point

We were dropped back into the city, and for dinner had the best empanadas ever (and that says something)!

The next morning, we slept in until late, as we both suffered from altitude sickness. Maybe not such a great idea to go above 4k on our first full day here… Fortunately, we had our medicines, and in the afternoon we felt normal again.

We went on the Lagunas Escondidas tour (aka Lagunas de Baltinache). The lagunas lie on the same altitude as San Pedro, so no problems with that. With 220g of salt per liter of water, these stunning pools were a lot of fun to float around in. This was a first for Jos – look how happy it made her:

Salty laguna #1
Ok, this man-child still found it hilarious too
Possible proof of divinity (or space-laser?)
Such dramatic colors
Float float float

After a much needed shower, we took the bumpy road back to San Pedro. On the way, we stopped for “snacks” & pisco, which ended up doubling as our dinner. The apparently Chilean specialty of soft cheese with soy sauce & sesame deserves special mention here.

The last stop on the way back was another sunset mirador. This one was closer to San Pedro and in our opinion prettier than the one inside the Moon Valley:

Viewpoint on return to San Pedro

The day after started early – as in 4:10 early. We were supposed to be picked up at 4:30 for our El Tatio geyser excursion. It ended up arriving an hour late – and we were not amused. The reason we had to start so early is that the geysers all but stop once the heat of the sun gets too harsh. Anyway, it was still plenty cold when we got there – we can tell you that. Minus 7 degrees to be exact. The geyser fields were pretty unique & impressive, but the hardship leading up to it made us penguin around like this:


O, and did we tell you these geysers were at 4.200m again? Yes, it was a very tough morning. We also went for a quick swim in the hot pools there. These should have been called luke-warmish pools if you ask us, but it was still a nice experience. Here are a few more pictures:

Full view of geyser plain
Spectacular sunrise
More sun means less steam

The drive back led us past much wildlife (vacunas, mules, flamingos & foxes), as well as a tiny 15-inhabitant village & very diverse landscapes. Here are a few impressions:

Pretty swamplands
Lush river valley
This pretty fox wishes you a Merry Christmas

We second the fox: Happy holidays to everyone!

We disappear off the grid for a few days for our multi-day jeep crossing into the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia. Exciting stuff!

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