san pedro de atacama, chile: a long weekend

The desert was calling: great wide washes of brush and sand, jagged salt plains, soaring volcanoes and dazzling lagoons.  I could not ignore them.  I could not wait.  So I went.

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Besides the booming tourism trade, San Pedro is a tiny pueblo, ludicrously positioned in the middle of the driest desert on earth.  Dusty unpaved roads lead out from town and soon merge into the immensity that is the landscape, dancing purples, red and blues.

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Food and tours are expensive and so we were limited in our activities and culinary explorations.  In fact, besides for a breakfast and lunch included with a tour and two delicious asados or barbecues at the hostel, I ate not much more than eggs and palta or avocado.  But when a simple meal is enjoyed under the warming desert sun, with wind rustling trees and chimes, the host’s sheep bleating occasionally from across the yard and the faces of new friends always open to conversation, not much more is needed.

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The bike ride to Valle de la Luna is challenging and obstinate but worth it.  Battling the winds that prevent you from moving even when coasting downhill, waiting out sand storms that sting your legs into red welts and dried, deprived skin, pushing your bike up hills that seem to last for kilometers, and finally biking through darkness alongside a sleepy, rural highway, is all worth it when you earn your view of the sunset.

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Highlights of the route:

Hike through the salt caves- a series of dark and cramped caverns decorated with salt crystals growing the size of your fist and a startlingly lunar view from above.  Advised not to attempt with large backpacks or helmets.

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Tres Marias- rock formations at the very end of the recommended bike route for half to full day riders.  Three shapes rise out of the salt covered earth, appearing like warped figurines, one unfortunately having fallen do to an intrepid tourist attempting to take the photo that would get him the most Instagram likes.

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Duna Grande- intimidating dune with much faster and pre-approved route up on the opposing side.  Ridge along the top provides a spectacular view, especially of the sunset and is therefore more popular with the local tours that whisk you away before you even get a glimpse of pink light through the crowds.

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Sunset- recommended if biking to not delay your trip home until AFTER the sunsets because of the darkness of desert roads.  As trucks and buses whipped passed us and the wind fought our every pedal, we were very happy that we embarked on the return journey before the light had completely bled from the sky.

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As tours are plentiful, overwhelming and expensive in San Pedro, we elected one full day tour: Piedras Rojas and Lagunas Altiplanicas.  Going with Tourismo Mitampi we took a gamble on the agency with mixed results.  Our tour guide did not provide very much information throughout the journey and the red van that pulled up in front of our hostel to pick us up, felt like it had seen some better days.  Yet, with every dirt road and off-road path we took, the van made it through and we witnessed some rather other-worldly sights.

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The first stop was snow-covered and frozen, a lagoon at the base of volcanoes, surrounded by martian red rocks and whistling in the wind.  Tip: Don’t forget your gloves and hat at the hostel like many of us did.  The Chileans are right for once; it is very, very cold.

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We only meandered around enough for some photos and a quick *contemplation on the beauty of nature* before we were whisked back into the van and to another spectacular sight.

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The next two lagoons, Miscanti and Meniquez are perched side by side along the border mountains of Argentina and Bolivia.  We were so close to the edge of Chile, so desolate and beautiful it reminds one that the borders in South America are often drawn along geographic phenomena like the Andes, and rarely along any cultural or social boundary.

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Amidst the high altitude (over 4,220 meters or 13,000 ft), we took in the amazing colors, the rarity of snow in the desert, the massive shadow of the seemingly endless volcanoes and towering peaks.

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The last natural stop of the tour was Laguna Chaxa and Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos where most students were eager to spot solitary pink flamingos marking the incredibly flat and blue waters.  Little waves lapped against the salt-encrusted edges of the shore as this lagoon is located in the heart of the second-largest salt flat in the world.

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For those of you who think of salt flats and think of Uyuni, Bolivia, this territory in Chile could not be more different.  The jagged salt crystals that grow only a centimeter a year, slice open the earth and blend together with the dusty brown of the desert.  Opposite stands a wide lagoon, blue and pink and shimmering in the sunlight. What I would have given to see the land shift colors under the rising sun.  Unfortunately, sun rise tours do not go to the salt flats.

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Our tour also stopped at two “towns”: a historic church featuring Inca-style architecture in Socaire, and a pit stop to see a caged llama in Toconau.  Not anything special, especially when rushed by a guide.

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Two other latas or shames of the trip were that a tourist had fallen into the Tatio Geyesers the day before we arrived, rendering them closed to the public for the entire extent of our trip.  Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence but our thoughts go out to the family suffering from this tragic accident.

Secondly, we experienced a wonderful astronomy tour with the same company, Tourismo Mitampi, where with a knowledgeable guide and a few telescopes we passed an hour beneath a wide open, dazzlingly bright sky.  As South America is in the Southern Hemisphere, we were astonished by the sight of the stardust trail of the Milky Way as well as a Saturn sighting and many new constellations.  San Pedro experiences some of the driest and clearest weather, making it ideal for astronomy and the sight of many NASA findings.  The shame is that I do not have the proper photographic equipment to share that sight with you.  Take my word for it; the experience is breathtaking and world-changing.

Our final tour choice was Lagunas Cejar which runs in the afternoons, begining at a crystal blue lagoon in the middle of the outstretched salt flats which experiences a phenomenon not unlike the Dead Sea.

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Tourists flock to float effortlessly in the ice-cold waters.  Due to high salinity, you are lifted up to the top and float easily, your body crusted in salt and shivering.  DSC_0706

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While the desert gets hot during the day, afternoons turn quickly into night time cold.  It is best to bring many layers as the tour does not stop here.

Next, if one is brave, you can jump off a cliff into a deep blue sink hole called Ojos de Salar or eyes of the salt flat.  Surroudn by absolutely nothing but my fellow travellers and the never-ending expanse of salt, I took the leap of faith and plunged deep into the waters.  But again, because of the nature of group tours that run a tight schedule, that was about it.  We were rushed off to our final destination for a sunset drink.

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With the sun turning everything to gold, we sipped pisco sours and stared out across the now glistening ground.  Tour vans huddle in the same spot so if you are seeking peace to watch the sunset, this is not suggested.  However, the view was a spectacular way to end the trip.

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Specs: We stayed at Hostal Aji Verde a wonderful place located just outside of town on along an unlit dirt road.  With a large yard with space for camping, asados, fogatas or campfires and large patios for conversation, it is an especially tranquil place to waste time in the desert sun for free.  We spent many hours outside reading, journaling, eating, drinking and making new friends from across the stretches of the Earth.  Special shout outs to employees Victor and Guy who made sure everyone felt comfortable and reached out with exceptional friendship.  The BBQs are a must and this is coming from a vegetarian!  San Pedro has an ordinance for quiet after midnight and this hostel respects that.  We were almost all able to get plenty of sleep, shower when desired and use the little kitchen to prepare our food. Suggestions to the hostel: please install a sign, your gate is unmarked and impossible to find, especially after dark.  In the mornings, birds chirp, roosters crow, Mandala the sheep calls out and the stillness of the desert is felt all around.  A truly special place.

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