A novel way of doing the border crossing from Chile to Bolivia is to do a tour of the Salar de Uyuni, starting in the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama and finishing in the Bolivian town of Uyuni after three days in a four wheel drive. We were really looking forward to this trip, but the first step was getting to San Pedro de Atacama, in the north-east of Chile.
We took a bus from Copiapo directly to San Pedro, which took about 12 hours. A lot of people do this trip overnight because it’s so long, but we chose to do it during the day so we could see the countryside. It was really interesting. We saw the desert go from a little bit of life (cacti etc) to no life at all. The mineral-rich landscape zipped past throughout the day, along with the odd little settlement and a few larger towns, such as Antofagasta and Calama. We arrived in San Pedro at 8:30pm, and then walked to the hostal we’d booked – Hostal Elim. Our room was lovely and warm, in contrast to the cold desert air of the night. We both felt a little dizzy after walking with our heavy backpacks – I think this was owing to the 2400m altitude!
The first thing we noticed about San Pedro de Atacama (apart from the chilly air and clear night sky) was that it was really busy! In Chile it was the off season while we were there, but San Pedro was packed with “gringos” (foreigners). I think that on the first evening we saw more fellow tourists than in the rest of Chile combined! Apparently it’s even more packed in the high season, but even at this time of year it seemed like there were more tourists than locals. There is a good variety of restaurants in San Pedro, and even on that first night we sampled one of the quieter ones which had some decent pasta to help our spinning heads and upset stomachs!
Admittedly, San Pedro de Atacama was a stop for us to acclimatise to the higher altitude before we ascended further, and we used it to do a lot of planning for the next part of our trip. We did do a few things about town however. What did not help was that on the first morning of our stay, we awoke in one of the driest places on earth – to rain! To be honest, it wasn’t exactly pouring down, but it was drizzling steadily, sometimes picking up a little to sort-of-rain. The locals seemed a little worried – it hardly ever rains in San Pedro, so they were on the roof of our hotel putting down rain-proof sheets. When we put on our raincoats and went for a walk we didn’t see San Pedro’s signature mountainous views and clear skies, all we saw was grey cloud and haze into the distance! We were really worried that our whole four night stay would be in the rain. So we decided to make the most of the bad weather and had a look around the town, and spoke with a few tour agencies – both for our Salar de Uyuni trip and also for some tours more locally around San Pedro.
The following day we awoke to better weather – some low cloud over the hills but generally a clear sky otherwise. We decided to book a tour to see the Valley of the Moon, a famous desert valley just a few kilometres from town. Later that day we were picked up by our tour van along with a few other people, and began our tour of the Valley of the Moon. The first stop was the Valley of Death – supposedly named so due to the complete lack of life and water in the valley (despite the previous day’s rainfall!). It was really windy – in my opinion it’s named the Valley of Death because people get blown off the edge!
Next up we drove to a viewpoint overlooking the Valley of the Moon and San Pedro – this gave us a good perspective on where we were headed. The landscape was very dramatic, and I was impressed.
After this, we went to Cari’s Broken, a part of the Valley of the Moon which used to be a river valley. It was really interesting to see the ways in which the water had shaped the rocks – there were some amazing formations. Some of the rock contained large, clear chunks of salt which were smooth to the touch – like glass or warm ice.
The next stop was the Three Maria’s – three chunks of rock which apparently look like the praying Maria. Personally, I saw a snake, a frog and a hand rather than three identical women, but I suppose it’s open to interpretation – especially if you really want it to look like something!
Our final stop was sunset at the giant sand dune. Mahmoud’s been to San Pedro de Atacama before, and when he was last here you could climb the sand dune. Not so this time – we were only permitted to walk up the rocky hill next to it, which overlooks the sand and has a spectacular view of the mountains overlooking San Pedro on the Bolivian border. The sunset was beautiful, and as we watched the clouds peeled away from the mountains, leaving them bathed in pink light and revealing their dramatic snow-capped peaks. Stunning!
This was a really good sign of things to come. The next day the weather was absolutely perfect – not a cloud in the sky. This was a day of getting things done. We booked our trip to Bolivia with a tour agency called Estrella del Sur and bought lots of supplies in preparation for said trip. We also went for a walk on the outskirts of town and a little way out into the desert. This enabled us to get some photos and video of the scenery away from the hustle and bustle of town – the beautiful, clear weather helped with that! That evening we met up with some people that Mahmoud knew from Twitter. They were New Zealanders on an extended trip – interesting to chat to, especially as they’d just come from Bolivia, doing the same trip as we were about to do!
All in all, San Pedro de Atacama was a nice place to spend a few days. We got acclimatised to the (relatively) high altitude and the cooler nights. We also had a good time seeing some of the sights of the Atacama Desert. It was a great farewell to Chile – and it was about to be a great prologue to Bolivia.