First things first getting over the border into Chile is long and tedious. They have extremely strict rules on bringing fruit and vegetables into the country amongst other things too. They therefore insist on checking every single bag before allowing you into the country. So after a long 2 hour wait at the border we were finally let through into Chile. The drive down into San Pedro De Atacama was sensational. Coming from high up in the Andes the road just goes straight downhill overlooking the onward plateau where San Pedro de Atacama is located.
After some very cold days and nights on the salt flat tour it was nice to get somewhere sunny and hot for a few days. The temperature certainly hit us going from 5 degrees to 30 so we decided to spend the afternoon relaxing and having a little explore around the town. We also sat down to decide what activities to do during our stay here as there is so much on offer here.
For our first full day we decided to visit the Lagunas Escondidas- the hidden lakes. San Pedro de Atacama is famous for its salt lakes where the salt concentration is so high you just float on top of the water. With two to choose from we chose these lakes as the entrance fee was way cheaper than the other one. The other lake also happens to be more touristy too. So we booked onto our tour the same day and at 2pm got in a minibus to the lakes with only 2 other girls.
After a short 45 minute drive through the desert on roads and dirt tracks we arrived at the lakes. There were 2 lakes to swim in and several others to look at with a walking trail going around all of them. So we got straight into it and went swimming in the first pool. The waters were a beautiful deep blue colour and looked very inviting. It was a strange feeling as no matter what position we lay the water would just make us float like an inflatable. We stayed here for quite a while just messing around and talking to some other people. When we got out the sun dried us immediately and our bodies were covered in a white layer of salt and made our hair look grey.
With our first swim out of the way we started making our way along the path to the second pool. On the way there were some stunning small pools. The water was ice blue and clear with white salt surrounding the pools.
After seeing the pools we made it to the final pool for one last swim. Stu decided it would be a good idea to do a bomb into the water to see if it was any different than doing it in a swimming pool. The main difference is that you get a ridiculous amount of salt up your nose, in your eyes and it stings a lot! We swam for a little bit more before taking a much needed shower to get all of the salt off us. Niamh unfortunately did not realise quite how much she had in her hair…
With the lakes done and dusted it was time to head to the second unexpected stop of our tour. We got back into the bus and started to drive back towards San Pedro de Atacam around sunset time. Before getting back we stopped at the top of the hill above the town that overlooked the Moon Valley. We found a quiet area to park the van and our driver got a picnic table out, some snacks and a bottle of pisco sour for us to drink. It really was an amazing touch to finish the tour, the views of the Mars-like valley were sensational in the sunset light. What was nice was that we were not rushed into getting back into town and we could take as much time as we wanted to admire the view. All in all a fantastic tour well worth the money (about 20 quid)
This however was not the end of our day, after getting back into town and cooking some food it was time for another tour, the SPACE astronomy tour. We had heard the night skies in San Pedro were some of the best in the world for stargazing so this was a must-do for us. With so many astronomy tours available we decided to go for the most informative one which also happened to be the best ranked online as well. We got on a bus at 9pm which brought us to a house outside of the town, when we drove up the driveway the bus even turned its headlamps off on orders of the owners who did the tour.
We were greeted off the bus by the wife and she got us in a group and explained what we were going to do during the tour. The first part would be a talk about planets, galaxies and space in general. We would then look at the telescopes (9 in total!) before finally going inside for a hot chocolate and a Q&A session with her husband who was to do the tour.
We got started with Alain, the property owner from France, he asked several questions to judge the groups level of astronomy knowledge. Not the worst he has had he told us. It was a really interesting conversation, he showed us lots of star constellations in the sky with his laser pen, he ridiculed most of the constellations for looking nothing like what they are meant to and thought whoever came up with the names must have been on shrooms! He also did not hesitate to take the piss out of everyone for giving wrong answers to his questions and also out of everyone’s nationality. Apart from the few French people there of course. We did a map of the sky in the Southern Hemisphere, he explained to us that planets are only visible in one straight line called the Zodiac, we looked at the Milky Way and he showed us where Alpha Centauri was and lots more. It was a great start, informative and funny at the same time.
After standing outside for an hour listening, talking and admiring the night sky with the naked eye it was time to check the telescopes out. There were a total of 9 telescopes, each varying in size and all pointing towards different things in the sky. We managed to observe Mars, Saturn and Jupiter in terms of planets; another galaxy with the strongest telescope, a couple of nebulas, a couple of gas clouds and also a star cluster. It was incredible. Just the thought of being able to see a galaxy over 160,000 light years away was out of this world. There were two clouds of stars just about visible with the naked eye and these were both galaxies. They are only visible in the Southern Hemisphere and are called the Magellanic Clouds. We were in utter awe of just how beautiful it was. We managed to set Niamh’s camera up for a night sky photo so here is that to get an idea of just how awesome this was! The photo is of the Milky Way.
With the telescopes and photos done we went inside for our hot chocolate and Q&A session with Alain. He explained that he was currently making a massive telescope which is so big that they have to transport the parts on a lorry. Equally interesting was that he made all the telescopes himself buying each part separately, usually on eBay. For his latest one the glass lens cost 45,000.00 euros alone, which is an incredibly cheap price he said. He’ll also have to dig concrete foundations for keeping it securely in place amongst many other elements to the telescope. With this all done we got back on the bus into town and went to bed pretty tired after an absolutely incredible day. One of the best days we have had on our entire trip.
We woke up the next with a full day planned in the Moon Valley just outside of San Pedro. To get there you can either go on a tour where a bus drives you to all the viewpoints and you sit most of the time lethargic, hot and bored, or as we did you can rent bikes out for the day or a half day to see them yourselves whilst exercising and sweating. Being a bit tired from our big day we woke up a little later than expected. We didn’t actually set off until 10am from town. This was 2 hours later than what we wanted to do to avoid the midday sun.
Learning from our mistakes in Ecuador, we rented out top quality bikes and it’s a good job we did. The sun was beating down on us already but we got to the entrance of the park just before 10:30am, paid our entry fees and off we went into the driest place on earth. The Moon Valley is renowned for its sand dunes, salt caves and Mars-like landscapes. After cycling for another 30 minutes or so on a dirt road we made it to the first stop of the day, the salt cave.
We locked our bikes up and started making our way into the salt cave. Very quickly after entering them you are in total darkness and have to use torches to light the way. We had to crouch very low to get through some parts of the cave in the dark adding to the adventure. Out of the darkness the path curved round walls of rock and salt. The rocks looked amazing and unlike any other rock formation we have seen. The path then went upwards and fully into the sun. We then saw the most incredible rainbow in a cloud. We didn’t think the camera would pick it up but it did! We then made our way back down to the bikes, ready to get to the next stop.
We had been warned about one steep uphill climb beforehand, however what was not mentioned was that we also had to do this whilst cycling on roads covered in sand. It was so hard! Stu almost made it to the top without stopping but almost burst a lung trying to do so, Niamh was more sensible and walked up most of it. It was about midday by the time we got up and we were both getting extremely hot and dehydrated. We managed to get to the second stop where there was some shelter in the shade thankfully. We sat down here for a while just to get some energy back. The second stop was a loop walk overlooking the entire area for miles and at the other end we could see the big sand dune of the Moon Valley.
With two more stops remaining the heat and aridness of the air was really starting to hit hard. We decided to skip the very last stop which was some vertical rocks as it was quite far away, but Stu decided to cycle onto the 3rd stop, the Amphitheatre. The road was at least once again more of a road than a sand road making it easier to cycle along. The road was flat, then a small uphill before finally a downhill all the way to the end of the Amphitheatre. The view was once again amazing with sloped rock on either side of the road. With the way here being mostly downhill that meant the way back was all uphill. After taking a few more pictures we regrouped where we had lunch and started making our way back to San Pedro de Atacama. Not going to lie, this was hard and not much fun.
And this brought an end to an amazing time in San Pedro De Atacama, such a great town with so much do. The activities were some of the best we have done so to have all 3 cramped into 2 days was incredible. We felt like we managed to do so much in such a short space of time. Very different to what we usually end up doing!