In the Heart of the Atacama

In the Valley of the Moon

Until I’d bought my bus ticket to San Pedro de Atacama, I’d never heard of the oasis town where people live exclusively off of tourism.

I’d never been to a place where tourists appear to outnumber locals.

Opportunities to visit unique natural splendor abound. 

Brazilians, Brits and Germans make up just a piece of the tourist puzzle. Add Chileans, Argentinians, Australians and other nationalities, and you have a tourist mecca.

Due to high demand and being in Chile, San Pedro isn’t cheap.   The best I could do was 10,000 Chilean Pesos or $18.50 for a dorm bed.  Meal prices in restaurants reminded me of the US or Europe. Compared to neighboring Perú, Bolivia and Argentina, Chile is not a bargain traveler’s destination.  

I’d never been to a place where 90 percent of the people I see on the streets are foreigners. The town appears to consist only of places of accommodation, restaurants and tour shops.

I love nature, but I’m not a fan of a town that reminds me of a desert themed cruise ship where nothing is included. I was torn.

Many tours start at 4 pm.  The only other option is to rent a bicycle or a car, and venture out into the unknown, where the dry heat is extremely hot.

I’d read that if independent bikers are stuck because of heat exhaustion or a broken down bicycle, a tour van that goes by may help.  I was tired just from walking around in the town’s daytime heat so I opted against this idea.

I’m too frugal to rent a car or 4 X 4.  I feel that I see so much by default that I don’t need to see things that require a ton of dough.

On my second day I decided I’d join a tour, something I almost never do.  I couldn’t go to San Pedro and not see some of the most picturesque scenery on the planet.

I tried to join the tour that two of my hostel roommates were on, to bathe in a lake that’s as salty as the Great Salt Lake, but it was full.  I walked around and checked with five or six offices for anything that was offered.

It seemed that all 4 pm tours were full. Then right at 4:00 I managed to join one that was going to the Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte.  I was happy that there’d be no altitude climbing as the valleys sit around 2,400 meters or 7,900 feet, the same as the town.  Many of the excursions offered required ascents much higher, to where altitude nausea might set in.

Feel free to click on the photo(s) for a larger view and an optional manual slide show:

My tour group strolling and snapping.This was the first stop, in El Valle de la Luna.

Nature SculptingI managed to get in front of everyone to get this unobstructed view of these natural sculptures.  The white is salt.  It was explained that around 20 million years ago this area was part of the ocean, and the salt is left over.  NOTE:  San Pedro de Atacama is very close to the Bolivian border and the famous salt flat of Uyuni.

We got back in the van.  The next stop would be for caving.

Waiting in Line to Go CavingHere is the stagnant line before getting into the actual caves.   It didn’t help that we clashed with at least two other tour groups there.   After getting into the cave and being stuck in this line, often not moving, I got claustrophobic and opted to turn back.   

An Atacama cliff that's been formed over eternityIt worked out well as I managed to squeeze in a little bit of hiking on my own.

After returning to the bus we drove for a short way before being dropped off for casual walking.

A Huge Sand DuneI really wanted to hike up onto this gorgeous dune, but it wasn’t part of the organized tour.

View from a Stroll in the Atacama DesertWe got to walk for a couple of kilometers before the bus came.

Rare ContrastsI found the contrast between salt, sand, volcano and clouds to be a unique sight.

The bus then took us to the final stop of the day: Valle de la Muerte

Brazilian Vacationers at Valle de la MuerteThis group of Brazilian tourists happily took in this view until sunset, when all the tour buses headed back to the town.

Sunset Over El Valle de la MuerteThe sun set at 8.15 pm.  The tour was complete.

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The Atacama desert is the driest place in the world.  Nights are pleasantly cool.

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My tour cost only 8,000 Pesos or $14.80.  It was very affordable because there were around 25 people.  Many of the tours that cost two to three times as much had a maximum of only 10 people. There are endless tour package nature options in San Pedro de Atacama.  It’s much better if you plan ahead, unlike what I did.

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The town of San Pedro has mini markets that sell food.  Most hostels in Chile have a kitchen for guests so it’s possible to eat on the cheap.

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24 Responses to In the Heart of the Atacama

  1. Freya says:

    Those photos are absolutely stunning, wow what a scenery. Shows again that many touristic places are touristic for a reason.

    • Mike says:

      FREYA: Thanks! One good thing about San Pedro is that the tourist workers who are transplants from all over Chile, tend to remain very nice, friendly and helpful to all the tourists.

  2. Arianwen says:

    You tell it just like I remember it!! All the tourists and high prices! But it’s such an interesting area, with such varied landscapes, I’m really glad I went.

  3. traveladdict says:

    Wonderful desert.
    The Atacama is also a great place for cycling. Mountain bike trips.

    • Mike says:

      TRAVEL ADDICT: Yes! Fascinating nature indeed. I saw a few people biking and it was my plan, but I didn’t want to venture out in that heat. I’m impressed that you managed it.

  4. Darren says:

    Incredible photos miguel, makes me want to see more, I’m sure you have lots! Looks like it was a fantastic trip…

  5. Jill says:

    Atacama was amazing! I’m glad you got to see it. We spent a week exploring the area and I remember feeling overwhelmed by the stark beauty of it all.

  6. pru says:

    I could swear I commented on this blog post. These photos are amazing!

    • Mike says:

      PRU: Thanks! Either the website went down momentarily or you’re mixing this post up with one of the last two as they’re also set in nature.

  7. Silvia says:

    Wow, this scenery looks unreal! And your photos capture it beautifully. Ahh want to gooo!

    • Mike says:

      HOGGA: Yeah! I wonder how long the salt has been left over from when the area was part of the Pacific Ocean. I don’t think we can ever know.

  8. Hi Mike, I’ve been to Chile many years ago but didn’t make it to Atacama and I always wish to return so I can visit this desert wonder. I didn’t know realize that the town mainly feeds out of tourism and that tourists outnumber locals. Such scenario would normally turn me off, but as your stunning photos show there’s a reason why tourists would flock to this area. Atacama is such a wonderful gift of nature. I still would love to experience it for myself. And thanks for the tip, I’ll plan ahead.

    • Mike says:

      MARISOL: Thanks! I was divided, beauty or mass tourism. In retrospect, I think I would have stayed and done another tour. I’m not sure that tourists outnumber locals but it definitely looked like that. It was surprising that most of the locals I came across were quite nice, considering that usually when a place gets so touristy, locals get desensitized to the constantly changing faces and aren’t as friendly.

  9. These photos are fantastic, what a great tour! I must have been interesting to outnumber the locals, I would think! Although it seems with their prices they are taking full advantage of the booming tourism industry in their town!;-)

  10. David says:

    As I sat here and read your story while eating a pretzel I sure could taste the salt. That is one pretty unique area thanks for bringing it into view to us “office bums”…today in Mass it is 12 deg and a snow storm of a foot is on the way. Enjoy the dryness.

    • Mike says:

      DAVID! Thanks! Hey it’s great that you have a good office job and not a hellish one. I just kind of randomly ended up down in the hot South American summer. I’ve crossed into Argentina where the high was 104 Fahrenheit yesterday. I just had to duck into a restaurant to escape the scorching heat.

  11. Maria says:

    Wow Mike! Looks like serendipity stepped in and you went on the right tour – amazing scenery in these photos – bet I would have been slack jawed with awe had I been there in person.

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