I’ve been to many tourist traps in my life. In Paharganj in India, Kuta in Bali, Ao Nang in Thailand. Few measure up to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile though. A dusty little oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert, you would be forgiven for thinking you were getting away from tourists, tour groups and fancy restaurants. After a long but fantastic bus journey over the Alitplano from Salta we descended into one of the driest places on earth. The bus tipped us out and we had to go through Chilean border control and customs. Chileans are petrified – so it would seem – that you bring any fruit or vegetables into their country and so our bags had to be inspected by stoic-faced customs officials wearing latex gloves and lacking any sense of humour. I suppose digging in tourists’ dirty undies all day is not a job perk, hence the grumpy attitude.
After repacking our bags we set off down the dusty unpaved road into town. At first the little town was a little disorienting. It was late evening and every street looked the same. White washed buildings, red sandy roads and dim street lamps. The first guesthouse we stopped at wanted US$70 a night for a tiny room with ensuite bathroom. Yikes! Next guesthouse on from there was full. We were exhausted, bewildered and my pack was starting to cut into my shoulders. Eventually we were led to a hostel down the road by an overly friendly man on the street. We should have known better. Before we knew it, we had handed out $40 for a private room with shared bathroom without even having looked at the room first. Suffice it to say, it was the size of a largish coffin. It had no towels, no toilet paper, no waste basket, no plug sockets and the window didn’t close properly – something that is rather important in the desert since it get’s really cold at night. There was nowhere to put our stuff save for two wire hangers hanging on the curtain rail. We had just picked the worst value hotel in the world – according to Trip Advisor it is ranked as the worst place to stay in San Pedro.
So started out our visit to Chile. Margarét has been to Chile before. One of her favourite places was San Pedro, but a lot has changed in this sleepy village since 2005. The streets are lined with travel agents, restaurants and hostels. Everything is so overpriced it would make Bill Gates feel a little ill. A beer costs around US$5 (the bottle stores sell them for around $1), lip balm cost us $4 and restaurants are mediocre at best where a set menu was around $40 for 2 people. Everything is covered in a layer of dust even smelly hippies sitting in the square notwithstanding.
It’s not all bad though. There is a reason so many tourists come to this place in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We moved out of the worst place in San Pedro the next morning and found a much quieter and better place down the road. They even gave us a family room for the price of a double because all their double rooms were full. This place came with 4 beds, towels, a walk in closet and two rolls of double ply toilet paper every day! It turned out this was the highest rated place to stay in San Pedro, according to Trip Advisor. It was also only $20 a night more than the worst place in town.
The reason so many people come to the desert is for its sights. San Pedro sits at the northernmost point of the second largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Atacama. It is also situated under the most spectacular vista of some of Chile’s biggest volcanoes. Every day hundreds of tourists head out on bus trips to the surrounding attractions. Some tours climb up onto the Altiplano to visit salt flats, geysers, smoking volcanoes, colourful lakes, towering columns of stone, valleys that look like Mars and the Moon. While others take people off sandboarding, mountain biking and trekking. You can even climb a 6000m volcano with very little organisation or equipment needed. Of course, these tours come at a price. How much you ask? Our half-day trip to El Tatio geysers – the second highest geyser field on earth as well as the third largest costs a cool $40 each excluding the entrance fee. That’s lot of money for anyone to pay even if it comes with a free headache due to the altitude.
There is something to be said for the natural beauty here, as well as how easy it is to see it. We took a short walk out of the town to the pre-colombian fortress of Quitor, which turned out to have a fantastic view of the Valley of Death – so called because the first Englishman to see it called it the valley of Mars which sound like the word meurte in Spanish, hence the name.
Another trip we did was for sundowners overlooking a salt lake in the Salar de Atacama. Sipping pisco sours, while the sun paints the surrounding volcanos blood red is quite an experience. Granted there were about 200 people with the same view too. We also took a trip to a dizzying 4300m at 4am to see the El Tatio geyser field. The reason for the early drive was due to the geysers being most active at sunrise. Margarét and I were wearing just about all the clothes we brought with us to brave the subzero temperatures. The field was filled with fumeroles and vents that spouted superheated steam into the air. It was quite a sight. One of the geysers is even nicknamed “The Killer” due to having killed a few tourists who got too close and fell in. Our guide told us it isn’t so much the temperature that kills you, it’s the mixture of arsenic, cadmium and sulphur that does the trick. In about 20 minutes. Not a pleasant end indeed. The drive back to San Pedro was no less spectacular alongside smoking volcanos and beautiful wetlands filled with birds. We even got see the very odd looking viscacha (kind of like a rabbit with a long tale) and vicuñas (the smallest of the camel family and only occur at altitudes above 4000m).
So San Pedro is a bit of an enigma, ask any traveller that has been there whether they liked it or not and they will usually say they loved the sights but hated the multitude of tourists. I guess you could call it Chile’s version of Disneyland – Adobeland. There is very little atacameña culture to be seen in the main part of the village and yet there is heaps of it just a short walk out of town. For us, we both came away with colds caused by the dusty and dry air. As for the Atacama desert, there are few places I have been that have such mystical appeal. Scorchingly hot during the day and positively chilly at night it is definitely a part of the world I will never forget. Just remember to bring muchos dineros (lots of cash) with you and try to keep a straight face when you get told the price of a bottle of water.