My shuttle van sped downhill from the Andean highlands of Bolivia into the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.
Once it reached San Pedro de Atacama, we had to go through Chilean customs. Chile has a strict policy about bringing plants into the country, and I had a bag full of fruits and vegetables I was hoping to get through. Unfortunately, a border agent found my precious loot and confiscated it. This led to a search of my other bags and review of my customs form. On the customs form, I had marked that ‘Yes’ I did have plant products. If I had fibbed and put ‘No’, they would have detained and fined me (up to $10,000!), and possibly not let me enter the country.
After that little escapade, I was the last to get back into the van. The driver was sympathetic. Apparently, the fruit-Nazis at the border make such search and seizures all the time.
Twenty minutes later, the van let everyone out near the main plaza of San Pedro at 12pm. I walked a couple blocks and found La Florida hostel. I took my first shower since leaving Uyuni, and did some laundry in the sink like a hobo. I went out to get Chilean Pesos, explore, and find lunch.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small city on the northwestern border of Chile. It lies in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on earth. The Andes and jagged volcanic rock hills fence the city on the east, while red desert landscapes, like you’re on Mars, spread to the west. It’s another of the arid Andean regions that are perennially clear and hot during the day. Then in the evening, clear skies rapidly cede all the radiant heat to be unpleasantly cold during the night. The surrounding area is known for astronomy. The desolation of the desert offers incredible star gazing, and high-altitude plateaus give home to several nearby observatories and satellite arrays. One story red roofed clay and brick buildings line dusty dirt streets. The main part of town is four blocks N/S by six blocks E/W near the main plaza. San Pedro is home to masses of the vagabond hippie types. They’re out in full force in the late afternoon and evening selling jewelry and handicrafts, playing music, juggling, and fire dancing for tips. Overall, the place has a tranquil, Bohemian vibe.
After several ATMs rejected my debit card, I started to get worried. I went to the only bank in town, but the teller told me she could not make a manual withdrawal for foreigners. In desperation, I asked the bank security guard to watch as I made my transaction. Right away, he showed me I made the wrong selection, and instead must go to a special screen for foreigners. After that, I got my cash no problem. The little difference between countries can be confusing. Right when I thought I had things figured out…
I found a busy restaurant, La Pica del Inca, offering a menú (del día) with a delicious beef curry dish. I washed it down with a beer since I noticed every single other person in the restaurant was having a lunchtime beer. The beer was perfect because it helped me fall soundly asleep when I returned home for a siesta.
That evening, I found another place with a menú and had a delicious salmon with hollandaise sauce dish. Then I stopped in a tienda and bought a beer to drink as I wandered the streets to watch all the weirdos (I say that lovingly) perform. On one corner, a trio was throwing down some sick, high-gain electric blues.
The next day, at about noon I rented a mountain bike and took a ride north of the city towards La Quebrada del Diablo (The Devil’s Gourge). It was cool to ride through the alien desert landscape. The route was no treat. I had to ride across several streams and rivers, which got my shoes irredeemably wet for the rest of the day.
On the way to the gorge, I stopped to hike ruins at Pukara del Quitor, a small Incan city that is still being excavated.
At about 3pm, I finally reached La Quebrada del Diablo. I didn’t really know what to expect, just heard it was cool from some people at my hostel. I rode my bike through the gorge, and was immediately impressed. A small high-walled canyon of stratified red rock winds through the desert like a sine curve. The river that long ago cut the canyon through the rock has since dried up, allowing a nice cruise or hike through the gorge. Several caves and trails branch off from the gorge offering other similar paths to explore.
It took me about two hours to get through the gorge after I stopped to explore a cave and a couple other trails. Some people told me that there was a trail that leads north from the gorge then loops back south into San Pedro. I attempted to find it, but my phone and GPS died on me in the process. I followed what I thought was the path until it became increasingly sandy, such that I had to start walking my bike. Eventually, it didn’t even look like much of a path anymore. The sun was setting and it was already starting to get cold. After a while I started seeing coyote tracks. I started to get the fear. I was in shorts and t-shirt, wet feet, limited water, no food, I’m in the middle of the desert with no map, the sun is setting rapidly, the temperature dropping, in coyote land. I abandoned the idea of finding the loop back to San Pedro, and turned around to retrace my steps back to town.
At one point, in the waning daylight, I missed a turn. Luckily, there was still enough light that I soon realized that I didn’t recognize my surroundings, and turned back to find the correct path. If it was much darker, I easily might have wandered off into the desert.
Eventually, I made it home in the dark at about 7:15pm, just as it was starting to get really cold. I returned the bike, then got a hot chocolate and took a hot shower to warm up.
I headed out for the night, and booked an astronomy tour which would leave at 11pm.
In the meantime, I found Sol Inti for dinner. I got a bowl of soup and a steak sandwich the size of the plate. De-fucken-licious.
I put on a couple more layers, then met the tour group for the astronomy tour. We were bused 20 minutes westward into the desert to the home and observatory of an astronomer originally from Canada. We stood outside for about an hour as he used a laser pointer to explain the star map and point out various constellations, planets, star clusters, etc. Then we went to his outdoor observatory where about a dozen telescopes were fixed on various astral wonders. In the end, there was a Q&A inside over hot chocolate. Overall, super cool, albeit cold. It was probably the clearest, most mind-blowing night sky I’ve ever seen.
I spent planning the next morning planning the next steps of my journey. It seemed there weren’t many good sites in the north of Chile between San Pedro and Santiago. Based on the advice of others at my hostel, I decided I would cross into Argentina next. I headed to the bus station, and bought a ticket to Salta for the next morning.
In early afternoon, I again rented a bike again. This time I set out for El Valle de Luna (The Moon Valley), named such because the landscape is similar to that of the moon. So much so that NASA tests moon rovers there.
It took about 30 minutes, riding along highways, to reach the entrance. From there it was a 13km ride to the end of the valley, with various stops along the way. On the way, I stopped at the Salt Canyon and caves, The Great Dune, and Las Tres Marias.
Riding all the way to the Three Marys at the end of the valley was tiring, but not too much of a task as it’s mostly flat or downhill the entire way. Consequently, the ride back was a bitch, uphill nearly the whole way. I put it in low gear and gave it hell, but had to walk the bike uphill at a couple points when my legs were spent.
I returned to San Pedro at about 6:30pm. I rested a bit before heading to a yoga class at 7:30pm at Kimal Spa. I was lucky to be the sole attendee that night, and received personalized instruction from the teacher, Krishna from Southern India.
After yoga, I returned to Sol Inti for another gigantic sandwich. I then wandered the streets again, and finished myself off with some artisanal ice cream.
The next day, I cooked a quick breakfast, then hoofed it to the bus station at 9am. My bus to Salta was scheduled for 9:30am, but didn’t actually leave until 10:15am. As the bus cruised through town, I reckoned I wouldn’t have minded staying a bit longer in San Pedro. It has the feel of a place where I’d like to relax for a while. However, at this point in my trip, it’s full steam ahead to get through Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay before I return home.