Arrival to Calama, Chile
I got into the Calama airport bright and early. The transfers from the airport to San Pedro de Atacama were all 12.000CLP ($24US) one way and 20.000CLP ($40US) round trip and after all the money I had spent on cabs to and from the airport in Santiago I was bound and determined to find a cheaper way to get to the tiny desert town. I knew from Calama there were buses to San Pedro for 3.000CLP, so my goal was to make it there. Unfortunately taxis to Calama almost made up the difference between the one way trip price and I was about to give in when I spotted 3 Chilean boys with big backpacks on, they looked the type to refuse to pay for the transfer as well.
I ran over to them and quickly asked if and how they were going to San Pedro, my instincts were correct, they were sharing a taxi to Calama and then bussing from there. Incredibly kind, they immediately invited me to partake with their travel plans. They were three brothers; Javier, Diego, and Marcelo Jr., traveling with their dad, Marcelo, from Santiago for a week vacation in San Pedro. After convincing the taxi driver to squeeze 5 of us in the cab (nice enough not to use this as an excuse to get me to go on my own way) we were on our way to Calama. After not allowing me to pay for my portion of the cab we went on the search for a bank to get some money out before catching a bus.
Immediately we were accompanied by a giant pack of dogs, kiltros, who hilariously chased each other, jumped in fountains, and felt like a group of rowdy boys playing in the street.
The Mysterious bus from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama
Finding the bus was another story, if you don’t know exactly how to catch the bus from Calama I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you don’t mind a long wait. Thanks to the fact the family was persistent and asked about 20 people where we needed to go, within the hour we were picked up by a random bus on a random corner on our way to San Pedro.
The hour and a half drive was through crazy landscape, deserts with the Andes in the background, huge random mounds of dirt, and wind farms. Sitting on that bus I was able to reflect on my morning thus far and couldn’t help but to smile. By taking a risk and asking some strangers for advice in another language (aka testing the boundaries of my comfort zone) I had been taken in by an incredibly kind and wonderful family in an alternative route to San Pedro; this part of the trip was starting great.
Within no time we were getting off the bus in San Pedro and together we started walking towards the tiny town. I had reservations at Hostel Rural, but they hadn’t made any in search of the best deal upon arriving to town. They walked me to my door with a WhatsApp number and the promise that they would come find me after finding a place to stay and help me figure out my tours.
San Pedro de Atacama – Hostal Rural + The Town
Hostal Rural was eclectic, cute, and very well decorated. I dropped off my things then headed out in the town to purchase some groceries for the week. San Pedro de Atacama is one of the strangest towns I have ever seen. Mostly dirt roads with walls lining the sidewalk. In the walls there are doors and windows, but not much separation between the different “buildings.” Every single place is occupied by either a tour company, restaurant, hostel, mini market, or indigenous souvenir shop. Obviously it’s a town that completely lives off tourism.
As I got back to my hostel I saw Javier and Marcelo standing outside, they were looking for me because they had gotten a great deal on tours and wanted to show me where their hostel was. Laughing I quickly put my groceries away and followed them to their hostel.
At this point in my trip I was still pretty set on traveling alone; it was the main reason I came alone and the desert seemed like a good place for reflection and discovery. However I had this Chilean family trying to include me on their trip and isn’t that the point of traveling alone as well, to meet new people and have opportunities that wouldn’t be presented to you otherwise?
Their hostel was on the other side of town and they had gotten a private room in a little house behind the hostel. They introduced me to Daniel, the tour coordinator of the hostel, and informed me that they had gotten the deal to do 4 tours for 50.000CLP… An absolutely incredible deal as most of the tours range from 15.000 to 50.000 a piece.
Making the Decision to Give Up Travelling Solo
It’s sounds silly, but this decision to either partake in their tours or not was a big one for me. If I said yes I would be letting go of my natural instincts, to plan and organize everything (as I have a major tendency to do) and be putting the fate of my trip in the hands of this family I had met 3 hours earlier. It would also be forgoing the idea of solitude and choosing to have companions for the rest of the trip.
Pretty much it meant letting go of this predisposed idea I had of what my time would be like in San Pedro, letting go of control, and completely going with the flow. After doing some easy math and realizing that I wouldn’t be able to find a deal like this for tour prices, I said yes.
And it was the best decision I could have possibly made.
Authentic Chilean Lunch in San Pedro
After paying for the tours (Marcelo lent me 30.000CLP (a lot of money) as I had used all of mine paying for hostel – just yet another example of how generous and nice this family was) we headed off to an authentic lunch place recommended by Daniel. There we had a delicious authentic Chilean lunch, I tried cazuela , a vegetable and cow stew, and an amazing tasty meat seasoned to perfection. Before I had a chance Marcelo paid for lunch, and I stared to make a mental list of everything I now owed him haha.
Tour of Valle de la Luna with LaYama Tour Agency
Our first tour was going to be that afternoon at 3, Valle de la Luna! So I quickly headed back to my hostel, changed and grabbed my things, then met them at the tour agency, LaYama, and we were off.
Viewpoint over Valle de la Muerte
The first stop was a spectacular view of Valle de la Muerte. From here you could see the Andes in the distance, the flat desert, incredible dirt mountains, and a giant sand dune people were sand boarding down. It was beautiful.
Our guide was a quirky and forceful man, who would give you an earful if you asked a question about something he already said. But he knew an incredible amount about the rocks and the formations.
Valle de la Luna
We then continued on into Valle de la Luna. An annoying aspect of the area around San Pedro is all the parks have entrance fees which you have to pay on top of the price of the tour. So when planning our trip with Daniel, Marcelo was sure to confirm that the parks we were going to weren’t going end up costing as much as the price of our original tours. Also with my student ID card I was able to get discounts as well. As I was standing in line, Marcelo came up and gave me a ticket and brochure… He had paid again. Things were getting ridiculous, I added it to my mental list.
After entering Valle de la Luna, it looked as though everything was covered in snow. But it was hot outside. Our guide informed us that 2 months ago there was a day of rain (and we were in the driest desert in the world). The rain brought up a bunch of minerals from the sand, and as the water evaporated it left hard, white salt crystals covering everything. So to see the landscape this was very rare, something that even the experts were curious as to see what would happen with time to the crystals.
Las Tres Maria – Valle de la Luna
First we saw Las Tres Marias, three giant rocks in the midst of the desert which are thought to be the remains of an extinct geyser.
Anfiteatro – Valle de la Luna
Next was the el anfiteatro, an enormous slab of rock that resembled an amphitheater. We walked down the road taking pictures of the alien like landscape and appreciating the rare beauty. The guide also demonstrated the center of gravity all the rocks have by how they are formed geologically and balanced rocks on their points that I would have never thought possible (the explanation was definitely over my head haha).
We then continued to the salt caverns where we could hear the water expanding in the rocks and got to walk through a small cave/tunnel.
Mirador de Cari + Coyote Rock
The tour ended with watching the sunset from coyote rock and mirador de Cari. During the tour I had met a super nice girl from the states so we switched off taking tons of pictures, always the best people to meet :)!
In San Pedro the sun makes an ENORMOUS difference in temperature, therefore after the sunset it didn’t take much to get us all loaded back into the van to head back to San Pedro.
Dinner in San Pedro de Atacama
Immediately after getting out off the bus my Chilean family (as I was starting to think of them) asked if I wanted to eat dinner with them, sure! At their hostel we ate some scrambled eggs with tomatoes with bread, where I started to space out from all the Spanish and the long crazy day. Javier and Diego insisted on walking me back to my hostel and all that was left to do was pass out as the next tour to Lagunas Altiplanicas would be picking me up at 6:30 am. Continue reading here!