After the long bus journey we finally arrived in San Pedro – a small town located in the Atcama desert – the driest place on earth. Average annual rainfall is just 40mm, whilst nearby Iquique went some 16 years without rain!
We stayed in an Airbnb located within a gated complex made up of a collection of small mud houses (one room only) with a shared kitchen and shower block. The complex is managed by a Chilean lady called Angelica and her husband who is also a local artist specialising in indigenous art. We later found out that they were allowed to stay in their humble house for free in exchange for running the bnb.
By this point we were very hungry, so we headed to the local vegan cafe “Estrella Negra” as recommended by Lonely Planet and enjoyed a tasty set menu lunch. Unfortunately for us they had ran out of the banana cake for dessert, so we had to make do with watermelon instead. This seems to be a common theme – whenever we have ordered a set menu during our time in SA, a dish has either run out and been replaced with a less desirable alternative or a course has simply not been served altogether!
After lunch we wandered the town to explore the various tours that were on offer and to negotiate the best price. We ended up booking two tours for the San Pedro area, as well as an overland tour to Bolivia departing three days later, all with the company World White Travel who were really friendly and gave us a bit of a discount.
Our first full day in San Pedro started with a free walking tour of the town, focusing on its more recent history. San Pedro has seen rapid population growth in the last 25 years from just 2,800 inhabitants in 1993 to nearly 11,000 now. On top of the permanent population, around one million tourists visit San Pedro every year. Whilst the atacameños receive some income from the tourist attractions (with the attractions being divided between the various communities), the reality is that a lot of the wealth goes to outsiders (afueriños) who have come to get their share of the pie.
Our guide also told us tales of a controversial Belgium man named Gustavo Le Paige who lived in Atacama in the mid 20th Century. Although not a trained archeologist, he dug up countless mummies from the Atacama area, starting a public as well as his own personal collection. Many believe that he even bribed the local children to reveal the burial grounds of their ancestors. Despite the controversy surrounding Le Paige, the archeologist, people were unable to protest about him as he was also the local priest.
We also got an overview of San Pedro’s long history of drug taking. Today, many travellers come to San Pedro for a spiritual experience induced by mescaline. Paul can attest to this, as when he awoke at night to go to the toilet at about 1.30am, he saw a group of people sitting in a cloud of smoke opposite a man playing an instrument similar to a didgeridoo in the courtyard of our Airbnb. However, drug taking in San Pedro is unable to be paired with drinking, as the council have banned alcohol consumption (unless purchased with food) with the exception of one bar in the town where beer can be served on its own. This is to avoid San Pedro turning into the next Ibiza…
We were able to sample some legal plants offered to us by our tour guide including chañar (a sweet date like fruit with a stone), the false pepper tree (which bears corns that are sweet at first, but peppery once you bite into them) and algaroba (pods belonging to the pea family).
Post tour we went for lunch at a small cafe recommended to us by our guide. At just 3,800 pesos (approximately £4) we enjoyed a filling two courses, which stood us in good stead for the afternoon’s activity – the first of our tours, visiting the moon valley (‘Valle de la Luna”) in the scorching dessert sun.
We saw some incredible sites including caves, an ex salt mine (the salt is now protected due to it having 85%-90% clarity), a vast sand dune and the rather underwhelming Tres Marias (Three Mary’s) rock formation. We ended the tour taking in the sunset across the valley. It’s fair to say that we were blown away by the scenery and its resemblance to the surface of the moon. Unfortunately we were less than impressed by our somewhat robotic tour guide, who delivered his commentary with little enthusiasm and in a very stilted manner. Rather than explaining a point fully in Spanish and then in English, he insisted on translating half sentences or even just single words from Spanish into English (“porque”…”because”, “las tres Maria’s”…” The three Mary’s ” etc.), making for very confusing listening!
The next day we awoke early to visit the Tatio geyser. The tour bus picked us up at 4:30 am and drove us to the geothermal field located about 90km outside of San Pedro at 4,200m above sea level. Arriving early in -5 degree temperatures meant that the smoke coming off the various geysers and fumaroles was even more pronounced.
Unlike our guide the day before, our guide was informative and enthusiastic. He even prepared us scrambled eggs and hot drinks after we had visited the geothermal field. We were able to warm up even more with a dip in the geothermal baths. Although the sun had risen by this point, it was still pretty chilly to be stripping down to swim wear, but bathing in the hot water made it worth it!
On our drive back to San Pedro, we stopped to see some altiplano lakes and then paid a visit to Machuca – a traditional Andean town complete with a picturesque church that dates back to the 16th Century and lots of llamas!
Post tour we headed for yet another bargain set lunch. Unfortunately Paul had a headache – which had most likely been brought on by the altitude – so we decided to spend the afternoon relaxing with Lucas the dog and preparing for our three day trip to the Bolivian salt flats which would commence the next day.