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Crossing the Andes into Chile

September 20, 2009

Driving across the Andes

The drive to San Pedro de Atacama from Salta is really incredible. There are only two companies that do the route, Geminis and Pullman. We took Geminis. The drive is about nine hours, and even this one was an improvement from our long bus ride to Salta! We even got two huge sandwiches for our “light lunch”!

But the drive itself is the real highlight, crossing the Andes mountains. The bus climbs up and up, twisting and turning and around huge gorgeous mountains, and all you can see is mountains everywhere, all different colors, splattered with cacti. Then you descend down into flat desert and brush, some salt pans, then back up into mountains, and then repeat again.

Herding llamas on the side of the road!

The sky was bright blue, the clouds were perfect, the colors of everything — the red and brown desert, the blinding white salt flats, the bluish purple mountains in the distance — were absolutely incredible. And then there are llamas and vicuñas on the sides of the road as well! Sometimes the bus would have to stop and let them cross the road.

Then finally you cross the border of Argentina, they stamp you out, and it’s two more hours driving in nowhere until you finally arrive to San Pedro and officially enter Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama

At first sight, San Pedro hardly seems like somewhere you’d want to go. The customs office is off a dirt road, with only shack-like buildings around. But you walk a few hundred meters and you eventually come into town. It is a very small town! Maybe 6-8 streets. It’s the week of Chile’s independence day so there were Chilean flags everywhere, and we had to do some scouting before we could find a hostel with space.

We lucked out and the three of us (Natalie from Germany, Vouter/Walter from Holland, and me) were able to get a room to ourselves for just 6,000 pesos each (which is still a lot of money, but is cheap for here!) At first I wasn’t sure how impressed I was with San Pedro. It’s a town based pretty much entirely on tourism, and it is expensive. There isn’t much in the way of options at the supermarkets, so you’re almost forced to eat out, which can add up quickly. And basically all there is to do is take tours, which are also a bit expensive.

El Tatio geysers

We spent our first afternoon walking around to tourist agencies trying to find a good deal for the tours we wanted to do, went out to dinner, then headed to bed as we had an early start the next day.

On Saturday morning we had a tour starting at 4am. Bundled up in basically everything we owned, we boarded the minibus and drove two hours out to the El Tatio geysers, right near the border of Bolivia.

El Tatio is one of only four geothermal parks in the world (the US, Russia, and New Zealand have the others). I wasn’t really expecting much, but I was actually quite impressed with the geysers. There were tons and tons of them, and the steam looked especially impressive in the dawn light.

Chillin' with llamas!

It was freeezing though! But they provided a really delicious breakfast, including eggs and chocolate milk that they boiled in the water of one of the geysers! Then we visited some thermal pools and dipped our feet into one of them. Again, I found that I could understand most of what the guide was saying in Spanish, which felt pretty good. 🙂

The drive back was through some gorgeous landscapes, and we were able to stop off and go see some llamas and vicuñas grazing on the side of the road. We also stopped in a tiny village where we got to try llama kebabs. I have to say, llama meat is very, very tasty indeed! I really liked it.

Running down the huge sand dunes

By 12:30 we were back in San Pedro and ready for a quick shower and nap before heading onto our next tour at 2:30. This time we were off to some spectacular valleys. We visited La Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) which was beautiful and fun! We got to run down these huuuge sand dunes. It was quite a rush! And the surroundings were absolutely incredible. Gorgeous.

Then we were off to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). Again, we walked through the valley and it was very impressive. Then we climbed a huge dune and watched the sunset. What is incredible is not the sunset itself, which happens quite fast, but the colors of the mountains opposite the sun, which change as the sun sets into a variety of incredibly gorgeous colors. It was absolutely amazing.

Then we were back to San Pedro again, absolutely exhausted. We grabbed some dinner and headed to bed again.

Gorgeous sunset at Valle de la Luna

Yesterday was a more relaxed day. We slept in and spent the day doing some of the more routine necessities of travel: laundry, internet, etc. Last night we had a stargazing tour. The only thing I can say is: WOW! The tour is at a French couple’s home out in the desert, and the stars are absolutely awesome. I have seen some incredible skies in many places I’ve traveled: the Sahara, Bali, the Whitsundays. This sky definitely ranked right up at the top with them. But what made it even better was actually learning so much about them and being able to appreciate everything in the sky.

Jupiter and two of its moons (through the telescope!)

The wife gave us our tour. She had this great laser that could point right up into the sky. She taught us so much. She explained how the sky rotates based on the latitude of where you are. She showed us tons of constellations, explained the zodiac signs that we could see in the sky. She explained the Milky Way and why you could see the part of it that you did. She showed us galaxies and star clusters we could see with the naked eye, Jupiter, and so much more.

I actually felt pretty impressed with myself of how much I remembered from my astronomy class I had like six or seven years ago! But I learned so many new things as well, it was really fascinating. And I saw three or four falling stars! And I’ve realized, there is a difference between a shooting star and a falling star! Before I’ve always seeing shooting stars — they literally look like they’re shooting across the sky. These were truly falling stars! They were just falling down…I actually thought to myself, “Oh my gosh, a meteor is going to land over there or something!” It was crazy!



Then they had a setup of about eight different sized telescopes. They took us around and explained them all — everything from Jupiter (you can even see a couple of its moons!) to stars and galaxies forming, Andromeda (another spiral shaped galaxy), all kinds of things. It was seriously one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Then we finished off the night going inside and sitting around a candle and drinking hot chocolate (I was so bundled up this time – jeans, long underwear, tights, five or six layers of shirts and jackets, two gloves, two socks, etc —  I actually wasn’t cold at all! Everyone else was shivering though) while the husband explained us the more scientific parts of the stars and astronomy, how stars are formed and such. He was really funny, too, which kept it from being boring at all.

Bundled up for stargazing

Bundled up for stargazing

All in all it was an awesome tour, like the others we did in San Pedro. Today Natalie and Vouter are climbing a volcano but I really just couldn’t afford it, so I’m taking the day to relax and catch up on things. I will be leaving for Bolivia tomorrow with Natalie, on a three day tour through the desert, lagoons, salt flats, etc. up to Uyuni. Then we will part ways after quite a while of traveling together, which will be sad. I will be back on my own again, in Bolivia… I’m a bit nervous but I’m sure it will be fine!

San Pedro is a great place and I really enjoyed my time here. It’s beautiful and there are certainly lots of things to do here. This has been the longest I’ve been in one place since Buenos Aires, but it felt that it went by fast. I’m ready to move on to Bolivia though. It’s just a bit too expensive here for my taste, and it can be pretty boring if you spend a day in town and not doing any kind of tour.

Accomodation: Hostel Florida – 6000 pesos/nt (~$12US). The place is not bad, especially being that it’s probably the cheapest option in town. It also has the best shower I’ve had in South America! Hot and great pressure (though there’s only one for each sex). Otherwise not much on offer. A kitchen, one computer with free internet (sometimes), and a fairly nice little courtyard with some hammocks (but it’s often too hot or too cold to sit out there long!) No wifi brought it down, but that’s probably the only real negative.

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