The Atacama Desert - Life On Mars

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Whilst exploring the landscapes of the Atacama desert, it’s very easy to believe you’re on a different planet. The harsh inhospitable terrain of Valle de la Muerta contrasts with patches of green where alpacas and vicuñas graze. Here it’s commonplace to experience sunrise over El Tatio Geysers and sunset across Valle de la Luna all in a day, sandwiched with numerous lagoons in between. A place as distinctive as the Atacama desert is likely to leave even the novice traveller a little jaded. 

We took the bus from Uyuni to Calama, the main city in the Atacama desert, before then taking another bus for about an hour to reach the small oasis town of San Pedro. Overwhelmed by tourist agencies, we decided to simply look at two and make a decision based on which was cheaper. Half an hour later we’d booked some tours, checked into our hostel and all was good. We’re pretty pleased about how our time in the desert turned out but there’s a few things we would’ve liked to have known before or would’ve done differently. So here’s a little more about the activities we did around San Pedro and some tips to make sure you make the most out of your time and money!

Laguna Escondida

Of all the amazing things you could do in the desert, one thing that excited me the most was the floating lagoons. These were simply bodies of water with high concentrations of salt, similar to the Dead Sea, meaning that you can float with minimal effort. Now that might not sound overwhelmingly exciting compared to the other activities on offer, however in any normal water I seem incapable to hold my body up. In other words, the last time I recall floating was to pass a swim test as a kid by lying on my back like a star. The prospect of being able to float again therefore seemed to me, to be a well worth while activity.

There are a couple of floating lagoons in the Atacama and Laguna Cejar is by far the more famous of the two. But BEWARE! There are entrants fees on top of the fee you pay the agency for most of the activities running from San Pedro and the fee for Laguna Cejar is a whopping 15.000 Chilean Pesos (£18). When comparing this to only 5000 pesos for Laguna Escondida it was a no brainer for us. We had such a great time and would totally recommend this tour!

El Tatio Geyser

This was my personal favourite of the lot and was definitely worth the 5:00am start. Yep, you read that right - 5am! It’s about an hours drive to the geysers and the early start is because the geysers are more active in the morning. The geysers themselves were excellent and we were pleasantly surprised that the tour kept going a while afterwards. We continued past the geysers for a few hours more, stopping off to see lagoons, volcanoes and vicuñas along the way. In my opinion you got the most for your money on this tour, especially because a decent sized breakfast was included! 

Entrance fee: 10000 pesos

Valle de la Luna 
In my opinion this is the biggest ‘must-do’ activity in the Atacama desert, as the landscapes you encounter are like nothing else. The tour consisted of a guided walk around the petrified rocks with explanations as to how the valley formed over time, followed by short walks up to viewpoints, finishing on a perfect sunset. Unavoidably the tour is busy and there are lots of groups which all leave at the same time in order to see the sunset, however some things are super touristy for a reason- simply because they really are awesome. This is one of those things! Watching the sun set over the valley was the perfect way to end our time in the Atacama desert and a great high point to finish our travels through Chile.

Entrance fee: 3000 pesos

Things we wish we’d known before!

  • There are entrance fees for most activities. Don’t forget to factor these in!
  • There aren’t supermarkets in San Pedro! If you can, bring some food with you, cause unsurprisingly the food here is expensive, especially if you’re eating out all the time. 
  • Check the moon calendar! We were lucky enough to do some great stargazing in the Elqui Valley and so weren’t as disappointed as we could’ve been when our stargazing got cancelled a few times in the Atacama desert. Tours don’t run 5 days around a full moon and are likely to be cancelled further around these dates so make sure you check!
  • Watch the weather! Valle de la Luna shuts for a week after it rains to allow time for rocks to fall. This doesn’t happen often but don’t let it stop you from seeing the valley!
  • Although tempting to try our hands at sand boarding, we've heard a lot that its much cheaper to do in Huacachina, Peru where we'll be heading in a few weeks. We recommend those on a similar route to do the same!

Where we stayed...

We stayed in a hostel called Hostal Matty and were pleased with it overall. It was definitely one of the cheapest places in town, the rooms were clean, the beds comfy and the showers were warm. WiFi was decent and there was a decent sized kitchen. A few downsides were a lack of plug sockets and the kitchen was really poorly equipped but we couldn’t complain for the price at about £12 /night per bed. They’re not on Hostelworld or but you can find them on Facebook if you want to reserve beds. They also have bikes to rent much cheaper than other places in town if you fancy cycling out into the desert!

Hope this has been useful!

Thanks for reading,

Will & Melissa

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