Desert oasis – San Pedro de Atacama

30 Jul

As our bus hurtled down the steep road from the altiplano, San Pedro de Atacama looked nothing more than a collection of mud huts and farms. However, we soon came to consider this place as our oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert.

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A quarter of a century ago San Pedro was little more than a small community of tribal people living at the foot of the Andes and scratching an existence through farming llamas and vegetables on the dusty hillsides. However, in recent years the town has grown rapidly and experienced a tourism boom due to the incredible landscapes and beautiful attractions in the surrounding area. The town is now said to be Chile’s fourth most visited placed behind Santiago, Easter Island and Torres del Paine National Park and has all of the necessities and many of the luxuries a traveller could wish for.

We found a guest house offering camping just a few blocks from the main street and picked a sunny spot to pitch our tent. Each morning we awoke to blue skies and sunshine and temperatures during the day rose to around 25 degrees whilst at night the skies were clear and temperatures dropped to zero so we were pleased we’d invested in good sleeping bags!

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The guest house had two friendly dogs and a goat who seemed to think he too was a dog as he’s often run over to greet you and liked a scratch on the neck. As goat’s do, this one like to eat everything and anything so it was a constant battle to keep him away from our tent. One morning the goat took umbrage at Dan trying to shoo him away and took a run up to butt him on the knee cap. Needless to say the air was blue and our friend Mr Goat didn’t get quite so many scratches from them on.

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Our first impression of the town as being filled with mud huts wasn’t entirely crazy as many of the buildings are layered on the outside with a mixture of straw, cactus juice and mud and decorated with Inca-like designs and symbols.

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These types of abodes added to the mystic feeling around the town and many spiritual people are drawn here to indulge in yoga, meditation and tarot card readings. The town’s population is in the region of 5,000 people and the centre is roughly made up of ten streets clustered around the plaza. The ancient church stands at the middle of the leafy square and painted bright white it stands out as a complete contrast to the predominately brown and dusty town.

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Restaurants with pretty courtyards welcome tourists to swing in hammocks and sip cold fruit juice during the day and light fires in the evening so patrons can enjoy a meal under a blanket of stars. Funky bars host local bands in the evenings and serve strong cocktails to encourage people onto the dance floor. Despite the abundance of amenities to keep us happy in the town we decided to check out the dizzying array of trips and activities on offer in the surrounding area and sample just a few.

Pukara de Quitor

Built on the slopes of Cordillera de la Sal and overlooking the San Pedro river, Pukara de Quitor is the ruins of an old fortress built by the Incas in the twelth century to defend the population and is located an easy 3km walk from town. Archeological digs on the site have revealed that the fortress not only had strategic and defensive purposes but was also used for the community with housing quarters, communal squares and animal pens all defined.

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The ruins themselves are reasonably well-preserved, however, the main draw card to this site for us was the amazing views from the ruins and the 360 degree panorama from a viewpoint 45 minutes climb above the fortress.

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The Atacama desert occupies a large Northern section of Chile and was taken from Peru and Bolivia after Chile was victorious in the War of the Pacific. To this day it’s a huge bone of contention, especially for Bolivia who lost their only access to the sea and valuable exporting possibilities.

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The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on Earth and from where we stood sand, rocks and in the distance salt plains, spilled out as far as the eye could see.

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A spine of mountains and volcanos, some nearing 6,000 metres in height and covered in deep snow and ice, formed a crescent around the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama and made for an astonishing sight. Enormous golden sand dunes rose out of one part of the desert and plucky tourists hired equipment to try their hand at sand-boarding down the steep slopes. In another part of the desert red rock formations took on unusual shapes – one in particular reminded us of the pipes from a church organ.

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We posed for a number of photographs and then sat on a high wall just surveying the landscape in quiet contemplation and feeling very lucky to be in that spot right then.

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Tatio Geysers

The Tatio Geysers are a truly magical attraction. The only downside was that the tour we took departed at 4am in order to make the 90km trip and reach the site for sunrise – when the geysers are most active and when the new dawn makes for a brilliant light show. The Geysers are situated in El Tatio geothermal basin and are approximately 4,320 metres above sea level, making them the highest active geysers on Earth.

The temperatures when we arrived were hovering around minus 5 and we were told that we’d got off lightly that morning as it can be as cold as minus 15 at this time of the year. Despite that lame reassurance our teeth chattered and our bodies shivered as our tour group huddled around a table laden with breakfast and coffee in the park headquarters.

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After 3 hot and strong cups of coffee and a cheese roll we started to feel a little more awake and warm. Our guide hurried everyone to finish their breakfast and move back outside for the sunrise. Our first view of the geysers was really amazing.

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Through fissures cut deep into the Earth’s crust, enormous funnels of steam rose to the surface and filled the air, some up to 10 metres high. Our guide explained that the geysers are formed when underground rivers make contact with hot rocks deep below the surface, and here, where the terrestrial earth had weak spots, the gasses were pushed up to the surface.

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All around the geysers the yellow tufts of grass and brown dirt were frozen solid. The mountains surrounding the basin were also dusted with fresh snow and the air was bitterly cold. In contrast, the water that bubbled up from the geysers was 85 degrees and filled the air with sulphuric fumes. There were hundreds of geysers and our guide carefully walked us between them explaining about the geology and answering any questions we had.

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We asked why there weren’t any geysers spurting water and he explained that when he was a boy, about 30 years ago, there were such things but a rush for mineral resources in the late 80’s meant oil and gas companies had drilled many bore holes in the surrounding area looking to hit the jackpot and this had released the pressure underground so there was no longer the force to propel jets of water skywards.

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The guide was much saddened that the irresponsible acts of humans had affected this special place and he stressed, very wisely, that we really must take steps to look after our special planet.

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As the sun slowly rose over the mountains a golden glow was cast through the valley and warmed our cold bones.

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The guide invited us to swim in a geothermal pool created with the volcanic hot water but we politely declined considering the temperature was still around zero.

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We enjoyed watching the crazy few who did venture into the water – sucking air in through their puckered lips at an alarmingly high rate as they changed into their swimwear and made a dash for the water and once they immersed themselves in the giant communal bath letting out huge sighs of satisfaction.

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Once we’d rejoined the bus our driver took us through hills and valley where families of Vicuña roamed free. A Vicuña is a cross between a Llama and a deer and they are becoming very rare with only a few places in South America where you can see them, so we felt very privileged to see scores of them grazing and interacting with one another.

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We passed dazzling blue lakes which were still partly frozen and saw distant steaming volcanos.

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We stopped at a small village on the way back for a toilet break and a mid-morning bite to eat. The village was little more than a cluster of homes which looked like they hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. We mused that the only way the villagers must survive these days is by collecting a few pesos from tourists using the toilet and cooking for the hungry tour mob which descended every few days.

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To do our bit for the local community we had a deep fried cheese empanadas and a sopaipilla (deep-fried donut like mixture) – both not the greatest for our waistlines but utterly delicious.

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For the last part of the journey back to San Pedro we both nodded in and out of consciousness with full tummies and warmth on the bus. We were quickly learning the art of being able to sleep anywhere at anytime!

Laguna Cejar and Laguna Chaxas

We visited Lake Cejar which is one of the few places in the World where the water’s hugely high salt content means you can literally float on top of the water without a single swimming stroke.

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We arrived early afternoon so the sun was warm and we weren’t going to miss a quick dip. We were instantly mesmerised by Lake Cejar and its two smaller sister lakes where swimming was not permitted.

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The scenery around us was painted in pale pastel colours, the air was fresh and the snow-capped mountains created beautiful reflections in the still water. Bright white patches of salt encircled the lakes and clung to our feet and legs as we walked barefoot.

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Lake Cejar was absolutely freezing! Not the type of water that feels cold at first and after a few minutes becomes refreshing but instead it was water that took our breath away and covered our bodies with giant-sized goose bumps. Strangely, it was possible to feel some warm thermal currents if we plunged our legs straight down below us but the water on the surface remained like an ice bath.

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At first we treaded water not quite believing that if we stopped swimming we wouldn’t plunge to the bottom but eventually…nothing – no splashing around and just calmness as we floated with graceful ease. It was an incredibly surreal experience which felt very close to an out-of-body experience. When we climbed out of the lake we were covered in a fine layer of salt. We laughed at one young, dark-haired guy who came out of the water with grey hair and looking like he’d aged 30 years!

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Our next stop was a spot nick-named the ‘Ojos’ or the ‘Eyes’ of the desert and it was instantly easy to see why when we arrived as two deep, round holes filled with water appeared side by side. Moss and green plants hung around the side of these perfect circular pools and it wasn’t possible to see to the bottom of the deep blue water. We discovered that the holes had been left behind by a natural resources mining company who had made the holes to test for gas but had found nothing apart from an underground water supply.

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Over many years the holes became bigger and now the pools could probably hold up to 50 people side by side in the water. Some people wasted no time stripping back down into their swimwear and jumping into the fresh water to clean the salt from their bodies whilst others milled around enjoying the unusual scenery.

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A further 30 minutes drive took us to Chaxas Lagoon where we would watch the sun set whilst drinking cold Pisco Sours.

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Several groups of people stretched out along the sandy beach facing the lagoon but despite the other people present a beautiful silence filled the air.

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At times we felt quite emotional watching the scene unfold before our eyes but perhaps that was just the Pisco talking!

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The sky turned pink, red and orange as the sun dipped below the horizon and a pair of pink flamingos were framed by the mountain backdrop.

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We’d certainly seen a lot of sunsets in our time but at that moment we knew this had been one of the best as it had touched something inside of us.

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Leaving San Pedro de Atacama would be hard for us, especially as it would also be our last stop in Chile, and we reflected on all of the things we’d seen and done along with the wonderful warmth and hospitality of the Chilean people we’d met who’d helped to make the journey so enjoyable. Our next stop on our Latin American adventure would be Bolivia and we knew exciting and crazy things would be in store for us.

4 Responses to “Desert oasis – San Pedro de Atacama”

  1. tina stevenson December 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    dear kate and dan what a wonderful journey you are having. Looked at a lot of your adventures, and felt as if I have been with you both. I could take boobie home with me. The two of you are stars in the making. Great adventures Tina

    • latinchattin December 9, 2013 at 12:27 am #

      Thanks Tina! Really pleased that you’re enjoying our blog and feel like you’re on an adventure with us from the comfort of your armchair. Stay tuned as there’s lots more still to come… xx

  2. Tom January 25, 2017 at 8:33 pm #

    Beautiful!!! Thanks for sharing that.

    • latinchattin January 26, 2017 at 6:12 am #

      Thanks Tom! It’s a gorgeous place so pleased that came across well in our post 😀 Happy travels to you!

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