San Pedro de Atacama

I arrived in the Atacama desert via a three day salt flats tour which began in Uyuni. The first part of the border crossing took place in the desert itself and I was not impressed to say the very least. Despite us arriving early and being towards the front of the queue, the Bolivian immigration police decided they were only going to let those entering Bolivia from Chile to complete their passport check. I waited in the bitter cold for one hour whilst tourists entering Bolivia were allowed straight in – no queueing necessary. I’ve visited the Arctic and this level of cold certainly challenged that. I was miserable quite frankly and the two boys I waited with who had been in my tour tried to console me as my lips began turning blue and my chest began to ache. This all seems very dramatic I know, but it was poor treatment and a complete lack of fairness. The wind was blowing hard and people in my queue began getting more and more fed up. Obviously this had no effect and we simply had to wait the full hour before they finally began allowing us to show our passports and cross the border.

This, however, was only the first hurdle for me. I arrived at the next border crossing by bus, a journey which took roughly one hour, and then began queueing with everyone else to present our passports and Chilean immigration forms. Thankfully the sun was shining in this part of the desert and so waiting wasn’t an issue. I chatted with a couple of people from my bus as we waited before coming face to face with one of the passport checkers in one of two booths. This is where problem number two arised. The man asked me to remove my winter hat which of course I did, though I felt slightly embarassed to do so considering I hadn’t showered for four days. It was a serious case of greasy hat hair. After looking at me, then my passport, then me, then my passport, he came to the conclusion that the photo was not me! This had never happened to me before and I was quite taken aback by the confrontation – so much so that I didn’t really know what to say in response. I looked at him with wide eyes and muttered something like “but it is me” and he simply looked at me with an expression that suggested he was not convinced – at all. He handed the passport to his colleague who also compared me in real life to the photo version of me (which is me, by the way) and also looked unimpressed. He explained that the main problem was that my eyes were brown in the photo but I did not have brown eyes in real life. This I could sort of understand and I explained that it must have been the lighting because I’ve never worn contact lenses, but neither of them looked convinced. At this point I really started to panic which I think translated into my face because the second immigration officer looked slightly sorry for me. He handed the passport back to the first officer who continued to be totally unconvinced. I remember saying something along the lines of “seriously?! but it´s me!” – there was definitely more desperation and purpose in my voice that time, though clearly not convincing enough still. He shook his head but finally his colleague encouraged him to let me in and very reluctantly, the first officer agreed. He shook his head again, stamped my passport and allowed me to proceed to the bag check. I was well and truly relieved.

The bus driver asked where each of us were staying and when I told him Cimas del Hostal, he sighed and told me it was out of town and therefore further away than everyone else´s accommodation choices. He wanted me to get a taxi but I explained to him that I had no Chilean pesos as I was hoping to exchange my Bolivianos in San Pedro town and didn´t expect to need them immediately. After a few more sighs, he understood and told me he would drive me to my hostel after dropping everyone else off in downtown. I was very grateful as it saved me any stress and the cost of a taxi and I thanked him a few times after the 15 minute drive.

My friend Burke who I´d met in Sucre was already staying at the hostel and had booked onto the Valle de la Luna tour which would depart that afternoon at 3pm. Despite being tired from the Uyuni tour and in the mindset of wanting to chill, I decided to venture into town with him and also book my place. It made sense to enjoy it with someone I knew and to make the most of my time in San Pedro. After paying for my ticket, we had just enough time to enjoy a good lunch at Tierra Todo Naturale restaurant and the lemonade with ginger I ordered was incredibly refreshing as my mouth was already suffering from the dryness of the desert environment. At 3pm we joined the other tourists and were led to a bus which would drive us to the first stop on the tour. We began with the fascinating salt caves, named so because they are a natural geological formation made from salt. It was a fun experience as we walked through narrow pathways with little room to manouvre and were forced to avoid the numerous salt rocks jutting out from all directions by crouching low.

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It was enjoyable although a little crowded, and when we arrived at the ‘exit´and stood on top of the area we´d just scrambled through, it was really interesting seeing its intricate formation from above.

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The next stop on the tour was Las Tres Marias (three Virgin Mary´s) – three formations made from salt and clay which have been moulded into their unique shapes through the years by erosion. They were given their name because each one appears to depict the Virgin Mary in different positions. We all went óoooh yeeeah´when the guide explained this to us and then enjoyed admiring them against the beautiful backdrop of clear blue sky and dusty desert.

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The final stop on the Valle de la Luna tour was the main attraction: the sunset and moon. We were driven to the view point along with a load of other buses and went in search of a great spot to watch it all from. Although the views of the valley were absolutely incredible and Burke and I managed to capture some good photos, there were just so many tourists. Of course I´m a tourist myself so it would be hypocritical of me to make a big fuss of this, but it was just too busy for me to really get into it and enjoy the experience to the full extent. That said, when the sun had set and the moon was fully illuminated, we were treated to some truly phenomenal views. The sky transformed into this haze of ombre loveliness, with orange merging into pink merging into blue. I was a little in awe of how vast the valley was and how magical the sky became. In terms of views and sunsets, this had to be one of the most impressive on my whole trip. Because of this, it was a shame that we were given only 25 minutes to enjoy the whole experience and I was sad to leave when the sky was at it´s most beautiful. I´d recommend potentially hiring your own bikes and taking your time with it if you can bare the ride through the valley, because leaving that early made no sense to me.

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The other tour, or rather activity, I treated myself to whilst in San Pedro was sandboarding in the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). Scary name but in reality, not a scary place. What´s scary is boarding down a sand dune so fast that you lose control and smash your head and neck against the not so soft surface. Yes I did this and yes it hurt A LOT. However, the experience was great and something I would highly recommend if this is something you think you might enjoy. Some people just ´get it´and make it down with ease (usually the snowboarders) and others not so much. I would say I was in the middle of the spectrum. It can be frustrating if you find it difficult because you´re forced to walk up the dune after every run in order to get back to the top, but again the views were great and personally I found it really fun.

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San Pedro itself is a nice little town with some lovely restaurants to choose from, cute cafe´s and a pleasant plaza. It´s not somewhere to necessarily spend a lot of time in because there´s not a huge amount going on, but you can enjoy good food and a range of tours. One of the main reasons people visit San Pedro and the Atacama is for the famous star gazing. Unfortunately for me, bad timing meant that there was a full moon during the week I visited and therefore it was far too bright to see the stars. I was disappointed but sometimes that´s just the way it is! I still had a great time exploring the town, enjoying some good food, doing a couple of tours and sampling my first taste of delicious Chilean wine.

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