Spending a weekend in one of the most famous deserts on the planet
Okay so I’ll admit, I’m already home from Chile. I’ll also admit that I’m waaaaay behind on blogging. Because of that, I’m only going to write a couple more blogs about my experiences in Chile. I can’t sign off without telling you about my trip to San Pedro de Atacama, as well as a few other adventures with my mom when she came to visit. Then I’ll write a final wrap-up about what I learned and suggestions I have for fellow travelers and study-abroaders. Because summer is here and Saratoga is only a few weeks away, so my content is going to shift from travels in Chile to horse racing!
When I left for Chile, I was dead-set that I didn’t want my parents coming to visit. I thought that I was more than capable of putting on my big girl pants and going without seeing them for the entirety of my 4-month study abroad.
But shortly after I arrived, I realized two things: Life is short, and although independence is important, you should always welcome a visit from your loved ones no matter where you are in the world. And secondly, I wanted to share my new life with others who would appreciate the quirky differences from my “regular” life. Namely my mother.
So my second-to-last week in Chile, my mom flew down for a visit. I probably looked like a paranoid crazy person as I waited for her at the Dunkin Donuts in the airport. Every few seconds I whipped my head around to see if she was approaching. And when I finally saw my tiny little momma pushing a cart with two enormous pink pocodotted suitcases (which I requested she bring to get all my stuff home), I jumped up with my tea in one hand and donut in the other, practically tripping over myself to give her a hug. I’ll even admit to crying just a little – my mom is my greatest cheer leader, most inspiring life coach, trustworthy therapist and closest friend, and I had missed her a lot.
Wasting no time, we hopped another plane that took us to Calama, then a van that drove us right through the driest place on the planet – the Atacama Desert – to San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro probably isn’t the place to go if you have lung problems, because it’s quite dusty, however it’s a very charming little village. It’s not exactly what I’d call authentic Chilean, as most of the town is catered towards tourists, and I picked up the vibe that many of the Chileans who work and live there don’t exactly love the tourists.
The van dropped us off at our hostel, which was called Ayllu. It was in a great location, just off the main drag of town. But long story short, I single-handedly picked the worst hostel in all of Atacama. My mom and I have stayed in a few dives before, but I think we reached a new all-time low with that one. The window didn’t lock, the room was FREEZING at night (as a side note, the Atacama Desert gets REALLY cold as soon as the sun sets, and most places don’t have central heating), our host was rude, and on our last morning we discovered bed bugs!
I’ll call it a lesson learned in being tough and trying to travel on the cheap (A.k.a. sometimes you get what you pay for).
Hostel problems aside, we really did have a fantastic time. If and when you travel to Atacama, you should know that to go anywhere or see anything, you have to book excursions (unless you rent a car and drive there). The busiest streets in town are lined with shops, displaying signs with various tour options.
On our arrival day, mom and I toured Valle de la Luna, or “Valley of the Moon.” On day two we rented bikes in the morning and pedaled down the quiet roads outside of town to Pukara de Quitor, an ancient indigenous village with ruins and caves. That evening we toured Laguna Cejar, a salt water lagoon that our guide explained is considered sacred by the local indigenous people, and swam in an adjacent salt water lagoon.
The surface of the water was frigid, to the point that it was almost painful. But the rough and uneven ground beneath the surface was warm to the touch, creating a strange warm-cold thermal experience. When we had finally tiptoed our way to the middle of the lagoon, we swam into the deep center. I can’t even really say swam, because you actually just float there due to the high salt content.
One suggestion I have is to find a cool guide. Ours was the best, and he went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable and had a good time. Mauricio didn’t speak any English, so I had to translate everything for my mom. When you book tours, you have to pay the tour fee, and then an additional fee to enter each of the separate parks within the Atacama Desert (which is a bummer because it gets expensive). The park entrance fee for Laguna Cejar alone was 17,000 Chilean pesos, about $25 dollars. Mauricio told the park entrance workers that I was a translator so I could get in for free. It’s pretty obvious to see when a person does a job because they have to versus doing it because they want to, and it was clear what side of the spectrum Mauricio was on. Especially when he tried to refuse the tip we gave him at the end of the tour.
The following morning, mom and I embarked on another tour with Mauricio, this time to Geysers Tatio, the third largest geyser field in the world, and the one at the highest elevation. The largest is in Yellowstone National Park, and the second is somewhere in Russia.
The tour was fantastic, as we watched the sun come up over the steamy geyser fields, bathed in thermal hot springs and tried llama kabobs. But it’s wasn’t for the faint of heart. The van picked us up before 5 a.m. (some tours left at 4!), and it was frigidly cold. The cold worsened as we climbed in altitude, and the altitude alone can make you sick if your body doesn’t take to it and/or you don’t stay hydrated.
That evening (after a nap) we went for a long walk back to Pukara de Quitor to see the ruins and watch the sun set. It was a special weekend to spend with my mother after being apart for 3 ½ months, and I was thankful for the opportunity to share the experience with her. Being such a long and skinny country, Chile offers a medley of scenery to the traveler who wants to see it all. Compared to where I lived in Chile and my travels to Patagonia in the south, Atacama was almost like being on a different planet.
We left San Pedro on a Sunday morning, back to Calama and flying to Santiago. From the airport we took a shuttle to one of the city terminals where we hopped another bus to Viña del Mar. I guess you could say it was the beginning of the end of my time in Chile.
3 thoughts on “San Pedro de Atacama — A world of its own”
Hi. I was searching for someone who had posted their experience about their visit to San Pedro Atacama. I am a mom and my son who is 18 years old will be going to San Pedro de Atacama for internship at ALMA observatory for 8 weeks starting June. I am so scared and worried since this would be his first time to travel far from US by himself. Could you please tell me if there is anything that I should worry about like crimes, people, the location? I would appreciate your kind reply.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for the comment! Sounds like your son has an amazing opportunity. I heard great things about the observatory while I was in San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is basically in the middle of nowhere (because it’s in the desert), so you fly into the city of Calama and take a van for an additional 45 minutes or so to arrive. It’s a very touristy little town, so it seems very safe. That being said, I would still stick with a buddy if you go exploring. I was there with my mother and we did not have an issue with the people, and most were very kind and generous. It does get cold at night, and most places don’t have central heating, so keep that in mind and bring warm clothes. If your son speaks Spanish or at least uses Duolingo.com to brush up on his skills, it will really enhance the cultural experience. I wish the very best of luck to you both! I’m sure he will have a wonderful time!