San Pedro de Atacama is right in the north of chile, 1,200km from Santiago, and plonked in the middle of the Atacama desert –the driest place on earth. For miles there’s dust, mountains, and nothingness. But San Pedro is far from the frontier town you’d expected to be. Find cool bars, ice cream parlours, hot showers and even wifi. It’s also a base for tours around the desert, to bursts of life hidden in the curves of the desert.
Piedras Rojas & the Lakes
There are two thousand volcanoes in chile, 150 of them active, making an ever changing landscape of rock. The piedras rojas are a volcanoes pyroclastic flow, that slid down the hills, solidifying and oxidising to make a plateau of red. At the bottom is a wide salt lake, Salar de Talar, and mountains in multicoloured hues. Apart from being very beautiful, the phenomenon of a frozen lake in the desert, the concentration of salt, the iron coloured rock, and unique shape of the skyline is a mind boggler.
Getting to the red rocks by yourself is a doddle… if you have a car and know your way round the desert. The easier way to do it is through a tour. Day trips from town aren’t hard to find, there’s only 250 agencies to chose from. They’ll sort out transport, food, a guide and make a day of it. On the tour, see the twin Lagunas Miscanti y Menique, in double the deep blue, Laguna Chaxa and the village of Socaire.
Star gazing in the desert isn’t like star gazing anywhere else. The Atacama is married to its skies, in the azure blues of the day and deep indigos of the night. It’ll cost you 20,000 pesos, but for that you’ll get an astronomy lesson, constellations and star signs, and the telescope viewing. See red nebulae, star clusters, giant stars, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings and our own glowing moon.
Geyser del Tatio
At 4o’clock in the morning, the alarm goes off and suddenly the beautifully clear nights are aren’t
so wonderful. The tour for the Geysers del Tatio leaves at 5 o’clock in the morning, giving time for driving out there and breakfast to catch the sunrise at six thirty, this means that for three hours you’re colder than a mozzy in an ice age. Goodbye toes, goodbye ears, goodbye dangly bits.
The sunrise is a sunrise! The plain of geysers goes from greys and blues to reds and yellows as the smoke pours up. It really starts kicking off now as the sun hits the ground and reacts with the geysers, in some bizarre magical volcanic wonderland.*
Valle de la Luna, or moon valley, is the geographical phenomenon of salt rock mountains, created by a tectonic rupture, in between the Andes and the salt flats. You won’t believe it til you see it, but the valley is a gargantuan mass of salt. Miles and miles of red ‘dirt’ is interrupted by cliffs, mountains and caves. Walk through a salt cave, with a few tonnes of salt above you, to discover salt ‘quartz’. See the three Marias in natural statues and discover the indigenous ritual for Patcha Mama. Climb the peaks of the valley, up the dunes to a view over the Atacama.
Salt Lake swimming
All that salt isn’t just plains and flats, deep holes in the salt crust make little pools of pale blue and white. Get your kit off and bob around in them, Dead Sea style, under the desert sun. Laguna Cejar is the main attraction, but Laguna Escondido is the same thing. Escondido is a set of seven pools, swim in pool one or walk the salt path round to pool seven and swim there.
*In an attempt to warm up -I have terrible circulation-, I jogged from foot to foot like everybody else. Then I got the blood going with some star jumps. Rookie error. Just as the show began my gut dropped, stomach acid shot up my throat and I couldn’t breathe. My body was having a fiesta of pain and up or down I was about to be my own geyser. This, the guide told me, was altitude sickness and at 4,200m, my oxygen was low. I managed to stay conscious and keep everything in one place, but I missed some of the of the geysers. Lesson learnt, don’t jump around at high altitude, just bring some bloody gloves.*