Trip report: San Pedro de Atacama (part 1)

Trip report: San Pedro de Atacama (part 1)

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We decided to take a trip to get out of the Santiago smog for a few days and quickly decided on San Pedro because (1) it’s the only major attraction that’s to the north, and it’s still too cold to go south and (2) it’s really neat.  San Pedro is a small town in the middle of the Atacama desert in northern Chile, the driest desert in the world.  We learned while we were there that there are actually places in the desert where rain has never, ever fallen.  Whoa.

The desert is beautiful shades of pink and orange that go on forever with some really funky rock formations, lagoons, lots of volcanoes and a giant sand dune we got to run down (without having to walk up it first – key benefit to the tour we took; see below).  This was such a great, chill getaway from Santiago (our vacation from vacation from vacation), and we’re really glad we went.  We went for 5 days and had an awesome time, and here’s what we did that made it awesome.  This post covers our first two days there – details on our last 2 days coming soon!  (Note: Lots and lots of travel details below for those of you planning trips to San Pedro; for the rest of you, focus on the pictures.)


There are a ton of tour companies lining the streets of San Pedro, pretty much all of them offering trips to the same attractions.  We’d done some research beforehand and heard horror stories about a few of them (e.g., they’d cancel your trip then not give you your money back and just wait until your flight or bus left and there was nothing you could do about it) and noted a few that had consistently good reviews on Tripadvisor.  Our first morning there, we went around and talked to a few of them and booked our excursions for the next few days – some have discounts if you book multiple tours with them or pay in cash (but you have to ask; they’re not just going to offer it up).  Here’s what we decided to do:

Day 1: Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna

Tour company: Cactus

Price: CLP10,000/person (~US$20)

Time: Afternoon trip leaving San Pedro at 3pm (~4 hours)

What we did: We did this tour our first afternoon in San Pedro.  It’s the closest to town and seems to be the most common tour – pretty much everybody does this one.  We received a recommendation to go with Cactus Tours because they’re a bit more active than the others, and we really liked this.  Our guide (Pablo) was really cool, made the trip fun and relaxed.  We first drove out to Valle de la Muerte and walked for ~40 minutes across the desert.

Hiking in Valle de la Muerte image

Pretty crazy landscape!

We ended up at the top of this massive sand dune where people were sandboarding.  We then had a lot of fun running down it.

Sand dune image

Those people had to walk up first - ha ha HA!!!

And the landscapes were amazing.  Besides the really cool sand dune, there were also these crazy pointy rocks – how did they get that way????

Valle de la Muerte view image

Crazy landscape (along with the obligatory volcano)

Then we headed over to Valle de la Luna (so named because the landscapes are so strange it feels like you’re on the moon) and saw another really big sand dune, along with the Three Marias, which are 3 natural rock columns that somebody thought looked like Maria.  Except that now there are only 2 – some tourist knocked one of them over.  We ended the afternoon watching sunset over the valley.

Valle de la Luna sunset image

Sunset in the desert is beautiful

Verdict: This was one of our favorite trips, for the combination of actually getting out and doing some walking (many trips involve sitting on a bus for hours and then getting out and taking pictures of things, then getting back on the bus), the great guide that we had and the beautiful sunset.  Not to mention that it didn’t involve getting up before the sun was up (you’ll see what I mean in a minute).

See the rest of our pics from this trip here: Valle de la Luna photos.

Day 2: Geysers de Tatio and hot springs

Tour company: Cosmo Andino

Price: CLP25,000/person (~US$50)

Time: Brutally early morning trip leaving San Pedro at 4am (~8 hours)

What we did: This is a really popular tour in San Pedro, and most people would say it’s a can’t-miss, so we signed up and did it our second day in town.  First, we set our alarm for 3:45am and waited outside our hostal for the bus in the dark at 4am.  The drive up to the geysers takes about 1.5 hours, and we arrived while it was still dark.  The geysers are at 13,700 feet, so it’s REALLY cold up there.  We were bundled up in all the clothes we had (and some more we’d borrowed from friends in Santiago) and were still freezing.  And not just the “I’m uncomfortable” type of freezing; this was more of the “I can’t feel my hands and am somewhat concerned my toes may need to be amputated” type of freezing.  I grew up in Alaska and I’ve never been this cold.

Once we arrived, we had a cold breakfast and Nescafe outside the van as the pitch black was turning to morning dusk.

Breakfast at Tatio geysers image

Breakfast in the dark and freezing cold

Our guide then took us around and told us a bit about the geysers and then gave us some time to walk around on our own.  The geysers were kind of cool – lots of steam coming up from the ground, and one or two that would occasionally blow water up into the air.  But we couldn’t really figure out why we had to be there so early in the morning.  The explanation we got was that you couldn’t see the steam as well as it warmed up.  But to us, it seemed like the geysers looked just as cool (and maybe better) when we left around 8am (after the sun had finally come up).

Tatio geysers image

That's a fake smile (if you couldn't tell) - I was just pretending to have fun

We then drove out to a hot springs.  Cosmo Andino goes to a different hot springs than most of the other tours, so we were the only ones there.  It was basically a stream at the bottom of a hill filled with really warm water (actually boiling in some places – we didn’t go in to those places).  It was nice, but it was still very cold, so the idea of stripping down to our skivvies was less-than-enticing for us and we ended up only dipping our feet in.

Hot springs image

Pretty neat, but too cold to strip down

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where our guide (Oscar) showed us a bunch of endangered cacti (including one that was ~200 years old!) and then led us to a hidden waterfall around the side of a hill.  It had finally warmed up, so we were able to enjoy the waterfall and a little bit of sunshine along with the waterfall.

Jen hugging cactus image

It turned out that hugging the cactus was a bad idea

Verdict: For me, this tour was not worth getting up at 4 in the morning and nearly freezing to death for; if we had it to do again, I would skip it (or at the very least hire a private guide who would take us a few hours later).  The geysers were ok, but we just can’t see why the 4am start is necessary.  And I was so uncomfortably cold for at least the first 4 hours of the tour that for me it wasn’t worth the pain.

See the rest of our pics from this trip here: Geysers de Tatio.

Day 2: Astronomy adventure

Tour company: Space Star Tours

Price: CLP15,000/person (~US$30)

Time: Evening trip leaving San Pedro at 8pm (~2.5 hours)

What we did: While we were there, we learned that the Atacama desert is one of the best places for astronomy in the world, due to the high altitude and 350+ clear days per year.  What’s going to be the largest observatory in the world (ALMA) is actually being built not far from San Pedro.  A group of astronomers have set up an outdoor observatory where they basically give a tour of the night sky.  We were picked up in town around 8pm and driven to the observatory, around 15 minutes away.  We started in a round room lit by a single candle with a glass ceiling so you could see the stars.  Our host for the evening, a Canadian astronomer (I think named Les) who lives in San Pedro, was incredible.  He started by giving us a basic introduction to astronomy (really interesting, not dry at all), where we learned for one thing that Pluto is no longer considered a planet – who knew?

Then we went outside, near the 10 massive telescopes they have set up essentially in the front yard.  Les had the coolest laser pointer we’ve ever seen – crazy green and looked like it was actually reaching all the way to the stars.  He used this to point out the Southern Cross, Milky Way, Venus (we saw planets!!), Mars (more planets!) and even Jupiter which could all easily be seen with the naked eye, all the while explaining really fascinating historical discoveries.  He then introduced us to what was on each of the telescopes, and then we had time to walk around and look in each of them.  We saw 4 of Jupiter’s moons!!!  And we saw a star formation that looks like a butterfly.  And lots of other cool things.  We ended the evening by heading back into the candlelit room for hot chocolate and Q&A with Les.  He was really fascinating to talk to, had very thoughtful and detailed answers for all the questions but also had a skill for making it easy to understand.

Atacama desert night sky image

Sadly our camera does not have a long enough exposure time to take good pictures of the stars... they were spectacular

Verdict: This was definitely our favorite “tour” of the trip.  It’s definitely different from the other tours that are offered, and it’s like nothing we’ve ever done.  I hadn’t expected seeing the stars and planets to be so interesting, but this was really a fabulous experience!!!  Our camera is not good at night, so check out the Space Star Tours website for cool photos and more info – this is a must-do trip if you are in the area.

To be continued . . .

See how much fun we had in San Pedro?  Be sure to check back for Part 2 tomorrow – including the coolest landscape we’ve ever seen!!

Update:  Part 2 is posted:  Trip Report:  San Pedro de Atacama (part 2)

Please leave a comment, it will make us feel special!

  • Frances September 7, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Such a great report and superb photos.

  • jen September 8, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Glad you liked it, and thanks for your suggestions in planning the trip!

  • Lisa Simmonds September 11, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    Thanks for the trip report. I have found i really helpful as I try to put together our trip to Atacama. You are not the only people who have said the Geyser trip is not worthwhile. Also coming form NZ where we have geysers too we will definitely give it a miss.

  • jen September 12, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Glad you found it helpful, Lisa – have a great time on your trip (and enjoy sleeping when everybody else is up at 4am)!!

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