Volcanoes, desert, sunsets, altitude & wildlife. Oh, miners too .. copper is Chile’s gold and those who extract it became famous when, in August 2010, 33 miners became trapped deep underground.
They survived and it was not a miracle. Those miners remain icons of the strong and stoic people of the South American highlands.
The Chilean state did come through for its people and South America’s success story brought all 33 people back to the surface.
Of course, we have been travelling to the region long before the mining disaster, and the centre of tourism is the funky little adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama. It is home to perhaps 4000 people. It is a hub for backpackers, climbers, extremely tattooed Chileans and special, higher-end tour groups.
As an oasis, San Pedro caters to all needs and budgets and is located as far from the ocean as one can travel in Chile! In our case, we enjoyed the very best of its service. Well done Just You Tours. Our hotel was perfect and the local guides excellent. I honestly cannot say enough about the food.
*Incidentally Chilean food is gradually improving. Almost needless to say, Chilean wine in among the world’s best, but good dining has been very expensive (and somewhat rare). Tourists from further north should avoid pizzas at almost all costs, but should try Chile’s wonder seafood, fish and quite good beef. Pisco sour, as in Peru, is a must-try cocktail.
The desert itself is famously the driest (non-polar) place on earth and it is vast. Spanning roughly 1600 km’s from around Lima Peru, south to Chile, the greater desert encompasses over 40,000 square km’s and defines regions of four countries.
The Chilean part is the largest and is magnificent. It is typical of Chile. Volcanic, sparsely populated (outside of the Capital region), resource-oriented and vast.
I have been visiting San Pedro and all of the Atacama since 2003, but on this trip, I honestly enjoyed the best weather and some serious luxury. The desert was vaguely green, which encouraged the vicuñas (similar to llamas) who were easy to spot. The dry lakes did have water and fresh snow on the volcanos contrasted perfectly with the very blue sky!
With the La Niña effect in full function, it had recently rained in this incredibly arid environment. Thus the few shrubs were green, salt was widely exposed and fresh snow on the volcanic chain. And the sky was clear. Perfect.
Over three days, we visited the Valley of the Moon near San Pedro (yes, there are other ‘Valley’s of the Moon’) and saluted a perfect sunset.
The Valley is located just minutes from the town and always seems to captivate visitors.
I absolutely love this region. With light eating, coca tea (and leaves) and a good attitude, no one was ill :). One of the advantages of the San Pedro environment is the ability to ‘travel high and sleep low.’ This really does make a difference.
San Pedro sits nicely at 2400 meters (8000 Ft). High enough to stress the body, but not so high as to cause illness.
On our outings we climb well above 4000 meters, but for fairly short periods. I am an altitude junky, so loved every minute. Noone in my group really struggled and several people achieved personal highs (coca not included)!
It would be superfluous to attempt to describe the environment in any depth. Words cannot do it justice and I love hearing my British friends engage ‘awesome’ – for lack of other acceptable superlatives. Vast plains, wildlife and some of the most spectacular mountains on earth (a strong second to my Rockies), the journey is really as good as the destination.
Finally, after more luxury, perfect service and excellent food, we left at 5:30 AM to witness geysers in the high Altiplano during the freezing morning sunrise. Almost a druidic experience.
The early start guarantees cold, which in turn shows the vapor. The geysers are interesting, but honestly I most enjoy the drive back down to San Pedro
I am actually much closer emotionally to the south of Chile, but little hippie San Pedro really won me over on this visit. My group is so happy it is palpable and exciting to be with them.