Visiting the Driest Desert on Earth

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Yours Truly with Indiana Jones

Chile was long overdue.

Missing it on my first foray into South America was unfortunate, but given the size of this land mass, one can be forgiven for not ticking all the countries in a nine month stint.

Besides the Football World Cup in Brazil was more of a draw for me back then.

Nevertheless, I got to finally visit the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama last week and spent a total of 12 days in Chile with an old school friend who was attending a conference in the city capital of Santiago.

Most of our time was centred on San Pedro. I’ve come to learn that most cities are the same regardless of which country or continent you visit, so was happy to just use Santiago as a portal entry and exit.

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San Pedro Lagunas

Although it wasn’t high season, we expected some activity and earmarked a few tours, after all, the famous scenery didn’t conform to seasons or times – right?

The Andes Mountain Range, Telescope Tour, Moon and Death Valley Tour still appealed enormously although conditions weren’t favourable particularly with clouded skies forecast but we were optimistic.

How was it? In a word…STUNNING!

Thanks to my snap-happy, amateur photographer friend, we (he) managed to capture some amazing photos of which I share a few of here.

For those considering Chile as a holiday destination and particularly San Pedro, I wanted to provide a warts and all description of my own short time there.

HIGHLIGHTS

Stargazing Tour
Stargazing Tour

– Each tour in its own right was fantastic. I was somewhat spoiled in that I had seen many of the landscapes on Salar de Uyuni 18 months earlier, including geysers and hot springs.

Pisco Sours. I’ve never tasted better. Ask for the plant extract Rica Rica for extra bite. Great for indigestion. We hammered several of these back each night. Purely for medicinal purposes of course…

The Sky At Night. The highlight for me hands down and the subject of a future post (here). Simply put, this tour afforded the clearest night sky view anywhere on Earth, enhanced by various telescopes narrowed in on stellar objects, including Saturn!

Lomo a lo Pobre. We camped out every night virtually in a restaurant called Adobe on Caracoles street which made incredible steak and chips with two fried eggs on top.

Hostel Beds! Given the temperature fluctuation (can drop to minus 10 degrees centigrade at night), we were thankful for the additional woolen layers that trapped out body heat.

LOWLIGHTS

Feeding the Llamas
Feeding the Llamas

High cost. A full day tour cost approximately £55. This included transportation and a main meal. Not terrible prices compared to back home but steep by South American standards.

10% tip on every interaction. This was a pet peeve. Even in Santiago, ordering one drink at a bar would incur a 10% charge. I don’t mind paying extra but it was automatically added to such small orders that you got the feeling someone was taking the piss. The service was incredible weak in both Santiago and San Pedro which further frustrated us.

Lack of English. I can speak enough Spanish to get around, but I was very surprised to find that given its status as one of the most heavily trafficked places in Chile and influx of foreign money, there were extremely few staff or service people that spoke English. Ordering a Shuttle Service back to the airport via telephone was virtually impossible without a native speaker’s help.

Snow in the Desert!
Snow in the Desert!

Attitude. I’m not sure if it was because of low-season and that the agencies perhaps only rolled into town when the throngs of people gathered in peak times, but the locals were not particularly friendly in San Pedro. A smile or “Con Gusto” a la Medellin, never materialised. At least if you’re going to rip me off, do it with a smile!

Altitude. My health was definitely affected by the steep hike in height (2500 metres above sea level). Chapped lips, shortness of breath and an upset stomach were pretty much par for the course. My friend and I were caught short on two separate occasions in the desert without a toilet. Needless to say, I won’t be going back to retrieve that hat!

In Summary….

Unaltered San Pedro Landscape
Unaltered San Pedro Landscape

As much as the service and lack of warmth from the locals was surprising, it won’t take away the awe I felt at visiting the incredible natural beauty that Chile has to offer.

As darkness falls on San Pedro, at least in the off-season there is very little to engage the traveller. The three hostels we spread our week over were virtually dead, which didn’t lend itself to an atmosphere in the wee small hours, which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing.

We had heard of secret, illegal desert parties news of which would filter through the small town (which is mainly one road), but even though I probed our tour guide, he could neither confirm or deny their existence.

Navigating Sand Dunes of San Pedro
Navigating Sand Dunes of San Pedro

Hangovers in this part of the world are probably as severe as they come with temperatures ranging from -10 to 30 degrees during early afternoon.

I was unfortunate enough to experience the night chill on my last day in San Pedro, when I briefly shared a dorm room with the world’s loudest snorer. It was so bad I forfeited my toasty bed to sleep in a hammock outside.

I still hear the chainsaw in my sleep. Vicious.

Overall, it was an incredible experience and one that I’ll remember forever. Just as soon as I reclaim those 8 hours of sleep back!

4 thoughts on “Visiting the Driest Desert on Earth

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