Driving back to La Serena, where we needed to drop our hire and catch an overnight bus, from the Valle del Elqui, we excitedly came across some kind of huasos (Chilean cowboys) show on the outskirts of Vicuña. Peeking though the gate, we were invited in!
We had a quick walk around the town, grabbed some empanadas for lunch and were on our way.
Our kindly hire car company (thank you Europcar!) dropped us at the bus terminal, where our comfy Pullman bus delivered our bed for the night!
Arriving at 7am in Calama, we swapped the comfort of our cama seats (almost lie-flat) for the local bus to UNESCO-listed San Pedro de Atacama, a rustic village set on an arid high plateau in the Andes mountains of northeastern Chile. The Atacama area has a desert-like climate, with big differences of temperature between day and night, and summer rains which do not exceed 100 millimeters per year.
San Pedro’s dusty bus terminal with lots of character.
Being in the driest non-polar desert on earth (Antarctica just beats it), you might imagine the Atacama desert is just a flat, sandy world devoid of any life. We can assure you this is not so!
The village offers an eclectic mix of indigenous and modern cultures, and, apparently, feels a lot more like its neighbour, Bolivia, than it does Chile.
The main square houses a gorgeous church and the odd cafe, and in the shadows of a labyrinth of streets hide artesan shops and excursion offices.
It’s so incredibly different, in this village of mud-brick and dusty-cobbled roads, compared to other parts of the country; it’s like stepping back a few hundred years.
The surrounding dramatic landscape is unbelievably varied, with cone-shaped volcanoes looming high on the horizon, rugged valleys eroded into the sandstone, the highest geysers in the world, and captivating salt lakes appearing like mirages in the rough.
It is said that the high quantities of quartz and copper in the region give the people of the town positive energy and good vibes. We soaked it up!
We had booked an Airbnb for a few nights, just outside of the dusty village. We’d heard that the centre can get busy with tourists so thought we’d plump for a more authentic farm-style stay on the periphery.
Returning from a run one day, Jake was accompanied by a dog who’d run 10K with him! Forest, as he was subsequently named, remained with us for the next day or so!
From here, on our travelling budget, we chose just a few of the many earthen adventures available…
1. Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Entering the other-worldly Valle de la Luna is described as like being on the moon, although Lola and Albie disagreed because they said it didn’t look as they imagined the moon’s craters! Nevertheless, it did seem like we were on another planet!
We climbed up precipitous rocky ridges amidst giant sand dunes…
…crawled through salt caves, taking care not to get stabbed by sharp crystals…
…and basked in the setting sun from the top of the world (or what felt like it!).
2. Finding flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
In our view, one of the Atacama Desert’s most wonderful creatures is the stunningly beautiful pink flamingo.
Photo credit here to Sara and David (://retratosviajeros.es/), a lovely couple we met on this tour (David playing a random ice cream scoop gave with L&A below!), who taught us a little about photography, thank you!
Every year the flamingos flock to the lakes to feed and breed in the desert. The best place to see them up close is Laguna Chaxa, a huge salt lake that you can walk alongside to get a close look.
Photos credit to Tash (ha ha!)
We could’ve watched and listened to these quirky creatures for hours. Amusingly, they do a little 360 degree dance on the spot, padding their little feet whilst scooping up food with their beaks as they go. Enchanting!
3. Spotting vicuñas around the Miscanti and Miniques area
Vicuñas are one of the 4 species othe camelid family. The other 3 are: llamas, alpacas and guanacos.
Photo again credit to Sarah and David, thank you!
The yellow bushes and reflective lakes in this area create a beautiful welcoming atmosphere. Less than a thousand years ago, an eruption of he Miniques volcano blocked the free flowing waters which began to naturally dam up, subsequently forming the lakes there today.
4. Visiting a local community
For years, the Socaire community has been dedicated to agriculture, cattle raising and handicrafts. Today, there is a local effort to support and recover their heritage.
Thanks to Rodrigo at Basecamp for taking us on these trips!
5. Strolling and cycling around the village of San Pedro de Atacama
One of the best things to do is simply explore on foot or bike.
Getting almost run over by livestock careering down the streets or blinded by clouds of dust from passing vehicles were a daily occurance!
This was our final stop in Chile; our onward trip will be back over the Andes into northwest Argentina…