San Pedro de Atacama

The sun setting over the Salar de Atacama

After boarding our bus at the Bolivian border we drove straight into Chile and towards San Pedro. Since we were off-road in Uyuni we drove through the dirt and eventually joined a paved road that led into San Pedro de Atacama. This was the first proper road we’d seen in nearly a week and the proliferation of roadsigns, painted lines and general good state of the road told us that we were definitely out of Bolivia!

Sunset in the Atacama desert
Sunset in the Atacama desert

About an hour later we reached the edge of San Pedro. San Pedro de Atacama (to use it’s full name) is a small laid back tourist town in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. Rather than taking us into town, the van took us to a police building on the outskirts that serves as border control. There we were stamped into the country and had all our bags x-rayed. Once we were done with immigration the van took us another few hundred metres into town and we hopped off, standing sweltering in the desert heat still wrapped up in jumpers from the Uyuni altitude.

We had no hostel bookings for San Pedro, we had tried to book a camper van before we left Potosí but had struggled with the website and slow internet. I’d emailed the company but, having had no internet access for nearly a week, I had no idea whether they’d received my emails and no idea whether we’d have a van waiting for us or not!

After working out where the office of Wicked (the van company) was we walked in and asked if they had a reservation for us. Luckily they were expecting us, they had a van ready and waiting, and we were their last hire before Christmas so the manager was happy to see us. As we were sorting the paperwork I noticed that the van name was Marilyn so I asked if it might be a little pink. The reply I got was ‘oh just a little bit’, with a big smile. At this point I probably need to explain. Wicked vans are known for being cheap camper vans that are pretty basic but are made a little more interesting by their decoration. They have one van decorated as the Scooby Doo mystery machine, one decorated with AC/DC logos and lyrics, and lots of vans in other themes with graffitied slogans on them.

A moment of Zen on Marilyn
A moment of Zen on Marilyn

Our van was located at the depot, not the office, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. We needed to have some lunch and run some errands so we arranged to meet the manager at the depot a few hours later. Having been in the middle of nowhere in Bolivia for a few days we were all keen to check emails, touch base with family and do some laundry, but first we ate some lunch at a cheap place near the market.

After lunch we wandered up to the depot to pick up the van. As soon as we walked in we saw this little van with a black and white picture of Marilyn Monroe one side and pink decoration on the other side. Both sides and the rear had slogans in Spanish and there was a tent on the roof. The tent on the roof wasn’t a surprise, but the next bit was. We were expecting a van with room for two to sleep inside and a further three in the roof tent. What we’d actually got was a van that only had room for storage and sitting inside, while we’d all be sleeping in the tent on the roof. After checking the van and its contents over (which was easy since it was nearly new), we followed the manager back to the office to pick up our bags, packed up, filled up with petrol and headed out of San Pedro into the Chilean countryside.

Getting the van was a relief to everyone as for about 2 months we’d been talking with Jackie about hiring a van for Christmas. She’d sold Katinka and Esmee on the idea before they even arrived in South America and we were really looking forward to doing something different for Christmas. We’d only done Christmas away from home once before as it’s really important for us to be with our family. That time over ten years ago we’d been together in South Africa and although we had a great time with just the two of us, we’d really missed our families.

With this in mind we were determined to do something different and, with our new Dutch family with a camper van in the desert we had managed to do something really different and take our minds off the family that we hadn’t seen in nearly four months.

This was also to be our last adventure with the Dutch girls as, after San Pedro, Jackie was heading home to resume her studies and Esmee and Katinka were heading north. We’d known Jackie since our third week in Ecuador and had travelled with her for a month and a half and the other two for nearly a month so we knew that we’d be pretty sad to say goodbye.

Sunset over the Atacama desert
Sunset over the Atacama desert

Back in the camper van we stopped on the way out of town at a place we were told had the biggest and best selection of groceries in San Pedro. When we walked into the shop we were surprised to find a lack of selection and a total lack of technology, to the point where the staff kept a running total of each customer’s bill on a piece of paper that you took to the man at the front of the shop to pay on the way out. This was somewhat of a surprise in the biggest supermarket in a reasonable size town.

Once we’d stocked up on food we were finally ready to leave, so we climbed into Marilyn and set off into the desert. We drove 60km south alongside a huge salt flat in a valley. On the way we saw less than 10 cars. In Chile you can camp anywhere off main roads and the lady at the Wicked office had suggested a place to camp for the night. We turned onto an even quieter road that led up the mountain out of the valley. About 5km later we turned off the road at a place where it looked like we’d be able pull some distance away from it, and we managed to find a roughly flat place to camp about 10m away. We need not have worried however as the road was quiet, we only saw two cars all evening. We opened up the tent on the roof, unpacked the outdoor table and chairs and stopped to admire the view. Thanks to our climb up the hill, we had an incredible view over the valley and salt flat behind us. The sun was setting over the volcanoes across the valley and I realised then that we’d made a great decision in hiring the van.

It was cosy in the tent on Marilyn's roof
It was cosy in the tent on Marilyn’s roof

We made dinner and thanks to the dark and a chill in the air we headed up to bed pretty early. This wasn’t the easiest thing to do however as it involved climbing up a ladder and into a tent that seemed to hang over the end of the van into thin air. When we climbed into the tent we also realised that if we all slept with our heads by the entrance it was not actually wide enough to fit us all in. Luckily the tent was slightly longer in the other direction, but it meant that the person on the far side would have to climb over four people then onto a ladder to get out! At least with five of us crammed into the tent we didn’t get cold, and probably thanks to the fresh air I actually slept a little better than I expected despite waking up on my side in the night without having enough room to turn onto my back!

The next morning we decided to cook a hearty breakfast since we’d only had salad the night before, and the Dutch girls volunteered to cook pancakes. Unfortunately the frying pan must have been brand new, was not nonstick and had not been conditioned so the first few pancakes stuck terribly and were a complete disaster. We worked out that we’d need to start small so we cooked lots of tiny pancakes until the pan was conditioned and we could go back to larger ones, this meant that it took about 2 hours to finish the batter but, by the end of it, we had a huge stack of pancakes being kept warm by the scorching sun. After breakfast we packed up the van and made to leave. We’d managed to get the van a good way off the road and although the place that we camped was stable and flat, there was a narrow dip in between us and the road. The night before I’d managed to navigate it fine but when we tried to leave the van got stuck in the sand and started to dig its way in. The girls tried to push but we were already too stuck. Although we could not move forward I managed to reverse a couple of metres and tried to repeat the maneuver with the girls pushing and a bit of a run up. I put my foot down and the girls were pelted a hail of sand and stones but we moved forward and I kept my foot down until we cleared the sand and didn’t dare stop until I hit the road.

A Flamingo feeding in the Salar de Atacama
A Flamingo feeding in the Salar de Atacama

After this excitement we decided to drive to the centre of the Salar de Atacama (salt pan) to see pools where Flamingos were feeding on sea monkeys. Sea monkeys are apparently not just a kid’s project, but lifeforms that have adapted to the dry conditions with eggs that can be totally dried out and kept that way for hundreds of years. This makes them oddly suitable to be packaged up and sold to children as their adaptation to the extreme dry conditions of the Atacama desert means that they can simply be rehydrated to bring them to life.

Unsurprisingly life in a dry valley in the middle of the driest desert on Earth is pretty hot, so once we’d seen the flamingos and their sea monkey filled lake we had some lunch under the shade of the visitor’s centre and pressed on south. We quickly reached the next town where, to our disappointment, we found only a basic shop open that did not have the ice creams we were craving, so we carried on to a lake that we’d been recommended to visit. Before we got to the lake we had to turn off the main road and onto a sandy track which wound up into the mountain. On the loose sand the van struggled and a couple of times I thought we might get stuck (again), but we made it to the top and soon we we driving down to the lake. The lake was a lovely view but not an incredible destination in itself so after a walk and having taken a few photos, we jumped back in the van to find somewhere to stop for the night. About halfway back to San Pedro we’d seen a wooded area that seemed to be setup for people to BBQ in and was also near a town that we knew had a small shop. About an hour later we stopped to buy supplies for dinner and a few minutes later we were looking for a spot to camp amongst the trees. Although there were trees we were still in a desert, so they were not too dense and all of a variety with huge thorns, much like the acacia trees that we’d encountered in Africa. We found a nice spot to park and got out to survey the area. Within minutes we’d all had thorns stuck into and often through our flip flops.

As it got dark we cooked pasta and listened to music and, since we’d driven far into the forest, we didn’t see another person all evening.

Christmas day breakfast
Christmas day breakfast

The next morning was Christmas Day. We’d bought some candy canes and Christmas hats for everyone so we gave them out first thing and the girls gave us a bottle of wine and some chocolate coins. Alex cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast and we managed to stream a few Christmas songs on Spotify before the internet died. Since Alex and I wanted call our families we had a plan to head through San Pedro in the morning. Alex and I managed to successfully talk to our families for the second time in two and a half months which was a lovely treat, catching them all around lunchtime.

To make things a little different from the usual Christmas day we then drove out of town to some natural thermal pools (called Termas Puritama). When we arrived we discovered that instead of the advertised discounted afternoon price, we’d have to pay full price as it was a public holiday. It was Christmas day though so we paid up and started the descent into the canyon. One of the staff was driving into the canyon anyway so we squeezed into his pickup and headed down. At the bottom we found eight thermal pools with proper changing facilities and clean toilets with toilet paper (a huge improvement on the last thermal pool we’d been to in Uyuni!). After changing we went to the coldest bath at the bottom (they were all quite warm) complete with our Christmas hats, we slowly worked our way up to the top. The scenery was beautiful, the baths were lovely and within minutes we were probably the cleanest we’d been for weeks. We stayed so long that by the time we reached the last bath they were closing, but we pleaded with them and they let us spend a few minutes in it before we got out. By the time we’d changed, we were the last ones out and we again got a lift from the staff on their way out. It was a perfect and very different Christmas day.

However, during our time in the baths Katinka had told is that she would like to spend a night in a hostel as she was not sleeping well in the tent. I couldn’t really blame her, as not only was it pretty tight but between them Jackie and Esmee seemed to take up half the tent with Katinka in the middle getting squashed into us. Nevertheless we’d rather not lose her, but we reluctantly agreed to drop her off in town and to find a nice place to eat on our way back before dropping her off. As it happened we found a great spot on the way back into town with a perfect view into the valley and after a tasty fresh salad we headed into town, dropping Katinka off at a hostel. All good so far except it was now getting dark. We’d been recommended a spot on the north of town but when we entered the road we saw a sign saying no camping. Not wanting to get moved on during the night we drove on until the road got extremely small and muddy. Although we struggled to find a good camping spot in the dark, we eventually found somewhere that was a little away from the road and opened up the tent. We weren’t as far as we’d have liked from the road, especially given that no camping sign, but only two cars drove past before we went to bed and we had fantastic views in the moonlight of the valley.

Early morning with Marilyn
Early morning with Marilyn

We woke up the next morning to discover that we were in a beautiful valley with red rock cliffs either side of us. We decided to make an early escape just in case we roused any suspicions at the entrance gates, and went to pick up Katinka at her hostel. Katinka had slept well and was feeling refreshed so we all went over to El Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). Alex was driving and we headed into the valley on sandy but passable tracks, towards the end of the valley the road climbed. Suddenly the road turned from sandy but with a compacted layer beneath to pure sand and we got stuck within a couple of metres. Alex wasn’t able to reverse us back out so we swapped seats and I managed to get us a few metres back onto a solid bit of road. We stopped for breakfast, getting out our big table and chairs and lots of yoghurt, cereal and fruits. As we sat and ate every few minutes someone would drive past us and have the same problem that we did. Sometimes they would immediately back out and sometimes they would have a few attempts at getting over the sand but none of them managed to get any further than we had. After breakfast we decided to walk up to the top of the valley in order to get a good view. The sand was burning hot, the sun was scorching (we were in Death Valley in middle of summer at the hottest part of the day after all) and halfway up Alex and Katinka decided to go back to the van. Jacqueline, Esmee and I continued to the top, took a photo and then quickly headed back down and were all happy to get out of the heat of the valley.

Our next stop was at some salt pools, Lagunas Baltinache. They are natural pools of salty water at the centre of the salt flats where the lake is not completely dried up. You can swim in them which is an experience much like swimming in the Dead Sea. We had opted to go to the cheaper pools which were down a long gravel road well away from town. The drive was rewarded though when we arrived to discover only two other people there. We swam in the pools, had a bite to eat and then headed back to the entrance to take a shower (yes they had shower facilities at a tourist attraction, thank you Chile!). As we left a tour bus arrived and about 20 tourists started to wander about the place, completely changing the atmosphere and making it all feel a lot less special, making us very glad we weren’t restricted to exploring via tours.

On the way back to the main road Jacqueline drove the van since she’d never driven off road before. She did a surprisingly good job for her first time and we made it back in good time and in one piece!

That evening we’d decided to watch the sunset from the Valle de la Luna, recommended as a popular spot to do so. We drove in early so that we had time to explore before it got dark. Once it got close to sunset we climbed up a hill and joined a few hundred other people lined up along a ridge watching the sun go down. We didn’t want to repeat our experience of camping in the dark, so once the best of the sunset had passed we got back in the van and drove through town.

On the way back from the thermal baths the day before we’d seen a few good spots to pull off road with a good view over the valley, so we drove back in that direction and managed to find a spot well off the road, shielded from the wind and surrounded by lots of big rocks which made excellent ‘Inca toilets’.

On our last night the girls had one final culinary surprise for us, a traditional Dutch stampot. I say traditional, but due to a lack of availability of ingredients it probably wasn’t especially recognisable to a Dutch person, but to us it was delicious mashed potato with bits of vegetables in. To be honest since we’d opted to use instant mashed potato to save time I was expecting something fairly horrific and inedible but was surprised when the mash tasted fresh and smooth. I love mashed potatoes at the best of times so I was very happy with the Dutch version!

The next morning we packed up the tent for the last time and headed a bit further north. Our first stop was to see the petroglyphs, ancient figures of people and animals carved into rocks. Jacqueline had managed to twist her ankle quite badly the previous evening and not wanting to either walk up to see the petroglyphs, nor miss out she was convinced that they would be boring and not worth bothering with. When we discovered what petroglyphs were however she joined us (in some pain) and climbed up to see them. It was worth the climb though as although some were a little hard to make out, most were surprisingly clear impressions carved in the rocks by people thousands of years ago. The carvings of the shamens were particularly impressive and clearly showed elements of the culture of these ancient peoples.

Our next stop was the valley of the seven coloured stones (valle Arcoiris) which is literally a valley where the mountains around you are made of stone of many different colours. There are bright oranges, greens, reds, purples, blues and a whole host of shades of blacks, greys and browns. The overall effect is quite stunning and hard to capture in a photograph. So as to be able to enjoy the view for a while we stopped and made our last lunch in Marilyn with the mountains behind us.

Our last job for the day was to drop the girls off at the next big town called Calama so that they could get their bus. We’d planned to get to Calama early so that we had time to eat an early dinner and so that Alex and I could then drive back to to San Pedro to drop the van before 8pm. We made Calama in good time and managed to find the bus terminal, and even a Peruvian restaurant around the corner to eat in. Unfortunately as usual by the time we’d all eaten and the girls had got their bags out of the van, we were running about 30 minutes late to get the van back on time so we said goodbyes quickly (which might have been a good thing as Alex and I were both pretty sad to see the girls go) and then we hit the road with a vengeance.

Christmas Morning with the Dutch girls and Marilyn
Christmas Morning with the Dutch girls and Marilyn

We quickly discovered that without the three girls and their bags Marilyn would go quite a bit faster, not slowing down quite as much on the hills and actually hitting (and occasionally exceeding) the speed limit on the faster main road between Calama and San Pedro. In the end we arrived back to the rental company only 10 minutes late and they didn’t seem mind too much! Alex and I had booked a hostal for the next two nights so we walked over with our bags, checked in and enjoyed our first night in a real bed for 5 nights.

We spent our last day in San Pedro washing clothes and catching up with some planning after 5 days on the road. We found a great place for a pizza and had an early night. We took a 9am bus the next morning to Salta in Argentina. While it was only a short stay in Chile, it was a great taster for things to come as we knew we’d be back, albeit further south, in only a few weeks.

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

2 thoughts on “San Pedro de Atacama”

  1. Fantastic and some beautiful photographs, I don’t envy you the tent sleeping though or the lack of real toilets (probably the less said about those the better!)xxx

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