From northern Argentina we took a bus that crossed the border into Chile. The 10 hour ride was absolutely beautiful with views of the desert landscape and wild vicuñas (a close relative to the camel, llama, and alpaca). We've learned to always choose the front seats on the upper level when reserving our bus tickets. That way, you have more leg room and the full-height windshield to absorb all of the views. A week earlier, while talking with some other travelers in northern Argentina, we became worried as they told us about their troubles getting over the Paso de Jama border (4200 meters above sea level) from Chile. They were stuck in San Pedro de Atacama for an extra week due to a snow storm that closed the border. Fortunately for us, the day of our journey was clear, warm, and sunny. At the border crossing, we were rushed off the bus and into a small building to complete our paperwork. Upon receiving our departure stamp for Argentina, we were sent outside to retrieve our luggage that was piled up on the sidewalk (not the most secure). The Chilean officer asked if we had any fruits or vegetables and sent us on our way. Border crossings make us a little nervous as we grew up with generally negative connotations regarding our own borders. Crossing into Chile could not have been easier. We went in one door to get our departure stamp and came out another door within minutes at no cost for US citizens.
After the border crossing, we descended past the majestic Licancabur volcano into San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. We hopped off the bus and began the short walk to our hostel. The buildings appeared to be crumbling with pieces of mud and stone everywhere. Our dry mouths filled with dirt as cars flew past us. Stray dogs were chasing us as we walked. We were initially a bit apprehensive about spending three days in Atacama, but, little did we know, that Atacama would become one of our favorite destinations to date. The next three days were filled with wild pure adventure. The perfect way to bring in my (Daniel's) 31st birthday!
The Atacama desert sits at 8,000 ft in altitude and the sun shines daily, creating intense day-to-night temperature swings. We found ourselves starting with many layers in the crisp mornings and shedding as many clothes as possible by midday. While many travelers struggled with altitude sickness, we found ourselves lucky to be feeling healthy and happy -just a bit winded. We each consumed at least 2.5 L of water per day, minimized alcohol consumption, and drank lots and lots of coca tea (known to help with altitude sickness). Atacama is the driest desert in the world!
The charming small town stole our hearts and kept us busy in between our big adventures. The dusty streets are filled on each side with delicious restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. We enjoyed some local music in the town square while eating our classic Chilean meal -- queso empanadas and Coca Cola. After visiting many cities in South America and not seeing many other travelers, we were flabbergasted to see the streets packed with backpackers each going different directions. The town has a laid-back cool vibe about it that can't even be explained in words.
Originally we had planned to cross the border into Bolivia, which is the main reason why a lot of backpackers are seen hanging out in this town (including us). Tour companies in Atacama offer tours into the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, so many opt for this route after a couple of days acclimating to the altitude. With only a couple of days left before heading into Bolivia, we decided to head directly to Peru instead. The number one reason we backed out of going to Bolivia was cost. Unfortunately, for US citizens, the visa entry is $160 each. On top of that, the $180/person tour fee was a hard pill to swallow. We calculated spending $1,500+ for one week of travel! Although we changed our original plans, we're glad our indecisiveness led us to San Pedro de Atacama.
what to do
Valle de la Luna - This valley is one of the top destinations in the area -- and for good reason. We experienced sand dunes, red rock formations, slot canyon adventures, and some of the most beautiful views of the valley. There are many ways to see the moon valley, but if you are able, we highly recommend biking. Renting a bike in Atacama is very common, so we grabbed our bikes from a small shop for 3,000 CLP ($4.30 USD) for 6 hours of use. The bikes came with helmets, a tire repair kit, a map, and had nice thick tires for the terrain. We wanted to see sunset in the valley so we left around 1:30 pm. The ride was challenging, due to the altitude and gradual hills before entering the park.
At the entrance of the park, we stopped at the tourism office to buy our tickets and get a map of the park. If you visit in the morning (8-12 am) it will cost 2500 CLP ($3.60 USD) per person and the afternoon slot (12-5 pm) costs 3000 CLP ($4.30) per person.
After about 20 minutes of riding on dirt and gravel roads, we reached incredible slot canyons and caves. At one point, we were in a cave of complete darkness with only our phone flashlight guiding us! We did the loop trail, which took us around 30 minutes and spit up back out to our bikes. Once we were on our way out, all of the tour groups had just shown up for the sunset tour and it was madness. We were thankful that we got to experience the canyon before the crowds came.
We attempted to head to the next spot on the map, but ran out of energy going up the big hills. Our legs were screaming at this point and our lungs couldn't seem to catch enough air. We decided to turn around and wait for sunset. If you're wanting to see the whole park before sunset, we recommend leaving earlier and packing plenty of food and water. If you're not up for biking, there are many different tour buses offered throughout town. Not a bad option if you want to see it all, but be prepared to be surrounded by about 100 other shuttle vans at all times. Either way, get ready for some of the most unique and picturesque landscapes you could imagine! We truly felt like we were walking on Mars. On our way out of the park, we experienced the longest magical sunset overlooking this otherworldly valley and pink volcano. We couldn't put our camera down! Then, the brightest full moon rose above us in the Valle de la Luna.
Salar de Atacama - We opted for an organized tour to see the 3rd largest salt flat in the world. Due to a mix-up with our driver, the tour ended up leaving a little bit late. This was good because we were behind all of the other tours most of the evening. The crowds were a bit more manageable than they would've been had we left 30 minutes earlier. However, our time at each destination was cut a bit short in order to see all of the sights before sunset. As with all activities in Atacama, we have no strong recommendations about which tour to take. Not only are there so many in town, but we didn't feel like ours did anything above and beyond. Every tour is virtually identical.
Our first stop was the Cejar Lagoon where we changed into our swimsuits in the changing rooms and headed out to float. Despite reading many travel blogs before heading here, no one said anything about how COLD the water is. I guess this isn't always the case, but we were visiting in the dead of winter. The water took our breaths away and was actually painful on our skin. We bit the bullet and jumped in despite the temperatures. Being able to float without any effort, due to the high salt concentration, was pretty satisfying. It's been said that the salt levels are even higher than that in the Dead Sea. Some even bring a book to enjoy while floating! We looked like white flaky pastries after getting out because the salt stuck to our skin!
Our second stop was the Ojos del Salar (Eyes of the Salt Flat), which was our least favorite part of the trip. These two lagoons are located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by grassland and the occasional flamingo. We got out, took a look around, and hopped back in. Our tour guide was speaking rapid-fire Spanish at this stop, so we missed most of the information. It seems like the reason behind the lagoons are up to interpretation, still to this day.
Tebinquinche Lagoon was the third and final stop of the day. The lagoon is formed by the annual snow thawing in the driest desert in the world. The lake is home to fragile microorganisms that help develop this unique landscape. The finale of the day was, once again, one of the most spectacular sunsets we've seen. Something about the mineral content in the lake allows for a perfect mirror-like reflection of the volcano and nearby mountain ranges.
Sandboarding - Last year, for my 30th birthday, Bre treated me to a spa day that included a massage and 100% relaxation. For my birthday this year, I opted to do something more adventurous. After eating some delicious ice cream, we headed for Sandboard San Pedro. Our group consisted of about 10 other people and a hilarious guide. We fitted our helmets and hopped in a van and headed for the dunes. In order to get down to the sand dunes from the top ridge, we sat on our boards and flew down the mountain at a million miles per hour. So fun! From there, our guide gave basic lessons about how to slow down, utilize each edge, and stop. Bre and I have both snowboarded before, so this seemed pretty basic to us. However, unlike snowboarding, the sand causes the board to naturally slow down quite a bit. We spent the next couple of hours riding down and almost dying climbing back up the dune with large boots and heavy boards to carry in the deep sand. Truly a birthday to remember!
where to stay
Atacama is filled with simple hostels that are pretty much all the same. Chile is the most expensive country in South America. We spent on average $60/night for a bed, a basic breakfast of bread and fruit, and a shared bathroom. Check online reviews before booking but, chances are, all accommodations are similar. We stayed at Hostal Siete Colores and Hostal Mamatierra and would recommend either one.
where to eat
Like I said, Chile is expensive. Expect to spend more money for even the most basic meal. Being vegetarian, the budget-friendly options were limited. We ate a lot of empanadas (probably the cheapest food available) and pizza. We avoided alcohol and any other added expenses. Although we were only in Chile for a couple of weeks, our average cost per day was the highest it's been in our year of traveling. That being said, we wouldn't trade our three days in Atacama for anything!
for the love and adventure,
daniel & bre