Northern Chile

San Pedro

After four days of exploring the Uyuni salt flats and surrounding area of colored lakes, volcanos, geysers and amazing wildlife Léa and I are joined by the french couple, Damien and Priscille, as we hop across the border to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. We will be spending about five weeks in this country, and it all starts here.

Border control takes a while to process us, but we finally stroll into the small town of San Pedro. A british girl casually smoking a cigarette walks right up to us and launches head-first into a sales pitch for accommodation and tours. Startled, we kindly decline and move right along. We’re not falling for that again!

San Pedro is described as an adobe disneyland. Lots of young tourists use the town as a home base for adventures in the surrounding area. It’s true, there are a lot of tourists, but after settling in we find it has its charms.

Also, it turns out that San Pedro has the best rugs we’ve seen all trip. Rugs, people. Apparently they bring them over from Bolivia. We’re rug shopping like lunatics.

Back at our hostel Damien and Priscille tell us they’ve found a french guy who just moved to San Pedro with his chilean girlfriend. The guy doesn’t have his papers yet, so to make ends meet he is giving illegal tours of the area with his VW combi van. Also it’s his house.

After our experience in Uyuni we’re a bit skeptical of tours, but this sounds very different. Priscille and Damien decide they’ll spend the whole day with him tomorrow, waking up at 4am. Léa and I decide we’ll sleep in, rent bikes in the morning, then we’ll meet up with them in the afternoon to do an illegal tour together. Woohoo!

Biking was really fun, and there are lots of things to see just outside the town. But it is very hot. I think I forgot to mention that this region is actually one of the driest places on Earth. There are nearby areas with zero recorded rainfall.

Midday we meet up with the french couple and their hippy outlaw guide. We hop in his van. This is what it looks like when you’re sitting on the mattress in back.

First we hit the small salt lake Sejar, beating the tourists by about 45 minutes. We hop in the water and enjoy a peaceful view until suddenly about ten giant busses arrive, and unload tons of tourists. Now it’s a party. No matter, they all take forever to get changed while the five of us are floating around like human rafts.

I’ve never been in water this salty before. I am amazed at how I float. But after you swim in this lake, you are absolutely covered in salt. Which is gross and itchy.

From there we drive about half an hour to the famous Valle de la Luna, which is a desolate area full of red rock formations. We walk around a bit, and explore some caves where the walls are lined with salt so clear and smooth that it looks and feels like glass.

From here we drive way up above the canyon to see the valle de la luna from above during sunset.

The five of us take in the beautiful view while drinking pisco sours. A very nice end to the day!

Early the next morning we had ordered a taxi to take us to the nearby town of Calama so we could take a bus from there to the coast. We’re waiting outside our hostel watching the sunrise, and the taxi just never arrives. The explanation, “He must be sleeping.”

“Oh, sorry. And here we are wanting him to be awake.”

With some time to kill we treat ourselves to a very nice breakfast, and take public transport to Calama, then catch a night bus all the way to Chañaral on the coast. It’s about 4am and the young bus attendant stirs us from our sleep to let us know we’ve arrived. We step out of the bus into the darkness, disoriented. We’re at a gas station. The handful of people wandering around outside are drunk. And our plan is to somehow get a ride from here about an hour north to the natural coastal reserve called Pan de Azucar.

A man comes up to us to ask where we’re headed, and we explain thinking he might take us. Instead he laughs and tells us it’s too bad we’ve stopped here if that’s where we want to end up. It’s all quite discouraging. Life at a Chañaral gas station at 4am.

Nonetheless, we eventually flag down a taxi driver and he tells us it’s no problem to take us, and quotes a good price as well. We are relieved.

An hour later he drops us off as the dim morning light filters through the beach fog. Exhausted, we hike through the sand until we find a place between the rocks to rest. We sleep hard. The sound of the waves pours over us. We can’t move.

Pan de Azucar

Tough to tell what time it is with a sky so grey. Slowly we wrestle ourselves to our feet and make our way along the coast until we find a campsite where we can pitch our tent. Not many people out here.

There is an island just off the coast that is supposedly shaped like a sugarloaf. That’s why the island and the greater natural reserve are called Pan de Azucar. Maybe I just don’t have a clear enough image in my head of what a sugarloaf looks like, but couldn’t you say anything looks like a sugarloaf?

Anyways, the cool thing about this island is that there are penguins.

We’re on the beach with a handful of local tourists, and we organize ourselves into a group large enough to convince the local fishermen to take us to the island.

Take us to your penguins!

In addition to penguins, the island also has sea lions, vampire bats that live in a cave and come out to feed on the sea lions, cormorants, pelicans and otters. We get to see all of these things up close, and also a large group of dolphins from afar. The sea lion was especially memorable, because it didn’t look real.

We spend the rest of the day back on the mainland, exploring the corridors between the rocks. They’re filled with life. Crabs everywhere, lots of tide pools with sea urchins, sea stars, weird slimy purple blob things. Léa finds a cool sea urchin shell. We climb around, then make our way back to the campsite. Licking our lips after enjoying some homemade shrimp and cheese empanadas from the campsite lady, we settle in for another night sleeping to the rumbling sounds of the ocean.

Bahia Inglesa

There is a small beach town a few hours down the coast by bus called Bahia Inglesa. We arrive midday and walk along the white sandy beach. It’s still very foggy, but you can see the sun working hard to burn it all off.

We find a little triangle cabin at a campground, then head back out to the beach. Finally the sun prevails, and we get out the sunscreen. I even try to swim a bit, but the water is freezing. I don’t know how the locals manage to look so comfortable in the water. Either it’s colder than San Francisco, or the mediterranean has made me a pansy.

Lea gets shells in her hair

The restaurants along the beach are really good, so we eat our fill. Lots of dishes with scallops. Léa is in heaven.

Overall it was a really nice miniature beach vacation. But we’ve got a flight to catch from Santiago all the way down to Punta Arenas in just a few days, so we must be on our way. A small window of time to see northern Chile!


Categories: Posts in English

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