Thursday, March 31, 2016

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Entering the World's Driest Desert

Never again. I've said it before, but I mean it this time.

Now that I've been on two 19+ hour bus rides, I thought it wouldn't hurt to do another one from Valparaíso to San Pedro de Atacama, a desert town on the very Northern edge of Chile.  It's supposed to be a 24-hour trip - piece of cake, right? YOU'LL SEE.

What It's All About:
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town that lies on the Northern border of Chile, in the middle of the Atacama Desert.  The Atacama Desert is the world's driest desert, and San Pedro is a small little outpost right before you enter Bolivia.

View of San Pedro from a nearby peak

The city's become an increasingly popular stop with tourists on their way to Bolivia, and also because the surrounding landscape is absolutely stunning. In fact, San Pedro is usually the beginning or ending stop to the famous Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia - >2,000 sq. km of pure, white salt plains.

The bustling main street of San Pedro

I loved San Pedro's tiny little main street - chock full of tourist stores, hostels, tour companies, and cafés.  You can walk from one end to the other within 15 minutes.  I spent a couple days in San Pedro, hanging out and exploring some of the nearby scenery - it also helps to stop here for a bit to acclimatize, as you are starting to enter super-high altitudes going into Bolivia.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Let's start with the bus disaster story. It started off fine, like any other 24-hour bus ride. But about 15 hours in, the bus suddenly stopped.
And this was the reassuring view out the window

  • We all got off the bus - apparently there was some kind of strike/protest going on, and workers had set a whole bunch of truck tires on fire in the middle of the road to prevent cars from passing. Please note we're in the middle of nowhere.  And there was absolutely nothing we could do but hang out and wait for the protest to stop and for the fires to go out.  Do you know how long it takes for flaming truck tires to extinguish!?! HOURS. 

After about 3-4 hours, the flames finally extinguished. And we could finally move!  Small problem is that tons of trucks had amassed while waiting for the road to re-open.  So there was terrible traffic.

  • So my 24-hour bus ride turned into 29 hours, and the bus didn't end up pulling into San Pedro until 3:30AM - there were only 5 of us left on the bus by then. And San Pedro is a tiny town - I basically had to walk through the virtual ghost town (it was super creepy) to my hostel, which was closed and all locked up by that time. I honestly thought I'd have to wait on the doorstep all night until they opened. I seriously almost scaled the fence. But after about 10 minutes of ruckus-making, the night guard inside the hostel heard me and came out to let me in. Whew. All's well that ends well. BUT NEVER AGAIN WITH THESE BUSES (especially because I found out the day before that there was a huge airfare sale and the flight, which is only ~1 hour btw, ended up being the exact same price as the bus. Cry).

At least there were pretty coastal views on the way up to San Pedro

  • The next day, I met up with my friend Ed, who was my hostel roomie in Buenos Aires (he's also the one I randomly ran into on the streets of El Calafate, and he and his friend invited me to have dinner with them and cooked the world's largest pile of meat and potatoes).  Ed had been traveling with a bunch of guys he'd met in Chile, and they were going bike-riding around the desert canyons around San Pedro, which I joined for.

We rode our bikes out to some local Inca ruins and climbed to the top, for this incredible view of the desert

The mountains/volcanoes that surround San Pedro


Looking down into the canyons

Connies everywhere

The mountains were so cool-looking

Bike gang!  L to R: Nicolas (Sweden), Anton (Sweden), Matt (UK) and Ed (UK).
Fun fact, my bike was the cheapest to rent because I'm pretty sure it was a child's bike.

  • We biked to these nearby canyons called Quebrada del Diablo - which involved a road with no signage and multiple river crossings.

One of the river crossings. So wet.

And here we are entering the canyons! 

The ride through the canyons was amazing - the path twisted and turned around all these corners. There were parts we had to carry our bikes up rocks, cycle through caves and sand pits, and walk our bikes around sharp bends.  I almost died because it was really, really hard (and we're at altitude!)

I look like a nerd.  On my child's bike

Ed scaled a nearby mountain to see how to get out of the canyons. Because they went on forever.

Finally made it out!  Riding back to San Pedro

That night, in true form, Ed and his friends made dinner and I showed up just in time to be a total freeloader and eat it.

  • And then, the moon ruined my life. Not to be dramatic or anything.  (On that note, does anybody remember the first episode of Arrested Development when Lucille sees a gay pride parade and it makes her angry and she says something like "Everything they do is so dramatic and flamboyant; it just makes me want to set myself on fire"  Hahaha).  Ok, back to the moon ruining my life.  So apparently, the deserts around San Pedro are super-known for being AMAZING to see a zillion, billion stars and/or the Milky Way. I'd seen photos from other backpackers of the nights in San Pedro, and the photos of the stars are completely life-changing.  I was super excited to see them too.

THIS. This is a photo I stole off the internet of stargazing in San Pedro. And I've seen real people's photos who've been here and they look JUST LIKE THIS (though not taken with an iPhone, obvs).

  • However, I happened to be in San Pedro right around the Spring Solstice - which means the moon was the brightest, largest, whitest EVER.  Which means it was so bright that you couldn't see any stars!  They'd even stopped the stargazing tours while I was there, because it's virtually impossible to see anything when the moon is being so annoyingly bright.  Moon, you ruin everything.

I dragged some people out to see the stars with me anyways, and THIS is what we saw. Besides the moon, I think I see 2 other stars.  This kind of looks like the other photo, except not at all.  CRY.

  • Anyhow, other than the lack of zillions and zillions of stars, San Pedro was great. There's actually tons and tons of activities you can do in the area; there's tons of day trips out to all these crazy amazing land formations (Valley of the Moon, etc.) and alien-looking lakes and geysers and such.  The areas around the desert have awesome natural landscapes.  However, I didn't do any of these things because I signed up for a tour to the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni), which includes trips to similar amazing landscapes.  Coming up next on the blog!

Meal of the Day:
Another special Chilean meal - the Completo!  Called either a Completo or a Churrasco Italiano, it's basically a hot dog smothered in avocado, mayo and tomatoes.  (They really love their avocados in Chile - seriously - it's everywhere and the avos are so huge and delicious and ripe here).  It's actually called a Churrasco Italiano because the colors of the condiments are the colors of the Italian flag; not because it has anything to do with Italy.   

Again, nobody said Chilean food was healthy...

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