Sublime, gorgeous, magnificent… here is another place for which I lack of superlatives: San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis at the heart of the most arid desert in the world. A region that became very (too much?) touristic, but which I have, once again, managed to enjoy almost without any tourists – and without ruining me!
From Vicuña to San Pedro
Friday 23rd February 2018
I left that little piece of heaven that was Vicuña after a quiet day, enjoying this patio where it was so nice to work. I was off for a trilogy of bus: from Vicuña to La Serena (1h30), then I had to wait at the terminal for my next bus, which was late. After that, a night bus to Calama, in the North of Chile. For once I had a seat at the front… ideal to enjoy the landscapes! Especially the nice sunset on the mountains and the sunrise on the desert lands of the mines surrounding Calama.
Saturday 24th February 2018
1h30 to wait in Calama (where I was really careful because I was twice told that it was dangerous, and especially by Michel, a Quebecer that I had met in Vicuña. During one minute of inattention, his small backpack where he kept his camera was stolen, one of the worst thing that could happen!) and a last one-hour-and-a-half bus trip heading to San Pedro de Atacama.
While getting closer to the city the landscapes were already giving me a taster of what was waiting for me: after the wide flat and desert area, some ochre-coloured stones with surprising shapes were standing on each side of the road. I was really looking forward to discovering these landscapes I had heard so much about and that were a dream for me!
The heat was strong when I arrived, as the sun was at its peak. I checked-in at the hostel, then had a small walk and did some grocery shopping in San Pedro. I had the impression to be in another world: the dirt “roads”, the small houses made of adobe (a mix of red clay, stones and straw)…
However, the city is now mainly focused on tourism: hotels, travel agencies and bike rental shops, restaurants… it was buzzing there and not really for me!
I had been advised to go to a bakery that makes baguettes and croissants worthy of France so I had to go there… and what a pleasure to taste a crusty fresh bread during my dinner, after five months without eating any baguette! A special mention to the small jar of maple syrup that Michel had offered me in Vicuña, which was a perfect match with the bread and made a royal desert every evening in San Pedro!
El Valle de la Muerte, the first blow
Sunday 25th February 2018
After a good night sleep, I woke up at dawn to leave early by bike to the Valley of Death, located out of San Pedro. I appreciated the morning fresh temperatures and the low light that was illuminating the cliffs. From the entrance of the valley, I was already amazed by the landscapes that were rising in front of me. I really had the impression to be on the planet Mars and had never seen such rocks.
After a steep sandy slope where I had to push to bike, I reached a viewpoint with a marvellous view over the valley, which made me realize how huge it was. I followed for a long while this trail that was on the side of the cliffs, but couldn’t ride fast, given the ton of pictures there was to take and all the views to admire! And the silence of the desert to enjoy…
After a technical slope (steep, narrow, with stones and sand), which forced me to walk, I crossed a tunnel and then went down to the Valley of Catarpe. Once again, it was impossible to go down in one row: the landscapes were too beautiful not to stop to take pictures!
The Quebrada del Diablo off the beaten tracks
Once in the valley, the landscapes radically changed: there was vegetation again, concentrated around a river whose water was as red as the earth, which we had to cross (and this feet bath was most welcome with these hot temperatures). I then entered the Quebrada del Diablo (quebrada means “slide”) sinuous and vertiginous gorges. Once again, I was feeling really small in front of such a huge nature!
Once in the middle of the Quebrada, a sign was saying “Fin de la Ruta”, but I could see on my friend Maps.me that the trail was still going on after… so that convinced me to continue the exploration, and I’m glad I did! First because I had the luxury to be completely alone, then because the contrast between the white colours (from the salt) and the red ones (from the stones) reinforced the beauty of the scenery. And finally because it made me do a loop instead of going back on the same road.
The Quebrada ended with a surprising little chapel, standing in the middle of the desert. I had my lunch break there, in the shade and my feet into the water, without seeing anybody. What a delight!
Back through the Valley of Catarpe
After this well-deserved picnic, I head back to San Pedro. I had to cross again the river several times and the trail was much flatter and easier than the one I had done in the morning, but it was perfect like this, given the heat in the middle of the afternoon! I saw many visitors just starting their bike trip… what a silly idea to start that late! (But to be honest I won’t complain about it, they let me fully enjoy these magical places in the morning!)
Once back to San Pedro, I had a mote con huesillo, a typical Chilean beverage that would become my ritual once back from my rides. It’s a sort of ice-tea made out of dry peaches that are rehydrated in this infusion with honey, and which is served with husked wheat. Perfect after the effort!
El Valle de la Luna
Monday 26 February 2018
Another early morning wake-up, heading this time to the famous Moon Valley, named like this for its moon-shaped landscapes. An Italian met at the hostel had recommended me a way to avoid paying the entrance, by entering on the other side of the valley. I followed his advice and started with about twenty kilometres to go all around the valley.
The first slope, which was long, felt quite hard, but I was glad I could do it while the temperatures were still bearable. I then went down on a long straight slope and left the main road, and now the fun could begin: a stony “road”, with mini but exhausting bumps… but I would have to get used to it because the whole valley was like it!
I indeed entered the valley without having any entrance fee, climbed another steep slope and then could start exploring. I first discovered mine salts (bad idea to try them by bike, the soil was so hard and horrible to cycle!) and then went on to breath-taking viewpoints. The amphiteatro on the one side, the huge sand dunes on the other side, craggy cliffs all around, volcanoes in the background… I didn’t know where to look at.
I finished my visit with the salt cavern, an impressive part that was quite nice to visit, with a feeling of doing some speleology.
Once again, I managed to live fully the experience of the desert by being almost completely alone, which is a necessary condition to enjoy its silence and immensity. Some groups were starting to come around mid-day and I came across a lot of bikes as I was leaving; and I know that most of the tours take place at the end of the day to see the sunset there. All the reasons to start in the morning!
I came back feeling tired-out but happy. Cycling in the desert is intense and difficult with the heat, the slopes and this kind of “road”, but the landscapes are definitely worth all these efforts.
Let’s float in the desert
Tuesday 27th February 2018
Third day on a bike, and the longest one: 70 km (but it was flat!). Heading this time to the South of San Pedro to discover different lagoons. The firsts, located about 20 km away, are the Lagunas Cejar and Piedras. The first can only be seen from far away but you can bathe in the second… which has the particularity to have so much salt that you float!
I arrived there as it was opening in the morning (double advantage: it’s quiet and less expensive, 10 000 pesos in the morning and 15 000 in the afternoon!), at the same time as six other French people. The lagoon Piedras is shared between a big pond and another one, much smaller… and the French were nice enough to all go to this little one, letting me enjoy the big one only for me! I will never understand this sheep-like feeling of the humankind, but I won’t complain either 😉
The water was quite fresh and the air not very warm yet but the colours with this morning sun were amazing, and the feeling of floating with the view over the volcanoes under my eyes was impossible to describe. Another unique experience! Once the French left the place, I tried the “small” pond where they had been and it was then time to leave, as the day was far from being over.
Ojos del Salar and Laguna Tebinquiche
A quick shower to get rid of the salt and I was off again through the desert. 10 km later, I discovered the Ojos del Salar (ojos means “holes”), which were literally two huge holes with water, in which it was possible to bathe. I was still feeling a bit cold since the first swim so I didn’t stay long and went on to the Lagoon Tebinquiche.
Nice surprise as I arrived there, I learnt that I would have to pay 1 000 pesos less as I was coming with the bike, and that I could keep it to explore the lagoon. I discovered again another kind of landscapes. This lagoon is drier in the summer (hence whiter as there is more salt than water) but the viewpoints where the volcanoes reflect in the water are wonderful. My only regret is not to have seen flamingos that usually live there.
I found a nice shady place that was perfect for my lunch break, had a micro-nap and it was time to leave. Coming back felt longer of course, as the sun was stronger and the landscapes a bit more monotonous than the two days before. But I’m far from criticising; the view on the volcanoes all the way was great!
The traditional mote con huesillo was once again fully enjoyed once back to San Pedro 😉
Last quiet day
Wednesday 28th February 2018
This morning, no alarm clock! No lion either given the rhythm I was used to, but it felt good to have one morning with no alarm after these intense days. I spent the day working on the blog and the numerous pictures, getting to know other people at the hostel (and giving all my tips to go cycling) and had a little walk in the direction of the Valley of Death.
The wind was strong so I had well chosen my day without cycling, the conditions being tough enough without wind! I enjoyed one last time these unique landscapes and came back with the sunset, while the moon, almost full, was rising aside the Volcano Licancabur. A perfect scenery to finish my trip in Chile, as I would leave on the following day to Argentina.
I could not be happier of the way I explored the region of San Pedro de Atacama. I lengthily hesitated to do at least one tour that could enable me to see landscapes that were not accessible with the bike (salar, lagoons etc;) but first the prices were crazy, and I would probably have had troubles to enjoy the landscapes after experiencing them in such ideal conditions, almost always alone. I insisted a lot on that point but solitude is essential to fully live the experience of the desert!
And you, did you already explore other sites in this region? What did you think about them?
To be continued…
Tips & practical infos
Bus La Serena – Calama : $ 30 000 – 41,30€ – Night bus, about 14h
Bus Calama – San Pedro de Atacama : 3 000 – 4,13€ – About 1h30
Hostel Backpackers San Pedro: $ 12 000 – 16,50 € per night in a 4-bed dorm, without breakfast. Very nice hostel, located a bit out of San Pedro city centre’s agitation. Very friendly staff, always smiling. The common spaces are chill, with hammocks and tables that are perfect to meet people. The hostel has negotiated prices to do tours but I didn’t try any so I can’t tell about them
Food & Beverage
Mote con huesillo on the market square: $700 – 0,90€ a small glass, $ 1 200 – 1,65€ medium-size
La Franchuteria : Bakery – café which has very honourable baguettes (($ 1 000 – 1,30€ each) and apparently good croissants (but I didn’t try personally !)
Bike rental at the hostel: $4 000 – 5,50€ half-day (from 8 to 16:00 so it’s a long half-day!), $ 6 000 – 8,26€ for one day. Helmet, security jacket, light and material to repair the bike included.
Valle de la Muerte : $ 3 000 – 4,13€ the entrance – about 35 km with the bike if you then go to the Quebrada del Diablo and back through the Valley of Catarpe
Valle de la Luna : $ 3 000 – 4,13€ the entrance – About 45 km by bike
Laguna Cejar y Piedras : $10 000 – 13,70€ the entrance from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., $15 000 – 20,60€ from to 2 to 6 p.m. – About 20 km from San Pedro