04/04/2012 - 08/04/2012 30 °C
Nestled in the altiplano of northern Chile with the imposing Andes in the distance, San Pedro de Atacama is an oasis in the Atacama Desert.
Lying 106km from Calama airport, the long stretch of road is surrounded by arid, dry and dusty plains on both sides. After the crowded streets of Rio the immediate feeling of isolation was invigorating.
San Pedro feels as authentic as you will find on any tourist trail. Dusty narrow streets criss cross between the old adobe buildings (similar to mudbrick) which house open-air restaurants and bars, all of which seem to have big open fire pits.
However, for all its authenticity, San Pedro is still in reality a tourist mecca for Chile. The buses and 4WD’s squeeze past each other through the tight streets, scrapping mud and dust from the walls on each side, ferrying hoards of tourists out into the desert. It even provides free wifi in the main square, something most major cities could take a lesson from.
Our four days were spent doing much the same, taking three trips into the desert for sunsets, sunrises, salt flats, flamingos, geysers and high altitude lakes in the Andes.
The hot springs at the Tatio Geysers come more as a necessity than a treat. Arriving at a steaming pile of mud full of tourists comes as quite a shock after picturing a Rotorua style stone spa with piped in water. However, after suffering through -5 degrees at 7am to see the geysers at sunrise it’s more about warmth than enjoyment, even with the open-air strip down to bathers as the temperature rises to a balmy zero degrees.
Boarding the bus at 8am headed for the salt flats also provided some amusement after Kaz realised she’d left her hiking boots behind. Inquiring with the guide as to their necessity (while wearing flip flops) he responded, “we’re going to the desert, not the beach princess”. This kept me amused the entire day.
Arriving at altitudes of over 4000m at both the geysers and lakes can be a dizzying experience; the feeling of breathlessness is almost immediate. San Pedro itself sits at over 2500m. We spent a good portion of our time in San Pedro feeling less that perfect, however, the acclimatization was well timed with Peru just ahead of us.