We arrived in San Pedro on January 16, after a surprisingly pleasant 16-hour bus ride from La Serena. It’s a tiny town in the middle of the Atacama desert, catering largely to backpackers and other tourists in town to see the area’s highlights and often moving on to the Bolivian salt flats. It’s certainly the most international tourist-focused place we’ve been so far, which has its upsides (a wide variety of food, lots of friendly people, fun bars) and downsides (tons of tourists on the street for restaurants and tours, considerably higher prices compared to other parts of Chile). It’s also at a fairly high altitude (the town itself sits at about 8,000 feet) and in general the days were very hot.
We experienced the exception to the latter almost immediately, as a few hours after we arrived in town a rainstorm started. Apparently it’s the first time it has rained here in seven months, and the locals were delighted. We saw people holding up their cell phones so that others could hear the thunder, taking pictures of the lighting and rain clouds, and generally just being giddy. It rained on and off for the rest of the day as well as part of the following day. The rain made us happy because it cooled things off, but it did create some complications. The main attractions in the Atacama area all involve trips outside of the city (primarily on dirt roads), and the rain made many of these roads impassable. As nearly everyone visits the attractions on organized tours at specific times of day (this is better than it sounds), some people’s plans were scrambled. We met a number of unfortunate souls that woke up at 4:30 in the morning to see the geyser field at El Tatio at sunrise, only to be turned back by the police after a half hour of driving due to unsafe roads.
We got lucky with our itinerary, managing to hit most of the highlights without significant weather issues. On our first full day, we went to the Laguna Cejar, a salt lake surrounded by the surreal, tundra-esque salt flats. It has a salt concentration similar to that of the Dead Sea, so naturally we had a to try it out. Brian was excited to be able to float for a change. This is not a challenge with which I have ever really had to contend, but the lake was still fun and there were gorgeous panoramic views of the salt flats and the mountains in the distance.
San Pedro was also fun because of the people. It’s a very friendly crowd, and we enjoyed running into friends from our tours and our hostel on other tours and in the very small town, along with one of our friends from La Serena, who we managed to randomly or intentionally encounter every day in random spots– given a few more weeks here we think he might have been elected mayor. Or arrested.
On the following day we visited the salt canyon, salt mines (yes, there’s a theme) and made it to the Valle de Luna in time for sunset. This was a beautiful spot (another theme), with a landscape sort of similar to the Grand Canyon (although it was quite foggy at the Grand Canyon the only time that I visited and B has never been–what tragic childhoods we had).