Most of the people we had met since arriving in Chile had either come from San Pedro de Atacama, or were on their way there. It’s a small desert town full of tourists, a main stop on the classic Gringo Trail, and there’s a reason for that. The surrounding desert has some of the most amazing natural scenery I have ever seen. The town itself is simple, hot, dusty and relatively expensive. Every other building is a tour company, and the ones in between are shops and cafes aimed at tourists. We aren’t particularly keen on booking organised tours, and we generally try to avoid them where we can and travel independently instead. Three fellow British guys we met in Santiago had just come from the Atacama desert and had rented a camper van for three days, and had said it was one of the best things they had ever done. So the day we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, we went along to Wicked Campers, a small company that rents out funky decorated vans, to see how much it would cost. We worked out that it would only be slightly more expensive than booking tours to all of the places we wanted to visit, so it was a no-brainier. Hiring our own camper van for three days and two nights was one of the best decisions we have made all trip. The freedom to travel where we wanted without having to rely on tours or confusing local bus schedules was bliss. We named our van Salvador, on one side he was painted with Dali’s melting clocks and on the other with Picasso’s Guernica (strange choice, we thought!). The melting clocks fit in beautifully with the desert surroundings, so Salvador the van became.
Here’s a little breakdown of all the things we saw, and all the tours we didn’t have to book.
Lagunas in the middle of the Desert
The first thing we drove to, which wasn’t too far away was the Laguna Cejar, the Ojos del Salar (eyes of the salt plane), and Laguna Tebenquinche, which are three (or four if you count the eyes as two) bodies of water in the middle of the salt plane which is in the middle of the Atacama desert. The water reflects the sky and the Laguna Tebenquinche has flamingoes bathing in the middle, which is both surreal and beautiful. We stopped off by the Ojo and cooked our breakfast, and although it’s a popular tourist spot, if you’re there at any time other than the specific times the tour buses arrive, you have the place to yourselves, with no other person to be seen for miles. It was such a beautiful place we returned a few days later to have lunch and play cards.
Valley de la Luna
The Valley de la Luna is a San Pedro tour company classic. About 30 minutes away from the town it’s an area of desert with spectacular rock formations, huge sand dunes and craters just like the moon (hence the name). We drove here in the afternoon after our trip to the lagoons and decided we’d explore the site and then find somewhere to park Salvador for the night. The surroundings reminded me a little of the Grand Canyon (although smaller, of course), with huge imposing jagged rock formations. It’s completely okay, and expected, to scale these rock formations and to get up high for a good view. It’s a shame that the sky clouded over a little the day we were there, but the landscapes were still impressive.
Puritama Hot Springs
The next day we woke after a fairly comfortable sleep and headed back into San Pedro to top up on petrol (the only petrol station for miles and miles around) and have a decent cup of coffee before another day of road tripping. Late morning we started on the fairly long drive to the Geysers El Tatio, some of the highest geysers in the world. The geysers were apparently best seen at sunrise, so we decided we would drive to them during the day and then camp there for the night. On the way to the geysers are the Puritama hot springs, pools of delightfully warm water (about 33 degrees) which you can swim and bathe in. It cost 15,000 Chilean pesos to enter, which is £15, fairly expensive in comparison with most things in Chile, but definitely worth it. The water is beautifully clear with small waterfalls between pools pushing the water downstream. Poor old Salvador, as lovely as he was, didn’t have a shower, so an afternoon spent in these hot springs was extra refreshing.
Geysers El Tatio
After an afternoon by the hot springs, we continued the drive up to 4,200m above sea level to the Geysers El Tatio. Luckily the altitude didn’t prove a problem for us, but we had stocked up on lots and lots of water anyway. The temperature had seriously dropped from the sunbathing weather at the hot springs, so out came the wooly hats and jumpers. The drive between the hot springs and the geysers was absolutely beautiful, with more clusters of amazingly blue lakes and vicuñas wandering beside the side of the road. We kept stopping for photos and to enjoy the views, so the journey took a little longer than planned. We arrived just before the sun set, checked with the man in charge of selling tickets to the geysers where we were allowed to park, and then set up camp and cooked dinner for the night. We expected a very tough night as the temperature frequently drops below zero, and we’d read it wasn’t uncommon for temperatures to drop as low as -15 degrees during winter. Luckily we had sleeping bags and lots of blankets and we actually slept well! Our alarm went off at 7am, and we drove Salvador to the car park within the geyser field to go and have a look. The geysers began to appear and were very active indeed. Unfortunately my iPhone takes poor pictures when the lighting isn’t great, so none of my pictures of the geysers are that spectacular. It was an interesting thing to visit, but the cold meant that wandering around wasn’t pleasant for long, and we had to head back to Salvador to warm up. In my opinion the geysers were just as cool once the sun was up, so I’m not sure the sunrise part was particularly necessary (but I’m sure many would disagree with me!). We cooked breakfast before heading off again with the intention of stopping for lunch at the lakes we’d passed the day before to admire the beautiful flora and fauna.
Unfortunately our last day was cut a little bit short because it started to snow. I wasn’t being a wuss about how freezing cold it was at the geysers! We decided to drive without stopping back down to San Pedro to get lower down and away from the snow. We spent the rest of the day back by the lagoons I mentioned earlier, but there was still a fierce wind which Salvador dealt with exceptionally well.
Just as we decided it would be a good time to drive back to San Pedro and return our wicked camper, Salvador decided not to start. We had ten minutes of slight panic, wondering how the battery could be dead, when we waved down a car driving past and a friendly Chilean man helped us to jump start Salvador. We later realised that we’d left the headlights on from when we were driving in the gloomy snow – it was good to have an explanation and to realise we hadn’t damaged Salvador, who we had become so attached to.
This was definitely the best way to explore the Atacama desert, and if we could afford it I think we would be renting vans for much longer parts of our journey. You don’t have to be herded on and off tourist buses, and as long as you have a map you’re good to go!