Traveling to San Pedro de Atacama was one of the most surprising, astonishing and magical trips I’ve ever made. Before arriving to Chile, I had never really heard a lot of this place. Actually, 2 years before, when I visited Chile with my family for the first time nobody even mentioned it as a main touristic spot. People always told us about places like Valparaiso, Viña del Mar, Puerto Mont, Puerto Varas and the Chilean Patagonia but never about the northern part of this country. It was until I started planning my exchange that me and my friends started doing a little more thorough research with people who had spend a little more time in Chile or who had actually lived there that we started to hear of this place more frequently.
It was because of this reason that we left this trip to be the last one; we didn’t really consider it as a “must”. A group of other international girls had actually visited Atacama first and told us all sorts of amazing things about it. That it was beautiful and the most amazing place they had ever been, still, with all this comments and reviews I was still skeptical of how incredible it actually could be. Naively, I considered I had been to and seen a lot of remarkable places, and looking at some of their pictures I didn’t really think it was that special after all… boy was I wrong.
Me and my other 2 Mexican girlfriends started to plan our trip without really knowing much of the place. We booked the plane to Calama and we knew it was a little way from there to Atacama. We started talking to couchsurfing people and we actually contacted one guy who lived sort of in the outskirts of Atacama, but we thought it wouldn’t be that bad to walk for around 15-20 minutes to get there everyday if that meant we could save some money; again, we didn’t know how wrong we were.
We got there in the late afternoon, and for the first time it was just us girls traveling (we usually traveled with 2 other boys) but we were confident and weren’t really worried we were going to stay with some guy we had contacted on the web. When we got to Atacama, after taking a 2-hour bus from Calama, this actually really nice guy went to pick us up with his bike and we walked back to his home from the tiny bus station. It was around 20 – 30 minutes of walking, in an almost complete darkness because Atacama is a really, really small town; there aren’t any type of buildings or big houses or lots of people or really anything there, so the start of our trip wasn’t really surprising or exciting. The only thing we could really appreciate were the stars in the sky. Because there are almost no city lights or any lights for that matter, the sky is absolutely amazing. I had heard that one of the main space observatories, the ALMA, was placed in Atacama, and I could definitely see why.
Long story short, the guy we had contacted lived in a 2 room concrete square, in the middle of a practically deserted town. One room had his bed, a computer and what seemed to our paranoid minds as a portable mini drug lab and the other room, “our” room, a set of drums and a carton like bitten mattress, which was our accommodation for the night. Without getting into much detail we obviously tried to be as friendly as we could with this young man who had offered to share his tiny living quarters with us. We also pretended we were absolutely cool with him inviting some friends over to what we though would be a gathering to get either drunk or high but politely excused ourselves as being very tired and proceeded to lock ourselves in the tiny concrete room in complete silence; each one of us not wanting to say a single word about our fears of being surrounded by unknown, probably drunk, guys. We were completely sleepless, scared, and ready to attack anyone who even tried to enter our room. Of course nothing bad happened, but after managing to get 2, probably 3 hours of sleep we literally escaped running the next morning at around 6 am, leaving a note saying that we decided to start our tours early, which also gave us enough time to afterwards make up an excuse that wouldn’t sound too mean to explain why we never got back… So yeah our start in Atacama wasn’t really an ideal one.
That morning, after waking up at 6am we probably arrived to the center of town, or its main 3 blocks, at around 7am. We walked around for a little while until we found a hostel that seemed good enough and was still cheap. When the lady in the entrance told us we could actually access our room since that early hour we went in running. We paid around 15 dollars per night, which seemed like a great deal after the terrible experience we had just had. We decided to rest for a while, and then walk around town asking and comparing prices of the different tours we could take.
Basically all the touristic offices offer the same excursions, and they have either an early morning or a mid afternoon schedule. We realized it was too late to take a morning tour, since they all departed very early, but we could still take an afternoon tour to the Laguna Cejar, in which we were told to bring our bathing suits, even if it was winter there, because the main attraction was arriving to a lagoon that was so salty you floated, like in the dead sea.
We got back to the hostel and packed our things for the visit and from that moment on this trip turned out to be indescribably breathtaking. I couldn’t imagine that just by driving for around 20 minutes away from the cute-but-simple little town you could get to see these absolutely mind-blowing landscapes. I don’t know if it was because I was so not expecting it, but I seriously felt like I had never seen such wonderful and beautiful colors in my life. Everything seemed like a dream. Seriously I could not believe my eyes, the sky and the water mixed and reflected into one and created the most fairylike places ever.
This first tour was my favourite by far, we did go into the floating lagoon, even if it was totally freezing, but we just couldn’t go without getting to say we had swam, or rather floated in the saltiest of waters. This, by the way, is not refreshing or cool at all, I mean it is great to float without an effort, but because of the amount of salt you cannot actually swim or get your head wet unless you want to experience extreme discomfort and allover dryness in your skin and eyes. After that we went to another place nearby and waited for the most beautiful sunset ever, by dawn I knew I was completely in love with this place.
We were in Atacama for a total of 5 days (from Friday to Tuesday) so more like 3 if you leave out the traveling hours of the first and last days. Still, this was just enough time for us to do most of the must-do tours. After the Laguna Cejar we got to visit the Laguna Tebenquiche, the Lagunas Altiplanicas, the Piedras Rojas, el Salar del Talar, el Valle de la Muerte, the Valle de la Luna and the last day we went to the night tour to see the stars through telescopes (which by the way was one of the coldest nights of my life so if you come here in winter please be prepared to freeze).
The only thing we didn’t do which we later kind of regret was visit the Geiser del Tatio, still, instead of doing that one we decided to rent some bikes and sand boards and went on our own to the sand dunes and it was absolutely amazing. Riding my bike through the highway in the dessert, with the most beautiful landscape around me felt like the most liberating, peaceful and thrilling thing ever. I was as happy as I could be. I have always loved doing sportive activities so for me this was ideal. Being able to bike around town, at our own pace, and just enjoying everything was fantastic.
We turned out to be not so skilled in the actual sandboarding, but just the whole experience was worth everything to me. We ended up exhausted of course, we slept like babies every night but I was just so happy, I even considered coming back and staying there for a longer period of time. The guy who we rented the bikes and sandboards from actually invited us to work for him and I had never been so tempted to stay anywhere else in my life.
I could write a million words just to try to describe the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama, but as a personal experience I just know you have to be there to actually take it all in. You can also take infinite pictures, which we did, to try and share or remember the beauty, but these are not even half of the magnificence of being there. I had never been so astonished by any place in my life. Seriously I could go on forever on the splendor of this place, but I don’t want to set the highest of standards either, because after us, we convinced some of our friends to visit this place and they weren’t even half as amazed as we were, so I guess its a matter of perception.
For me, this trip is definitely one of the best ones of my life, through and through. Atacama is a place for nature lovers, people who enjoy a beautiful landscape or just a peaceful place. After being here I’m glad its actually not so known or popular, its part of its magic. If you want to enjoy the beauty of the earth, far from buildings, cities or crowds please come here, you won’t regret it, I know I never will.