Travelblog SA#33: San Pedro de Atacama, Santiago & Valparaíso – Chile

5th-19th December 2018

Chile was a bit of a culture shock. After months spent within Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, I was suddenly in a much more modern country. The buses all had air conditioning, the streets were cleaner and everything just seemed more polished.

But there were consequences to having these new comforts and conveniences. Chile is one of the most expensive countries in South America. Not only that but of all the regions of Chile, San Pedro de Atacama was probably the priciest of all. Partly because it is in the desert, so water is scarce and supplies need to be brought in, but also because it is touristy and thus everything comes loaded with hefty amounts of gringo tax.

The town of San Pedro is quite small. Originally just a village which expanded rapidly when it became a holiday hotspot, everything is within walking distance and the central square is a hub of restaurants, hostels and touts.

I couldn’t afford a dorm bed in a place like this, so I got out my tent and pitched it in the garden of a hostel. Once settled, I began to look into some of the tours available into the nearby Atacama Desert. My anxiety began to rise when I found out how much they cost. If all of Chile was going to be like this, I would be flying home much sooner than I intended.

To be honest, I spent much of my first day stressing about money as a lot of the costs were a shock to me. To top it all, when I went to get cash I discovered that the ATMs in this country charge hefty fees to withdraw money. I ended up exclaiming, ‘fucking bastards!’ in the middle of the bank, drawing many people to stare. Which made me also learn another thing about this country; many more people understand English here.

I eventually decided to try to try to not worry about money too much and enjoy it while I am here.

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The following morning I got up at 4am for my first tour; to El Tatio, the world’s third largest geyser field. It was still dark so I dozed while the bus climbed through the mountains of the Atacama. By the time we reached the car park, it was sunrise and plumes of steam were rising from the ice which had gathered across the field overnight.

There are two different fields to visit, both of which have a wide range of geysers. I didn’t realise how cold it was going to be though and should have worn more layers. I kept having to blow onto my hands to warm them up and my toes were numb.

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The second field had a hot spring you can swim in but it was only at a temperature of 30 degrees so not all too inviting despite the novelty of it being in such interesting surroundings.

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Overall I am glad I went to see this place while I was passing through the area but I don’t think I was as awed by it as I would have usually been, having just seen Sol de Mañana a few days ago in Bolivia which, while not as large, was a little more atmospheric.

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As expensive as this tour was, I did enjoy it. The guide had a great attitude, spoke both in Spanish and English, and it also came with a free breakfast.

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After the geysers, we made a few other stops on our way back to San Pedro. First, to see the fording of the Putana River, which had flamingos.

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And later, a canyon.

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There was also the usual obligatory stop where they encourage you to buy some tat. It was at a village, and you could also either have your photo taken with a llama there, or eat one, depending on what mood you were in. I decided upon neither and wandered off for a while, finding a local graveyard and several species of bird on the side of the river, including this pair of Andean geese.

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In the afternoon I went for my second tour, to see Valle de la Luna.

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The first hour or so we were clambering through a series of caves which were formed thousands of years ago from subterranean tunnels.

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We also went to see the remains of old salt mines, along with some other viewpoints throughout the Atacama.

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The highlight of this tour though was watching the sunset over the valley.

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I left San Pedro de Atacama the following morning, destined for Santiago. There are plenty of other tours available to see sights in San Pedro area but they were all way out of my budget.

The journey was over twenty hours long but I enjoyed it. My seat was comfortable and spacious and the air-conditioning was suitably cold. I read a book and watched some videos on my laptop while watching the desert go by through the window.

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I liked Santiago. Which is a good thing, as I ended up spending almost two weeks there. There isn’t too much to say of my time there which will be of interest to you, to be honest. I made some friends and recharged my batteries. I needed to prepare for my next destination, Patagonia, where I will be spending the next couple of months, so supplies needed to be bought and some of my camping gear needed servicing.

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I did manage to squeeze in some time to see museums, of which Santiago has many, most of which are free. My favourites were the Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino and the Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos which gave an account of some of the atrocities committed during the Pinochet regime.

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And I also went for an overnight trip to Valparaíso, a bohemian, arty city famous for its hilly neighbourhoods covered in graffiti.

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I have plenty more photos, not just from Valparaíso, but Santiago and San Pedro de Atacama too.

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