A Brit in Chile: San Pedro de Atacama
After deciding that I wanted to see some of the natural beauty that Chile has to offer, the Atacama desert seemed an obvious place to go. With its incredible landscape, wonderful wildlife and relaxed atmosphere, it proved to be the perfect choice for an escape from the city.
SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA — The process of getting to San Pedro from Santiago was a fairly daunting idea to begin with, as I had never even come close to 23 hours on a bus. However, it’s surprising how quickly time can pass when you’re looking out of the window dreaming of fields of flamingoes and thermal baths, and so after a night of intermittent sleep and bad Spanish kung-fu films, I was there.
I got off the bus, which by the end was like a clown car of British tourists, and headed into the center to find a hostel. I’m not a picky man, so after looking around a couple of places, the offer of a comfortable bed with a hammock in the garden was enough to entice me. Finding out later that the only way to get in my room was by putting my arm through the window and opening it from the inside was not even enough to dampen my optimism.
Not knowing at all where to begin, I based my tour choices on whether the guides could speak English, and on how many pictures of flamingos they had on their posters, which seemed to work, because by dinner time I had my plan for the next few days. My first tour was the temptingly named Lagunas Altiplánicas, which took us up into the mountains (enough to warrant an altitude sickness warning, which was an exciting prospect for someone from the flattest part of England) to experience some awe-inspiring scenery.
Seeing the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons were my first real experience with the epic status of Chilean nature, and only the salt lakes, home to flocks of Andean and Chilean flamingos were enough to top it. Seeing the birds silently and calmly wade through the almost incomprehensible expanse of salt was my first real humbling experience of the trip. My first item could be checked off the list: see flamingos in their natural habitat.
But that was only the first day, and the next began fairly soon after at 4.30am. This early trip was to visit the Geysers del Tatio which, as well as happily synchronizing with the bright red moon brought on by the lunar eclipse, brought on my first encounter with the freezing cold desert night. We ate breakfast by the (extremely welcome) bursts of steam in – 10 degrees Celsius, and I proved my British resilience by lasting with just a jumper and a denim jacket, which was enough to prompt an astounded Brazilian to ask for a photo with me.
After the freezing tour, we were given the opportunity to bathe in the natural hot baths, which, after 15 minutes of deliberating whether I could bear to take my clothes off with a couple of other English tourists, I finally braved the cold air and took the plunge. It was worth the frost in my hair for 20 minutes of wonderful, natural warmth. To top off a strange day of extremes, we then visited Machuca, a small town 4000 meters above sea level, where as well as seeing the private, quiet lives of the townspeople, I filled myself with a few delicious llama kebabs. Not even the herd of llama next to us was enough to put me off the delicious meat.
Arriving back at midday, I still had a full day ahead of me, and so, without pausing for breath, I set off for the Valley of the Moon. Ducking through the caves and walkways, with footsteps and salt cracking in the midday heat being the only sound for miles, it reminded me that I was indeed very far from home. Sitting on top of an Andean mountain, looking out at the sunset with a giant empanada was perhaps the most Chilean thing I have done so far, and a wonderful end to a day of mixed heights, temperatures and landscapes.
So, after a packed few days of high altitudes and early mornings, I was all set for a couple of days of pure relaxation, which is why I had waited for my final days to tour the lagoons and thermal baths. Laguna Cejas was my first stop, and after a refreshing swim in a small body of water, which defied my logic by being in the middle of the desert, we got to experience the utterly baffling feeling of floating on top of the water of the salt lagoon. Despite the cold waters, it was a feeling that I certainly didn’t want to end, and I can tell now that any swimming pool in the future will seem like it is missing something. Spinning around like a hot dog sausage in the desert is apparently something that any country’s sense of humor can appreciate.
I can safely say I have never been anywhere so relaxing as San Pedro, and never had an opportunity to meet so many friendly, welcoming people, whether they are Chilean, British, German or any nationality. Despite the touristy feel and lengthy bus ride, the sights and wonders the trip allows are not only worth it, but some of the most fulfilling and inspiring that I have ever come across.