When I was looking at the map of Northern Chile the Atacama desert clearly sticks out - that's where I wanted to go! But getting there was no small task...
Crossing the border between Peru and Chile
They’re not making it easy for the travelers; this was perhaps the first border crossing where there wasn’t a direct a bus that would take you from one country to the other. Nope. First you have to get a bus to the southernmost town in Peru (Tacna). I got a ticket to the 7am bus from Arequipa to Tacna, arriving at around 1.30pm to Tacna, with a nice Cruz del Sur bus. Ah, they have one of the best buses in South America that I’ve come across (and the price isn’t bad, 30 soles i.e. around 10€ for a 6-7 hour bus ride).
I met Lauren, who I had already met the day before on the Colca Canyon trek, at the bus station and she was taking the same bus. We joined forces with an Argentinian and a Chilean guy to cross the border. To get to Chile you have to take a collectivo from Tacna to Arica. We didn’t have to wait as our group filled a car so after a bit over an hour, including the stop in the Peruvian and Chilean border offices we were in Arica, we were in Chile! I even managed to smuggle a banana through the strict Chilean customs, haha (by mistake)!
Once we drove across the border I got to see the Pacific for the first time from this side of the ocean! And it was nice to be back in the warm climate! So it was about 5pm when we were in the Arica bus terminal (having lost 2 hours on the time change, crossing to Chile) and the first bus that would go to San Pedro de Atacama left at 9.30pm. By the time I was holding my bus ticket I realised I forgot my shoes in the collectivo… whopsee! That was the first thing I have left behind on my trip… and maybe it was meant to happen, I was sick and tired of those shoes.
We had around four hours to wait for the bus so it was a good time to have lunch, check emails and get a glass of wine. Anyway waiting for the bus wasn’t all that bad since I had Lauren and Cristobal, the Argentinian guy, to accompany me. Cristobal also joined me on the night bus to San Pedro which we boarded at 9.30pm. We had to give our passports to the driver’s assistant and after 11pm there was a passport check – strangly already two hours after we had left the border (and had our passports checked & stamped).
But that wasn’t enough, at 3.30am somewhere in the middle of nowhere there was another customs point. Everybody had to get out of the bus with all their luggage and wait outside while the officers checked everybody’s bags… So much for getting sleep on the bus. Then, of course, a bit after 7am we arrived to Calama, already close to San Pedro, for an unscheduled bus change. At 8am we were back on the road to San Pedro where we arrived after 9am. I was thoroughly annoyed and tired – 24 hours of traveling from Arequipa to San Pedro (1050 km, by the way).
San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro is a dusty small town in the middle of nowhere - if you're looking for something very rustic, this is your place. And our hostel fit that bill – but I couldn’t have cared less as long as I had a somewhere to dump my bags and get some rest. Luckily I met a girl on the bus ride to San Pedro, Valerie, who kept me company. Though its dusty appearance, San Pedro get quite a lot of travelers and has some interesting restaurants and shops. After a moment of regrouping we headed to get some breakfast – or actually by that time it was lunch – and some info on what we could do around San Pedro.
Valle de la Luna
It was quite obvious what we wanted to do: see Valle de la Luna and go see the stars on an astronomy tour. We booked a tour to both the salt lakes and Valle de la Luna for the same afternoon and put our names on the waiting list for an astronomy tour at the most recommended agency. Hey, why rest when there’s so much fun to do!? We just had time to go have the lunch (at Delicias del Carmen, a nice place to eat) and change clothes. The tour started at 3pm and would last until 8.30pm; it was a combination of two tours (for a total price of 15000 pesos) so we didn’t have too much time to wander around but we definitely got to see a lot. I couldn’t have imagined how dry it is there!
One of the highlights of the tours was a dip in the salt lakes – you could really float so easily! The salt lakes are delicate ecosystems and not all of the lakes were open to swimmers. The water was maybe 20 C - refreshing but not cold. After the swim you had a nice salt crush but our tour guide had a shower installed in the van: a canister of water and a hose :D
The tour continued to the Valle de la Luna. We walked in some of rock formations that were covered in salt (looks like snow but it isn't!). And by the time the sun was just setting behind the valley we climbed on the hill overlooking the Valle de la Luna. I was gorgeous - almost dramatic - at sunset! Made me wish we had more time there.
When we got back to San Pedro we were told that the astronomy tours were unfortunately full. At that point I was so tired - after the 24 hour trip from Arequipa to San Pedro and touring all day - I couldn’t have cared less. We anyway got to enjoy the stars already during the bus ride and walking around. I have to admit the night sky is quite incredible there! It feels like the stars are a lot brighter there, you can even see the Milky Way! So since we didn’t need to rush to another tour (and thus also saved 18-20000 pesos) we could enjoy a lovely dinner at Blanco – another restaurant I can recommend in San Pedro. It has quite a cool vibe, beautifully crafted dishes .. even all the waiters are beautiful people, it’s so out of place in San Pedro (but in a good way).
It wasn’t a problem to fall asleep that night… And it was great that we didn’t have to get up early! The mattress was a bit too soft but I slept like a baby. The next day we were just taking it easy, having a nice lunch and coffee in San Pedro with Valerie. We also happened to share a passion in dance – Valerie is a West Coast Swing dancer and a salsera – so we had plenty to talk about the two days we were there. It was so fun to share all the dance stories and I also taught her some zouk basics as well as she the West Coast Swing steps! I hope I lit a little zouk spark in her, after all she’s going to travel to Brazil soon! In the evening I got on a bus to La Serena, heading south towards my final South American stops before Santiago.