San Pedro de Atacama pretty much only exists to cater for hoards of tourists. As our bus pulled in, the driver joked that there were about 1000 residents, 2000 dogs and 4000 tourists living there.
As a result of all the tourism, there is plenty on offer, but what are the best tours in San Pedro de Atacama?
Perhaps one for the more active people, sandboarding is great fun, and more so when you have incredible views of the Valle del Muerte surrounding you, and distant volcanoes lining the horizon.
I booked my trip with Inca Tours for CH$12,000, and they organised a half day on the dunes, followed by some cave walking and a pisco sour at sunset in the Valle de la Luna. Chilean prices considered, this was a bargain.
The instructor was a fan of the tough love, but his screaming eventually had an effect and I did improve control of the board significantly. There was another dude at the bottom of the dune, who filmed the whole thing and you get a free CD of all your falls, as well as being publicised on You Tube for all the world to see. Check out my sand boarding moves here!
They play some great tracks from the boot of the van to get you in the mood, and the equipment is top quality too. The only thing you will have to bear in mind is that it is a tough climb to the top of the dune, and after carrying your board in the blistering heat for a couple of hours up the unstable sand, you will be pretty knackered.
The lagunas in San Pedro de Atacama are pretty similar to the ones you see on the Salar de Uyuni trip, but this time you can get in them!
Our first stop was a very salty lake, where you could float around to your heart’s content. They warned us not to jump in, because the salt would sting our eyes and lips. They even had a few litres of water with a hose attached, so they could help clean us up if we got salt in places we didn’t want it.
After a quick bathe – it’s pretty cold water – we walked around the sand bar that crossed through the middle of the lake. We asked the guide to take photos so it looked like we were walking on water…
With our skin encrusted in salt and tightening up like a face mask, we hopped back on the bus and drove to the next swimming point – two clear lagoons inside pits in the ground, called Los Ojos. The best way to get in these is to hurl yourself off the edge, especially since the water here is even colder.
Our last stop was a beautiful shallow salt lake. You could paddle out hundreds of metres and still it would only be a foot deep. Some guys were attempting to build a snowman from moist salt by the side of the lake.
We stood by the minibus snacking on crisps and drinking a complimentary pisco sour (a feature of most of the trips in the area) and watched the sunset turn the skies orange behind a solitary volcano.
El Tatio Geyser
The tour to El Tatio Geyser is a bit of a killer because you have to get up at 3:30 am, but I was keen to see it after a blockade in the national park on my salt flats tour in Bolivia meant we missed all the sights – including a geyser – on the last day.
The drive there is beautiful if you can stay awake. There are usually clear skies over San Pedro, making star gazing a prime attraction. Before I lost consciousness, I saw a shooting star pass right across the horizon.
We arrived at the geysers at about 5:30 am and it was the coldest I’ve been on my entire trip. Despite gloves, my hands were frozen and numb, making it quite unpleasant to walk around. The tour company provided breakfast and a welcome cup of hot tea, before driving us to visit a deep pool of boiling water that three tourists had fallen into in the past, resulting in varying degrees of hospitalisation.
Then it was time for the thermal baths. I was so cold, the prospect of getting back out again was not appealing at all, but the steamy water was too tempting to pass on. We got changed in some pointless changing rooms without doors and raced for the water. It was warm, but by no means hot enough to class as relaxing.
On the way out of the park, we were handed leaflets of safety advice, telling us not to eat too much or drink the night before the tour, and warning us about the high altitude. Not particularly useful in retrospect…!
We drove back to San Pedro de Atacama via the ‘smallest village in the world’. There were only two houses, but it was still signposted from the main road. We also saw a lot of wildlife along the way. Finally, we stopped for empanadas in a slightly bigger village, before getting dropped back at our hostels by midday.
Before I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, I naively thought I might attempt to do all of the main tours on offer. I’d been used to this style of travel having arrived there from Bolivia, where everything is dirt cheap.
I chose the tours above based on good value for money and the opportunity to see a range of landscapes. It’s worth noting that there are plenty more sights in the area surrounding San Pedro de Atacama, including a number of very beautiful lagoons, a twelfth century fortification called Pukará de Quitor, more hot springs and an impressive volcano. There are also some great spots for star gazing through powerful telescopes and learning about the constellations.
One thing is for certain…whatever tours you choose in the area, you will come away in awe of the colourful, versatile landscapes, with holiday snaps to rival most spots in the continent.