Trying not to get robbed blind in San Pedro de Atacama

We’ve said it before: San Pedro de Atacama is bastard expensive. Even if you do things on a budget: self-guided, no tours, make your own food, etc. it’s impossible not to spend a good chunk of money. We even held off on doing laundry for 3 days because it was bound to be cheaper once we got back into Argentina. Accommodation and tours are particularly eye-watering. We had trawled Booking.com for the cheapest deal that we could find but simply could not bring ourselves to pay so much money for two beds in a large dorm in a hostel of questionable reputation. In the end, we decided that it was going to cost a lot anyway so we may as well stump up for the smallest private room in town; hello again, bunk beds.

All we were interested in doing when we arrived in San Pedro was showering, but we arrived before check in so we took our slightly smelly selves out in search of lunch.  SPdA is not a large town in any sense, the buildings are as compact as the town itself. We were there on Easter weekend so there were hoardes of Chileans as well as the usual tourists but we never struggled to find anywhere to eat and as far as we could tell there was space on every tour. We’d read a lot of good things about San Pedro de Atacama, people seem to love it and we could see the appeal with the pretty church, colourful markets and clean streets.

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We didn’t fall madly in love with the place however, it was a sweet little town in the middle of the desert but not exactly thrilling and we certainly wouldn’t choose it as a place to kick back and relax for a few days. The real draw lies in the desert outside of the town. We did our due diligence and trudged around the many tour companies in town but were thoroughly unimpressed by how much they were charging for what you got. It may be because we were getting a little bit travel weary again, or perhaps because we had seen so much on our way across from Bolivia, but we felt that a vast majority of the tours were simply not worth it; we’d seen heaps of lagoons with flamingos and paying a premium to float in one didn’t appeal. Equally, we’d seen a geyser and we had no desire to get up at stupid o’clock in the morning to shiver next to some more at sunrise. The only organised tour that we were really interested in doing was an astronomy tour; the night sky over the Atacama desert is supposed to be absolutely breath-taking. Unfortunately, we were there at the full moon and the most reputable astronomy tours don’t run for the six days around the full moon because it’s just too bright to see the stars. There were some companies offering a reduced tour but we thought that was likely to be more of a disappointment than not seeing it at all, so we shrugged and accepted the fact that our star gazing would have to wait for another day and another place.

So, there you have a thorough summary of what we didn’t do in the Atacama Desert. Now for what we did do. Just outside town is the Valle del Luna National Park. You can either visit on a tour, in your own car or, as we did, on bikes.  We rented bikes, surprisingly cheaply, and headed off to explore. Nearly as soon as we were cycling a dog decided she wanted to come with us and, despite our best efforts to stop her, she motored along beside us the whole way to the park.

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The barren scenery made the cycle to the park entrance look far more daunting than it actually was; it was pretty easy going, although the thin air still made our lungs burn.

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We arrived at the ticket office, noted the sign asking tourists to make sure that dogs didn’t follow them into the park and realised that we were not special, the dogs follow everyone. Our canine companion was absolutely gasping by the time we reached the park so we gave her some water and tried to encourage her into the shade. Not to be deterred, she trotted alongside us until the gate attendant aimed a swift kick at her arse and sent her scarpering.

From the park entrance it is about a 20-minute ride until you reach the main viewpoints but the cycle in is pretty incredible in and of itself.

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Then shit got real, for a short period at least. The steep hills, dust from cars, the thin air and our general lack of fitness made for some pretty tough work and on the hardest hills we simply had to give in and push the bikes up the hill.

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It was with enormous relief that we made it to the downhill and, shortly afterward, the first stop, Duna Mayor. Despite choosing to visit outside of the tour times, it was still pretty busy with self-drivers, private tours and the occasional other nutter in a day-glo jacket, pushing their bike up a hill. We joined the line of people tramping up to the top of the hill. The views from the ridge were amazing.

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We toured the rest of the park, but the best bit was definitely our first stop.

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On our way back to town, we meet another group of cyclists entering the park, also with a dog in tow whom they couldn’t seem to shake off, so we collected him up and took him back with us.

The next day we decided to explore the pre-Colombian ruins of Pukara Quitor. It was an hour’s, not particularly attractive walk from where we were staying, but a good leg-stretch and a means of easing out our embarrassingly achey muscles after the previous day’s cycling exertions. Unfortunately, the path among the ruins was closed, so we had to make do with views over them.

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Halfway up the hill we bumped into the dog who had accompanied us on our cycle to Valle de la Luna the day before, she was shamelessly lapping up the attention from every single tourist that came past, clearly this is her MO. It’s a deceptively challenging climb to the viewpoint at the very top but well worth it for the views out over the town and the desert.

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There’s even a mini moon valley to enjoy.

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Other than some decent empanadas at Abdallas, that pretty much sums up our short stay in San Pedro de Atacama. We managed to do it without completely breaking the bank, we’re not sure it would be worth it if you were taking all of the super expensive tours but, particularly with the star gazing thrown in, it’s still a must-do for us.

The next morning, we headed to the bus station for our 12 hour bus journey to Salta, our canine shadow was there again to see us off. The town dogs clearly know when the buses leave because they decended on the bus station en masse, Caro was particularly jealous of the couple opposite who had made a friend for life.

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