Day 1 – 27 Nov – San Pedro de Atacama – Valle de la Luna
We took the plane from Santiago to Calama this morning at 6:05. We again used Uber in Santiago to get to the airport at 4:00 and it was very smooth, but costed more, 16000 Chilean pesos, because of the surge pricing at that hour. As we took off from Santiago, the sun was rising from the Andean mountains. It has been beautiful to watch these mountains go along with us on the plane, since the south of Chile. While we were landing in Calama, all you could see in sight was plains of brown-red sand.
When we landed in Calama, we saw many shuttle bus companies waiting for us with different prices. We walked along to see which one is the cheapest and took Magic bus for 8000 chilean pesos per person. This company uses buses instead of minivans that is why it is cheaper but it worked for us. On the road, again, all we could see was the sand and windmills. We realized the strong wind when we got out of the airport. We just looked around with open mouths going from one side of the bus to the other (it wasn’t full) to see the scenery.
We got to San Pedro de Atacama bus stop and from there, we walked to our hostel, Tocopilla 19A. It initially seemed away from the center, but in reality it wasn’t, and later on, we have benefited from the fact that the hostel is not in the middle of the city. After leaving our bags in the hostel, because our room was not ready, yet, we walked to the city. The town is very small, all the houses are made of clay bricks, and looked very nice. The center of the town is full with tour companies, and there are people on the street trying to get you to buy tours from them. So, we also started shopping and asking around about the possible tours there.
After going around for a while, we stopped by Flamingo Tours, which also does tours from San Pedro to Uyuni. The guy there suggested a cheap lunch place to eat, La Huerto, and we went there to eat while we discuss which tours we want to do and check out the tour companies. B ordered the pastel de papas, while M got a bbq plate. In the meantime, we checked the tour companies online to see the reviews. The Flamingo Tours seemed to have good reviews, so we went by them, even though they were a bit more expensive. La Huerto was very delicious and cheap and was definitely worth visiting.
Our first tour started the same day =) At 16:00, we were heading to Valle de la Luna. To enter the entrance fee was 3000 chileanos and the tour was 10000 chileanos. However, we would suggest that you rent a bike and just go around on your own. The tour started with the Three Maries, we stopped there to see the rock formations due to the erosion in front of an old salt mine.
Then we went to see the sand dune, and the valley, took many pictures. Here our tour guide explained how this place was formed. There are many mountain ranges around here. Chilean coast mountain range with many volcanoes block on one side, and the Andean mountains block on the other side. It doesn’t rain in Atacama, but it rains behind the mountains. The volcanoes throw rocks with salt and minerals, therefore there is a lot of salt in the region. The water behind the mountains goes underground, and the underground water flows from the mountains to the plains. The salt is dissolved in water, but when it gets to the desert, it is too hot, so the water evaporates and the salt remains in the desert. Water wants to get to the coast but surrounded with all these mountains, it cannot escape the ‘prison’.
Afterwards, we passed by the salt caves and we saw different formation of salt, and it also had quartz that was sparkling like diamond. The caves were quite dark and M had headlights that worked very well for both of us. It was fun to kneel down and crawl in between the walls.
Our next and final stop was Piedra del Coyote, where you can see the valley from the other side. We spent close to an hour here, watching the light changing, shadows growing with the sunset. We also had some snacks, and after a beautiful sunset, we headed back to Atacama. We did pass by the way towards Valle de la Muerte, but didn’t really see the big sand dune there. For dinner, we had some burritos for take out, because we wanted to rest as much as possible, as we had a very long day.
Day 2 – 28 Nov – Lagunas Altiplanicas and Piedras Rojas
Today, we were picked up from our hostel sometime between 7:00-7:30. We headed for Lagunas Altiplanicas (which are lakes that are in high planes) and Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks). This tour costs 35000 chileanos + 5500 chileanos for the entrance fees for the national parks.
We started by going to the Toconao village. There was an old church from 1744 with wooden door, and we learned that this door was made of the wood from a cactus called Cardon. There is another church right behind and it is from 1935; we didn’t see inside, but apparently it is also made of wood from this cactus, but outside of it is made of liparit stone. We also saw another cactus that is called San Pedro, that is apparently hallucinogenic. You can make tea out of this cactus as per our guide, we did not try it for the records =).
Then we passed by a volcano that is called Lascar. In 1995 it exploded and the ashes took to São Paulo; and in 2009 to Buenos Aires. It is an explosive mountain and when it exploded there is no lava, but just ashes are thrown. Our guide also talked about the Miñiques volcano, behind which there are many volcanoes and the Argentinian border. The red rocks that we will see later are made by the explosion of this volcano.
On our way, we crossed the Capricorn line and saw red cactuses that they call as stepmother’s pillow in Spanish. Then we passed by Socaire, the last town before the Argentinian border. The stone work of the houses in this town is similar to those of the Incas, using the stones of the volcanos. There are also abandoned terraces which shows that there used to be a big city here for the caravans coming from the Amazonia going to the Pacific coast. On our way, we also saw some vicuñas, a type of wild llamas. These are different than guanacos, that we had seen in la Patagonia: guanacos have darker color and are stronger and bigger.
We passed by aquas calientes and the Piedras Rojas and were promised to come back here after breakfast. We instead stopped at the Tuyaito lake to have breakfast. The water is again underground water but now we are in the high altitudes and there are mountains around so there is humidity. This area is not too hot so we can still have this lake.
Our next stop was Miñiques lagoon, in front of which we had our lunch. This lagoon is right next to the Miñiques volcano and the Miscanti lagoon, which we visited right after lunch. In this area there used to be a river. Miñiques mountain exploded and cut the river, forming the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoon as a single lagoon. But further explosions cut them again and now we have two lagoons in this area. The lagoons are in white-green color which reminds us Maldives, never been there, but got almost the same color. Miñiques does not freeze during winter while Miscanti does, so there must be still some volcanic activity under Miñiques. We also saw the Andean gulls and the green little birds and the flamingos in these lagoons.
Then we came back to Piedras Rojas. Around this lagoon, we saw red rock formations. Miñiques exploded to create the red rocks. These rocks have iron in them and when iron is oxidized by the water, they start to have their red color. During the explosion, the lava is around 700 C, and these rocks are molten. The air, trapped inside the lava, forms the bubbles and that is why most of these rocks have holes in them. And with the wind and the salt, some of the rocks turn to white. The water erosion creates the cracks.
Then, we head to our last stop which is the Chaxas lagoon. On our way there, we had a glimpse of Suris (a small ostrich). It is also interesting to see that all the government projects in Chile, for example a road construction, has a sign next to it where the details of the project is explained including how much they have spent on it. Our guide explained us that there is a Canadian company mining lithium in the salt flat (salar). He mentioned that in order to be able to mine easily, the land has to be really dry. This is the biggest difference between the Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Atacama: that Uyuni gets rains and it is more difficult to mine. However, they still need a lot of water for the chemical processing and they get it from the village nearby. Our guide explained that this might result in an environmental issue and they are paying villages very high sums every month, where they do not see any development in the villages. We also got some information about the mountain ranges. The first range, which is on the shore is around 100 million years old, second range, which we cannot remember the name, is 50 and finally Andes is 20 million years old.
We have arrived at Chaxas lagoon. This was our first close encounter with the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flat). It is a vast area where all you can see the white land and mountains surrounding them. We also had a chance see the flamingos. Most of the flamingos we have seen were the Andean flamingos, these are bigger birds with black tail. But B saw some chilean flamingos as well. Chilean flamingos are the completely pink ones. Our guide also mentioned that the flamingos have only one egg a year. Their pink color is also coming from the small shrimps that they eat in the lake, which are mostly pink. Then, we left the park and head back to San Pedro de Atacama. For dinner, we grabbed some quesadillas from one of the bars (Barros Cafe) that our guide suggested. They told us that they have live music every night, we did not stay late that night but we really liked the place.
Day 3 – 29 Nov – Geysers del Tatio and Puritama Thermals
Today, we need to be ready for our pick up at 4:30. When went outside our hostel, it was completely dark. When we looked up, we have seen a sky that was nothing like we had seen before. The Milky Way was completely visible and we could see the stars like we had never seen before. Everyone used to tell us about the night sky in Atacama, but it’s another thing to see it yourself. This convinced M to sign up for a stargazing tour for tonight, and B got extremely excited.
Then we were picked up to head to the geysers. All tours try to get there before the sunrise as with the sunrise the temperature will rise and it will diminish the magnificent view of the geysers with lots of steam. When we arrived, it was around 6:00, and we made it just before the sunrise. The view was amazing, you can see various different geysers here. Our guide explained us about the different types. In theory, all geysers in the world can be active. Some geysers have constant steam coming out of them where some others are cyclical, meaning that they will have some activity at certain times. We walked around various geysers and spent most of our time taking pictures with the two big ones with a lot of steam.
Our next stop was the thermal pool right next to the geysers. This pool is also fed by a geyser and the left side of the pool can be burning hot. The average temperature was between 28-30 C. Outside temperature was around -6 C when we got into the pool! We debated for a second, but then we thought if not now, when =). Actually, inside the pool everything is perfect. Even when you change and walk to the pool you don’t feel that cold. One thing you might pay attention is to not overstay in. The altitude was around 4000 m and your body will work a lot to keep up with the altitude and the temperature differences. Also, your tour probably will not give you more than 40 minutes for the whole thing. Inside the pool, we felt great. The view of all the geysers, mountain and the feeling of being really warm was great. Then, of course we had to leave. Well, when you get out, you have to be really fast to change. First, take all wet things out and dry yourself right away. Luckily, changing rooms were right next to it =)
Our next stop was the Puritama wetlands. This green area hosts Andean coot, geese and some Vicuñas. The green scenery was really nice. We were also surprised to see that an Andean coot (a chicken size bird) was able to chase three vicuñas away =) Our guide was telling us that Andean coots are territorial birds and they do not want any other animals around their nests. While we were on our way to the Machuca village, our driver stopped in front of a rocky hill where he said that we can see the viscachas. Viscachas are like rabbits with a tail like squirrel. We have seen them from far away and they looked small and hard to recognize the tail. We also see, some llamas on our way to the village. Machuca is a village where every year one family runs all the village for the touristic activities. They also sell some llama meat to fund the village. And of course, we have tried the meat. It is a black meat that tastes like lamb and they were selling it with brochetas which was really delicious. After visiting the tiny traditionally designed and built church in this city, we left to come back to San Pedro. On our way back, our guide was talking about the Chachacoma tea helps with altitude sickness. This is different than coca leaves as with coca you need to take it before reach high altitude but chachacoma works even when you are actually at high altitude.
Before our next tour starts, we had lunch at Huerto as this place serves really delicious and cheap food. We met with a Turkish guide, his name was Burak. He explained that in Turkey, tourism was not doing great so instead of switching to some other field he decided to come here and work as a guide. We also stopped by and signed up for the stargazing tour for tonight.
Then, we had back to the travel agency to catch a bus for Puritama Thermals. We left around 14:00 and reached there in half an hour. Since we reached there in the afternoon we only paid 9000 Chilean pesos, otherwise the entrance fee is 15000 Chilean pesos. The bus left us on top of a hill and we started walking down. When we turn the first corner, we saw the green valley where the water was coming down and passing through various pools. All pools were surrounded by bushes, it looked like a paradise! At the entrance, they showed us the changing rooms and explained the temperature. The first pool is the hottest one and the last pool supposed to be the coldest. We started from the last one, but even that was quite warm. It was amazing to watch the scenery from the pool. Most pools have a small waterfall, where you can get under. Also the red rocks surrounding the pools was creating a great scenery. We did pool-hopping and in every 20 minutes switched to another pool. We met with Joy and Christian in the pool. They have been attending the same tours that we had, but we did not have a chance to chat that much. We were together all day, talked about various things and did not realize how the time passed. We had great pictures and videos there. It was already 17:00 and we had to leave at 17:30. We have changed and headed back to our bus. We met with Joy and Christian for dinner at Barros Cafe where M tried a Chilean lasagne, which had spinach, cheese and very little pasta. And B tried a chilean traditional soup called Cazuela de Vacuno, which had pumpkin, cabbage, meat, corn and a lot of other ingredients. We were waiting for our stargazing tour, but sadly it was cancelled due to weather conditions, it was kind of cloudy that night. We decided to stay in the bar and had a chance to listen to some native songs. A live band (three people) had performed both Chilean songs and some Brazilian songs as well. Christian gave us some tips for where to eat in Cusco, Moreno was the first restaurant he mentioned, we should definitely try the ice cream. And he also told us about another restaurant called UK-Peru. Then, all of us head back to hotels after an amazing but tiring day. We tried to see the night sky from our hostel, the sky seemed clear of clouds, but the Milky Way was not as visible as we saw this morning, so we understood why it got cancelled. B tried her luck by rescheduling for tomorrow night.
Day 4 – 30 Nov – Salar de Tara
For our last day, we decided to do the Salar de Tara tour. This is not a tour all agencies are doing and it is definitely the most expensive one (40000 chilean pesos per person, no entrance fees). Our driver was late for the first time, where we started like 30 minutes late. Once we picked up everyone, we started to drive to north east where our driver was showing Volcano Licancabur and behind it all other volcanos are on the Bolivian side. On our way, we stopped by a small lagoon called Quepiako to have our breakfast. We really like the breakfast the agency has been providing. They were serving fresh French baguettes which we did not see at other agencies tables =).
We passed by the Pujsa Salar (salt flat) when we were driving to Salar de Tara y Aquas Calientes park. Behind this salt flat, there is the tallest volcano (6046m) in Chile. Our driver had an app on his phone to show the altitude and the highest point we have reached in the trip was 4811 m. Luckily, we did not have any altitude sickness. Once you get to the park, paved road ends. In the park, there is no road, just the traces. And we were not driving with a 4×4, it was a minibus. One of the passengers, a Swiss guys sitting next to us, started to argue with the driver saying that he was driving too fast. For us, it was okay, we were sitting way back and jumping in our seats. That was the day it was proven that M was not getting any motion sickness at least in the car anymore =).
After this complaint, our driver decided to have a stop on a tall hill where we can see a panoramic view of the Salar de Tara. He explained us the geology here. What we have here is called a caldera volcano, it is an underground volcano. It is the second biggest of its kind in Chile. He also explained us how the rocks around are formed. When we had the explosion, magma cooled down instantly. In this caldera, magma was close to the surface. The red rocks we see around contained iron, white ones magnesium and the black ones had obsidian. He showed us the inside of one obsidian rock, by breaking it with another stone. It was like a black glass, and it was sharp. He mentioned that old tribes living here used this rock to make knives and arrow heads. The plain that we had here is formed during the ice age, under the pressure of the snow, but there was no ice in this area. And the compacted volcanic ash created the red and white stones which are fragile, compared to other stones.
While we were driving to Salar de Tara, we saw another animal called Andean chicken. These light gray birds actually looked like a chicken with a pigeon head. Finally, we arrived at Salar de Tara. Our driver let us off the bus at the top of a hill where we walked slowly down to the base of the salt flat. They had some flamingos living here at the area where we still have some water. Then, we came down to the area where they had the hut of the park rangers. Here we saw a lot of holes on the ground and we saw some of the moles living here. We had our lunch here where they served some tortillas and bunch of sides to fill them up. It was really delicious, given that we were in the middle of nowhere again.
Then, we drove back to the entrance of the park to see the rock formations. Our guide explained us that these rocks are formed by volcanic activity. When the ice was melting at the end of ice age, the water between the rocks and change of temperatures caused the cracks in the rocks. And also the water erosion with the rains deepens the cracks. There is one rock here which is famous and called as Vigilante. This tall and thin rock formed by a big river that used to be there. The erosion of water and also the winds caused the rock to have the current shape which resembles a statue of a person similar to the ones in Easter Island. We had some pictures here and admired the view around before we start driving back.
Our last stop was the Licancabur volcano. This volcano is 5916m tall and there is a lagoon 8m deep at the top. Our guide explained that it never freezes and it is a perfect crater. It is possible to hike to this mountain in 17 hours from Chilean side and only 4 hours from the Bolivian side. It is free on the Chilean and cost around 100 USD to climb from the Bolivian side. Behind this hill there was a Citadela, an Inka city. For Inkas, this was a sacred space, where they used to come here from San Pedro, stay in this citadel and pray to their gods. We also got a tip from a guy from Thailand for Titicaca lake where we should visit the Toro Toro park where we can see dinosaur foot prints, rock formations and some other rock formations. Finally, we had back to San Pedro to finish our tour.
We were quite tired because of the altitude and the rough ride. We really liked the tour, but we thought that it could have been less expensive given that we did not do that many stops and mostly driving in the car. We had another stargazing tour, but it was cancelled again due to weather, B was really sad about it. Then, we prepared for our next day for our trip to Uyuni. We first ate something even though it was only 17:00, early for dinner. Then, we bought water, 6 l per person, some snacks and toilet paper. And we converted all our chilean pesos to bolivianos. When you want to convert money, just go to the street where all casa de cambios (change offices) are and shop for the best rate. We were able to get 108 Pesos to Bolivianos as the best rate and we chose that shop. Finally, we head back to our hostel super excited about what we have seen so far and for tomorrow as well. This was definitively the best trip that we have been having in our lives.