We were dropped off in San Pedro de Atacama (SPA) in northern Chile at the end of our breathtaking tour of the Bolivian Salt Flats and altiplano (the immense high plateau of the Andes).
We had booked ourselves into an AirBnB eco accommodation aka ‘mud hut’ for 5 days… this was 1.5 km outside of San Pedro town and in a quiet peaceful and somewhat dusty spot in the middle of nowhere! But more on that later…
According to the Telegraph’s ‘destination expert’ Chris Moss, other than the Poles, the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, receiving less than 1 mm of rain each year. Indeed, our accommodation manager said that it last rained in March!
For some reason this town is hugely expensive! We are not sure why… we had to pay more for our AirBnB here than anything we’ve paid for during the last 10 months of travelling including the fabulous AirBnB in Hawaii, the castle in Germany and the accommodation in Tokyo, all well known expensive places. Hotels cost hundreds of dollars and even hostels are significantly more expensive than usual. But San Pedro is nothing special… really! It is an average, dry and dusty and very touristic kind of town!
The town is heaving with tour agencies but most of them were offering tours either back into Bolivia or to Chilean salt flats, geysers, moon like landscapes or flamingo inhabited lakes. We saw an abundance of these in Bolivia so it didn’t seem worth the extra cost of seeing similar landscapes in Chile. After all, we are only just over the border and from the patio of our accommodation can see the ‘other side’ of the same volcanoes we saw from Bolivia.
There is a large number of informal restaurants and bars but we found that with the exception of the friendly folk in Peregrine Cafe on the Square, generally the staff tend to treat you like you are an inconvenience rather than a customer.
The small town square is quite picturesque with its Adobe church, leafy trees and casual seating areas. (Adobe means ‘mud brick’ in Spanish).
The weather is fantastic if you like hot dry sun and cloudless blue skies every day. As SPA is at an altitude of 2438 m (over 1000 m higher than Ben Nevis the highest mountain in the UK) it doesn’t feel as hot as you might expect and being a desert the nights are cold. However the warm weather was welcome after a few weeks of being cold in Cusco, Puno, La Paz and at night in the Bolivian Salt Flats!
We walked around the town and went in and out of several of the tiny old fashioned grocery shops but none seemed to sell alcohol! We are in Chile one of the wine capitals of the world and all we wanted was a bottle of wine to take back to our mud hut! Eventually we found a tiny wine shop and managed to buy a couple of bottles! We later found that apparently this is because the San Pedro authorities were concerned that the town would become a backpacker party hotspot and have banned the sale of alcohol from many places.
However the one fantastic thing we found about SPA is the opportunity to join a night tour to an astronomical observatory…
The above photo was taken from: http://www.premiumtop10lists.com/top-10-best-stargazing-and-aurora-watching-places/
Due to its clear and cloudless skies San Pedro de Atacama is one of the World’s best spots for observing the night sky. We went on a 2.5 hour night tour to an astronomy site close to San Pedro and this was the best thing we did while we were here.
Our guide was knowledgeable and gave us an interesting overview of the sky explaining the differences between the stars seen from different parts of the World. With her powerful laser she was able to sweep around the sky demonstrating the axis of the Earth. She explained that you see different sky depending on whether you are standing, for example at the equator or the poles or the northern or southern hemispheres as well as the differences at certain times of the year.
She pointed out Venus, bright and shiny and next to Venus we had a great view of the brightly lit Milky Way. She also pointed out the constellations of each of the astronomical star signs, or those we could see including Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces and Taurus.
After an explanation of the sky we were able to look through high powered telescopes and we saw a good view of Saturn. While the image we saw wasn’t quite as highly defined as the one above we could see the rings around Saturn which was quite fascinating! The above picture was taken from: http://googleearthcommunity.proboards.com/thread/935/saturn-rings
We also saw Mars and again the above picture was taken from ‘Google images Mars’; a bright star which was flashing with different colours and a huge star which is 6,000 times larger than our Sun but as it is so far away it looked like any other star.
We saw Andromeda, the largest galaxy near to our Milky Way which contains 1 trillion stars!
We were also able to see stars that are 160 million light years away! How fascinating that we were looking at light that was emitted when the dinosaurs roamed the earth… Unbelievable…
We did this tour with ‘Space Observation‘ who offered us blankets if we were cold and a hot drink at the end. Even though their usual policy is to drop you off outside their office in the town, the bus driver kindly dropped us off near to our accommodation so we didn’t have to walk 1.5 km along the silent dark late night roads.
Also apparently it is best to avoid nights when there is a full moon as the light obstructs your view of the stars.
Atacama Loft accommodation
As mentioned in our La Paz post we had booked to stay in an AirBnB this time. While marketed as ‘lofts’ our accommodation was in fact a ‘mud hut’! Our mud hut was made with 18,000 glass bottles all packed together with mud! This was a great concept and as we are both keen on the idea of eco-living and are perfectly OK with foregoing a few luxuries every once in a while we found it a novelty (despite the overinflated price)…
Breakfast was included and each afternoon a lady came round with a basket of eggs, cheese, dulce de leche (popular in South America), jam, butter and fruit juice to put into our fridge. In the mornings some fresh bread, rolls or croissants were left in a cool box outside our door.
Well… at first we found it quaint, rustic and ‘different’, enjoying the peace and quiet and seeing the llamas and sheep right outside the front door of our ‘loft’. After a couple of days of virtually no wifi we became a bit fed up… there was no wifi from our mud hut… to get wifi we had to walk about 100 m to the wifi hotspot. Unfortunately this tended to move as their whole wifi system was just a plug-in dongle. If the manager decided to move, he took it with him! Even when we could get wifi it was very weak and we could just about send and receive emails.
This may seem like a petty whinge but we have come to depend on wifi to plan the next stages of our trip! We need to be looking at routes, travel options, buses, accommodations and car hire! Lonely Planet is great but even better when supplemented by live bus schedules; live car hire quotes and real time accommodation booking!
Having seen such a huge variety of landscapes, salt flats, lakes and deserts in Bolivia, other than the astronomical tour we didn’t do any other tours from SPA. In hindsight we would have booked our buses and accommodation earlier so we only had two days in SPA instead of five. The astronomical tour was fantastic and well worth visiting SPA for. In addition people not travelling to Bolivia would probably benefit from staying for longer in SPA too as the surrounding landscape is incredible.