San Pedro De Atacama, Chile

This is the last entry in the blog series for Chile. To read from the start of our Chile travel blog, click here

WOW. What a place. San Pedro has to be one of the coolest places on the planet. At 2438m elevation, and an oasis town surrounded by desert, you constantly feel a bit like you’re going to die, but that’s just part of the place’s quirky appeal. It’s hot, dry, you wake up with your whole mouth stuck together (even if you drink 6L of water a day like we did) and there are ‘desert rules’ to abide by like 3 minute showers, and lower expectations, like running water and flushing toilets occasionally breaking down.


Exploring caves and mini salt flats on the Valley de la Luna tour

BUT. There is just so much to see here. Once you’re over the heat and dry, and the breathless exhaustion of walking up even slight hills, it’s a town that’s just crazily rich in surrounding natural beauty.

We did a couple of brilliant tours in our time there. The first was the Valle de la Luna tour, where you drive out to the desert and wander around beautiful sand dunes, salt plains (with weird formations like the ‘Tres Marias’), canyons made of salt (which me and Sam, along with some fun Aussie girls, childishly licked where the salt rocks looked most well formed!) and coves where you can stop and hear the salt crackling in the heat. And then the main parts of the tour – Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna. The former is a beautiful canyon with salt plain in the centre, but the latter is really the show stopper. We went at sunset, and you go and sit at the edge of the spellbinding huge canyon and, as the sun sets, the entire place – from the mountains to the West, to the endless desert to the East – turns a million different shades of purple, red, orange and yellow. Truly spectacular! We were there during the full moon too, which looked amazing during the spectacle, and driving home we luckily happened to spot a red desert fox crossing the road which apparently is a pretty rare sighting!

Breathtaking sunset at Valley de la Luna, and a rare desert fox during the full moon!

Our other tour was also ace – the El Tatio Geyser tour. We went with the same company for both (Terra Extreme), so ended up pretty good friends with our tour guide Nico (more on that later!) The day was really fun – an early 4am start to get to the geysers for sunrise, and an even further altitude climb up to 4300m. We felt pretty giddy (think 3 ciders into the night), as we giggled and marvelled our way around the geyser field, with over 60 geysers bubbling and exploding, hissing and gurgling, mist swirling around, encircled by a ring of volcanoes. We learnt that the geysers sometimes lay dormant until they’re activated by the sunrise, and they became more and more active in our hour or so there. We had breakfast with our tour group (a huge feast of bread, ham, cheese, hot chocolate, tea, cake… we gorged ourselves!) then we went to a nearby hot springs to soak our bones. The springs were pretty amazing and you could feel the really HOT spots where the volcanic energy was concentrated  closely, so we had to carefully rotate so we didn’t get too scorched in the water!

Geysers and a mid-morning dip in the VERY HOT hot springs!

Afterwards, we drove to a tiny little village where they were selling llama kebabs, and en route we saw TONS of llamas, vicunas, and mad desert animals. Most of the time they were super casual crossing the road or just hanging out, so we got some pretty cool shots!

We got on really well as a tour group, so we arranged to go out for dinner later… and this is where the cultural slant of San Pedro (pretty much) ends. We met an amazing girl, Amelie, on the tour, who became our partner in crime extraordinaire! Weirdly turns out we’d met before as she’d checked us into a hostel whilst volunteering in Puerto Varas, so it was clearly fate! We went out for dinner that night with Nico et al, but it was us three that became the infamous party crew. After the group dinner, we peeled off and bought a couple of 1.5L bottles of red wine and found somewhere to sit on the street to keep drinking (a concrete enclave we nicknamed our bar). Then, after gaining and losing a few others, we hit the ‘beach’ after party, which was basically an amazing after hours weekend party in the middle of the desert. We stumbled into the dark of the desert from the main strip and were soon offered a lift by a pick-up truck so we jumped into the back (along with a Belgian trapeze artist we’d met) and before we knew it we were in the middle of the desert, a huge fire roaring, and tons of hippies dancing around with drums and guitars. We spent a few hours drinking and chatting in front of the fire, but Sam was a little too merry and kept wandering off (not the best idea in a desert!) so Amelie and I had to keep tabs on him (it was a quick bonding process…!) and by about 4 or 5am we were ready for home time.

Giant wine and nights out with Amelie. The beginning of the end…

The next day we experienced THE WORST HANGOVER OF OUR LIVES. Imagine a truly terrible hangover. Then imagine the most dehydrated you’ve ever been. In one of the driest places on the planet. Combine the three and multiply by infinity. It was bad. Sam hurled. But alas, we still had things to do. We’d planned to start our Salar de Uyuni Tour from San Pedro (a common route) so we had to book it – and given the town’s tiny scale and the scarcity of recommended agencies in the LP, this proved surprisingly easy. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with a delicious set menu lunch that included ribs and roasted potatoes (but also some kind of weird bubbling orange and courgette soup…less good). For a desert town, San Pedro has a weirdly swanky restaurant scene!

Hangover ribs: a necessity

After being invited by the Belgian trapeze artist to go check out the circus for free, me and Amelie decided to pop along (whilst Sam was busy hurling) and OH MY GOD, it was so good. We didn’t stop talking about it all day, and I’m not generally a circus fan. The choreography, THE OUTFITS, the creativity. There was fire juggling, insane hula tricks, flying trapeze, kids on motorbikes driving around a globe (wall of death style), trampoline, cute horses and dogs doing (animal friendly) tricks, amazing music, INSANE perfect bodies, great compering/clowning..We basically clapped and marvelled solidly for two hours.


San Pedro also ended up being the town of reunions, as we bumped into old friends Rosie from Pucon and also Tom and Jen who we met really early on on our W Trek (and later in El Calafate!) so we had a really nice catch-up lunch with them, and had planned to go sandboarding but Hangover From Hell 2 got the better of me (after another booze fuelled night of drinking in the hostel, on the street and on the ‘beach’!) On our second night of debauchery we got told off by the police for drinking an open bottle on the street, whilst daubing our faces in glitter. Smooth!

San Pedro by night

On our last day in San Pedro, all we had to do was plan for the salt flats (buy lots of water, snacks, toilet paper) but this seemed a near-impossible feat, but Amelie helped us through (with regular stops for icecream and Inka Kola, the best drink ever invented… think bubble-gummy Irn Bru but a million times better) and we spent our last night drinking red wine with strawberries (Nico’s suggestion – surprisingly nice!) in our hostels with Amelie and Nico, and sharing various empanadas from the Red Deli (our fave) and a huge meaty llama empanada from a nearby restaurant.

Inca Kola: we are now clinically addicted.

Last night japes with Nico and Amelie

It was a very emotional goodbye when we finally called it a night at 2ish, as we were being collected for the Salt Flats at 6ish the following day. Excited by what was to come, but very sad to say goodbye to Amelie, we prepared to cross the border into Bolivia….

Valparaiso, Chile

An easy place to fall in love with, Valparaiso became a little home away from home for us, and for longer than expected.

An inspiration to poet Pablo Neruda, the bohemian Unesco site of Valpo is a ramshackle collection of beautiful colourful buildings, toppled on impossibly steep cobbly hills connected by oldschool funiculars (like, early 1900s oldschool) that you pay a few bob for, to ride up and down the ‘cerros’ (= very steep hills). It’s pretty, battered, rough around the edges, and with lots of character and charm. Oh, and the whole town is covered in the most beautiful, bright and original graffiti I’ve ever seen (sorry, East London) – making it virtually impossible to put your camera down on even the shortest walks around town!

Beautiful streets and colourful graffiti… the lifeblood of Valparaiso

We got lucky with our hostel, in that it was basically a self contained apartment. So besides a few travellers coming and going to fill the other rooms, it kind of felt like we had our own place! Cue lots of ‘homely’ activity such as coupley lunches at home of hotdogs with fresh guac and salsa with music blasting; long breakfasts of granola and endless tea; rum and coke nights; catching up on the blog at (basically) our own private hostel computer (this is how we finally got the blog published!) and nights in in front of HBO watching all-new ‘Girls’ and ‘Looking’ (ok, that last part was mostly me).

Playing house! Homemade lunches and rum nights…

We also did a pretty ace walking tour where we found out about the city’s eccentric history, from when it used to be Chile’s centre of industry (due to its port) up until it fell from grace and became a haven for artists (due to low rent) and prostitutes. One of the famous alleys in the city is called ‘Happy Alley’ because there’s a huge ex-brothel there. Nice! There’s tons of interesting architecture, including an old prison that’s now an art gallery; a pretty old cemetery (the South American city staple!); and lots of old semi-derelict buildings (post-earthquakes) that they can’t rebuild because of Unesco rules, so instead they’ve graffitied over, resulting in a kind of grandiose bombsite look!

Awesome ex-prison building that’s been converted into an art gallery

A UNESCO-protected, yet earthquake-destroyed hotel, frozen in time, not to be rebuilt

This graffiti has a dirty story behind it… something about chickens and prostitutes.

The city’s bohemian past lives on in its current dwellers, with a very arty, alternative populus teeming the city. Opposite our hostel there was a mosaic-ed square where tons of hippies flocked day and night for endless drumming, dancing, jamming and capoeira sessions (- you get the picture). Me and my earplugs became very good friends over our 5 nights there!

Nightly live music – gypsy folk

It proved pretty difficult to get our bus ticket out of the city – an arduous 24 hour bus through the mountains up to the North Chilean desert (not a super common route from Valpo) – so we ended up with a few extra days in the city, so on a sunny Sunday we decided to hot foot it out of the smoke, to a nearby beach called Vina Del Mar. Very much a city beach, but a nice one at that, we took a lovely coastal train to Vina and spent a fun day with an ice-cold 6 pack people watching on the beach. We saw some pretty hilaire couples posing on the beach – girls too girly to even step into the sea; beach bods galore; and some cute families. We guffawed the day away drinking our bruskies, savouring only our second time on a beach during our travels!

When we got back, there was a huge BMX event going on outside our appartment (further proving the alt scene of Valpo!) which we watched from our bedroom window.

There was also a pretty goscene in Valpo, so we spent evenings sampling the pretty little restaurants on top of Cerro San Augustin. We found a brilliant sushi restaurant where I filled my boots with salmon, avocado and crab rolls (with chicken for Sam!) and we also tried ‘churrilana’ (=mound of chips, meat, gravy, cheese, egg) from two very different places. One swank restaurant where it came with basically beef bourguinion (sp?!), fried eggs and sugar-rimmed pisco sours; the other (probs the best) from a little local cafe, that came with huge chunks of melty cheese, a delicious beefy gravy and homemade spicy sauce. Mmm-mmm. On an unrelated note, we also tried a LOT of ice lollies whilst in Valpo, including one where you actually PEEL a layer off (gelly/ice) to reveal a creamy ice lolly underneath. Like a banana. They’re pretty advanced with their lollies out here.

CHURRILLANA and strange lollies (note Sam’s terrible bowl-cut. This is my fault…)

ANYWAY. So, 5 days of chilling in Valpo behind us, we took a long hardy 24 hour bus up to Northern Chile to the Atacama Desert….