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….