Crossing Atacama Desert, North Chile

Entering the north of Chile to visit San Pedro de Atacama. Then the long and not too spectacular drive thru the Atacama Desert to reach the famous Elqui Valley. The center of Chile’s Pisco production. 

Tilcara 2 Vicuña

San Pedro de Atacama, 28th October

We leave Tilcara pretty early. At 7.30 am. Want to reach San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. More than 400km to the west. Over the Cordillera, on the way a border – who knows how long it will take with the bureaucrats.

After a few km the road turns to the west. Climbing over 3000m …

… crossing a salt lake – Salinas Grandes.

A stop in the village of Susques. To look at the adobe church in the cemetery. Quite a weird place.

Then next ascent. To 4000m. Another salt lake. And a lot of mining activities.

By noon we reach the tiny village of Jama. The border control to Chile. A pretty desperate’n’cold place, a fuel station to get cheap Argentinian fuel – not much more.

And the place for these border formalities. Again, we receive this all-important form to collect all these stamps. But the rest – just boring. No fun at all. Just 5 counters in a building. All in 1 row. You pass from the 1st 1 to the last 1, the guys do something, glue some letters in their computers, stamp your passport – or not, fill in some papers for Prado, and finally ask you how many bananas you intend to smuggle into Chile. And each time you receive a stamp for your collection. Finally, they have a look if Prado really exists – and that’s it. 30’, and we’re in Chile. Couldn’t be easier.

A few km further we enter the territory of Chile. Just a road sign. Then the last ascent. To 4800m. That’s the altitude for the next 100km. 1 of the highest roads in Chile. Passing many volcanoes and lagunas. Until we reach a point just 2 or 3 km away from Laguna Verde we visited 2 weeks ago on our tour thru Salar de Uyuni.

Then the road finally descends towards San Pedro. Situated more than 2000m lower. It’s a bit like a plane’s landing.

Late afternoon we arrive in famous San Pedro de Atacama. Chile’s tourist hotspot in the north. Flat adobe buildings with sleeperies, eateries, and countless travel agencies selling all the same tours. The alleys – not paved, just dust. Probably this should give you the feeling of being far off in the desert: maybe on an expedition to discover the unknown, maybe hiding from Arab slave traders searching for victims in San Pedro’s streets. Maybe just looking for an overpriced tour to a place you could easily go by yourself.

Whatever. Time to explore Chile’s beer in the best bar in town.

Next day: Indeed, San Pedro de Atacama is famous for its clubs, bars, eateries, and this well-preserved feeling to be a suburb of Timbuctoo. Still, during daytime poor visitors need to be occupied. For that, there are a number of sights a little out of town – lagunas, salt lakes, geysers, and the Valle de Luna. To make sure poor visitors’ money flows generously into the local economy numerous posh travel agencies offer all kinds of tours. Even to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – just a few times more expensive than on the other side of the border. Many agencies have a pretty bad reputation. Thus, maybe better – just visit these places by yourself. Then, at least you get what you expect.

So, we’re on the way to the famous Valle de Luna. Well, you cannot just go there. Because there’s an entrance fee. Of course, everybody knows how dangerous it is in post-Covid times to just buy tickets at the entrance to a sight. Consequently, you have to buy them online. But not just on a website with your card. No, much more sophisticated: you register with a ticketing platform. No worries, as a foreigner you just need some 20 – 30‘ for that. Then you really receive a QR code. With that, you go to the entrance gate. Into their office to show it. And to fill in whatever they need to know in a visitor’s book. As this important procedure takes some time it’s pretty congested in the office. Still, you feel so well protected from these coronies because you have your online ticket.

The visit: about 2h. Some well-developed trails to marvel at the lunar landscape. Of course, you’re not alone – mostly you sneak among these countless tour groups. Some trails still closed. Due to landslides, or coronies sneaking through the sand dunes. Whatever – read the para above about online tickets.

Well, that’s Valle de Luna.

Back to San Pedro. To get ready for tomorrow’s adventure.

Today’s program: the famous Geysers del Tatio – some 80km north of San Pedro on a mediocre gravel road.

Along the Bolivian border. Some 2h to drive.

At the geysers a pretty strange reception. Monika is going to pay the exorbitant entrance fee allowing us to visit the world’s highest geysers. For the staff that’s the opportunity to make Monika understand all the things that are strictly forbidden when visiting the place – it’s more or less everything.

In the meantime, a guy in a full-body coronie-condom approaches Martin waiting in the car. Just to explain that he has to enter the building immediately to buy a ticket. Unfortunately, the guy is nearly impossible to understand with his 20 masks over his mouth. By the way, his beautiful nose is always fully visible. How else should he breathe with 20 masks?

Whatever. A few minutes later we enter the field of geysers.

Well, for us it’s a bit difficult to develop the enthusiasm we’re supposed to. True, there are a few bubbling pots in the soil. And a few geysers – well, maybe 1/2m high. Still, we decide to remain optimistic and continue the visit, expecting more spectacular sights further away.

And definitely, with the volcanoes in the background, the place is quite photogenic – or instagrammable – if you discover the right perspective.

Back to San Pedro …

… to sip a last beer in the very best of all bars in town.

Tomorrow, we’ll cross the great Atacama Desert southwards.

Copiapó, 30th October

It’s well known, a road trip thru Chile’s Atacama Desert is quite long – and definitely not thru the world’s most interesting landscapes. From San Pedro, it’s about 1600km on a very good road to Santiago, Chile’s proud capital. The landscape – mostly sand’n’stones, in the 1st part without a single veggie growing. Some parts along the sea, further south even a few cacti to admire. On the way huge copper mines – the only economic activity in the area.

Of course, today we won’t drive the 1600km to Santiago. We rather plan to reach Antofagasta. Some 350km away. A 5h drive to the Pacific coast.

To start with, thru some spectacular hills just a few km west of San Pedro.

Well, that’s the highlight of the day. Remain 330km thru arid flatland and the walls of the copper mining activities until we reach Antofagasta in the early afternoon. 

We stay a bit south of town. At the beach. Well, it’s not the place for a swim. The sea is simply too cold’n’rough.

So, we rather concentrate on a huge supermarket to replenish our stock.

Next morning. Pretty early we’re on the road again. To reach Copiapó, some 550km to the south. At least 8h to drive.

Some 60km south of Antofagasta we reach the famous Mano del Desierto. Erected some 40 years ago by a local artist, nowadays it’s Chile’s must-have-taken-a-picture-place. Insta would be empty without this hand.

Arriving there, the place is pretty deserted. Just another couple on a bike. Thus, perfect to take the pics everybody has to take.

Then some 300km thru rather desolate flatland. Absolutely no vegetation. Just stones, sand, and dust.

Finally,  the road follows the Pacific coast. Still pretty rough and cold this time of the year.  But many small holiday homes. Difficult to imagine how it will look like during the summer holidays in January and February.

A few km further south the desert changes dramatically. It’s blooming. Pink, yellow’n’white.

True, that doesn’t happen every day; even not every year. It requires pretty humid conditions in September or October. Then it just depends on you. If you go at the right time to the right place. We didn’t know anything about it. It’s just good luck.

Late afternoon we arrive in Copiapó. Definitely, we don’t stay there because of anything special in this town. It’s just enough for today. Even on Chile’s magnificent road network.

As it’s a Sunday evening nearly all eateries in town have closed. For the Chilies the most natural thing in the world, for us a pain in the ass. 

Finally, we find a pretty nice watering hole. As far as we can see the only 1 open. 

Whatever. Time to celebrate that we made half the km to Santiago. With a Picher of Kunstmann’s Torobayo – a kind of Pale Ale, the Chili’s way.

Pisco Elqui, 2nd November

Next morning, we leave sleepy Copiapó for La Serena. Chile’s famous beach resort. At least during the holiday season. Today – just 350km, 4h southwards.

The landscape: still colorful – all blooming.

In La Serena Prado starts crying for a spa. Think it didn’t get 1 for the last 2 months. 

Then Monika discovers in a nearby mall her all-beloved restaurant. You know, the 1 better than any gourmet temple with 500 Michelin stars. The only 1 able to prepare greasy patties with the taste of slightly moldy cardboard, soaked in this indescribable pink sauce. And served between 2 wobbly pieces of foam they call bread. 

Then to the better part of the visit to La Serena: to the beach.

Next morning. Foggy’n’cold. About 11°. A quick look at La Serena’s colonial town center. As it’s a public holiday everything is deserted. Sometimes even looks slightly scary.

Then we’re on the way to Elqui Valley some 100km to the east. The place where Chile produces its Pisco. And of course, a lot of wine. 

A desertic landscape with green grape plantations in the valley. 

We just have to drive a few km and the fog’n’clouds disappear. Temperature rises up to 30°.

We find a sleepery in the tiny village of Pisco-Elqui. Mainly the place where the valley’s biggest Pisco production takes place. From there along the valley to its very end. 

Of course, it’s absolutely impossible just to marvel at the landscape, dream of the Pisco and the wine they produce – just to sip an odd beer in the evening. You also have to visit 1 of the distilleries. To learn how to produce Pisco, and to taste the different qualities. We opt for the oldest 1: Fundo Los Nichos. They have produced Pisco for the last 150 years. They must know their business.

Vicuña, 3rd November

Time for a change. Well, we just head to Vicuña at the entrance of Valle de Elqui. Some 40km away.

Vicuña – a small town with some colonial buildings. Nothing too special, except for being the gateway to visiting some observatories installed high up in the hills.  A paradise for stargazers and odd tourists who want to see the green guys sneaking around on Mars.

At 8.30 pm we’re ready for stargazing. Drive up to the Observatorio de Mamalluca. Of course, it’s not the place professional stargazers discover planets without politicians living there like Putin and Trump. The places aliens come from and UFOs are as real as our beloved cars. Those places are pretty complicated to visit.

Mamalluca is more the place to convince tourists to become professional astronomers – and to generate some income by selling entrance tickets to the visitors. 

We start with a show in their small planetarium. After that, we know how the sky is organized. They don’t have boundaries, no, they mainly follow the contours of animals, or other signs connecting some stars. Well, great system.

Then we’re on the roof of the observatory. Around a mini telescope for tourists and beginners. To explore Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon. Well, with the available equipment we couldn’t see too much of the 2 planets. Still, the view of the moon was ok. We could even take a picture of it. Probably we should post it on Insta. Well, maybe not.

And the whole exercise is it worth the effort? Partly yes, still it remains a kind of tourist spectacle with equipment not really suitable to meet expectations. But it’s a good exercise to practice this language the Chilies call Spanish.

Honored readers, we know you’re tired by now. Thus, we stop here, allowing you to take your well deserved rest and remain incredibly jealous until we’ll release our next post.

In the meantime cheeeers


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