San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best towns to visit for travelers on a short trip to Chile. The reason is because this town filled with many unique outdoor activities to do but prepared to pay some touristy prices to do these activities. Activities includes but not limited to salt lake floating, geyser watching, sandboarding, cycling through Death Valley and busing to Moon Valley. San Pedro de Atacama is also known to be one of the best places to star gaze. The following are our experiences in San Pedro de Atacama and hopefully we can help you save some budget and plan this place.
All these outdoor activities can be joined through local tourist agencies at San Pedro de Atacama’s main street. If you are really motivated to go cycling in this terrain, make sure you have the right gear, the right shoes, go window shopping at places like http://www.ourbeautifulplanet.org/best-cycling-shoes/ to get inspired and prepared. The local tourist agencies are countless and they sell mostly the same tour activities. The same activities will also vary in prices so it’s an worthwhile exercise comparing a few agencies. A few of our newly met friends in San Pedro de Atacama also told us that if you join more than 3 activities from the same agency, they may give you a discount. These tour prices can get quite expensive when added up. We ended up only joining one tour to Valle de La Luna and we visited two other attractions on our own. We still had a great time at San Pedro de Atacama.
Valle de la Luna: Cheapest tour in San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Luna earnt this name because the first western explorers thought this area of the Atacama Desert looks like the moon. In the recent years, space exploration teams have even tested robots around this area because they think the very uneven surfaces of this landscape is very similar to Mars.
Valle de la Luna is quite close to San Pedro de Atacama and hence it’s the cheapest out of all the tours. The tour started around 3pm and took us to a few locations for photographs and finished at Valle de la Luna to see the sunset at around 6:00pm before arriving back to San Pedro de Atacama at around 7:30pm. On the way we stop at one of the lookouts called “Mirador de Kari” which has the landscape that looks like Mars. We looked at this fascinating landscape from on top of a cliff and took some daredevil pictures on the crumbly edges.
About one hour before sunset, the tour took us to Valle de la Luna. In this valley, there are many sand dunes that looks like the Sahara Desert (Further reading). However we couldn’t do the sand boarding activity on these sand dunes as these places are extremely protected now. Sandboarding are done at a place called Valle de la Muerte.
To see the sunrise, we had to climb up one side of the valley, but by the time we reached the top, the sun was already hiding behind the mountains on the other side of the mountains. What was left to see was some very amazing colors on the rocks and sand in the middle of the valley.
San Pedro de Atacama is an extremely dry place and has clear skies for more than 300 days in a year. We were extremely lucky that day during sunset because on the other side of Valle de la Luna, we had very thick clouds in the sky that was changing colors constantly. The colors were changing from gold, to red, to orange and even to purple. We were quite stunned by the beauty of this sunset.
We weren’t sure if it’s because of the high altitude or the dryness of the desert that changes the color of the clouds like this but we felt like the landscape plus the colored clouds were very magical. We were told to be back in the car before 6:30pm or the bus rental may leave without us, so we left this beautiful place behind and headed back to town.
Valle de la Luna can be visited on our own, via a bike and you don’t necessarily need to bring yours, you can get it from a bike rental near by. The journey is only roughly 20km in total from San Pedro de Atacama to Valle de la Luna and back. The roads are very flat as you’ll be riding on the side of a highway but some of the hills are quite steep. Beware that San Pedro de Atacama is a very dry place so bring plenty of water!
Note: Entrance ticket to Valle de Luna in 2016 May is 3000 CLP and our tour cost is 8000 CLP.
Cycling to Valle De La Muerte “Death Valley” & Sandboarding
Sandboarding did sounded like a cool outdoor activity to do at Pedro de Atacama so we checked with all the tourist company on how this activity work. Many of the company hire out the sand boards for 3000 CLP for 6 hours and we have to get to Valle de la Muerte by bike ourselves. Bike hire was also 3000CLP for 6 hours. We thought that was a crazy idea because we would have to ride with the heavy boards on our back and our bags are not made to hold boards.
One of the tour operators offered 15000 CLP per person for transport there and back plus board hire. Considering how close Valle de la Muerte, we thought it’s too expensive. On the second day we decided to just go for a scenic riding tour to Valle de la Muerte by ourselves, with a new friend we met called Felix, and that was our second itinerary at San Pedro de Atacama.
Riding to Valle de la Muerte was actually not too hard. Even Winny who hasn’t been on a bike for 10 years found this ride relatively easy. We followed a flat Chilean highway to the entrance of Valle de la Muerte. The road was quite wide with extra road on the side of cycling so we don’t need to be afraid to be hit by cars. The scenery on the side of the road were quite different to what we are used to in Australia and looks like we were in the Wild Wild West!
Once we made the payment and entered Valle de la Muerte, there are no more paved roads. Many parts of the road were too sandy so it’s actually quite tough for Winny to ride on. We walked with the bike for the parts of the road that is too sandy and rode for some. Winny managed to fall over on her bike a few times so it’s worthwhile being extra careful for people that are not used to riding bikes.
After riding for half the Valle we bumped into the tour group that were taken here for sandboarding. On top of a sand dune roughly 100 meters tall, sat roughly 20 people waiting to go down on their sand board. About two to three people were coming down the sand dune at the same time whilst the rest of the people were sitting and chatting on top of the dune. Climbing up the dune with their heavy Sand board must be a very difficult task!
Our friend Felix usually go snowboarding in Japan annually and after seeing these people sandboarding, he said that he was glad that we chose not to do sandboarding. Sandboarding takes a lot of effort and doesn’t appear to be very fun at all. Most of the people were going at snail speed down the slope with no guidance and they were falling over every two meters. Felix said that it’s a lot easier to get back up on your board in the snow as well. Worst of all you’ll have to climb the grueling dunes with a heavy board. I guess some activities only appears fun on paper.
After the sand dunes there is a part of the path that is almost impossible to ride due to the steepness and the sandiness of the road. This is the part of the road that required us to walk up with our bike but it’s also the prettiest part of the valley. We all thought that Valle de la Muerte was more amazing than Valle de la Luna but I guess the prettier sceneries are usually inaccessible by car. Valle de la Muerte was a one way track so after riding for an hour we came out onto the highway and we followed the road back to town.
Laguna Cejar: A Lake that has a higher concentration of Salt than the Dead Sea.
We arrived back to San Pedro de Atacama by 1:30pm that afternoon for lunch. Considering that we have so much time in the afternoon to spare, Felix and I thought that we could reach a lake called Laguna Cejar and back to town before sunset. The journey from San Pedro de Atacama to Laguna Cejar and back would be around 50km bike ride. Winny clearly had enough of bike riding in the morning and was not keen to join us on this second trip. Laguna Cejar is known to be a lake that has salt concentration higher than the Dead Sea so a person can float on it easily.
Typically joining this tour isn’t cheap. Just the transportation fee for the trip is 18000CLP. The entrance fee to the Laguna de Cejar is another 17000CLP. So in total this tour to Laguna de Cejar can cost up to 35000 CLP which is one of the most expensive tours you can join at San Pedro de Atacama. Bike riding to Laguna de Cejar can save half of this cost and entrance fee is also at a discounted price after noon.
The ride was rougher and we took a lot longer than we expected. Riding down to Laguna Cejar took us around 1.5 hours but the return trip took almost 2 hours. By the time we returned back to San Pedro de Atacama, it was around 7:00pm and we have rode in the dark for more than half an hour. But that gave us a chance to see the full moon rise behind the mountains and the beautiful stars in the desert that is known to be the best place to star gazing.
We left San Pedro de Atacama around 2:30. The roads closer to town was quite smooth but after a few minutes ride out of town, the roads are not maintained and were extremely rough. There were close to no suspension on our bikes as they were also not well maintained so we couldn’t ride fast otherwise our hands will be shattered. The ride down to Laguna Cejar was extremely scenic, so besides the rough road, the ride was quite pleasant. When Felix and I arrived at Laguna Cejar at around 4:00pm.
The closing time for Laguna Cejar was at 5:00pm so we had an hour to enjoy in the salty lake and take some photos. The lake itself was quite cold but funny enough, the water on the bottom part of the lake towards the center was actually warm, so it was bearable if we stayed upright at the center of the lake. Only a few people were mad enough to discover this though on a cold windy day. It was our first time in water this high in salinity and I found it extremely fascinating and fun to have such high buoyancy. I couldn’t sink even if I wanted to! We took some pictures with Felix’s GoPro in the lake just to show how easily it was to float here.
The bathroom facilities were actually quite well made and the only part to complaining about is that there were no warm water for the outdoor shower. After being in the cold salt lake, the last thing we wanted to do is to jump into the outside shower that was even colder. Bear in mind that it was already windy and cold. The water from the lake is definitely very salty. We had salt crusted and crystalized all over our body and it was on everything we touched. My swimming pants, aka boardies, could stand on it’s own after it’s dried with salt.
Rough roads on our ride down to Laguna Cejar (Video)
Funny story on the side. On our ride down to Laguna Cejar, we bumped into a girl and two guys walking down to the same destination. They stopped me to find out how much further they had to walk and they said they had been walking for over three hours already. Luckily we saw them hitched hiked a ride and arrived roughly the same time as we did. If they didn’t catch that ride, Laguna Cejar would have been closed by the time these people have arrived.
Star Gazing in Atacama desert
San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best places in the world to view stars due to the altitude and the clearness of the dessert sky. However, it was full moon during the time when we were at San Pedro de Atacama so we thought it wasn’t the best time to view stars. I did do some research and found that the best company to go with to look at stars is “Space” (website), the company is run by a French astronaut. Current price is 20000 CLP. We did also hear that many tours run by other companies are not very good.
El Tatio Geysers- Third largest Geyser in the world
Around 100km away from San Pedro de Atacama there is the El Tatio Geysers, which is the third largest Geysers in the world. Joining this tour costs 25000CLP including entrance fees. The tour starts at 4:00am and it takes you to the Geysers field and a hot spring. We only saw the Sol De Manana Geysers on our way from Uyuni salt flats and we will be seeing a lot more Geysers in Iceland at the end of the year so we didn’t do this tour.
Salar de Atacama
Salar de Atacama is the salt lake close to San Pedro de Atacama and it’s known to be the world’s second largest salt lake. Be warned that this salt lake is not like the Bolivian salt lake as it’s quite pointy and grey. Since we came from Uyuni, we didn’t thought that seeing this salt lake would be significant.
Key information for visiting San Pedro de Atacama
- The cheapest places to have a decent meal with local prices is on a strip of road Just outside the touristy area. The road name is called Licancabur and the restaurants are just next to a sports field.
- These tours are not cheap for an average back packer’s budget so it’s wise to pick and choose. Good idea to do your research before going to town to buy the tours.
- Majority of the tour costs does not include entrance ticket fees. It’s important to ask prior to buying your tour tickets.
- It’s the driest place in the world so remember to drink plenty of water.
- You could save money by hiring a bike to get to the closer destinations. Keep in mind that the altitude at San Pedro de Atacama is higher so exercising is actually harder.