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Border Crossing Stories: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Salta, Argentina

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Leaving San Pedro En Route to Salta; Snow on the Road Leaving Chile

In the summer, crossing the border between Chile and Argentina is uncomplicated; however, the winter provides its own challenges.  Paso Jama is located at an elevation of 4,320 meters (about 14,120 feet); this high altitude means that it’s particularly susceptible to snowstorms.  When I arrived to San Pedro de Atacama, I learned that the border had been closed for several days after heavy storms, and no one could predict when it would be open again.  I wanted to visit Salta, Argentina, formerly my favorite city in South America, but I had to start thinking about alternative plans.

That said, it all worked out in the end.  🙂  The border opened again and I booked a ticket on the first bus leaving San Pedro de Atacama.  The buses alternate driving between Salta and San Pedro, which means drivers (and potential passengers) could be stranded for days on either side of the border after a snowstorm.

The weather had been touch-and-go for a few days, which meant that the Chile immigration officers were reluctant to give any advance notice about their plans to open the border.  The bus had originally been scheduled to leave at 7AM in order to give us sufficient time for slow driving along the highway due to one lane traffic, as you see above.  However, after waiting for an hour at the immigration post the night before, they decided not to give us our exit stamps and told us to return at 7AM the next day to see if we really could leave.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Mountains and Lakes En Route to Paso Jama

A long line formed at the immigration control, starting around 6AM that morning.  There are no other towns between San Pedro and the Paso Jama, so you have to go through immigration before leaving.  Truck drivers, people driving their personal cars, and bus passengers such as myself waited patiently and not-so-patiently to hear whether the border was open.  Rumors floated around that the San Pedro immigration office liked to show us their power by making us wait for our exit stamp.  Many people had been waiting to leave San Pedro for days.

Border crossings are situations when it always pays to find a buddy.  Luckily, the night before I’d chatted with a few people in line, and they remembered me and helped me find the group leaving on the Andesmar bus.  Our bus was packed with a large group of mostly American backpackers who were traveling together with a Chilean guide.  I also met up with two of my companions from the Valle Arcoiris tour, a Swiss woman and her son.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Mountains of the Atacama; Entering Argentina

As it turned out, the Swiss woman and her son and I became good friends over the course of our day together, one of those one-day friendships that enriches your travels and ends when you part ways at your destination.  I wish I could remember their names.  She was originally from Switzerland, yet spoke Spanish fluently as she had married an Ecuadorian.  Their 12-year-old son was growing up bi-cultural, as they had spent most of his childhood in Colombia, where she worked.  As it turned out, her husband preferred living and working in Switzerland, and he was there with their daughter while she was traveling with her son, backpacking through different parts of South America before returning to Colombia.  Her son was entering a challenging age, so this trip was a way to bring them closer together.  He was an extremely bright, energetic kid, and helped me out immediately by finding a place to store my backpack in the stuffed luggage compartment of our bus.

We waited in line for an hour and a half, waiting for the immigration officers to declare the border open and begin to stamp our passports.  Finally, our group moved forward with our bus drivers.  Suddenly, my Swiss friend realized she’d accidentally discarded their entry/exit cards.  She asked me to hold her purse, containing their passports and perhaps other valuables, as she raced back to their hostal to check the trash can.  I marveled at the trust she put in a fellow traveler; I had become a lot more suspicious over my year in Peru!  Luckily, she found them in record time and we were all able to get stamped out of Chile.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Views from the Argentine Northwest En Route to Salta

We piled on the bus.  As it turned out, no one was sitting next to me in the very front seat with the 360 degree window.  Most South Americans do not like sitting at the very front as it is vulnerable in case of an accident.  I had plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the ride.  My Swiss companions had also chosen to sit at the front of the bus, so we continued chatting in a mix of Spanish and English throughout the ride.

As you see from these photos, the ride between San Pedro and Salta is absolutely gorgeous.  I laughed when I saw how little snow appeared to be on the ground; being from New England, we see worse snow accumulation every year and often several times in one season!  However, Paso Jama does not get as much snow as the border crossings farther south (and farther from the equator), so they do not have the heavy equipment that Paso Internacional Los Libertadores (the border crossing between Mendoza and Santiago) does.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Views from the Argentine Northwest En Route to Salta

The route between San Pedro and Paso Jama was like revisiting the sights I saw over the past few days, albeit at a distance!  I admired the gorgeous mountains and hills and snapped lots of photos of the blue lakes as we passed by them.  The snow had limited the road to one lane in some points, and alternative routes had been cleared.  However, the ride was uneventful and we finally reached the Argentine border around noon.  The Argentine immigration complex is modern and surprisingly efficient; they are happy to collect your receipts for the $160 tourist visa.  Within 30 minutes, we continued on our way on the very, very long route to Salta.

The scenery on the Argentine side of the Andes is impressive and notably different from the Chilean side, with a lot more high altitude vegetation as we descended along Argentine Route 52.  The highway winds through colorful hills cut through with reddish rivers, topped by clear, cloudless blue skies.  This was why I returned to Argentina; I wanted to see these landscapes again.  I had fallen in love with this region on my first visit in 2002, after finishing my study abroad year in Buenos Aires.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Salinas Grandes, Argentina, En Route to Salta

As we continued along our way, I began to doze off, as a result of having woken up super early to wait in line at immigration and the changing altitude.  I woke up, startled by the fact that we were passing through Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s white salt flats which provide a mini version of those found in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.  I remembered my trip out to Salinas Grandes with my friend Mona all those years before, posing for funny pictures and appreciating the contrast of blue, white, and purple.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Multicolored Hills in Jujuy Province, Argentina

And the road continued on, with the mountains changing to hills.  These were the Argentine Andes I remembered, rolling hills that looked like a watercolor painting.  When I saw the first extremely variegated hills, I knew we were approaching Purmamarca, the home of the Cerro de los Siete Colores.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Route through Jujuy; El Cerro de los Siete Colores, Purmamarca, Argentina

One of the travelers in the big American group decided to move up front to my empty seat, where the view of these colors was that much better.  Although the sun began to set behind the hills, the colors still peeked out from the hills in muted shades.  When other passengers got off in Purmamarca, I was tempted to join them and spend some time in this quiet town.  I was so happy to be in the Argentine northwest.

As the sun set, the American and I struck up one of those long, honest conversations that only happen when you never expect to talk to the person again, when you are open to sharing and listening because you are traveling and away from your normal life.  He told me about his life in the Midwest; he worked as a teacher and had the summers free to travel.  He often went on this packaged adventure tours where you were sure to meet other travelers.  He had married young and loved his wife and family, but I sensed his wanderlust behind his words.  He was very curious about my experience volunteering and was surprised that I was backpacking on my own, something he had not considered doing himself.  In the end, he gave me a great compliment, calling me one of his idols for living a non-traditional life and going with the flow.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Sunset in the Argentine Northwest

As night fell, we continued rolling along the highway, stopping in Jujuy before continuing on to Salta.  At this point, we had been on this journey for nearly 12 hours and we were tired and ready to finally arrive.  At the bus station, I said goodbye to my Swiss friends.  After so many amazing days in Chile, my expectations were high.  I hadn’t been back to Argentina since 2007, and I was curious to learn how it had changed.  What I found surprised me.

[San Pedro de Atacama, Chile -> Salta, Argentina: July 11, 2013]

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Yerbas Buenas and Valle Arcoiris

Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Yerbas Buenas, Atacama, Chile

When I learned that the Atacama desert included a valley with rock formations in all colors of the rainbow, I knew I had to see this place for myself.  Many years before, I had visited the Cerro de los Siete Colores in northern Argentina, and I loved observing the different shades undulating in the hills of the Andes.  Unfortunately for a solo traveler such as myself, the Valle Arcoiris tour is less popular among tourists visiting San Pedro de Atacama; your ability to get to the valley completely depends on the interest of other visitors.  Fortunately, my luck continued, and I managed to find a tour company which had enough passengers to send the tour out to Valle Arcoiris.  This was the perfect way to spend my last day in San Pedro de Atacama.

Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Yerbas Buenas, Atacama, Chile

The trip to Valle Arcoiris includes a stop at Yerba Buenas (also known as Hierbas Buenas), a collection of petroglyphs (rock art) located at the crossroads of several major transit roads through the Atacama.  Here, visitors carved their stories into the rock, communicating their history and culture to future observers.  In this way, the markings reminded me of El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, where passing visitors recorded their names for posterity.

Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Yerbas Buenas, Atacama, Chile

At first, I wasn’t that interested in the rock art; without any context, petroglyphs looks like crude sketches scratched into the surface of a rock.  However, our guide was truly special: a native Atacameño, he had lived abroad and spoke at least four languages fluently; he had also worked as a geologist and clearly had thorough knowledge of the history and culture of the region.  He was also a gifted storyteller, and our quick stop at the petroglyphs turned into a couple of fascinating hours as we listened and asked him questions.

Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Yerba Buenas, Atacama, Chile

As you can see from the photos above, many of the petroglyphs represent aspects of daily life in the Atacama, including animals like llamas and other camelids.  The photo above shows a pregnant fox, represented by the baby fox included within her interior (you can click any of the photos to expand them).  Other images reveal chaotic gatherings of people and livestock with all different characteristics.

Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Yerbas Buenas, Atacama, Chile

In our guide’s opinion, the different shapes and sizes of the heads and bodies of the human figures may represent contact between different ethnic groups, or, perhaps, they may indicate visitors from another planet.  He told stories of how coca leaves have been found in excavations of ancient pyramids in Egypt, even though they only grow in the Andes.  He emphasized that there are lot of connections between ancient cultures that cannot be easily explained.  While I’m not sure what *I* believe, his deep understanding of the Atacama and interesting descriptions opened my mind to considering other possibilities.  The image on the right shows several shaman, suggesting a highly important event; there may indeed be several reasons why these ancient meetings were so significant as to be recorded in these rock carvings.  We may never truly understand their messages.

Valle Arcoiris, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Valle Arcoiris, Atacama, Chile

We realized that our intense interest in Yerbas Buenas meant that we had spent a few hours there, and we were actually running out of time to see Valle Arcoiris, or the Rainbow Valley.  As we drove into the valley, our guide explained that the differences in colors are caused by different mineral deposits in the rock.

Valle Arcoiris, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Valle Arcoiris, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Valle Arcoiris, Atacama, Chile

Everywhere we looked, we could see different shades of red, orange, green, white, brown, and grey.  We got out of the van to walk through parts of the valley and visualize how the rocks had been carved by glaciers and floods before the Atacama became an arid high altitude desert.

Valle Arcoiris, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Valle Arcoiris, Atacama, Chile

After taking in the Valle Arcoiris, we headed back to San Pedro de Atacama.  It ended up being a magical day where I felt like I really learned a lot about the Atacama region and all of its myths and mysteries.

Back in San Pedro, I stopped by the bus station to see if the border crossing with Argentina was open again.  For a few days, it looked like I was not going to be able to get to Salta as snowstorms in the mountains had closed the roads for days on end.  As it turned out, I was in luck: the border was open again and the bus was leaving at 7AM the next morning!  I quickly bought my ticket at the front of the bus so that I could have the best views.

After arranging to leave San Pedro the next day, I headed to the Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige, San Pedro’s archeological and anthropological museum.  This is a great place to learn more about the Atacameño culture and its contact with other indigenous groups, see artifacts and relics discovered during excavations, and appreciate the art and culture of the region.  For me, the most interesting part is the video of the discussions between modern Atacameños and the museum which resulted in the removal of Atacameño mummies from display out of respect for their ancestors.

That night, I learned a little bit about Chilean bureaucracy: since the bus would leave before immigration opened the next day, we needed to go to the immigration office in San Pedro to receive our exit stamps that evening.  After waiting for at least an hour, we were sent home and told to come back at 6:30 the next day to see if the border was still open.  While waiting in the cold was not my favorite part of the evening, it gave me a chance to chat with other travelers hoping to get to Argentina, many of whom had been trying to leave Chile for days!

I just hoped my good luck would continue the next morning; I was ready to move on to Argentina and revisit my favorite city, Salta.

Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama, Chile:

  • Take the Valle Arcoiris tour, and make sure you spend time at Yerbas Buenas.  Most tour agencies offer this tour and post notices in their windows when they have enough people to send the tour out.  Wander around the main square looking at the various agencies until you find one that plans to go!  I went with Turismo Caur.  It’s worth informing the agencies that you want to visit Valle Arcoiris as soon as you arrive in San Pedro to maximize your chances of finding a large enough group.  The tour costs 25.000CLP and the entrance fee to Yerbas Buenas costs 2.000CLP.
  • Visit the Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige to learn more about the region.  The entry fee costs 2.500CLP.  Some of the exhibits are a little old and tired, but it is the best place to learn about the local Atacameño culture and its connection with other Andean indigenous groups.
  • If you are traveling between Chile and Argentina during the winter, be aware that snow will likely derail your plans.  The Paso Jama border crossing is not equipped to deal with severe snow.  The bus companies will have the latest information from the border posts, so check with them frequently to see if you will be able to cross.
  • Buses between San Pedro and Salta, Argentina do not leave every day, so make sure you plan accordingly and buy your tickets as far in advance as possible.  I recommend Andesmar.
[San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: July 10, 2013]

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Laguna Cejar and Laguna Tebinquinche

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama
My Favorite Photo from the Day: Sunset at Laguna Tebenquinche, Atacama, Chile

After experiencing my first Atacama sunset in the Valle de la Luna, exploring the many lagoons and salt flats on the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour, and biking to and hiking around the Pukará de Quitor, I had seen the most visited destinations in San Pedro de Atacama, with one notable exception.  I opted out of visiting the Geysers del Tatio, as getting up at 4AM in the icy cold of this high altitude did not appeal to me; I had already visited geysers in Bolivia and decided that one very cold time was enough for me!

Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Cejar, Atacama, Chile

Instead, I decided to explore other options to take in even more the gorgeous scenery of the region.  English-language guidebooks do not usually mention one of the most popular Atacama excursions: the Laguna Cejar tour.  This tour runs in the late afternoon and includes three stops: Lagunas Cejar and Piedra, the Ojos del Salar, and Laguna Tebinquinche.

Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Cejar, Atacama, Chile

Most agencies offer this tour, and will coordinate with others so that you can still go even if they don’t have enough people signed up on that day.  As it turned out, the one I booked through sent me to another, and this was incredibly lucky: our tour guide was patient and helpful and did not rush us through the stops like other guides!

Laguna Piedra, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

The first stop on this tour is the protected reserve at Laguna Cejar.  Laguna Cejar is famous for its incredibly salty water, said to be saltier than the Dead Sea; you can float in its water without any effort.  Laguna Cejar itself is a flamingo habitat, as you can see in the photo above; people are not actually allowed to get into its waters.  Instead, tour agencies take you to the adjacent Laguna Piedra, where you can brave the high altitude cold and get into the lukewarm water.  If you find a current of warm water (heated by the thermal springs), it’s actually not uncomfortable.  My tour companions convinced me to change into my bathing suit and try it out.

Laguna Piedra, San Pedro de Atacama, ChileWhen we arrived, I learned that the tour doesn’t usually stop at the actual Laguna Cejar, which I really wanted to see.  Our guide offered to drive me and three others to nearby Laguna Cejar while the rest of the group leisurely bathed in the salty waters.  He would then pick us up en route to our next destination.  This was an awesome experience; instead of loud, crowded Laguna Piedra, I got to hang out at peaceful Laguna Cejar practically alone.

Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Views from Laguna Cejar, Atacama, Chile

Next, we headed to the Ojos del Salar, two round freshwater ponds located adjacent to each other, which look like eyes.  Here, you can jump into the icy waters to rinse off the salt from Laguna Cejar.  One of the “eyes” is a little warmer, although that is not saying much; it’s better to just jump into the frigid waters rather than easing yourself in as I did!

Ojos de Salar, San Pedro de Atacama
Ojos del Salar, Atacama, Chile

The other “eye” is like a mirror, and people take fun pictures of themselves in unique poses, capturing their reflections below.  This was about the only time I wished I wasn’t alone on my trip, because it would have been fun to hand off my camera to someone trustworthy for a pretty memorable photo!

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Tebinquinche, Atacama, Chile

The final stop on the tour is Laguna Tebinquinche, a giant lake whose flat, mirrorlike surface reflects the mountains and color changes in the sky above.  This was the real reason I took this tour; all my research showed that the sunsets were beyond impressive.  I was not disappointed.

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Posing at Laguna Tebinquinche; Watching the Colors Change

As in the Valle de la Luna, the light in this location is truly incredible, coloring the mountains all kinds of shades of brown, grey, pink, and purple.

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, Atacama, Chile

Along the edge of the lake, the tour vans line up for a sunset happy hour event, with Chilean pisco sour and snacks.  While others started enjoying the drinks, I kept my eyes trained on the colors of the changing sky. I was one of the few people left admiring the horizon after the sun disappeared from sight; I know that the best colors happen afterwards.

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, Atacama, Chile

I was rewarded for my patience. Finally, I decided to join my group and celebrate this lovely sunset with a pisco sour. When offered a second pour, I accepted, making up for lost time. 🙂

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, Atacama, Chile

As night set in, we packed ourselves back into the tour van for the trip back to San Pedro de Atacama. We were lucky; many groups had already rushed back to San Pedro, leaving as soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Our guide let us linger and savor the moment, and I am very grateful for these memories.

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, Atacama, Chile

Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama:

  • You absolutely MUST go on the Laguna Cejar tour.  It costs 13.000 CLP and includes a pisco sour cocktail and light snacks at sunset.  The entrance fee for Laguna Cejar is 2.000 CLP.  Just when I thought my trip couldn’t get any better, I went on this tour!
  • I booked my tour with Turismo Caur, but they actually sent me on a tour with a different agency since I was the only one who had signed up for that afternoon.  That said, I thought they were very professional when I did the Valle Arcoiris tour the next day.
  • It is worth putting on a bathing suit, even in the middle of winter, to float in Laguna Piedra.  Because of the warm sun at this high altitude, the cold doesn’t last long, even at Ojos del Salar.
  • Ask your guide to take you to the actual Laguna Cejar if the tour doesn’t already stop there.  It is more beautiful than Laguna Piedra and you can see flamingos, albeit at a distance!
  • Similarly, make sure you ask your agency but especially your guide how long they plan to stay at Laguna Tebinquinche.  Be very clear that you expect to stay to enjoy all the colors of the sunset after the sun disappears and do not want to be rushed.  After talking to other travelers, I realize how lucky I was to get to stay until it got dark; most tours don’t!
[July 9, 2013: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile]

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Pukará de Quitor

Pukará de Quitor, Chile

After two days of group tours exploring the amazing scenery around San Pedro de Atacama, I needed a bit of a break and the opportunity to explore the area more independently.  One of my tour companions was Sam, a friendly American from the East Coast who had recently finished a year teaching English in Santiago.  We decided to rent bikes and head to the Pukará de Quitor early in the morning to avoid the brutal afternoon sun.

View of San Pedro de Atacama from the Pukará de Quitor, Chile

The Pukará de Quitor was a fortress created by the Atacameño people to defend themselves from the Incas as they expanded into the area that is now Chile.  The hill chosen for the Pukará de Quitor affords a clear view of the area surrounding San Pedro de Atacama and the varied landscapes of the region.

Pukará de Quitor, Chile

The ruins themselves are built from the red rock of the surrounding hills and were reconstructed in 1981 by the Universidad de Antofagasta.  As the Atacama region is a desert, the ruins are particularly susceptible to damage from heavy rains.  Recent torrential rains in the region meant that many pathways were closed off to visitors.

Pukará de Quitor, Chile

Sam and I rented bikes from B Bikes (which you should reserve in advance, something that never occurred to me!), who also provided us with a map to get to the Pukará de Quitor.  The route is fairly straightforward and not particularly complicated or strenuous, though they are dirt roads and you need to keep an eye out for vehicles.  There are several bike racks to lock up your bike outside the entrance to the ruins, and once you pay your entrance fee you’re free to wander on your own on the designated paths.

Pukará de Quitor, Chile

It’s not particularly surprising that this pukará reminded me of the others I’d seen in the nearby Argentine northwest back in 2001 and 2002.  I tried to imagine what it would have been like for the Atacameño people, defending themselves first from the Incas and then from the Spanish conquistadores.  The site also has a small museum which provides information on the history of the ruins and the artifacts that have been found there.

Sam Pointing out the Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte, Chile

After exploring the ruins and taking in the views of the valley below, we decided to explore the longer route, a 30 minute walk which takes you up to a mirador (viewpoint) and a monument honoring the bravery of the Atacameño people when faced with the cruelty of the Spanish conquistadores.  While the pathway is pretty steep, it’s not particularly hard and provides excellent views of the ruins and the surrounding region, including Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte.

“God, God, why have you abandoned me?” at Pukará de Quitor, Chile

This monument is inscribed with “God, God, why have you abandoned me” in several languages, including Atacameño and Spanish. According to the monument, the Spanish conquistadores brutally massacred the Atacameños, who used this saying from the Spanish Bible to protest the horrifying actions taken in the name of Christianity.


Views from the Pukará de Quitor, including the pathway to the mirador
After taking in the ruins and the amazing views from the mirador, we headed back to the museum, stopping to pose in this attractive doorway.  As we were leaving, big tour groups came in, so we were glad that we had gone early, as we had had the ruins almost entirely to ourselves.

After dropping off our bikes back in town, I headed back to the hostal to sit in the sun and do some much-needed planning for the next portion of my trip. Sam and my dormmate, Aurelie, had done thorough research on the Atacama region, and I knew there were several other places worth visiting, off the typical tourist itinerary. This was time well-invested, as my next two destinations yielded the best photos and the most interesting historical perspective from my trip to the Atacama desert.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama, Chile:

  • Rent a bike to visit the Pukará de Quitor, and make reservations the night before to ensure they have a bike for you.  There are many bike rental agencies, but I used B Bike.  A half-day rental was sufficient to bike to and explore the Pukará at fairly relaxed pace.
  • The entrance fee to the Pukará de Quitor costs 3.000CLP but there are discounts for students.  If I remember correctly, this site is run by the local indigenous community.
  • Eat dinner at Inti Sol, one of the best restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama, and both friendly and affordable.  There was live music the night we went.
  • Research your visit with several tour agencies, TripAdvisor, Wikipedia, and Wikitravel.  There is way more to see in the Atacama region than the major guidebooks mention!  If you are spending several days in San Pedro, visit the tour agencies to let them know where you want to go, as some of the less-known tours do not happen unless there is sufficient interest!
[July 8, 2013: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile]

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: High Andean Landscapes of the Lagunas Altiplánicas Tour

Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

Visiting San Pedro de Atacama was a dream come true for me, right after my trip to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).  After wandering through the Valle de la Muerte and watching sunset fall over the Valle de la Luna, I was ready for the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour, where you visit salt flats and high-altitude lakes and lagoons set among the mountains and volcanos of the Chilean highlands.  As a lover of photography, blue skies, and deep teal lakes, I decided to take the tour with CosmoAndino Expediciones because they promise ample time to really see, experience, and photograph this region.  And they delivered.

Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

This tour is long and cold;  you get picked up sometime around 6:30 in the morning, shivering as you wait for the tour van to pull up in front of your hostal.  Luckily, I was able to wait inside the reception office where there was a space heater!  I was excited to find out that David, our guide from the previous day’s tour, was leading us on the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour.  David is a very special tour guide because of his true passion for the Atacama region, his engaging sense of humor and his straightforward, honest attitude; also, he’s truly bilingual as he spent a significant part of his childhood in Canada!  On top of that, many of my buddies from the tour the day before were also in this tour group: when you spend that much time in a tour van, you want to like your companions!

Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

We set out from San Pedro de Atacama when the sun was still waking up, arriving bright and early to the Salar de Atacama (Atacama salt flat) and Laguna Chaxa.  For many people, this is the main reason they visit San Pedro, but in my opinion, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  As you can see from the photos above, every direction yields a new view of the gorgeous landscape with mountains towering in the distance, clouds reflected in a peaceful lake, and the crumbly brown field of salt, so different than the brilliant white salt flats in other parts of the Andes.

Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

On top of that, various species of flamingos flock to Laguna Chaxa.  In the summer, there are flamingos everywhere, but in the winter, when I visited, there were only a few and they kept their distance.  (To be honest, it was the only time I wished I had brought my zoom lens, which I had left behind in the US!)

Views from Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

I took my time wandering the salt pathway and admiring the different vistas in the early morning sun.

Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

Finally, I wandered away from the pretty lagoon to join the tour group for breakfast.  To save time, the tour agency includes a breakfast spread of bread, cheese, cookies, and other breakfast snacks along with hot tea, coffee, and hot chocolate to warm you up.  It’s nothing gourmet, but it does the trick!

From there, we continued along the wide expanse of the Atacama Desert, spotting the decrepit monument marking the Tropic of Capricorn.  Apparently its dilapidated state is a reflection of the government’s hands-off attitude to tourism!

Next, we stopped in Socaire, a small village which lives from agriculture and tourists passing through the area.  The church is small and quaint, and it was nice to imagine what it would be like to live in this distant community surrounded by an amazing landscape.

Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

Further down the road towards Paso de Sico, one of Chile’s border crossings with Argentina, we arrived at our first view of the Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, which was, for me, the highlight of this trip because of the interesting, varied colors of the landscape.  Most tour agencies do not take visitors to the Salar de Talar and Salar Aguas Calientes because they are far away and make the trip a full day tour.  According to David, the only tourists that visit this amazing location are guests at five star resorts with private guides and CosmoAndino clients.  Worth every extra penny.

View near Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

We stopped at the top of the hill leading down to the salt flat and gorgeous ice green lake.  While everyone shot pictures of the colorful landscape below, I looked backwards and felt dwarfed by this snow-covered peak towering above us.

Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

We had plenty of time to wander around the Salar de Talar and Salar Aguas Calientes on these red rocks among the colorful mountains.  The rolling peaks and soft colors reminded me of my first impression of the Andes in 2002 in Mendoza, Argentina; I kept saying that the Andes looked like they were pintado a mano (hand-painted).

Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

Here, the salt flats were a different shade, crunching beneath our feet.  We wandered around at will, getting close to the lake and its mint green waters.  The wind was strong here at this high altitude.

Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

When you stand alone in this landscape, it reminds you of just how tiny you are, and just how lucky you are to be able to visit this amazing place.

Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

The salt almost looked like a luxurious white sand beach! The water was crystal clear, but at this altitude, there are no fish!

Posing at Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

Of course, this kind of landscape requires posing to really prove that I’d been there!

Laguna Miscanti, Chile

After plenty of time to wander around, we backtracked to the road that took us to Laguna Miscanti, the photogenic blue lagoon surrounded by volcanoes.  This location is protected by the Chilean national park service, and we could only walk along a pre-determined path to preserve the landscape.

Laguna Miscanti, Chile

On one side of the lagoon, you have the towering snow-covered peaks; on the other, rolling red hills.  It’s hard to know which way to look!

Laguna Miscanti, Chile

Even the sky cooperated, bringing in ever-changing clouds to complement the vista.

Approaching Laguna Miñiques, Chile

After following the pathway back to the main road, we continued on foot to Laguna Miñiques, located just around the bend.  I couldn’t believe how many high-altitude blue lagoons I was able to see on this one day!  Being able to walk around is so much better than being cooped up in a tour bus all day; you really get to appreciate the wide expanses of this region.  You also feel the high altitude and notice how your body responds to the change in oxygen!

Laguna Miñiques, Chile

Here, we had our picnic lunch, giving us a chance to pause and take it all in.  This was our highest altitude stop of the day, and it was freezing cold.  The colors seemed unreal; I had to keep asking myself, “Am I really here?”

Laguna Miñiques, Chile

The region had been hit by a lot of snow in the week before my arrival, which closed both of the border crossings to Argentina for a couple of weeks.  You see some of the remaining snow in this photo.

After lunch, we headed back towards San Pedro de Atacama, making the requisite stop in Tocanao, another small town with a picturesque church. This church is noteworthy because its bell tower sits in the main plaza, and the doorway honors the country’s indigenous and Spanish heritage with stone carvings of both a llama and a horse. In this town, you also have an opportunity to buy souvenirs, even though the Atacama doesn’t really have a local artisanal tradition. I ended up buying a lovely alpaca shawl from a family which weaves some of its own products.

Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

From there, we headed back to San Pedro, many of us falling asleep as we descended in altitude.  We arrived just in time to see yet another gorgeous sunset, and I wandered over to the edge of town to take in the golden colors.

Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Before heading back to town, I appreciated the changing colors of the sunset reflecting on the mountains I’d just visited.  When you’re inside the tourist district of San Pedro, it’s easy to forget how close you are to the beautiful landscape.  It’s really all around you!

After a long day, I decided to take it easy and cook dinner at the hostel and socialize with the other guests.  I had an early, active day planned the next day: mountain biking to the Pukará de Quitor with my travel buddy Sam!

Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama:

  • Take the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour with CosmoAndino Expediciones.  Yes, it’s almost twice as expensive as the other tours (42.500CLP in 2013), but that’s because you visit the Salar de Talar and Salar Aguas Calientes in addition to the Salar de Atacama, Laguna Chaxa, Socaire, Laguna Miscanti, Laguna Miñiques, and Tocanao.  The tour lets you take your time photographing the gorgeous landscape.  In my opinion, that’s priceless.
  • In addition to your tour, you pay must pay 2.500CLP each to visit the two sites monitored by the Chilean national park service, Salar de Atacama and Laguna Miscanti.
  • For this tour, bring lots of water, sunscreen, layers upon layers, and additional snacks.
  • Many backpackers visit San Pedro de Atacama directly after the four-day Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia, and they are sometimes underwhelmed by the Atacama desert.  I visited Uyuni in 2007, so it wasn’t fresh in my mind.  That said, in my opinion, there can never be too many salt flats and high-altitude lakes!  I think I enjoyed this tour more because I had a fresh perspective; if you’re coming from Bolivia, you may need a break from this kind of scenery.
  • I took over 1000 pictures on this tour, which means that most of them did not make the cut for this post; see more here!
[July 7, 2013: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile]



San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Valle de la Luna & Fulfilling a Travel Dream!

Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

As with most trips, my backpacking journey around South America did not end up taking the same form I imagined when I started planning.  I originally thought I’d visit friends in Buenos Aires, experience Uruguay, and practice Portuguese in Brazil before heading back to explore central and northern Peru; instead, I saw more of Argentina and Chile than expected and managed to spend nearly a month in Ecuador!  However, I had one travel dream that I was determined to fulfill, no matter what: visit San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

When I lived in Buenos Aires in 2002, I saw a picture of the Atacama Desert showing an expanse of one of its salt flats with blue skies and white clouds reflected in a mirror-like puddle that had collected after a rainfall.  I knew I had to experience this amazing landscape for myself.  For this reason, I decided to head south to Chile immediately after finishing my year volunteering in Peru: I wanted to make sure I had enough time and money to fully explore the area around San Pedro de Atacama.

After getting my travel bearings in Arica, I took an overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama with Tur-Bus.  Due to some last-minute planning, I ended up having to splurge for the VIP/salón-cama seat, which led to an amazing discovery:  I realized I could actually sleep on overnight buses as the wider “full-bed” seats gave me enough space to sleep on my side!  This discovery saved me time and money throughout the rest of my trip since I could arrive relatively well-rested and ready to explore my next destination and save on a night of lodging.

Early in the morning, I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town with a huge tourist presence.  From there, I walked to my hostel, Hostal Sonchek, which is conveniently located near the bus station and offers cozy, friendly four-bed dormitories, while not catering exclusively to budget backpackers.  I grabbed some snacks and an empanada from the small grocery store across the street and wandered around San Pedro, taking in this tourist town for the first time.

First, I stopped by CosmoAndino Expediciones to confirm my tour to Valle de la Luna later that day.  CosmoAndino has a well-deserved reputation for offering the highest quality tours around, including extras that other operators may not include.  Even though they are pricier than other tour agencies, you see a lot of budget backpackers on the tours because they are absolutely worth the splurge, especially for photographers, as they emphasize extra time to really take in and experience the wonders of the Atacama.  As I describe my trips with them, you’ll see exactly what I mean!

After checking on my tour, I wandered into Heladeria Tierra del Sol, an artesanal ice cream shop, lured in by a friendly guy and an inviting porch swing.  It doesn’t take much to convince me to eat delicious ice cream!

Checking out Valle de la Muerte from above, Atacama, Chile

The Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) tour is the traditional “first stop” for anyone visiting the Atacama.  With CosmoAndino, you start the tour a little bit earlier so that you can do some light hiking through the red rock cliffs of Valle de la Muerte, getting some exercise and fresh air along with a broader perspective of the area.

Valle de la Muerte, Atacama, Chile

According to our guide, David, Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) was named by accident due to some confusion caused by a foreign accent – it should actually be called Mars Valley (Valle del Marte) after the alien landscape!

Valle de la Muerte, Atacama, Chile

Once inside the valley, you can watch the people sandboarding on the dunes. I much preferred walking around the valley to climbing back up that dune! After appreciating the views from inside the valley, we met up with our van to head over to the Valle de la Luna in time for the sunset.

Checking Out Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

As an experienced guide, David knew the best strategy for really experiencing Valle de la Luna.  Most groups congregate right near the entrance to the ridge you see above.  Our group walked all the way to the end of the permitted pathway because this meant we would have more time to appreciate the colors of the landscape, which would only become more beautiful and interesting after the sun finally disappeared.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

The golden glow of the last rays of the sunlight illuminated the valley.  Look in one direction, and the hills looked brown and orange, reflecting the sun’s warm glow.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

Look in another direction, and the mountains turned shades of pink, purple, and blue.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

As other groups cleared out, we remained there, taking in the still-changing colors. As an experienced sunset-watcher, I know that the best colors come after the sun goes down. I’m just glad I went with a tour company whose awesome guide understood that, too!

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

The pink shades really made the valley look otherworldly, like the surface of the moon.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

Finally, the park’s guard came over and asked us to leave, and we made our way back down the dunes to our waiting van. Even from inside the valley, we could see the magic of the still changing light.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile

Unfortunately, the national park no longer allows people to camp overnight in the valley, but you can just imagine what the stars must look like from inside this barren, alien landscape.  As you can see, this was a great start to my time in San Pedro de Atacama.  I couldn’t wait to explore more of it the next day. 🙂

Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama, Chile:

  • Stay at Hostal Sonchek.  They offer four-bed dormitories for 8.500CLP (about $15USD) along with private rooms.  Wi-fi is available in the courtyard, there is plenty of outdoor seating, including a relaxing backyard, and they have a small but well-stocked kitchen where you can prepare your meals and meet other guests.  They also have consistent hot water in nice bedrooms, and the staff is friendly and helpful.  Because this is a small, family-run hostal, they are less crowded and more flexible than other places which cater exclusively to backpackers.
  • If you like photography and want to be more active on your tours, book with CosmoAndino Expediciones.  That said, there are other tours to parts of the Atacama that CosmoAndino does not visit (Laguna Cejar, Valle Arcoiris, etc.), and you should definitely visit these places too!  Do your research – there is a lot more to visit in the Atacama than the English-language guidebooks mention.  I will highlight these places in future posts.
  • For long-distance bus travel, take Tur-Bus and consider splurging for the “full-bed” seats.  It’s worth it.
  • It costs 2.000CLP to enter the Valle de la Luna national park in addition to whatever your tour costs.
[July 6, 2013: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile]

Six Weeks on the Road in Chile and Argentina!

How time flies when you’re on the road!

I’m currently revisiting Arica, Chile, after a 32-hour bus ride from Santiago. In a few hours, I’ll leave for the Peruvian border once again, crossing over to Tacna to begin another 21-hour ride back to Lima. From Lima, I’ll leave for the part of my journey I’m most excited about: exploring central and northern Peru, regions I have yet to visit!

I thought I’d be able to keep up with my blog and upload photos on a much more regular basis, but the truth is, when you’re traveling, you’re focused on the moment. Access to the internet is plentiful, but a lot of hostels I’ve stayed in only have a good signal in open courtyards, and since it’s winter, I usually don’t have the stamina to sit outside for a long time. Even when I’ve had good access to the internet, I’ve spent my time looking for hostels and deciding on my next destination; it feels like a waste to spend too much time on the internet! On top of that, I take so many pictures that I’m still behind in selecting the best, though I’ve been using these long bus rides to catch up as best I can!

In the last six weeks, I’ve covered a lot of ground! I started with a few days in Arica to get to know the area and visit Parque Nacional Lauca. From there, I headed to San Pedro de Atacama, a place I’ve wanted to visit for over 10 years. And it is still the highlight of my trip; there are so many gorgeous things to see in the Atacama. After San Pedro, I crossed the border to Argentina, heading directly to Salta, Argentina, historically my favorite city in the world. I spent a few days in Salta enjoying the ambiance and people, and then I headed to Cafayate, known for its wineries and amazing scenery. Most people spend a day or two there, so it was nice to take a couple more days to get to know it better. It’s changed a lot since I visited in 2002.

From Cafayate, I headed south again to Tucumán, a city I’d never visited, and the birthplace of Argentine independence. Tucumán is known for its nightlife, and I took advantage of this, heading out to a super-club almost as soon as I arrived with the awesome people at my hostel. I saw some of the sights and then headed on to La Rioja, another small city I’d never visited. I lucked out and managed to join a group to visit Parque Nacional Talampaya in La Rioja province and Parque Nacional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) in neighboring San Juan, two interesting and scenic parks which are not frequently visited by foreign tourists. Then I headed to Mendoza, where I spent a lovely week recovering from so much travel, tasting all kinds of wine, riding horses, relaxing in thermal baths, and meeting wonderful travelers.

After much internal debate, I decided to skip Buenos Aires on this trip, since it is just too far away from Peru, therefore too expensive to fly from. Instead, I headed back to Chile to spend nearly a week in Santiago visiting former students turned friends! Santiago was fascinating to me, as it has a lot in common with both New York and various Californian cities, especially when you take into consideration the neighboring cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso! I loved my time in Valparaíso, especially, and have to spend more time there at another moment. I still love capital cities, though most travelers prefer to skip them, so I am a fan of Santiago.

And today I’m en route back to Peru. I definitely feel like six weeks won’t be enough to see everything I want to see in this amazing country, but I’m going to do the best I can! 🙂

Below are quite a few selected pictures from my trip so far, with more details and more information to come, all in due time, of course. 😉

Sunset in Arica, Chile
Sunset in Arica, Chile

Laguna Chungará and Volcán Parinacota, Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile
Laguna Chungará, Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile

Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Sunset from Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Chaxa/Salar de Atacama
Salar de Atacama/Laguna Chaxa, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Salar de Tara/Aguas Calientes, San Pedro de Atacama
Posing at Aguas Calientes, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Ojos de Salar, San Pedro de Atacama
Ojos del Salar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama
Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Merienda on the Plaza, Salta
Merienda on the Plaza, Salta, Argentina

Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta
Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta, Argentina

Near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate
Hiking near Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina

Neblina (Cloud Cover) on the Road to Tafí del Valle
Sea of Clouds, near Tafí del Valle, Tucumán, Argentina

Sunset in Tucumán, Argentina
Sunset near Tucumán, Argentina

El Hongo, Valle de la Luna, San Juan
Valle de la Luna, San Juan, Argentina

Wine Tasting at Clos de Chakras
Wine Tasting, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

Posing at Termas de Cacheuta, Mendoza
Termas de Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina

View from Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

Flowers Near Santiago, Chile
Flowers near Santiago, Chile

Posing at Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar, Chile

Posing on top of Cerro Santa Lucia
Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile