As we stayed in San Pedro we grasped how special an area it is and how many challenges confront the hotels and restaurants there as well as anyone who would want to preserve the area. It is too fragile to support the influx of tourists. It is one of the much-hyped tourist areas that more than lives up to the billing. The area is a beautiful desert with gorgeous mountains as a backdrop, a culturally interesting Pre-Columbian area, a great area for mountain biking with a good tourist infrastructure. In short, it has everything we like! We have so many great photos from our stay; too many, actually, for this blog travelogue. If you want to see more, Click here to see all of the photos
Maria Angelica told us there is a good mountain bike road behind the hotel that goes, seemingly, forever. The dirt road wound past the Pukará de Quitor, a fortress from the XII century. Evidently, when the Spanish arrived in 1540 they road horses and carried guns, things the natives had never seen. All of the caciques or natives chiefs, were beheaded.
Dimitri biking on the road from the Pukará de Quitor
We kept riding on the dirt road, crossing and re-crossing the Río San Pedro (the river that creates the natural oasis). Being the rainy season, the river was running but we could avoid getting wet by speeding across.
Crossing the Rio San Pedro
On we biked and came to another tourist attraction: the Centro Incásico Catarpe. The Catarpe on the hill above the river was an administrative center of the Incas. We climbed up and took a snap of our bikes below and the river beyond.
Audre on the path to the Catarpe with our bikes and the San Pedro River in the background
In this remote area was the Chapel of San Isidro; it looked so out of place! We finally came to a river crossing that was too deep to cross. We turned back and had a 20 km round trip bike ride that had been very enjoyable.
The next day we had another 20 km bike ride to the tourist attaction of Aldea de Tulor. This pre-Columbian village from around 2880 BC has been preserved by the dry, sandy desert. We paid an entry fee of CLP$6.600/ US $12.69 and had a guided tour of the well-preserved village walls by bicycle. It was our guide’s first day of work and he did a great job.
Our guide Martín shows us the Atacameño houses
On the way back we rode through a village or ayllus where the descendants of the Lican Antai or Atacameño natives live and farm using the ancient irrigation channels. They are mocha-colored and look different from the otherwise European-looking Chileans.
For our next tourist destination we drove. Laguna Chaxa is about 62 km from San Pedro and 2300m above sea level. There is a system of salt lakes in the Salar de Atacama and the salt crusts that accumulate are unique as the underground salt water evaporates. There is an entry fee of CLP$4.000/ US $7.69 and it is well-done.
A postcard of the Laguna Chaxa
That night we ate at the Restaurante Paucha at Hotel Kimal (Domingo Atienza 453, fono: (56-55) 851-152) and we thought it was quite good, maybe the best in town. Many, if not most, of the restaurants are casual and have benches instead of chairs—very bad for our old backs.
Early the next day we took our bikes out again and did a fabulous ride through the valley of death and the Cordillera de la Sal. The Salt Mountain Range has been sculpted throughout time by the rain and the wind, giving rise to enormous shapes. They are spectacularly colorful natural formations from the minerals they contain. Our bike rides in San Pedro de Atacama were all very exceptional but this one was the best. It wasn’t entirely clear where the path went when we got to the sand-boarding area outside of town.
The sandboarders at the Cordillera de la Sal
However, there was a French couple watching the boarders who had rented bikes and had been given a map to follow. So we followed them up and up and up through some very sandy (and not rideable) portions
Dimitri biking up the Valle de la Muerte, with the snow-capped Andes in the background
The views in front of us, on our sides and behind us were fabulous. Beautiful colored sand, in interesting formations, with attractive gorges too. At the top we saw the main road in the distance and when we got to it there was a terrific downhill all the way back to town. A truly magnificent ride!
We spent the afternoon at the Museo Gustavo Paige in San Pedro de Atacama. The entry fee for us was CLP$2.000/US $3.85. Another tourist attraction that we would recommend.
We even took a snap of the resident mummy at the Museo Gustavo Paige
Our favorite place for lunch in San Pedro de Atacama was Todo Natural (Caracoles 271, fono: (56-55) 851-1585). We liked it even though they have benches; we used the back wall to lean against.
We drove to Laguna Cejas and Laguna Piedra (entry CLP$2.000/US $3.85) and saw more gorgeous flamingos there.
We gasped the first time we saw the flamingoes take off and fly close to us
People were swimming (actually floating) on the salt lake but that didn’t appeal to us. There’s no fresh water nearby to wash off the salt.
Dimitri at Valle de la Luna
Everywhere in the Atacama Desert there are great views of the Andes and the Domeyko Mountain Ranges in the clear air. But in the Valle de Luna, with the recognizable Licancábur Volcano cone in the distance, it was particularly dramatic. One of my favorite views was of the road we took down from the Paso de Jama. It is visible almost from the top, even though it is very far away and very high up.
Our four days in San Pedro de Atacama were jam-packed and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We didn’t see the geysers, however. We had seen geysers in New Zealand which put on a spectacular show at 10:30 a.m. You have to drive 100 km in the middle of the night to see the Geysers del Tatio at dawn. So, we gave them a miss. But we don’t think we failed to see much else!