Urban legends of San Pedro de Atacama

The arrival in San Pedro de Atacama was a bit of a “déjà vu”. Which was not at all unpleasant. Somehow, this town reminded me of places in Central Asia. Happy times!

Within minutes I fell in love with this small town. Obviously very touristic, it still seems to have preserved in large parts the original local charm as a very relaxed and chilled spot. The many comfortable hostels and restaurants lure tourists to stay an extra day or two before or after their Bolivian border crossing trip.

Moreover, there are numerous attractions around San Pedro de Atacama, such as the Geysers of El Tatio, the salt plains of Atacama, the Moon Valley and the ruins of Tulor – to name just a very few of them. Spending a week here and doing every day a different excursion is a sensible planning for many tourists.

San Pedro de AtacamaA pleasant surprise in town is the lack of night bars and a de-facto curfew around midnight. This means that the usual hordes of drunken (put your favourite binge drinking nationality here) either avoid coming here or simply behave for once. This doesn’t mean that having a good bottle of wine or drinking beers over dinner wouldn’t be possible. But somehow no one really gets dead drunk, tries to piss in the streets or vomit in the dormitory of the hostel. All these annoyances that seem to be acceptable in other backpacker towns, haven’t established here. It is actually amazing to see people from (put your favourite binge drinking nationality here) acting normal without their constant noise carpet of shouting and burping.

But then again, many excursions are timed for early sunrise. Which implies that a lot of trips leave at four o’clock in the mornings. Particularly, the trip to the El Tatio Geyser leaves on that time and puts tourists on an altitude of over 4’000 meters. Not exactly the place and time to have a hangover.

San Pedro de Atacama

Since most of the tours were quite expensive, I hired a bicycle instead. Leaving town at half past seven in the morning, I went for the Moon Valley. This is the spot, where tour operators usually would bring tourists for sunsets. Cycling the 40km return in the early morning therefore meant not only to avoid the heat of the sun, but also avoiding the crowds. I literally had the whole valley to my own until ten o’clock, when the first tourists in their hired cars arrived.

On my return to town, I went to visit an archaeological site which represents a typical Atacama settlement, called the “Tulor Village”. Located about 10km southeast of San Pedro de Atacama, this interesting site shows a series of interconnected circular structures.

This historical village is one of the oldest sedentary archaeological places in the region. Since shifting sand dunes do cover most of the site, some visitors might find this attraction rather underwhelming. However, I do like everything being in a state of ruins. Obviously I did like that place, which was also a welcome break on the bicycle trip back to town from the Moon Valley.

Moon Valley near San Pedro de Atacama

Most tourists on their way out of San Pedro de Atacama continue to Uyuni in Bolivia. There are several dozen tour operators in town that offer basically the same programme for their three to four day trips. Many travelers’ stories in town surround the subjects of drunk tour drivers, badly maintained vehicles, poor quality food and lodging. One (unverifiable) horror story (read: Urban legend) I have been told, was about a Dutch tourist being abandoned by the driver in the desert, because he constantly complained. He eventually got picked up by another tour group – at the expense of their seating quality. Oh yes, that’s another thing to watch out: The total number of people being crammed into a four wheel drive for the trip.

Here’s the trick of the trade (but most backpackers already know this one): Go to the tourist information office in San Pedro de Atacama and read the “complaints” folder there. Although most agencies are being named throughout the hundreds of these feedback pages from tourists, some of them stand out in either a very negative or very positive way. This is how I found out about two of the better tour companies. The rest of the organisation for booking the trip was bargaining for the best price.

In anticipation of the Bolivian infrastructure, I splurged a bit during my last day in San Pedro de Atacama. I went to a posh restaurant and had a Cesar’s Salad, but got in return to use their WiFi hotspot. The rest of the day was filled with organizing items needed for the trip. I repacked my small day pack, got some serious strength sunblock and changed – before going to bed at night – all my Chilean pesos into Bolivian money.

Now I was ready for this exciting trip to the Andean high-plateau. But telling that story is an entire blog entry by itself. Therefore, come back soon to check out all the details about this – literally – breathtaking trip to almost 5’000 meters altitude.