When I first came to Chile about a year ago, there was little I really knew about the country.  Upon doing a bit of research I learned that it is an isolated country with a hugely varied landscape.  Now I realize that this is a description that could be applied to many places, but with Patagonia in the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes to the east, and a desert in the north, I came to see that this isolation really was next level.  Of course whenever you travel to a new location there are high hopes of discovering everything it has to offer, but with me not being a fan of cold weather that kind of put Patagonia and the Andes (and also most of the Pacific – the Humboldt Current is no joke) on the back burner.  And so, I set my sights on the north.

More specifically, San Pedro de Atacama.  With San Pedro being a desert and all, I decided it would not be the best place to visit in the middle of the summer heat which is already insufferable in Santiago.  Eventually the trip was planned for mid-September, the start of spring down here in the Southern Hemisphere.   In the days leading up to my departure I found myself daydreaming about what this little town in the middle of the desert would be like.  I pictured adobe huts and cowboys on horseback.  Rolling sand dunes and starry nights.  San Pedro de Atacama did not disappoint.

San Pedro de Atacama

Sand dune sunset in Valle de la Luna, Atacama
Sand dune sunset in Valle de la Luna

The extremeness of the region was apparent before the plane even landed.  Coming from the snow covered Andes, the contrast of the reds and yellows of the desert stood out even more.  On top of that, the massive white salt flats and turquoise lagoons that appeared out of nowhere can only be described as other-worldly.  Once on land, the most striking thing was the pure dryness of the air.  And coming from the horrible recycled air I was breathing on the plane, that’s saying something.  I know what you’re thinking, “this is a desert, what exactly did you expect?”, but I quickly learned that being the most arid desert on Earth is not something to be taken lightly. The Sahara has nothing on San Pedro.

So far my expectations of this exotic place had been exceeded.  This was not necessarily the case upon arrival at the actual town.  Unfortunately, but also somewhat expectedly, the town was totally overrun by tourists.  No cowboys on horseback or rolling sand dunes that I could see.  There was a fair share of adobe though, but not necessarily the “huts” that I had imagined.  More like gourmet restaurants, luxury hotels, and full-blown tour agencies.  But they were made of adobe nonetheless.

Although I knew there were actual people living their lives there, I could see very little trace of it.  However, I came to realize that this factor would actually not have much effect on my overall enjoyment there.  The fun really started when you get out of the town and take some small excursions.  Sandboarding and salt lake-floating were definitely the highlights of the desert for me.

Sandboarding

Sandboard in Valle de la Muerte, Atacama
Sandboard in Valle de la Muerte, Atacama

Let me start with sandboarding.  Sounds fun, right?  Well it is.  Amazing.  Riding down a gigantic sand dune is both less scary and requires less skill than snowboarding, even though the board is essentially the same.  Also, the consequences of falling in the sand are not quite as severe as falling on a snow/ice covered mountain, although you most definitely will wind up eating some sand.  Sandboarding was all I imagined and more.  And by more I mean an intense work-out.  Climbing up massive sand dunes is no easy feat.  Waking up the next morning I was sore in places I can’t even describe.  With the combination of sand hiking and one major wipe-out, I can safely say most parts of my body were in some form of pain.

Salt Lakes

Lake Cejar
Laguna Cejar

Luckily, the next activity planned was much more relaxed.  Floating in a salt lake in the middle of nowhere was just what the doctor ordered.  What really drew me in was the idea of effortlessly floating, and it wasn’t until we arrived that our guide told us that with a salt content three times higher than that of the Dead Sea, the lake was also said to have had some medicinal properties.  This was great news considering my current state. I could use all the help I could get.  It’s this extra high salt content that is said to aid healing and allows you to just lay back and float.  Your body is so buoyant that you feel like a cork bobbing along in the water.  If it weren’t for the frigid wind that happened to be blowing through at the time, I could have stayed there and floated all day.

All in all San Pedro de Atacama was exactly what I had hoped it would be – a totally new and different experience.  It was unlike any place I had been before and definitely deserves more than the three days I was able to stay.  When I return, I will be sure to hang out a little longer and plan a way to fulfill my cowboys on horseback dreams.  I will also definitely remember to bring some ibuprofen.

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Posted in Latin America, Travel

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