The border crossing must be one of the strangest with the exit from Bolivia at the end of the Uyuni tour, but a 30 minute drive to San Pedro to get an entry stamp into Chile prompting questions about who owns the vast gap. My hunch was it must be Chile as for the 1st time on the trip we were on western standard tarmac roads. Scorching hot at border crossing, but then I was at northern tip of Atacama Desert. Bumped into Joel, Chris and Paul (3 lads from Halifax on my Potosi mine tour) and arranged to meet them in San Pedro and compare planned routes.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small dusty town that was none existent 10 years ago but has blossomed off the back of the increase in tourism. It has a reputation for being a great place to chill for a week after heavy travelling and definitely has a laid back vibe (probably because of the heat).
Unfortunately with tourism being the sole income, prices are extraordinarily expensive. The 4 of us agreed to get out as quickly as possible but not before seeing the desert. The 1st bus was 3 days away and US$80 (over double the most expensive bus paid so far) so spent rest of day booking a tour, getting some much needed laundry done and exploring other ways to get out of San Pedro. Had a 3 course meal with a free glass of wine - even as house wine, it was good to be in Chile !
Up for a morning tour to some swimming in nearby lagunas and a visit to Chile salt flats - Salar de Atacama with 6 female Chilean medical students. Drive out very desert like but not part of the famous desert. Covered in poor quality shrubs that clearly survive off very little water.
1st stop at the salar itself. Much smaller but quite different to Uyuni. Surface almost snowlike that crunched underfoot. Tour guide then advised to step on mounds of salt as less likely to put foot through surface. Salar contained numerous mini lakes giving the 4 of us a challenge to use stepping stones to the islands. Joel, Chris and Paul in flip flops with the salt underneath the surface as sharp as glass. I was much better in sandals and strolled through the water with ease - Chris managed to slice open his finger as he tried to stop himself from falling in. Managed to get a good perspective photo of Joel and Paul sitting in Chris hands in buddha pose. 2nd stop a plunge pool in middle of desert.
Good to take a dip as the clouds parted and the temperature soared. Chris and Paul took it a step further by dive bombing from rim of crater 4 metres into pool. Final stop of morning was to the main event with a salt pool - 30 metre square azure blue pool so salty that you could stay afloat without swimming (ala Dead Sea). Bizarre experience as impossible to sink. Tried to swim and just moved around in a circle. Had a good laugh outdoing each others poses with arms behind head. Got my book out for a little read whilst floating. A minor but unforgettable experience. Guide opened up the pisco sour and biscuits bringing an end to the floating and time for a little sunbathing. The pisco sour wasnt popular with the girls so helped myself to nearly half the bottle.
However once dry, everyone was completely white with dried salt. Given water to wash ourselves off - the guide assisted the girls - what a hard job !
Chilled out afternoon reading in hammock before trip to Valle de Luna for sunset. Got there on time only to have missed tour. Failed to find another tour so returned to original and made proprietor feel guilty enough to order a taxi to give us the tour for the same price. 1st stop was for the main reason why we came to San Pedro - a look out over the Atacama desert - officially the driest desert in the world with some parts never recording rain since records began. Different to what expected as more canyon like. If anything, more impressive.
2nd stop down a sand road that was until recently the main road into San Pedro - very apparent how new a town San Pedro is. However took us to a more expected view of giant sand dunes. They were there to be climbed and after a struggle gave great views of valleys of dunes. Surfed back down the steep slopes without the need of a board. Final destination, the Valle de Luna. Another odd landscape predominantly sand based but with a hard salt layer on top looking more like snow. Great views over Atacama desert. Climbed a perfectly ridged dune (unfortunately cant walk the ridge due to recent earthquake) but went onto rocky ridge to watch sunset with a prebought 2 litre box of wine. Perfect end to another great day enjoying the tranquility of such a vast place. Returned to San Pedro for a meal and half way through before realised it had no roof and could see the moon above the roaring open fire - I guess if your town doesnt have any rain for 7 years, it doesnt close much for flooding ! Another action packed, great day.