Further south every day!
We came into the Atacama Desert on an overnight bus. The sun was already high in the sky and the desert was illuminated with a harsh light that made the red highway outside the bus windows shimmer.
We woke up like this
We had already been in transit for a couple days, and the last thing that we had seen the previous evening was the sun going down over the sleepy surf town of Arica, Chile. We had spent a couple restless humid days there waiting in a decaying hostel before boarding the overnight bus, where our attempts to sleep were interrupted twice for security stops and once for a bus change.
We had come a long, long way, and it felt like it.
For us, the Atacama desert beckoned in several ways. As being designated ‘The Driest Place on Earth’ it fulfilled our love for superlative places, and its landscape supposedly boasted all manner of natural wonders- barren salt flats, volcanoes both dormant and active, high-altitude lagoons, geyser fields and wild flamingos. And several national parks.
I'll just go ahead and say it now: our experience in the Atacama desert was highly atypical.
The weather was bizarre, the tour agencies unreliable, the rental car agencies booked up or closed and internet access a real gamble (for many reasons).
I will explain:
Every day that we were in The Driest Place on Earth, a storm would blow in at about 6pm.
And not a little storm, either… It would start when the dust would start to rise up off the dirt road through the center of town and begin to
blow in the wind until it could sting your face. Then the temperature would drop and the rain would begin- soft and fat at first, but then harder and harder until all of a sudden: “Hail? Here? In the Atacama?”. Then the sky would turn black, lightning and thunder would beat down all around from the nearby mountains and the whole town’s power would go out. It was a great time.
This just seems all wrong for the Atacama Desert
It was such a great time, in fact, that on the second night that we were in town the storm got so bad that the streets turned into rivers of running mud, the shops all along the main thoroughfare began erecting makeshift dams in front of their businesses and we had to do some significant trenching around our campsite to keep it from being flooded (of course we were camping).
Evening entertainment when you are staying in a flooded desert campground:
Cheap chocolate, cheap wine, a solar lantern and new friends!
Ultimately, what this meant for us was that the road (and river?) conditions were so bad that many of the trips to typical Atacama desert attractions were closed leaving us with relatively few options.
So what did we do in the national parks of San Pedro de Atacama?
We toured the higher elevations- notably the ‘Piedras Rojas’, or the Red Rocks tour. This involved stopping out at the Salar de Atacama/Atacama Salt Flats to see wild flamingos out in their salty lagoons, then touring several high-altitude lakes (deep breaths, deep breaths) and finally visiting the famous red rock beach high in the Andes mountains with its fine salt shore and magnificent vistas. Incidentally, this is where we got our National Park ‘check’ in, at the Nacional Reserva de Los Flamencos. So, so many wild flamingos!
Salty, salty flamingos on the salt flats
Not quite so salty up close
Turns out they weren't lying about the rocks being red!
When the tour agency cancelled our early morning trip out to the Tatio Geyser Field due to flooded roads, we went back to bed. THEN we woke up and did a self-guided hike out of town, following the highway until we ran into some open desert to explore and the gates to Death Valley. This was a great day trip because we weren’t beholden to any guides or groups and could stop high above the city for lunch before hiking down into the desert valleys. FUN FACT: When it rains in the desert, you can’t count on the ground to be solid… We got pretty muddy.
Desert adventures with our new friend from Australia, Catriona!
Some people pay a lot of money to get covered in mud, right?
When the tour agency cancelled our night stargazing tour due to clouds (really, guys?) we said ‘screw it, it’s not that cloudy out’ (it wasn’t) and hiked out into the desert ourselves for some stargazing. It wasn’t exactly quiet as we could still hear the highway, but it was beautiful and we had a very friendly stray dog escort.
When the tour agency cancelled literally every tour except for the Piedras Rojas tour that we had already been on on our last day in San Pedro de Atacama we just went for it and booked the same tour again. We figured that another day seeing striking desert beauty was better than spending the day in café or a bar even if it was the same striking desert beauty. It was the same tour, with the same guide (sorry, Paula) but in a different order and we saw much more wildlife- wild suris (emu-like birds), vicunas (wild alpaca-like creatures), lizards, and even more flamingos. The wind was exceptionally stiff at the high-altitude lakes this time, causing tiny whitecaps to form all across the deep blue waters and we actually got to see a great number of vicunas playing and fighting on the shores of the lagoons. It was a great second shot at being in the mountains and for a full-day guided tour was exceptional both times.
Our guide, Paula, who managed to give the same tour twice without recycling all of her jokes!
That definitely deserves a high five!
The Atacama Desert was nothing like we expected- hot and bright, yes, but also stormy and windy and so, so muddy. Flooded streets and pounding rain seemed to rule the night, but massive vistas and sweeping volcanic ranges soaked in desert sun filled our eyes during the day. From the peso-sized hail bouncing off the Plaza benches to the magnificent salt flats replete in flamingos, the Atacama Desert was a stunning and surprisingly beautiful place to camp in the rain.
Okay, so it didn't rain the whole time
The Atacama Desert, By the Numbers:
Cost of a campsite for two people: $24/night
Cost of a campsite for two people, with a pool: $40/night
Cost of 2 bottles of cheap Chilean wine to ride out another power outage: $6
Proportion of soaked/flooded tents in the campground: 9/10
Price of one full-day tour with Flamingo Tours: 30,000 Chilean Pesos/$45 USD (only $30USD the second time around)
Does the cafe with the really good internet change the password every 10 minutes to keep you from loitering: Yes
Did they really just fire up a generator behind the bar to make a smoothie because the power is out again: Also yes
Is this really the driest place on Earth: I mean, that's what they say...