Chile: Welcome to Mars, Better Known as the Atacama Desert

Katherine Taylor is a student at the University of Denver and an ISA Featured Blogger. Katherine is currently studying abroad in Valparaiso, Chile on an ISA Fall 3 program.

When I came to Chile, I knew I would want to explore the myriad of beautiful landscapes here. I also knew that any type of landscape could be found here. What I did not realize was how breath-taking these views would be.

When I told family and friends from the US I was going on a weekend trip to the desert, by choice, many thought I had gone a little crazy. I mean, who chooses to traipse around a desert with hot weather, sand and little flora or fauna. But see, the Atacama Desert is no normal hot, sandy stretch of land. It is a very unique place that I can only describe as similar to how I imagine Mars to appear.

My friends and I had all been told by our host families and other Chileans that San Pedro de Atacama was “precioso.” (precious, wonderful). Therefore, we decided to be spontaneous and book flight tickets and a hostel and just go see what the desert had to offer. Then last Thursday the first four of us traveling hopped on a bus to Santiago without really knowing how to get to our destination. The travel day was long. We started at the bus terminal in Viña Del Mar and then ended up at a bus terminal in Santiago after 2 hours. From there we took another bus 20 minutes to the airport in Santiago. Word of advice #1: If you take a bus to Santiago for the airport, do not panic when you drive up to a random bus terminal in the middle of a random neighborhood in Santiago. This is a good thing. I had a slight panic attack but luckily asked a nice man where to buy “boletos” for the airport. Thank goodness for friendly Chileans who take pity on us panicky gringos.

After a two hour flight to Calama, (A great flight: we got to watched the TV show Friends and ate yummy snacks) we caught a shuttle bus which took us another 1 1/2 hours to San Pedro. Once again, we had a little moment where we realized this random man in a random shuttle bus was driving quickly over bumpy desert roads in the middle of the night. My friend said sarcastically  “This feels right”, but we decided to just let it all go and relax. When in Chile, right?

Finally we made it to the hostel. Word of advice #2: Stay at Hostel Rural. It was the coolest place with hammocks out front that anybody could relax in.

Hostal Rural

Though the music was loud sometimes, all of the employees were very helpful. They helped us book tours, gave us advice on where to eat and even had a huge asado on Friday night! For $5000 CLP (about $10USD) we got all the meat, veggies and other delicious food we could want. I recommend that if this kind of opportunity comes up, take it. We made many friends from all over the world and got to experience Chilean hospitality. They love to always offer you more food. It’s a miracle I haven’t gained 20 pounds!

The rest of the weekend was spent hanging out in the hammocks, shopping, seeing the local sights, taking tours, shopping, hanging out in the hammocks, and shopping. (We did a lot of shopping but found some amazingly cheap, unique things! For example, I got a handmade leather bag for around $10USD.)

The tours were all excellent. We heard the geysers were not really worth the money, so we skipped that tour. We also did our own tour of Valle de La Luna on bikes. Word of advice #3: Do not spend more than $3000 CLP ($6USD) on rental bikes, but also make sure to fully inspect them. We had one broken pedal and a couple flat tires to deal with on the ride.

I also recommend the Laguna Cejár tour, Lagunas Antiplanícos, and make sure to see the church in the center of San Pedro.

Awkward family photo
Valle de la luna

Finally, make sure to take some time to just explore. Although the tours were outstanding and we got to see some breathtaking views, you can learn so much from simply wandering around the city and visiting with the locals. We simply wandered for awhile and found an old cemetery, ate llama empanadas and simply soaked in the wonderful, laid-back culture of San Pedro. It is a very unique city and I strongly recommend visiting!

P.S. Always take peanut butter with you on trips. It saved us a lot of money and also reminded me personally of home. :)

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