The roll down from the peak of the Paso de Jama is a long one, descending two thousand metres. As you leave the patches of snow and high altiplano, the landscape turns into red, relentless desert. The air becomes warmer and drier and then, out of nowhere you spot a low-rise collection of houses and you’ve arrived.
San Pedro’s bus station is a sweet collection of huts and some clear signs of tourist habitation- A little cafe with a menu in English and some enthusiastically priced wool products. Yep, you’ve landed back in tourist zone. I exited the terminal to be greeted by a man offering a hostel. I’m no longer scared of touts, I listen to what they have to offer, and then decide. I didn’t have a booking anyway.
His hostel turned out to be in the opposite direction from the centre of town. The bus station is a good 15 min walk from the main square. I declined. Location, location, location.
I stayed at the Hostelling International place. Partly because it was just the first place I came across, and secondly because they tend to be pretty consistent. I hadn’t intended to stay long in San Pedro, partly because I’m on a time limit to get to Quito. However, the dizzying array of tours on the hostel’s whiteboard seemed a good incentive to check a few things out.
And so it was, I was up at 0400hrs the next morning to go on the tour of the Tatio geysers. Quite why, I’m unsure. I had been pre-briefed by the ace Dutch couple in my dorm that it would be seriously cold, and they weren’t wrong. Shivering, I bundled myself onto the minibus for a bumpy 90 minute dirt track ride up to the site. No catching up on sleep en bus, then.
We arrived before dawn, and shivered our way through a breakfast before being guided around the geysers. They were not sufficiently interesting nor spectacular enough to justify this kind of cold or earliness.
But, as the light increased, and the temperature threatened to rise about minus six, I decided to enter the spirit of the place and indulge in a brief dip… The thermal pools weren’t mega warm, something like 30 degrees, but enough to take the chill off. After a somewhat bracing change in the open air. Surprisingly, this warmed me up significantly, and my toes went from being completely congelado to perfectly warm afterwards. Spooky
And, as the sun came up, the interest levels did increase a bit. I mean, they’re alright, as geysers go…
And then, after a bit of wandering around, it was on to the next stop… Machuca village. There are LOADS of hilarious conspiracy theories about this place on TripAdvisor. Sure, it’s not the most entertaining stop in the world, and is clearly a bit of a “filler” for the tours, but hey, it was interesting enough. Loads of TripAdvisorites reckon it’s a fake village but people definitely do live there. There’s a church to look at, and then locals selling hilariously overpriced llama meat on sticks. And hilariously overpriced giant empanadas. So, I just had a wander and enjoyed some sun on my bones.
Pulling out of the village, our third stop of the day, to see some flamingos, was there. They weren’t very close nor very pink, but they were flamingos nonetheless. It’s been a source of consistent amusement throughout my trip to see the varied places they turn up- Surprisingly high, remote, whatever- They look like delicate birds but seem anything but!
And then, back to San P by 1130 for a bit of a siesta, planning the next day’s trip to Uyuni, some general admin. Ideal. On the whole, I’d say not to bother with the early start for this trip. At least it wasn’t pricey, around 15,000CLP (£15).
Back in San P, I got a tour booked with White and Green tours- 4 days to Uyuni and back to see the salt plains. Then all sorts of admin- Buying water and snacks for the trip, and lastly changing money. Stupidly I’d not anticipated the need for Bolivianos, so had changed my £40 worth of remaining Argentine Pesos into Chilean Pesos, then changed again into Bolivianos.
Do not change money in San Pedro de Atacama if you can avoid it! The slew of money changers along the Main Street is an indication of how much cash they make out of tourists this way. The rates are nothing short of usurious, with what I calculated as a 30% markup over interbank rates. You are over a barrel, and they know it. This cost me nearly £20. Bastards!
Back to the hostel for a nap before my next tour… Or not. One of the great things about Argentines and Chileans is their sociability. This can also be a pitfall. When I got back, I was wrecked, and went to lie down. 2 Chilean girls in the same room… Chatting to me. Great. Buuuut, when someone’s come in, said they’ve been up since 4am and are giving one word answers whilst lying down with their eyes closed, this is a social clue! Needless to say, they found my lack of engagement highly offensive, and moved rooms! Bah
In the afternoon I was booked on the Luna Valley tour. Now, this one was half the price of the geysers, and was definitely worth the money! Picked up at 4 from the hostel (Or not- They’d neglected to tell me I had to meet around the corner at 4!) so I had a stroppy French man descending on my room at 4.05 demanding I come “Now! Now! You are late!”. And then a short, smooth minibus ride out to the valley. That’s better!
From a few hours wandering around the towering, arid cliffs we hopped back into the bus to catch the sunset over the valley, and more importantly the iconic selfies available at Coyote Rock. Sadly I hadn’t taken my brave pills so I didn’t get one of the “dangling over the edge” shots…
So, a good day had. The evening Valle de la Luna tour is great value at about £8. So, back to San Pedro and an evening preparing for the next adventure: 4 days through the Atacama Desert and over the mountains to Uyuni…