We arrived on Saturday in San Pedro de Atacama by bus from Bolivia (the transfer was included in our tour of the Uyuni area). Interestingly the customs and immigration process wasn’t performed at the border: we had to stop and “be processed” on arrival in San Pedro. After that we endeavoured to find our Airbnb by foot, but given the lack of Google Maps data for the town, we quickly had to resort to phoning our host and having him send a van to the restaurant in which we’d taken refuge after schlepping our bags halfway across town.
San Pedro is a nice, touristy town. It has a very relaxed atmosphere and is easily walkable, wherever you may be staying.
Our first host in San Pedro was Jorge Jerez, who happens to be a tour guide for the Atacama area. We’d previously agreed to do a tour with him on the Sunday, so after we got settled into our temporary home we discussed the plan for the following day over a beer. I explained we’d already seen a lot of impressive sights during the last few months – Yellowstone, Utah, Iguassu, Jujuy, Cafayate, Uyuni – and that ideally we’d do something a little different. Oh, and we really wanted to avoid “the beaten path”, having hordes of other tourists around.
Based on this, Jorge came up with a really interesting plan, visiting places that are beautiful, quiet and fun for the kids.
To start the day we went to El Valle de La Lune, visiting its salt caves and climbing to the top of a nearby peak for the view. The conventional wisdom says that this should be done at the end of the day to get the best light. Which means all the tours do it this way. So when we visited the area, we were the only ones there (we did see people come through, but very few indeed).
The caves were really awesome – the kids had a complete blast – and the best thing was there was no-one on our heels, trying to squeeze past us or to speed us up.
Climbing the local peak – and walking along the ridge – was nice but a bit scary: I suffer from vertigo and get especially anxious when the kids are with me. The views were drop-dead gorgeous, though.
After this we headed back to Jorge’s home for lunch. Rested, we headed to the second major stop on Jorge’s itinerary: Las Lagunas Escondidas (meaning Hidden Lagoons… so well hidden, in fact, that I can’t find a reference on Wikipedia!) which are about a 45-minute drive along the other side of La Cordillera de la Sal. On the way we stopped at an overlook for a quick view of the area… gorgeous.
We arrived at the Hidden Lagoons at around 4pm, which meant we had to hustle a little as the showers closed at 5pm. What’s interesting about these lagoons is that they’re basically a mini Dead Sea: they have such high salt content that you float effortlessly in them. Two of the four lagoons are swimmable, and we were determined to try at least one before the showers closed (and you really need a shower after a dip in one of these lagoons: you come out caked in salt that soon starts to itch).
It was a complete blast… the sensation was unforgettable. The water was a little on the cool side, but if you stayed floating at the top, it was completely tolerable. And to start with we were completely alone in the first lagoon – a few buses came by as we were leaving, but we had the lagoon to ourselves for 40 minutes or so.
We visited the other lagoons before heading back to Jorge’s place to pick up the “aperitif” for the evening. We then headed onto our third and final stop: the Laguna Tebinquinche, in the middle of the Salar de Atacama. Once again, the conventional wisdon says that you see this during the day: Jorge had us arrive at sunset, just as the last tourists were leaving. We wandered around and took photos as the sun was going down while Jorge set up the aperitif.
We had a delicious snack (which ended up being dinner, but that was just fine) and watched the stars come out. Jorge laid a blanket on the ground and we all stargazed in utter astonishment: the closest thing I’d ever seen was in the Alps and it didn’t come anywhere close. The sheer volume of stars – and the clarity of the Milky Way – was incredible.
As always with Airbnb, you never quite know what you’re going to get, in spite of their useful rating system. In this case, though, it turned out to be a spectacular success: while we were only able to stay two nights at Jorge’s place (it was booked from the Monday, and we’ve since moved into another Airbnb a few blocks away) we took full advantage of having a tour guide living next door who managed to tailor an itinerary perfectly for the needs of our family. It was just the experience we needed after being driven – alongside hordes of other tourists – through the Salar de Uyuni. Even if that was amazing in its own way.
If you ever come to this part of the world, be sure to get in touch with Jorge and book a tour (and even stay at his place for the most friction-free experience). I’ve suggested to Jorge that he focus on a market niche based on ignoring conventional wisdom to deliver spectacular – even solitary – experiences when there are lots of other tourists in the area. He certainly did a fantastic job for us on that front!
The last few days we’ve relaxed and enjoyed San Pedro – we celebrated the Chilean National Day here, which was nice timing. Our next adventure is for our middle son’s 11th birthday… we’re going sandboarding. Now that should really be fun!
A quick update on the Brazilian speeding ticket fiasco: 4 more have just shown up, which makes me think we’re not done yet. This lot amounted to another $200 or so, which means we’re now at 9 tickets (I miscounted in the last post) weighing in at about $650. Yikes.
By the way… if you’ve enjoyed these photos, you can see more (and more regularly) via our Instagram page.