San Pedro de Atacama – sandboarding and stars

Our bus from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama left at 1am and we knew in advance it was going to be a bit punishing – 13 hours heading over the Andes, up to around 5000m, with outside temperatures dropping to well below freezing.

Hostels usually provide somewhere secure for bags once you have checked out, and will happily let you hang around the place/use the kitchen until it’s time for your onward connection, but in this instance we splurged and booked at extra night at the hostel so we could shower and have a bit of a snooze before heading to the bus station.

Our bus was with the Chilean Pullman company and cost us around £20 each (not bad) but food provided would be basic so as usual we stocked up on snacks and water. This along with the steaks is the reason why I’m struggling to maintain my 34in waist. On the road it’s difficult to be healthy, it’s either ham and cheese rolls or junk or nothing. There is no point in bringing fruit as you can’t take it across most South American borders and we just don’t know at what point in the trip the border controls start.

San Pedro - local volcanoes

The trip started well enough, usual comfortable semi-cama seats, but it only took an hour or two before the temperature on the bus was cranked up to over 35c, it was like a sauna. This together with a huge altitude hike and it was almost unbearable. I did manage to sleep, but made the mistake of leaning against the window, waking to find the left side of my face frozen to the glass. Thankfully, a few seconds of gentle easing saved my skin. Leah found this very amusing.

After 13 hours we eventually arrived at the Chilean border, the journey took longer than expected as we had to wait for a police escort to take us through a few passes that were hit with a recent snow storm. It was obvious why the roads were closed just a few days ago, a number of times the bus was forced to go off-road onto the desert floor to avoid obstacles.

Road across the Andes

San Pedro de Atacama, or more accurately, the desert around it, is honoured with being the driest place on earth. San Pedro itself is not, as we have nice hot showers. We are staying in a dirt cheap hostel about 10 minutes outside town, but although it had great reviews the place was not that great and full of obnoxious American university students…

“We like university because we get to talk to people who are actually intelligent”

“I’m going to be a professor; I’m not sure in what, I want to share my gift of knowledge with everybody else”

“Yes, I am reading sheet music over lunch; I’m currently fascinated by early Spanish Romany musical structures”

Enough…

We checked out after one night and found a spot right in the middle of town that was even a bit cheaper.

Group shot at death valley

In town, we hook up with some guys we met on the bus – a couple of English lads, a Canadian and a guy from the States. We spent the first beer- laden afternoon in a local restaurant enjoying the sunshine. Then we booked ourselves a star gazing tour for later that same night. Some of the group were getting geek jibes from friends on Facebook but it’s just one of those things you have to do if you come to the Atacama Desert. Due to the high altitude, incredibly low moisture levels and distance from any major light pollution, it is THE best place on earth to practice astronomy. When I was little, I remember a bright red telescope on a tripod I was given for either Christmas or my birthday. I spent many hours staring at the moon, and almost as many hours peering into my neighbours’ windows. I’ve been looking forward to this.

The moon - what other caption can you put?

The tour cost £20 so it wasn’t going to break the budget. Around half nine, we head into the middle of the desert, and spent the next half an hour being given the dummies’ guide to astronomy by an enthusiastic Canadian ex-pat. There are ten telescopes on site, ranging in size and type and we spend another hour shuffling round them, gazing at everything from gaseous clouds, ring nebulae, and distant galaxies to close ups of our very own moon and Saturn. We even get the opportunity to take a few pictures of the moon through a special set up provided. After a cup of Earl Grey (we’re English don’t you know?) we head back into town and home to bed – it’s been a long day.

Stargazing

The next day, fresh into our new hostel, we spend the morning around town. San Pedro is undeniably a beautiful oasis in the incredible desolation that is the Atacama Desert, but don’t be fooled, it is very much a tourist town. It consists of only a few square blocks, in the centre of which is a lively town square, together with a church and even free Wi-Fi access. It’s said to be the most expensive town in Chile, but we’re not complaining. The skies are deep blue, the temperature is up in the late 20s and it feels like we’re back on holiday again.

Downtown San Pedro

That afternoon, together with the four blokes we met on the bus, we decid to get some exercise and rent ourselves some snowboards for an afternoon on the dunes. Now, I’ve never been skiing, or snowboarding. I did once go to a ski resort in Spain for a weekend but spent the whole time in restaurants and bars, so my first tentative (goofy) steps (apparently I’m one of the few who prefer to board right foot forward) were going to be on the scorching sands of the Atacama Desert – what could possibly go wrong?

Sandboarding

To my surprise, I wasn’t half bad for a novice. For two hours, I nervously boarded my way down the dunes, a few mouthfuls of sand, obviously, but I was good enough to have fun and even try a few turns here and there. Leah, having snowboarded before, got back into it, although had some spectacular tumbles. I could get into this, although we had to walk up the dunes every time we reached the bottom, which was shattering. The views were stunning, the heat was relentless, next time maybe I’ll try it in the snow instead.

Sandboarding in the desert

That night we all went out for a meal, but unfortunately we were sat inches from one of those annoying tourist bands that do the rounds at restaurants, so conversation was limited. Knackered, we call it a night.

We were due to leave San Pedro the next day, but the weather was far too nice to leave so early so we decide to extend our stay by another day. Leah topped up her tan at the hostel whilst I took a walk into the desert alone apart from a local mutt who decided to come along. I bought him some fried chicken.

I think San Pedro is missed by some travellers who instead go north into Bolivia from Salta or alternatively down from Peru into Bolivia which is a shame. It’s a great little spot, although pricey but definitely worth the visit. We loved the place.

San Pedro

We are not spending that much time in Chile, it’s said to be the most European of all countries in South America, which is not really what we’re after, so our next stop is going to be Iquique, a surfing Mecca up towards the border of Peru, on the Pacific coast.