Rocks, sand, and stars! That basically sums up what we saw in San Pedro de Atacama. It is a desert town in northern Chile that seems to be catered toward tourism (and it naturally attracts scientists). It’s considered the driest place in the world with only 15mm of rain on average each year. It’s a good base to explore the amazing desert landscape and skies.
The only drawback is that it’s relatively expensive. A small load of laundry cost us $12 USD! That’s almost NYC prices. Food is pricey too but luckily Marc and I arrived on one of the two days the (farmer’s?) market is in town and picked up groceries on our first day. Also, we have learned South Americans love to serve massive portions of food so one restaurant meal served as two meals for us. (Even their empanadas here were four times the size of any empanadas I’ve ever had!)
Random observation I must note. There are stray dogs (and some cats) all over town, much like every other city and town we have been in so far. However, the ones here are unbelievablably huge! All of them! I think locals and tourists like feeding them.
“Astro-tourism” is a popular thing here because the sky is clear almost 360 days of the year on average (or something like that). So when we arrived, we immediately booked a tour for the following day (since nothing was available the day of). Guess what? Our tour was cancelled because it fell on one of the 5 “cloudy” days of the years! Lucky us! Apparently they joke that you’re lucky when you stumble on a cloudy day in the Atacama desert. And, actually, I did feel lucky seeing the clouds during the sunset. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets ever:
Because there are so few cloudy days in the Atacama desert, astronomers from all of the world flock here to study our universe. We did a tour with Space Obs and used 10 telescopes to see galaxies, stars, and planets! We learned about the history of astronomy, a bunch of names and stories of stars that I hope I’ll remember, and some technical stuff. Our guide was an astronomist from Canada and his humor was the same as all my high school science teachers. It was entertaining.
Valle de La Luna
Since Marc and I already saw a bunch of lagoons, geysers, volcanoes, andother desert things from our three day Uyuni tour, we decided not to participate in the overpriced tours on Chile’s side. The only tour we chose to do was Valle de La Luna and I am glad we did it. We had the best tour guide ever! He was really funny and super passionate about the geology of the region. He explained to us how crystals in the rocks were formed, showed us where the mines were, told us to listen for the cracks in the rocks as it cooled down in the evening (kind of scary!), showed us the impact on the terrain from 3 days of rain, how the dunes were formed (just sand piled on top of rocks), and a bunch of other stuff. I have a new appreciation for rocks. I highly recommend taking a tour through the valley instead of biking it on your own (which we were advised not to.)
Valle de Catarpe
Instead, we decided to spend a day biking in the brutal afternoon, desert heat through the Valle de Catarpe. It was a half day ride (considered medium level of difficulty) through a valley located 16 km or 9.9 miles from San Pedro de Atacama. On this route we visited the Pukara de Quitor ruins (3,000 CLP per person) and the amazing Quedabra del Diablo (Devil’s Gorge).
Pukara de Quitor is the ruins of a pre-Inca fortress that the Atacameño people used to defend themselves from the Aymarans (that we learned about all over Peru and Bolivia) and later the Spanish (of course). I was too tired to climb up the ruins and to the viewpoint so we just looked at it from below and read about its history.
The Devils Gorge was the definitely the highlight of our ride. It was really cool biking through these amazing rock formations with little to no one else around. It felt like we had the entire valley to ourselves.