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Chile: San Pedro de Atacama

Chile7 min read

December 24 - 27, 2010

Chile is the country that lies west of the Andes below Peru. The Andes are quite close to the Pacific and this gives the trademark geography of Chile being a thin and long country with climates spanning the whole gamut from extreme deserts in the north to ice sheets in the south.

Being the most stable and prosperous region in Latin America, it's also the most expensive to travel through and that forced me to traverse most of the Andes on the Argentine side. Producing one third of the world's copper needs and with known reserves for 200 more years, not much is going to unsurp their steady development.

I spent a few days in northern Chile, before crossing over into Argentina and would cross back in southern Patagonia. Keeping the theme going of the Lagunas Route in southwestern Bolivia, the small hamlet of San Pedro de Atacama has its share of strange landscapes and wonders of salt.

Checking into customs at San Pedro de Atacama, which is not on the border. There are numerous ways to enter Chile from Bolivia and also a few from northern Argentina and surprisingly for a country of their wealth, instead of having individual border posts, they all request traffic to pass through San Pedro. Along with me was a family of Brazilian bikers and a few other traveling cars checking in from Brazil.

Acting very much like the US and the EU, Chile is very strict about what can be brought into the country, as opposed to most other Latin American countries. As long as you comply and don't bring in things that could spread diseases, everything is fine. The quarantine inspector made me dispose of some uneaten dried prunes.

As I was wandering around town, looking for a place to stay, Tonny (on the KTM) waived me into Takha Takha, which happened to have a great group of travelers staying at the time.

The Chilean Peso with USD 1 = CP 461, but roughly, that 20,000 peso note is about USD 40. All ATMs in Chile charge about USD 5 per withdrawal.

San Pedro de Atacama was a small village dominated by adobe construction, but tourism has taken over in the last few years, so it's hard to tell what's authentic. This cowboy wandering the streets looks like the real deal.

The main church in town.

Many streets are pedestrian-only, which makes it a pleasant place to stroll.

Today was December 24th, Christmas Eve, and a bunch of travelers I met camping at Takha Takha had decided to put together a simple fiesta.

That's Tonny in the center, whom I had met earlier in Bolivia. He's a dentist and owns a motorcycle tour and rental shop in Bogotá and is on a two month bike trip around South America. Andres on the left is a Chilean biker, currently living in San Pedro and guides motorcycle tours into the surrounding desert. He's on a Honda Africa Twin. Good company for telling tall stories.

Everyone contributed something to the dinner.

It was a fun evening with two couples traveling in motor homes from southern Brazil, a Colombian biker, a Chilean biker, and a German bicyclist.

Nina, here, is traveling around South America on a bicycle and is an elementary school teacher back in Germany. She offered to cook up some spaghetti for dinner and to everyone's surprise, even had Christmas presents for everyone. She bought these Kinder egg-shaped chocolates that have a small toy in them and it was funny how everyone reacted to their playful gifts.

Camile, beaming with a cheerful Brazilian smile about her gift, in contrast to Tonny's reaction, who's manhood was threatened by his purple toy with flamboyant ears.

Dani, Camile's husband (they're from Porto Alegre and turned out to be friends of Reginaldo in Curitiba, who seems to be connected to everyone), was lost in the instructions manual on how to assemble something on his toy. It's funny how a playful mood can put you back to your childhood so easily. No help from Tonny.

To keep the festivities going, Andres went and got his saxophone and belted out some jazzy tunes to the rhythms of Carlos. Andres comes from a family who performed professionally in a circus and accordingly, he seemed to have an endless bag of tricks (skills), which kept us entertained. He moved up here for a few months and along with casually guiding motorcycle tours, he heads out to impoverished communities on his Africa Twin and performs an act as a clown. He said he carries juggling pins, this saxophone and a host of other props on his bike.

We had some good discussions on jazz and I was trying to provide some support in finding the right notes for one or two songs. I missed playing the Tenor and Alto saxophone from my schooling days. I had to give it up when I came to the US since I couldn't afford the time to practice along in college with engineering. I wish I could travel with a small sax (maybe a saprano), but I'm already overloaded...

The next morning, Tonny was taking off and I was checking out his AirHawk riding cushion.

Later in the afternoon, Andres offered to take us all on a tour of the desert, just as friends. The town of San Pedro lies on the edge of the Salar de Atacama, the second largest salar in the world at 2,300 m (7,550 ft) and not too far from town is Laguna Cejar, a salt lake that's popular for swimming.

Carlos doing the right thing and diving in head first, as you're supposed to do into a salt lake.

Unlike me. I'm no swimmer and jumped in feet first...

...and got a nose full of burning saline solution. It's way more salty than the ocean and really burns if it gets in your eyes or other tender places.

Nina swimming out to a salt bar in the middle.

I realized that slipping into the lagoon was the better method and was soon enjoying the sensation.

Not being a good swimmer and never being able to float properly, I was thoroughly enjoying the buoyancy that heavy salinity provides.

From there, we drove further into the desert to two big openings. Now these are ojos de la sal (eyes of the salt).

The strange thing is how there's fresh (sweet) water in these openings, in the middle of a salt flat.

Nina is a fish and dived into every pool that we came across.

Going in leg-first.

And with a big splash, she washed off all the salt.

The water was too cold to tempt me in, especially considering its unknown depth.

Having a conversation on the Salar de Atacama, under the gaze of Volcan Licancabur on the border with Bolivia. The other Brazilian couple, Gustavo and Maria from the city of Americana, near São Paulo, offered to drive the rest of us for the day in their Ford Ranger truck that they were traveling in. Gustavo is also a biker and has a Yahama Ténéré, but is introducing his wife to road trips.

The last stop on the tour is the large Laguna Tebenquinche, a salty lagoon with beautiful colors merging with the landscape.

The lagoon was interspersed with deposits of salt and deep blue catchments of water.

The salt crystallizing in different layers evidence of the varying levels of the water in the lagoon.

Hmm, I wonder what it tastes like?...

Yup, it's salty, all right.

While waiting for sunset at the lagoon, we spotted the ALMA project on the mountains bordering Argentina. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array is the world's latest radio telescope, part of the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory. The antennas that will make up the array are assembled at the site pictured, which is at 2,900 m (9,515 ft) and then they're carried to their final location, up the mountain to around 5,000 m (16,400 ft). The low humidity of elevation, combined with the dryness of the Atacama (the driest desert on the planet), make this area ideal for observations of the night sky. If I had more time, I would have liked to visit one of the many grand telescopes further down in Chile.

Back to earthly matters, this bird wondered whether these human intruders had some snacks for it.

The setting sun highlighting the contrast between the blue lagoon and the yellow desert with Licancabur in the background.

The fading rays brought out more contrast with distinct bands of lagoon, salt bars, desert and volcano.

Having lunch with Andres the next day of a regionally-traditional soup of choclo (puffed up corn kernels) with meat and potatoes.

After lunch, Andres helped me change out my front tire, back to the more street-oriented Metzeler Tourance that I had swapped out for the Lagunas Route. I'll save the knobby Kenda K257D for the next time I come across extended sand riding.

On my last night there, Gustavo prepared a simple dinner for us and we welcomed another Brazilian traveler, riding an older Yamaha Ténéré. This was a great group of people to spend a few relaxing days with and now I was set to head back into Argentina.

After filling up with a few liters of Chilean petrol, priced at CP 688/litre (USD 5.65/gal), I checked out at the same customs office in San Pedro and climbed back up the same way I came down. Volcan Licancabur sure is a nice cone-shaped volcano and perhaps its steepest is an indication of how fast it's growing.

Passing by the turn off to Bolivia and the entrance to the Lagunas Route.

It's paved all the way to Paso de Jama and the off-road border crossing is a bit further south at Paso Sico.

One last look at the epic mountains of southwestern Bolivia and the incredible experience I had within those mountains.

The route to the pass steadily climbed back up with the temperatures dropping accordingly.

There were small salars and geologic features of interest, but it was going to be hard to impress after Bolivia.

This was just a short visit to Chile and that too to its extreme north in a small touristy town and I wish I had the means to travel more extensively through Chile, but maybe that's for another time.

Next: Argentina, Part 4: Ruta 40 in the Northwest

Previous: Bolivia II, Part 7: The Lagunas Route | Thermales and Geysers


Jammin thru the Global South was the 3+ year, 100,000+ km ride Jay did from the US to India via Latin America, Europe and Africa. Explore the photojournals at the Journey Posts tab.

Jammin Global Adventures is a tour company run by Jay Kannaiyan. He organizes small group, premium motorcycle adventures in Peru, Kenya, Mongolia, India and more.

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