Atacama Desert (Chile)

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Bugs, Bastards & Barren Land

There are two kinds of colourful characters one might encounter on a night bus:

The Blind Drunk

  • A bard well-versed in ‘The Burp’ ☑
  • A star performance of the sh*t-faced soliloquy ☑
  • Froths at the mouth like a defective N’espresso ☑
  • Will have no bus ticket ☑
  • Will have no belongings ☑
  • All will have been chugged down with a loving swig of rum ☑
  • Will blag a free ride by serenely smiling (as their features landslide down their face)☑
  • Will mummify themselves in blankets from head to toe ☑
  • To grace you with some final respite…with 99% of your journey completed ☑

The Playground Bullies

  • A broken record of venomous ‘GRINGAS, GRINGAS!’ ☑
  • Your complimentary playlist – for all 24 hours of your journey ☑
  • Shall screech how they’ll make mincemeat of you ☑
  • Will gesticulate with talons ravenous for an eyeball ☑
  • Will make you shrink deeper into your chair ☑
  • Will make you feel as zen as the gravel being ground to a pulp by the wheels below ☑
  • The female form shall sport kitten heels and diamante encrusted hot pants ☑
  • Will totter away with all their belongings…in a wonky-wheeled supermarket trolley☑
  • Will make you finally realise – you won that battle ☑

After 24 hours of that entertainment, by the time we pulled into the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama at some unholy hour, we could have got on all fours and snogged its dusty floor.

Now we just had to ascertain which of the shady figures lurking around the bus terminal was our hostel ride.

We began sizing them up, scanning for an alert or simply a kind visage.

A mountainous man, with penetrating ebony eyes, gruffly tells us we better hitch a ride off him.

He doesn’t look like he’ll take ‘no’ for an answer.

He cracks his immense fists.

This cracks our cool.

‘N-N-NO, WE HAVE ONE THANKS. N-N-NOT T-T-TONIGHT. YE-E-YES, ON THE WAY. B-B-B-BYE!’

We stammer like a fraudulent Buffy, crapping her pants as she holds up her garlic cloves and crucifix.

He gruffs once more and nods, plunging back into the shadows.

Minutes elapse…

Still no sign of our ride…

Curse our dead phones.

The drivers all dwindle one by one…

It’s pretty much just us, and barren land…

Then an unmistakable mountainous figure spills out of shadows…

We all wince, ready for the blow

‘…ANNA? …EMA? …SIBON?’

#cringe

We like to think he got over our initial rebuff but by the time we had bombed down the dirt tracks, his driving had left our backsides so black and blue perhaps not…

As soon as we touch down at our hostel, the owner came over. He inquired about our journey. ‘Don’t ask…’

The owner seemed a very charismatic and friendly guy…very friendly indeed…pinching your elbow…suggestively winking…insinuating eyebrow raises…lingering gazes…very, very, female friendly indeed…

He clearly fancied himself an absolute Lothario and who were we to crush these delusions of grandeur?

As he prepared our room we got talking to our fellow travellers. All were subdued and hanging out of their arses. It had been the owner’s birthday last night and there had been one hellish hoot of a party.

One of the girls asked us what we thought of the owner, ‘…nice, pretty friendly’. She sweetly smiled ‘whatever you do, don’t sleep with him’. At this point, it was our turn to smile. Funnily enough, it was not on our agenda. She asserted it had not been on hers either but when she found out he had a wife and kids this morning, the deed had already been done…

From this point onward we kept as wide a berth from the owner as Bridget Jone’s pervy uncle at a ‘Vicars and Tarts’ tea party. After hearing his innuendos fall flat one too many times on us tight-lipped pillars of decorum, he finally left us alone.

By the time we heaved our bodies into our beds, we were emotionally spent from dodging predators all day. Little did we know, we were to spend all night doing just the same, squatting away mosquitoes and brushing off blood-curdling bugs cascading onto us from the ceiling.

In the end, we had no choice but to mummify ourselves like our drunken pal earlier, muffling our sobs of ‘A Bug A Boo‘.

What’s In A Tour?

The number of tour offices in San Pedro de Atacama could rival the number of Starbucks in America. Given the town of San Pedro de Atacama’s tiny size, the concentration of tourist honey-traps is all the more biblical.

So here’s a list of some legit and reliable tourist offices, recommended to us and now faithfully passed on to you. We stuck to these to simply narrow it down and play it safe. We’d heard enough about the frauds and charlatans of the desert. Drunken tour drivers, uninsured offices and insidiously inflated prices – not on our watch.

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The number of tour offices might be disconcerting but the number of tours will be no friend to your nerves either. I’d recommend doing some research beforehand and whittling your options down to a select few.

Being the crazy and spontaneous kind of chicks we are, we dived in with zero clue.

By the time all the tour guides had expressed how ‘AMAZING’, ‘BEAUTIFUL’, ‘WOW’, every imaginable tour was, we were left more perplexed than an Artic fox in the Sahara.

In the end, we opted for what seemed to be a firm favourite, the half-day Valle de Luna (Moon Valley) tour.

This is definitely one I’d recommend.

Just don’t get as exhilarated as us and forget to put one infinitesimal jot of sunscreen on. In the world’s driest desert – no biggie…

The final result? Some might say ‘sunkissed’, others might say ‘scorched’, speaking from experience? I can’t remember – I burnt the memory to the ground…

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Valle de Luna is an area bathed in mystique. Startling white dried salt lakes, 22 million year old curious shaped stone and sand formations, are all part of this arid region’s charm. It’s no surprise a Star Wars film has previously been shot on its alien terrain. The Tres Marias are three surreal salt sculptures which align with the three stars forming Orion’s belt – intergalactic vibes all the way.

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Our guide christened us the ‘Tres Marias’

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There’s plenty of hiking to do up the salt mountains which will bring you closer to the level of the surrounding volcanic peaks. The tour finally draws to a beautiful close with the sunset’s palette of purples, pinks and blues splashed across Moon Valley‘s eerie surroundings.

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All the other good stuff…

Thanks to its higher altitude, lack of air pollution and drier landscape, the Atacama Desert‘s stars are so bright and lucid, a stargazing experience here is often unparalleled.

Unless you happen to go on one of the four days of the year when the full moon makes the stars too bright to see.

We fell into this abysmally unlucky category.

Regardless of this, many tours guides will claim the stars shall still shine bright like a diamond. It was the legit travel offices who dealt us the crushing news and told us not to get ripped off. They offered no stargazing tours over this short period.

That night we downloaded a stargazing app anyway, sat out on the back of our hostel and brushed up our astrology over nachos and red wine. If I’m honest, that set-up was magical enough. If the stars had been in their prime then who only knew…

If you fancy seeing the highest geysers in the world, go on the Tatio Geysers tour. The Archeological tours of the town of Tulor will give you an insight into Pre-Colombian culture and customs. Atacama’s altiplanic lagoons and salt flats speak for themselves and attract lots of funky wildlife too (hello flamencos). Alternatively, you might prefer ticking off your bucket list sandboarding down Death Valley (a reassuring proposition).

Beyond all of these, San Pedro de Atacama offers eateries (Blanco looked amazing), hostels, souvenir and jewellery shops.

My most cherished discovery of all though, would have to be this:

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Coming to a Waitrose near you…

The Salt Flats: Shoddy seasoning

You’ll be able to book your Uyuni salt flat tour through your hostel or directly through one of the San Pedro de Atacama tour offices. 

At this point, I’ll flag up we really did not want to do the ‘classic’ 3 day salt flat tour.

A resentment for authority was now ingrained into our psyche. We were free-spirited nomads. We did not want where we ate, slept, took pictures and sh*t being dictated for 3 days.

In all of the itineraries, the Uyuni salt flats are the walloping crescendo on your final day.

We would gladly spend half a day cooing over the lagoons, geysers and salt formations. If we had to endure THREE days of geological formations, I’d lose my cool like Ozzy Osbourne in an effing and blinding rage.

A rock is a rock, period – that’s the real rock’n’roll attitude.

Unless of course David Attenborough is doing the voice overs, which is a whole other kettle of fish…

Sadly opting out of the three day tour is made as difficult as trying to single handily pluck out that fateful last Pringle from the tube’s deepest chasm. (It had become apparent why everyone settled for three.)

We wanted to save time and money by heading straight to Uyuni or doing a two day tour at the most. Alas, as you’re crossing over from the Atacama Desert to Bolivia, there are no if’s or what if’s about it, you have to pay and pass through Eduardo Avaroa National Park and once you’re in – you gotta see the sights

There are a number of places you have to pass through on the way to Uyuni, which mean you end up inadvertently doing the tour anyway. Seeing as our D.I.Y wine tour in Mendoza fell through (quite possibly because we couldn’t find the bus stop…), if we were our own guides for 3 days we’d probably exterminate ourselves in the process – Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator style.

The only other option was flagging down a private chauffeur from Eduardo Avaroa National Park to drive us for 48 hours all the way to Uyuni, all for a cardiac arrest price, we were sure…

Defeated, we ended up booking the ‘classic’ tour through our hostel. It dawned on us after working out our travel timings, we had fallen behind. In a mad furore at 11PM we booked in for the tour departing early that AM. The hostel receptionist really sold it.

‘You can see the salt flats and errr….the salt flats….yeah man…3 days….really cool…the salt tour…maaaaaan…’

We had an inkling, even if he hadn’t been as high as a kite, he’d still have had zero cares about what was going on. At this point neither did we, we just wanted to get to Uyuni (sassy girl emoji).

Some useful news we were told was ALL transportation, water, food and toilet paper were included. This somewhat mellowed the financial travesty.

Little did we know, these infamous words and web of lies would mark our Moll Flander’s descent into the thick underbelly of crime…

In two day’s time, without a shiny boliviano to our name, we would break into our accommodation’s pay-as-you-go shower and nakedly duel one another in a contest to feel a puny drop of water on our mane. Emerging bone dry, overflowing with guilt and stinky as ever, we all concurred #thuglife was not for us.

Love the Llamas X

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