The plane lands in Calama, a gritty dormitory town built for employees of the giant copper mine at Chuquicamata. Howling wind blasts dust and loose gravel from The Atacama desert with such ferocity that I feel I’m being sandblasted – Must be good for the wrinkles!

The main tourist draw in Northern Chile is San Pedro de Atacama, an hour away. The bus overflows with young backpackers pumped for adventure. Drab moonscape scenery disappears into a pitch-black night. The temperature has dropped to near zero from around C30 . I am shaken out of a frigid, semi-comatose mode. We have arrived!

At an altitude of 2440 meters, San Pedro is a surprisingly delightful oasis with a permanent population of 3212. Under the clever tutelage of Mayor Sandra Berna Martínez entering her 16th year in office, the place has just the right balance of offerings and amenities to attract visitors in droves, and enough character to hold onto them.

Adobe buildings with blue or natural coloured doors line unpaved, immaculately clean, well-lit streets. The perfect little church with a cactus wood ceiling is blindingly white against the dark blue sky. Travellers happily peck away at their laptops in the treed central square, near the sign announcing a Wi-Fi zone.

Ah! But people don’t just come for the atmospheric restaurants that serve up delicious fare (If tomato basil and cream soup, tenderloin steak and Crème Brulee appeals?) , or the live music spots which must close by 1am. They certainly aren’t here for the pubs, which are banned. Drunken yahoos are not tolerated here!

They come for the bewildering variety of tours and activities on-offer from the insane number (did I hear 50?) of agencies in town. Sand boarding? Stargazing? Soaking in a desert pool heated by steaming geysers? And that’s just for starters.

Choosing an agency is a crapshoot. I peer through enough windows along the main street to be viewed as a loiterer! Finally I walk into “Terra Extreme” and find Beatrice, a helpful young law student from Coquimbo, behind the desk.

We agree that I should start with something benign and save the “extreme” bit for later? A trip to the Altiplano Lakes and Los Flamingos National Park should fit the bill.

Speeding across The Atacama Salt Flat, Chile’s largest at 6000 sq. kilometers, is like racing down a narrow ribbon through a field of rock-hard lumpy mashed potatoes. One slight deviation and you’re toast!

At the lodge, Pedro lays out breakfast for our disparate group of Germans, French, Brazilians and Chileans. We watch flocks of flamingoes gracefully flying in to pick up crustaceans from Chaxa lagoon, which is about as saline as The Dead Sea. How life can exist in the soupy water is anybody’s guess.

After breakfast our van struggles uphill to around 4000 meters. The teal green little Altiplano lakes, Minique and Miscanti, with a backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes, make breathtaking (in more ways than one!) views. A picture of either could turn a modest box of chocolates into a best-seller!

OK. I’m ready to step up the action a bit. Back in town, I revisit Beatrice.

It seems I’m just in time to catch the tour to Valley de La Luna leaving at 4.30pm. This time, the road runs between cavernous rock formations to mysterious places with names like: “The auditorium” “The 3 Marias” “Death Valley.”

I spot an ant-sized group heading to the top of a distant sand dune and decide they must be mad. Young idiots with nothing better to do! The bus stops. “You have half an hour,” says our guide in a clipped tone.

She can’t be serious? She is. Soon I am clambering up a steep path, wheezing with the altitude and effort. The man behind me is French. He has been studying English with a Harvard English Professor on Skype who he “met” on Craig’s list. He has chosen me to hone his skills. How come I always get them? “Wow!” I gasp irritably, hoping he might find another victim.

The view of the “Valle de La Luna” from the top of a giant sand dune is stunning and grudgingly I admit it was well worth the effort!

I’m on a roll now! An evening call from Beatrice warns me off booze and red meat at dinner- something about the elevation for tomorrow’s escapade being at 4300 meters.

3.00am seems very early and it’s bitterly cold. Apparently the 64 El Tatio Geysers, unlike myself, put on their best performance at dawn. It is strange and ethereal to see columns of steam rising from the ground surrounded by gurgling belching fumaroles, (little holes spouting boiling water hot enough to boil an egg or make tea!). By sunrise the arctic temperature retreats enough to strip down for a swim in the hot pool.

To get off the tourist trail, I hire a Chilean born and bred driver with the wondrous name (for a chauffeur anyway!) of Williams. His father chose it from a BBC drama picked-up on short-wave radio! Williams sports “barbed wire” tattoos on both arms muttering something about a possessive ex-wife by way of explanation?! I want the freedom to stop and photograph herds of vicunas and birdlife but I really want to visit some remote villages.

The road into pretty Rio Grande is being resurfaced. Part of the government’s losing battle to keep villages alive by pumping in cash. New street lights. Smart wooden signs. A new school with only 9 pupils boasts 12 shiny state of the art computers. Sadly, jobs in the copper mines are sucking the rural population dry.

A few llama herdsmen are still around to shear their animals. A six day old baby llama is being bottle-fed. A donkey foal is braying. Older women till the ancient stone-walled terraces or spin wool into balls to sell at the market in Calama.

We follow a lady into Caspana as she hurries her 2 laden mules off the road and onto a trail. A sign at the entrance to this picturesque and historic village states the population to be 429 souls but I’m told it’s hard to muster up a dozen – Unless the government is doing a head-count then everyone rushes back to keep the grants rolling in!

It is my last evening. I join a group of star gazers looking for new galaxies through a series of cutting edge telescopes.

I never did try mountain biking in the scalding noon-day sun. Nor did I attempt sand boarding. Hey, you’ve got to leave something for next time eh!


Internal flights are cheap. The nearest airport is Calama – Regular buses leave for the one hour trip to San Pedro. The internal bus system in Chile is excellent but distances can be huge! Taking the bus to/from Bolivia is popular when the mountain roads are passable.

I visited in November. The days were very hot (C30’s) and dry. Nights were icy cold. The town is at 2500 meters. Sights can be up to 4500 meters.

There is every level of accommodation available from $20 to $200. The tours are not cheap averaging around $60 depending on length. Ask if that includes “entry fees.

Lots of sunblock. A wide brimmed hat. Before sunrise at the Geysers the temperature was at freezing level – Ouch!

Many of San Pedro’s residents wear their indigenous roots with pride. So they should. Most tours take place on aboriginal land run by aboriginal people. A large portion of the entry fees go to the appropriate band.


Copyright © 2012 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.