Getting dusty in San Pedro de Atacama

We spent a while debating whether to go to San Pedro de Atacama – everything we’d read said it was super touristy and crazy expensive and it didn’t sound too appealing. After talking to a few travellers who’d already been there, and researching the tours further, we agreed that San Pedro de Atacama was a place not to be missed.

We caught a bus from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama that took most of the day. We went with Geminis Bus as they were the only ones to offer a bus on a Saturday morning. After our hoffic border crossing by bus when we went to Chile the first time, we were nervous about our impending ordeal. We shouldn’t have been; it took just over an hour to enter Chile via Salta, and the bus journey was jaw-dropping. We passed through the high plains of northern Argentina, saw wild llamas and drove over some salt flats. At every point, the landscape was impressive and I stared out of the window with my mouth agape for most of the route.

View this post on Instagram

#lamas #sanpedrodeatacama #chile

A post shared by Laura Papuga (@laurapapuga) on

Since the bus goes quite high up, I got my first taste of altitude sickness which presented itself as a headache that I couldn’t shift. At 2,407m above sea level, San Pedro de Atacama is high enough that people might experience altitude sickness but low enough that the symptoms should be mild and tolerable. My headache persisted for a day but I think I acclimatised pretty rapidly by drinking as much Mate de Coca as I could, and sucking on coca sweets. I learnt that by chewing or eating/drinking the leaves of the coca plant, you adjust faster to the altitude. I have no idea how it works – all I’ve been able to work out is that it’s a mild stimulant that helps you feel better. Rest assured (mum, if you’re reading this), that it isn’t the same as cocaine – although if you ingest the leaves, apparently you can get a positive reading on a cocaine test!

The town of San Pedro de Atacama is in the Atacama desert and it’s very dusty. Whether you’re churning up dust when you walk around, or you’re getting blasted as the buses churn up the orange sandy floor, everything you own gets covered in the dust. It was a unique problem but it drove me mad after a few days!

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Magalhães (@magalhaescwb) on

It takes only a minute or two before you feel like San Pedro exists entirely to cater to tourists. The handful of main streets off the tiny square are filled with tourism agencies or casas de cambio, almost everyone you see walking around is caucasian and signs are often in english. It’s understandable why, since most people who go to San Pedro de Atacama are solely interested in day tours and/or the famous Salar de Uyuni trip (which I will blog about about later). It made me wonder whether the town was always for gringos or if this developed over time. I never got the answer so if you do know, please leave a comment!

We spent our short time in San Pedro de Atacama sizing up tourist agencies. We tried to do some research before we arrived but the information online is limited. There are a few classic tours that everyone does from San Pedro: the moon valley tour, the morning visit to the geysers and the day trip to the red rocks and the altiplano lakes. After stopping at six or so travel agencies, we landed on the one that had a fair price without feeling too cheap and had good reviews. By signing up for all three with the same agency, we got a discount of about $30 each which meant the luna valley tour was effectively free!

Chile is more expensive than Argentina, but we found some great places to eat. We loved a sandwich cafe that was cheap and served lots of mate de coca to help with altitude sickness. We also found TWO great pizza places, bought llama socks to help with the cold and I managed to order a plate of steamed vegetables for the first time in six weeks! The highlights were, of course, the trips, which I shall blog about next…