While in the Atacama desert, other travelers had been telling us about the Salar de Uyuni tour (salt flat tour). We weren’t 100% sure that we were going to do it, but after hearing great stories, we decided it had to be done.
After a few obstacles, including a shady tour company, a $160 (each) visa fee for entrance into Bolivia, and almost not being able to access money from the ATM, things were looking bleak. We thought that the trip might actually not happen, especially when the van to pick us up from our hostel did not show up on time. We were ready to accept that possibility.
Once we made it past our final obstacle (the Bolivian border), we met Martín, who was to become our driver and guide for the tour we were about to embark on. What we didn’t know at the time was that this trip would become our favorite experience thus far.
Martín and his Land Cruiser drove six of us (us and our new friends Sarah, Kayla, Nicolas and Angela) through some of the most stunning landscape and terrain we had ever seen.
Cruising through Bolivian desert
The first 2 days included desert terrain, giant rock formations, lagunas, flamingos and chinchillas. We also stayed in a refugio and an actual hotel made of salt!
One of the species of flamingos we saw along the way
The culmination of the trip was the third and final day where we got to see the largest salt flat in the world! The Salar de Uyuni is one of the most breathtaking places on earth you can ever see and experience.
Soaking up the beauty with some amateur ballet
After watching the sunrise over the salt flats and taking a million pictures, we had a few more stops to make. One was a random rock island (Isla Incahuasi) in the middle of the salt flat filled with giant cacti! Another, the Cemetario de trenes, used to be a functional railway for mineral transport since the late 1800’s. Now it sits as an old train graveyard since the 1940’s.
View from the top of Cactus Island
Too cool for the train yard
Check out our photo album for the rest of our pics and watch the video below of our amazing trip!
On our last few days in San Pedro de Atacama, we booked a couple more tours of the surrounding area. One of the tours we ended up doing was el Valle de la Luna tour, which means valley of the moon. The reason it’s called that? You guessed it, it looks similar to the surface of the moon! It was just a couple kilometers away from town.
The rough terrain, sand dunes and multiple colors of the rock give the impression that you are actually on the moon. The only reason you know you are not on the moon is due to the hoards of people and tour buses all around you. Nonetheless it had some of the most interesting landscapes we had ever seen.
Old salt mine equipment from back in the day
Close up of sand/salt/calcium deposits forming the Valle de la Luna
Crazy, cool, funky landscapes
Beautiful moon valley landscape!
It’s incredible how the earth almost designs itself over time. What we see now are as a result of earthquakes, volcanoes, shifting plates and even just wind! Check out these formations!
This formation, the Tres Marias, was carved out over time by strong winds
Amphitheater Rock in Valle de la Luna
Posing in front of the largest sand dune in the Valle de la Luna
We stopped at the famous Coyote Rock to watch the sunset and get some great pics. It was both breathtaking and scary sitting on the tip of the rock overlooking the deep gorge below. It was the perfect finish to the day!
Here we are, teetering on the tip Coyote Rock. Yes, that’s a giant fracture line in the rock.
Valley under Coyote Rock
The next day we had an early morning tour booked. We were told to be outside of our hostel and dressed warmly by 4:30 am. The company didn’t put enough emphasis on “dress warmly” (I’ll get back to that). Our van picked us up and there were a few people inside, half asleep. We eventually picked up a few more people and started the ascent to the Geysers del Tatio.
This geyser field is located at a staggering 4320 meters above sea level, amongst the highest in the world. It also has over 80 active geysers, some just tiny little boiling spurts of water coming from the ground and others up to 18 ft tall. These boiling temperatures can reach up to 185 degrees F – water boils at much lower temperatures at these high altitudes! There were rocks strategically placed around the geysers forming a path that we needed to follow. Around some of the larger geysers, a rock wall had been built for protection of the tourists. Sadly, within the last 6 months, a tourist accidentally fell into one of the larger ones (before the rock wall went up) and didn’t survive.
Water spewing from one of the geysers
We made sure we were really careful walking around the geysers, especially since it was just below freezing and we could not feel our extremities! We were ill prepared in our clothing choice but we had to ignore the cold and enjoy the experience. We were only freezing until the sun came up and when it did, we almost instantly felt better.
It was so cold, our lips turned blue
Jen warming up her hands over a boiling geyser
Giant sized steam towers
Posing in front of the “Gringo Eater” geyser – gringos are known to jump in!
Check out the rest of our pics and vids and see the variety of wildlife at these altitudes. There were also some hot springs, which by the way we did not go in… We just couldn’t brave the cold!!
People braving the -5 degree celsius weather
Flamingos AND llamas?!
Vicuñas that we saw along the way
Llama skewers… Delicious!! Does this count as wildlife?
In order to satisfy our massive need for excitement and adventure, we took an overnight bus from Caldera to the driest desert on earth, the Atacama desert, in northern Chile. San Pedro de Atacama was going to be the fun filled destination we so desired.
As soon as we got off of the bus we could feel it right away. Taking a few steps toward the station we were out of breath already! San Pedro de Atacama sits at 2,400 m above sea level (7,900 ft) so trouble breathing and altitude sickness is not uncommon. We did end up feeling a little lethargic and felt drained by the sun throughout our stay there. But seeing the things we saw in San Pedro, made it totally worth it!
San Pedro looks like a little adobe town of close to 5,000 residents. With no paved roads within the town, lots of small shops, restaurants, an eclectic mix of people, plenty of tour businesses and lots of stray dogs, you get the feeling that you’re not in Kansas anymore…
A typical street in San Pedro
Our hostel Juriques was an interesting one to say the least. It was our second time on bunk beds! There was a tiny kitchen to work with, which was hard to do when you have 30 other people wanting to use it as well. The bathrooms you ask? Let’s just say they were less than tolerable. The trials and tribulations of staying at a cheap hostel…
One of the greatest places on earth to stargaze is San Pedro, so that was at the top of our list of things to do. We booked a tour (through spaceobs.com, they have the most official setup) and around 10:00 pm that night, a bus took a group of us to a place outside of the town where the lights can’t obscure the clear black skies. We were met by a Canadian astronomer who gave us the basics of constellations (using the coolest laser pointer ever!), star distances and some general history of space and time. We all then moved over to the 10 outdoor telescopes set up for viewing and saw colorful stars, dead stars, star clusters and Jupiter along with three of its moons! The group had to take turns on each of the telescopes as there were about 20 of us on the tour. We finished off with some coca tea and hot chocolate as we listened to our guide answer our questions. Needless to say, we don’t have pics from this trip since it was pitch black! We did manage to get a crappy picture of Jupiter through the telescope lens though. Check it out, you can see three of its moons!
Jupiter with three of its moons
Our next experience in San Pedro was sandboarding! We booked a morning session (with sandboardsanpedro.com) that way it wasn’t going to be too hot. Our group consisted of 4 guys and 3 girls, a good mix. Everyone was at the tour office early and we were all talking about how much “experience” we each had, talking our nerves away the best we could! Our guide Sebastián showed up and we were off to Valle de La Muerte (Death Valley) to the huge sand dune we were to conquer that day. The first run was a little rough but the more we kept doing it, the smoother it became. The toughest part was walking up the sand dune, in the heat and in our snowboard boots, phew!! At first we were a little skeptical, but in the end we had a lot of fun!
Its a long way to the top of the dune!
We look like pros, right?
Selfie with our GoPro
Some of our crew at the end of the day
Us with our guide, Sebastian and our friend Kayla
Meanwhile, back in town, aside from our usual ham, cheese and avocado sandwiches, we were excited to get a taste of good Chilean desert food. There were so many restaurants to choose from! Check out some of the delicious plates below!
Sopaipillas (simply fried bread with a spicy dipping sauce)
Pollo al Pil Pil (chicken in a signature spicy pil pil sauce) with a side of chilena (tomato and onion salad) and rice
Basic meat and fish dishes served with rice and potatoes
Yes, we ate shrimp in the middle of the desert
When booking all our tours outside of town, a local told us that we should also visit some cool ruins located about 3 km away from town. It was not a short walk in the desert heat but we finally made it to Pukará de Quitor. During the twelfth century, it served as fortress used by the first inhabitants of this area, the Atacameño people, to defend themselves from invaders. It’s situated on top of a hill that overlooks the San Pedro River. The stones used to build it were taken from the riverbank below. You can actually still see the individual homes with their attached silos!
Walking to Pukará De Quitor, cool desert scapes and a chocolate milk river!
The path leading up through the ruins
Former homes of the Atacameño people
Good view of the site
Incredible views from the top!
Stay tuned for part 2 of our San Pedro adventure! There’s still more to come!
We took another bus even further north in Chile to visit a small town called Bahía Inglesa. We stayed in the nearby town of Caldera (it was cheaper) for a couple days so we could get a glimpse of the turquoise waters that Bahía Inglesa is known for. Just a short 7 min drive south of Caldera, it was the first beach we had hung out on since Rio!
The first thing we saw stepping out of the car was the beautiful bright blue waters with lots of different rock formations creating little coves for people to swim in. The sand was very white and there was not a shortage of seashells at all!
Bahía Inglesa, Chile
Chile’s version of the Caribbean?
Pelican poop covered rock
Beautiful day on the beach
Thousands of awesome seashells!
We pitched our umbrella, read books, practiced our Spanish, and had fun collecting seashells to make “abstract art”. Give us a break, we were bored! The shells were incredible though.
Back near our hostel in Caldera, there was not too much going on. It’s a quiet little port town, with a lot of stray dogs. We walked around and were able to snag a few pictures of some pretty old machinery. Maybe something to load or unload boat cargo? In any case, it was very interesting to imagine what it looked like back in its hay day.
Our gang of dogs came with us wherever we went
Huge structures falling apart
Our hostel, Casa Mariela
Later on that night, we went out to dinner and made a few friends, listened to some live music and danced a little, too!
New friends, they are from Viña del Mar
It was a nice few days, but we had enough of the beach and were definitely ready for some real adventure! On to the most visited destination of northern Chile, San Pedro de Atacama!
After filling our minds and eyeballs with lots of art and port culture, it was time to escape to a more rural area. Abundant with vineyards and located in the Valle de Elqui, Vicuña seemed like the ideal environment we were looking for.
So, we finally did it – after 50+ days of traveling, we actually missed our bus to Vicuña! Literally sprinting towards the bus terminal (following a couple of different metro lines to make our 1:00 pm bus), much to our dismay the bus had already left. It was only 1:06pm….!
Thank goodness there was another bus going to the next closest city, La Serena, and we were able to catch a ride with them. Interesting enough, our bus actually caught up with our original bus and we were able to hop on and continue directly to Vicuña, phew!!
Our Airbnb host, Carlos, surprised us by picking us up from the bus terminal and taking us to his home a few minutes away. Him and his wife were very accommodating! They owned a small shop in town where they sold children’s clothing but we didn’t know it until we stumbled upon it while walking downtown. They welcomed us out of the hot sun, into their shop and gave us some juice. While hanging out, we showed them our blog and they were excited to read about our adventures.
Jen showing our blog to our hosts!
Vicuña is the place of birth to the other Chilean poet and educator, Gabriela Mistral, who, 26 years before Pablo Neruda (one of her students!), also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first Spanish-American woman to ever receive this honor.
During our stay, one of the things we did was take a bike tour. This time there was no guide – just us, our bikes, and a map! The map led us through a couple pisqueras (or pisquerias), a Hare Krishna retreat, some small villages, a cervecería, solar kitchens, several vineyards and most of all some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve ever laid our eyes on. The whole trip was a total of about 18k, in the blazing hot sun!
Vicuña bike tour
Hare Krishna retreat called EcoTruly
More beautiful Vicuña scenery
We stopped to say hello to this little guy
The following day, we visited the neighboring town of Pisco Elqui, which is known as the heart of Chilean pisco production. You can’t come here without trying a few pisco sours, yum!! We also walked around the small town and admired some of the street art and quirky restaurants.
Pisco sours, trying different flavors
Salad in Pisco Elqui, so good!
Pisco Elqui restaurant
Pisco Elqui street art
Church in Pisco Elqui
Vicuña was a great scenic, relaxing place to hang out for a few days and pickle ourselves in pisco. Next up, the coastal town of Caldera!