Atacama de San Pedro: desert adventures take two

My trip across the Bolivian salt flats and lagoons led me to the border of northern Chile, just a short distance from Atacama de San Pedro – the driest desert in the world. Having been in the desert in Peru a few weeks before and really enjoyed my time there, I was looking forward to the warmer climate and obscure landscapes. I didn’t get off to the best of the starts after finding I had booked the wrong dates for my hostel and so was made to pay for the night before my stay as well as three more nights (in the most expensive town of my trip so far). But the hostel was at least a nice place with an eclectic style and friendly staff. More bad news came when I was told that the full moon was making it too bright to do the popular stargazing tour throughout the entirety of my stay. Bummer.

Except for Chile turning out to be a very expensive country, this was the end of the bad news. My hostel had heaps of information on day trips and expeditions you could do from the town and fortunately some of them were half day trips so I could pack quite a lot into my three and a half days. The first thing to note is the food is much better in Chile than Bolivia (and more expensive) and I ate really well the whole time I was in the desert – lasagna, pizza and a BBQ. It’s funny how in remote places like the desert you can easily find some delicious food but in big cities like La Paz it’s really difficult.

Valley de la Luna

In the afternoon of my first day in the Atacama desert, I signed up to do the Valley de la Luna tour (it was highly recommended by the hostel and also the cheapest). If you’ve been following along closely you’ll know I have already visited a place with the same name in La Paz. I was assured that it was very different and that’s certainly what it was. The Valley de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the Atacama is a magnificent range of rock formations and sand dunes surrounded by so many different mountain ranges. With the guide, we hiked up the ridge of one of the rock formations and walked along the top surveying the amazing panoramic views. It felt like a scene out of The Martian, if you haven’t seen the movie it’s about a man who gets trapped on Mars, with the deep orange-red sands and the desolate landscape all the time framed by endless mountains. I think they should rename it the Mars Valley.




We also visited the Three Maria’s, a famous rock formation that looks like three Mary’s praying to God. It’s surrounded by a strange area of the national park which looks like it’s been dusted with snow, but it’s actually salt formations. After that we visited a canyon where you can hear the salt stalactites being formed, like a ticking or crunching sound, by the thermic energy from the volcanoes nearby.


The day finished with a stop at the Piedra Del Coyote lookout point to watch the sunset. I’ve watched more sunsets in this trip than I have in my whole life and some have been nothing too special but this wasn’t one of them. The pinks and peaches thrown across the horizon in the shadows on the mountains and volcanoes surrounding the canyon were beautiful and the perfect way to finish my first day in Chile.

Sandboarding take two

The next day I was up early, ready to tackle my nemesis from Huacachina, the illusive sandboarding. Yes, I signed up to have another go at the activity I had least enjoyed in Peru, not because it wasn’t fun but because we weren’t given a proper chance to try it out. I was determined not only to have another go, but to master it. In San Pedro you don’t have a buggy ride included in the package, just an instructor, a helmet, proper boots and an actual snowboard/sandboard. This was exactly what I wanted. To safely learn how to actually sandboard.

You are driven to a place called ‘Death Valley’ (very reassuring) and helped to choose a board and learn how to mount it. You’re then made to climb the sand dune with your board in hand – this was the only bit I didn’t like. Once you finally reach the top, the instructor explained some basic techniques and then one at a time you take your first ride (or slide in most cases) down the sand dune.

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Although a little tentative at first, I soon got the hang of it and people were even beginning to ask me if I had been snowboarding before! I got more and more adventurous, going from steeper and steeper parts of the sand dune. I was disappointed to be coming to the end of the session all too soon (time flies and all that) and tried to really enjoy my last go down the dune. Relaxing just a little too much near the bottom I had a massive wipe out that later caused me a lot of neck pain – thank God for the helmet! I think it’s fair to say that sandboarding take two was much more successful, despite the big crash at the end.

Hot springs

In the afternoon I had booked to go to the hot springs which was definitely necessary after repeatedly walking up the sand dune and crashing at sandboarding. The hot springs were in a really nice location, in the bottom of a volcanic valley, and they had several different pools you could try out. Unfortunately at this time of year they weren’t very hot and the cold wind outside the pool meant I ended up staying in the same one for the whole time (nearly two hours – I was very wrinkly at the end). It was kind of like being in a wam natural swimming pool, very relaxing but not like the hot tub I was expecting and hoping for. Still I enjoying floating about there and I was glad of the excuse to do nothing else.

Piedras Rojas

The next day I was up early again for a full day trip to see the Piedras Rojas (Red Stones) which also included seeing some other landscapes such as more lagoons, salt flats and mountains. You’d think I’d had enough of seeing them but the hostel staff had also really recommended this tour so, after seeing some pictures, I booked it too. It was quite a long day trip starting with smelly, sulphurous salt flats before breakfast which looked completely different to Bolivia’s. They were dark in colour and if I remember correctly formed by the volcanic matter instead of an evaporated sea like Bolivia’s.

Next we drove on to a lagoon that had snow around its edges. It was extremely windy which meant that the water’s surface that was normal like a mirror was rippling instead of reflecting. It was a very light blue in colour but still pretty to see even when it wasn’t at its best.


On to the main attraction, next we went to the red stones lagoon. This was without a doubt the best lagoon I have ever seen. The water was a bright blue with touches of turquoise in the light. It was actually a salt water lagoon so that’s why it was so blue and the crusty salt shore formed amazing crystals. The red stones themselves were great but not as fantastic as the pictures I had seen. Apparently this is not the best time of the year to see them. I mean, they were red, but also a bit salty and dusty. The mountains that were the backdrop to the beautiful lagoon and red stones were amazing too. They looked like they were taken straight from a chalk drawing, with smooth lines that faded into nothingness. If you imagine the most ragged rocks imaginable, then these were the complete opposite. It was worth the whole day trip, just to see the mountains almost.




After this is was finally lunch time in a local village and we were shown how the local community uses cactus wood for building – I didn’t even know there was wood inside a cactus!

There is so much more to see in San Pedro de Atacama but as it was so expensive, I couldn’t afford (time or money wise) to stay there any longer. Next stop, big city time in Santiago and Valparaiso!

Desert days in Huacachina & Nasca: the good and the bad

I’d never been to a desert before and to be honest I didn’t realise there was so much desert in Peru. But there is, in fact Nasca’s highest sand dune is taller than England’s tallest mountain! I’m going to spell Nasca as the locals do in Spanish instead of with a ‘z’ as English speaking countries do – just in case you were wondering. Before I go into detail about these two stops on my trip, I want to let you know that I was really disappointed by Huacachina – a place I had really high hopes for – and I was really impressed by Nasca – previously only known to me vaguely because of the world famous Nasca lines. This post will be one of contrasts, the good and the bad (but not the ugly). I don’t want to dwell on the negative too much but I would like to share some of the lessons I learned.

Huacachina

After three days in Lima, I caught a six hour bus to Ica, the nearest city to Huacachina. I decided to stay in Ica firstly because the buses stop there and it would be easier to get to a hostel than taking a mototaxi to Huacachina in the dark. And secondly, because I thought it would be easier for me to look at the options for sandboarding and buggy ride trips in town.

A few weeks ago someone showed me a video of their friend skiing down the sand dunes and I really wanted to try this. I did ask one tour company in town but I soon gave up and booked the standard trip with my hostel – later realising that it was much better to speak to the tour operators in Huacachina instead of Ica. I also let the language barrier get to me, instead of sticking to what I really wanted to do, I gave in because I didn’t want to struggle in Spanish, even though skiing is the same in Spanish. This was a big lesson for me because as it turned out the trip I booked wasn’t very good and certainly not good value.

So the trip costs 60 soles which is about £15 (this probably should have been a giveaway) for a 2 hour buggy ride and sandboarding combined trip (this is a pretty standard package). The hostel minibus drops you in Huacachina two hours before, a nice idea if I had known about this free time I wouldn’t have rushed to eat my lunch before. Here I had some time to take picture of the amazing sand dunes and the oasis in the middle of the small town. It’s a great view and probably the best part of the trip.

When I went to the tour operator for the start of our trip we had to wait quite a long time for a group who were running late – the first occasion of time lost from our 2 hours. Then the tour operators spent some time rearranging everyone to balance out the buggies but finally we were off. The buggy ride was exciting and our driver was zooming up and down the dunes – at this point I was having a pretty good time. We stopped to take loads of pictures and the sand dunes looked amazing.

We hopped back in and after a quick run up went off a huge dune – this is where the problem started. It was like something out of a comedy sketch. There was a loud bang and the driver turned his head to the left to see if the wheel had gone flat and at the same time the wheel and the axel bounced passed the buggy on the right. Not an easy fix. The driver rung for another buggy to come pick us up and this meant more waiting and more time wasted. At the time it felt like it would be a funny story to tell but not so much after. We could see a group nearby taking turns to sandboard down a huge dune and I was excited to get a go myself.


When the replacement finally came we hopped in, went over a few more dunes before stopping at the top of a beginner slope to collect our boards. Most people go down lying on the board head first unless they know how to stand up. I laid down for my first go and it was really fun. On my second I wanted to try standing up even though I had no idea what to do. I lasted about two seconds before slipping onto my bottom. I slid most of the way down. But I was ready to go again and master the technique. Disappointingly, just like that our time was up and we were rushed back into the buggy to see the sunset from a viewpoint. I didn’t want to see the sunset, I wanted to sandboard. I wasn’t quite aware that it was the end, I thought we might get another go after the sunset but no.

I got some great pictures but I felt like a phoney to say that I had been sandboarding when it only lasted for 10 minutes. I was definitely disappointed by the trip to Hucachina and although I didn’t stick to my initial idea of independently finding a tour, I don’t feel like it was my fault that I had a bad time. What makes it even more annoying is that I spoke to a couple recently who had stayed at the same hostel as me and managed to go skiing with help from the hostel staff!

Later in my trip I’m planning to go to the Atacama desert in Chile so hopefully I’ll get another chance to try and master the standing technique.

Nasca

My trip to Nasca started much better with a 10 soles (£2.50) bus along the coast. I arrived in Nasca at lunch time and although I got massively overcharged by the taxi to my hostel (rookie error forgetting to ask the price before the journey) I was excited to book my flight over the Nasca lines as soon as possible. The host at my hostel in Nasca, Nanasqa Hostel, was great! A super accommodating, 30 something, local guy who was still building and improving sections of the hostel. He booked the flights for me straightaway and even ordered me a takeaway lunch to the hostel – a delicious quarter of chicken and chips.

In the afternoon there was a trip on offer at the hostel and because I didn’t want to just have spent the day travelling, and I was still annoyed about Huachina, I signed up. It included tour of the Cantallo aqueducts, the pyramids of Cahuachi and the Cemetery of Chauchilla. If I’m honest I didn’t know much about what I had signed up for but I was glad to get out of the hostel doing something – and they were mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide.

Our tour guide turned out to be our host’s father who drives you to the sights, says some information in Spanish and waits in the car for you to have a look around. Luckily there were two Venezuelans in the group who could translate for me and even without the translations the sights were really interesting. And without a story behind them I was free to invent my own, imagining the people of the time building and using the aqueduct, trading and doing business in the pyramids and preparing the burials at the tombs.

By the time we finished the five hour tour, a beautiful blue and orange sunset led us back to the hostel across the bumpy desert track – the drive was as good as the tour. The pyramids and tombs were completely in the middle of nowhere so there’s no way I would have been able to get to either on my own. This trip was a great example of expecting nothing and seeing loads of really intriguing ancient sights instead.

The next day I was up early for my flight and despite a slight hiccup where I needed to transfer some money to my bank card to pay for the flight on the sketchy airport WiFi, it went without a hitch. I paid $90 for the flight and airport transfer in total. Due to safety concerns I was happy to be going with the most established company flying even if it wasn’t the cheapest.



The flight lasts just 30 minutes but you get to see 14 signs and some extras that the pilot points out. The plane looked the same as the small plane I’d taken in Venezuela to get to Canaima national park so I wasn’t worried about the plane sickness. This time we had headphones where you can hear one of pilot’s instructions as he points out the lines and figures. Each figure is circled twice so both sides of the plane can take pictures which is great – I didn’t want to miss a single one.








When the flight was over I was sad because it had been so much fun to tip right over in the small plane and see all the amazing markings with my own eyes instead of photographs. Although it’s a super touristy event, I would 100% recommend it. I flew with AeroParacass and they were really good. Until you see it for yourself you can’t truly understand how fascinating the lines truly are and a big thank you to my Uncle Phil who suggested adding it to my list!

Next I’m going to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, before doing the classic tourist 2 day trek in Colca Canyon – it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and the second deepest in the world (so my guide book says). Expect amazing pictures!