Where to begin?
I knew when I went to Chile last year that I would be returning sometime soon. Why? Because I felt that Chile and I were not finished. I still feel that now, after having seen a new, spectacular part of Chile. There’s still Easter Island and Pucon and Chiloé Island, and I want to return to Torres del Paine and, and, and... the list goes on.
For my most recent trip, I spent most of my time in the north in the Atacama Desert, and man was it a (longer than it should have been) journey getting there. It started with a delayed flight from New York to Florida, which isn’t that unusual for me, but then I had a flight from Miami direct to Santiago that was delayed not one or two but 11 hours without a reasonable explanation (thanks, American Airlines!). It included vouchers, multiple calls, a late night shuttle and all that fun stuff. It also meant my connecting flight from Santiago to Calama was off the table, so I booked the last flight of the day from Santiago to Calama and hoped I would make it, which I did. But then that ended up being delayed an hour and a half. In short, I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile about 12 hours after I was originally supposed to arrive, and I completely lost my first half day, unfortunately.
I had also planned on using that half day to sort out my tours for the rest of my stay since I read that many people wait until they're in San Pedro de Atacama to book their tours. With the exception of my one full-day tour, I had nothing else pre-booked, however since I arrived in Atacama at three in the morning, I ended up spending my first morning there figuring out my plans. Long story short, the beginning was a little rough and my delay cut into the time I had to do things, but the rest of my time in San Pedro de Atacama more than made up for it.
This part of Chile is so different from anywhere I have ever been and anything I have ever known. Though the town of San Pedro de Atacama itself is touristy and features a somewhat odd combination of budget accommodations and high-end accommodations (not too many options in between), it's what surrounds the town that makes it special. It’s the desert, and I’ve been to deserts before, but it’s also so much more than the desert, and I thoroughly enjoyed everything I did while there.
What exactly did I do? Glad you asked :) Though there are some tours that are extremely popular and offered by pretty much every company (e.g., the afternoon Moon Valley tour and early morning El Tatio geyser tour), I bypassed some of those and honed in on the things I really wanted to do in my limited time (which I determined by looking up pictures and reviews on TripAdvisor and Instagram, of course). They included the Lagunas Escondidas tour with Tour Miscanti Atacama, an astronomy tour with Atacama Connection, an all-day tour to Lagunas Altiplanicas and Piedras Rojas with Cosmo Andino and, lastly, a horseback riding tour near Moon Valley (aka Valle de la Luna) with Atacama Mistica. And I loved all of them!
I had read before going that you can get discounts if you book multiple tours with the same company, but I clearly just hopped around and booked whatever was convenient time-wise. I also found that the price was always dropped for me and was definitely less expensive than what I saw online, so a bit of a hassle to do it in person but you do save money.
If I had to name the moments from those tours that truly wowed me, it would be at the end of the Lagunas Escondidas tour when we stopped at a viewpoint so that we could watch the sunset while enjoying Pisco Sours and snacks. That sunset was just unbelievable. I saw several people meditating as the sun went down, and I decided to sit near them for awhile listening to nothing and watching the light shift across the valley as the sun lowered into the earth. It’s something I’ll never forget.
And then there was the astronomy tour, which blew my mind. Living in New York, I never see stars. Ever. And the Atacama Desert is one of the top stargazing places in the world, so when I stepped outside the van and looked up, I understood what it meant to be dumbstruck (or should I say starstruck, heh heh). It was like a giant diamond in the sky had been fractured into a million pieces and landed haphazardly against a black backdrop. We saw the Milky Way, Jupiter, numerous constellations, shooting stars and so much more.
I also loved my other two tours and found them to be exactly what I signed up for. Both showed me how vast and geographically unique the Atacama Desert is and the wonders of nature. It was a long ways away for this city girl, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But, enough talking/writing. Here are some of my favorite pictures from my time in the Atacama Desert: