Last week, I was fortunate enough to take a long weekend trip up north to San Pedro de Atacama, a tourist town located in the driest desert in the world!

Don’t let the label of tourist town fool you, however. This town is a hub for adventure tours for the novice and expert alike. Our days were jam-packed and exciting, making this trip one of the best I’ve ever taken! After arriving in San Pedro, I hopped in a transfer van to the airport that took me directly to my hostel, conveniently named Backpacker’s Hostel.

There are over 30 hostels in San Pedro, each with a different atmosphere and set of amenities. However, Backpacker’s Hostel had great vibes, hammocks and sponsored tours with hostel discounts. I would highly recommend it to anyone traveling. After settling in and tour planning, we got to bed early in order to charge up for the exciting days ahead!

Day 1: On our first day in San Pedro, my friends and I decided to do a tour of a salt flat (Salar de Atacama), flamingo preserve and a series of high-plain lagoons (lagunas altiplánicas). We got on the bus before sunrise, making our way out to the salt flat. On the ride, the desert slowly came into full view as the rising sun revealed the dramatic landscape of Salar de Atacama. The salt flat is located at 2,300 m above sea level, and upon first glance, looks like a cross between an extraterrestrial planet and a dreamscape. Dispersed throughout Salar de Atacama are small pools full of brine shrimp and flamingoes. The bright pink flamingoes were a majestic, stark contrast to the white desert landscape.

After spending the morning walking around, snapping photos and eating a typical Chilean breakfast, we headed back on the bus to see the high-plain lagoons. The lagunas altiplánicas, located at 4,300m above sea level, shone such a deep crystalline cerulean that reflected the crisp blue sky and looming, quiet mountain ranges that towered above our group. This view was one of my favorites, and even though the wind was whipping, it was amazing to see these features way up high in the mountains.

flamingos in the lagunas altiplánicas
Flamingos in the lagunas altiplánicas

Day 2: Today was jam-packed, but definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Our morning tour took us to the Valle de Arcoiris- the “Rainbow Valley”- where the red rocks and desert dunes are interrupted by a myriad of hues from the minerals deposited. Each bend of the valley greeted us with a different display of colors.

After walking around the valley, we went to see some ancient petroglyphs. No one is really sure why that location was chosen to etch out designs in the rock, but theories state that this location was a midway point for ancient trade routes. It was cool imagining that people passed through this random place in the desert hundreds of years ago on their own journey.

Ancient petroglyphs
Ancient petroglyphs

After touring the petroglyphs, we had a few hours in the hostel before starting out on our sunset tour of Valle de la Luna- “Moon Valley”- which turned out to be my absolute favorite part of the trip. Valle de la Luna really looks like another planet. Scientists actually tested moon rovers in this valley because the conditions are so similar. This valley is home to salt caves that you can explore, a HUGE sand dune, and other interesting rock formations. The valley is also destination spot for mountain bikers. After enjoying the views, we were lucky enough to see a perfect sunset over the volcanoes that dotted the skyline.

Moon Valley

Day 3: On our third day in San Pedro after (hypothetically) adjusting to the altitude, we decided to take on an ambitious hike of one of the area’s volcanoes, Volcán Laskar. This volcano is located at 5,500 m (18,300+ ft), and we had to leave before 5 AM in order to arrive and make sure we had enough time to hike. The stars were amazing on the ride over, and the sunrise was equally beautiful. Around 8 AM, we began the trek to the volcanic crater. The hike was challenging, especially due to the trail that consisted mostly of loose gravel. Blustery winds, up to 40 mph, and cold temperatures added to the challenge, but it all became worth it upon reaching the massive crater three hours later, where ducts of gas could be seen shooting out from all around. The view and sense of accomplishment were huge rewards for the hike. After coming down and making the drive back to San Pedro, we spent the rest of the day lounging around in hammocks and dozing off under the sun (along with trying to fight off the altitude sickness).

However, the day didn’t end there! After nightfall, we went on a stargazing tour. It was such a treat to see constellations such as the Southern Cross that aren’t visible in the northern hemisphere. Other highlights of the tour included viewing Saturn through the massive telescope along with Magellanic Clouds representing other faraway galaxies. The skies in the Atacama Desert are some of the clearest in the world due to the dry air and high altitude of the region, leading to a spectacular viewing experience, highlighted by our charismatic guide and his high-power telescopes. After this night of wonder, we went back to the hostel and collapsed content.

Day 4: After all the excitement of the preceding days, we took our last full day in the desert to rest and relax. This day consisted of book-reading, hammock-hanging, ice cream-eating and shopping around the town’s artisan market. The town of San Pedro has loads of restaurants with many vegetarian options including ice creams featuring local flavors such as coca and rica rica (a plant that grows in the desert). This low-energy day was a perfect complement to end an adventurous trip.

Overall, I would recommend a trip to San Pedro de Atacama to anyone. The wide range of activities ensures that there is something to do for everyone, and the experience of being out in the desert (especially at night) is humbling and awe-inspiring. While there is so much more to do than I managed in my short trip, I feel so lucky that I got to see what I did. Counting down the days to my next adventure!

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