The extreme north of Chile is almost as exciting as the extreme south (Patagonia). The Atacama desert is one of the driest and most arid places in the world. San Pedro, a tiny little town in the middle of this desert is Tourist Central for backpackers looking to explore the Atacama. About 10 or 15 years ago backpackers realized San Pedro is a great base camp for the region. San Pedro is now “designed with tourists in mind,” which is a polite way of saying it’s a tourist trap. But a worthy one to visit, I might add. Just expect to pay out the wazoo because it’s in the middle of nowhere.
We took a bus from La Serena to San Pedro (directly, no stop in Calama) overnight. It was around nine or 10 hours. At the bus station, which is just a small building and packed, red dirt, we got off and tried to orient ourselves in town. The bus station is near the edge of town, so we wandered along the main road. Almost all locals that live in San Pedro are somehow connected to the tourism industry, and we passed several people that offered us a hostel for the night. We had planned on checking two hostels and using a Get South discount, but we ended up staying in a hostel under construction on the far edge of town. It was only 6.000 pesos a night per person, which had to be the cheapest place. Other backpackers we met were paying 15.000. They were at a nicer hostel nearer the tour agencies and restaurants in town, but I definitely think what we paid was worth it. Nothing is very nice in San Pedro anyway. No streets are paved and most of the buildings look old and run-down.
Downtown is four or five blocks of tour agencies, two mini markets, and a few restaurants. It is easy to get turned around in this small place–all the buildings are the same and the tour agencies start to look like one another. There is a nice farmacia in town, Cruz Verde, with an ATM in it. Across the street is a bank with two ATMS. However, sometimes the banks close at 2pm. The fees to use your card are also outrageous–around 7 or 8 USD.
The past four days had rained. Average rainfall in San Pedro is 15 millimeters a year, and in one week they got five centimeters. The entire desert was plains of mud, and it was causing transportation problems in Calama and severe mudslides in Copiapo, a small town south of San Pedro. Bus schedules were changed, people lost shoes in the mud, and at least four people died in Copiapo and 22 went missing. San Pedro was without electricity the whole day before we arrived. The day we got there, only internet was out. We spent the day poking around town, trying to avoid mud puddles, and booking tours for the next day.
Going to an observatory to watch stars was out because of the clouds. Visiting Valle de la Luna was out because of the mud. Some of the high lakes were out because of flooding. So there was literally nothing to do our first day there but watch frustrated hikers walk around with lost expressions.
The next morning we went on a 4:30 am tour to see the Tatio geysers. It is cold up there! Like -10 to -5 C (15 to 23 F). We were unprepared because our tour person told us it was 5 to 10 degrees, not the negative. We went through Tourismo Layana and got 15% discount through Get South. We ended up paying 19.000 pesos per person.
The geysers are high in the volcanic mountains, around 14,000 feet (4320 meters above sea level). I get altitude sick fairly easily, so I had been taking some medication (Dexamethasone) for the past couple of days. I don’t think I was taking enough, because I got a medium headache. If a migraine is a 10, this was probably a 5. I could still enjoy the tour, but it was distracting. But everyone is different and will have different reaction to altitudes. El Tatio means “grandfather” in the old indigenous language, because one of the mountains looks like an old man lying down. Mining companies were interested in the area in the 1960s, and now again, but most Chileans are against mining there, due to its geological and tourist value. This is one of the highest geyser fields in the world.
We learned a lot of things about seismic activity and the different rocks and soil, but it was way too cold to remember any of it. Sorry. On our way back down we stopped at a tiny adobe village called Machuca to use the bathroom, buy grilled llama meet, and see how 40 local people live. It is so small it only has a church. The young people have to go to San Pedro or Calama for school during the week.
All in all, if you plan to do the three day Salar de Uyuni trip, skip Tatio geysers. You see almost the exact same thing (but bigger!) on the first day of the trip in Bolivia. If you still want an early morning tour, do one of the altiplano lagunas near San Pedro for around the same price.