This article is online a week late, but better late than never, right? Más vale tarde que nunca!
Anh preferring to stay at rest, I organize myself to go on an excursion by myself. In the main street, I am attracted by the sign “we speak French” of the agency “Flamingo Travel Agency”. I check the reviews on Tripadvisor and here we go!
Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
The employee actually speaks French very well, I explain to him that I have a 1/2 day to do some tours. I am attracted by the “Astronomico” tour but he explains to me that the visibility isn’t good because of the clouds and the brightness of the moon, so they do not offer this excursion at the moment. Honesty is appreciated because it isn’t a problem for other agencies.
He also advises us against the 3 day tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni at the moment because the salar is flooded. Several jeeps had to go around the salar; to go there only the next day from Uyuni.
Click on the picture to zoom in and get rates for other tours
After discussion, I choose the “Valle de la luna” tour for the afternoon and the “Piedras Rojas” tour for the next day. As I take two tours, I ask for a discount, he gives me a nice one without discussion. See you then at 3:50 pm for a departure at 4 pm. “For the Chileans I say 3:40 pm” he specifies to me, we will discover later that it was not only a humorous gesture.
At 4pm, the fifteen tourists are well at the rendezvous with a big half of French … grumbling when discovering that the guide isn’t French-speaking. I can understand their annoyance, the “we speak French” being a good marketing argument. No worries for me, the employee had warned me that this tour would only be in Spanish and English.
We take the bus to the National Reserve of Los Flamencos. We have to pay a 3000$CH entrance fee. A great opportunity for some of my compatriots to justify our terrible reputation around the world. Two of them indeed present their VITAL CARD to pretend to be students… and thus save 500$CH, or 75 cents. There are no small savings, you will tell me!
The valley of the moon is characterized by an exceptional aridity making the existence of life impossible. No fauna, no flora on the horizon, just an immense desert, a lunar landscape sculpted by the erosion of water and wind for millennia. The ochre color reminds me more of Mars but you get the idea.
We make a first stop to explore a cave. Exploration which will have small potholing paces since we will find ourselves on all fours in complete darkness. Nothing exceptional at first glance until we understand that this cave is composed only of crystallized salt left by the sea which was present 120 million years ago. With our life expectancy of about 80 years, we feel very small.
Second stop to greet the “Tres Marias”, natural statues (made of salt, of course) that the miners asked for protection when the mines were still in operation. It takes a bit of imagination to see three virgins praying, especially since a tourist (French apparently) exploded one of them when he climbed up it a few years ago.
We then climb a dune that reminds me of the dune of Pilat in Gironde.
From up there we will have an exceptional panoramic view. It looks like my idea of the Grand Canyon of Arizona. A tourist will confirm to me that it is quite similar.
Last stop to enjoy the sunset. It lacks a bit of charm because all the tourist buses meet here. A small symbolic aperitif is proposed to us and I am a little jealous in front of the feast proposed by another tour operator with champagne, smoked salmon, the whole thing! The price was certainly not the same.
I find a small quiet spot to settle down and admire this sumptuous panorama.
The day ends and we return to San Pedro.
For the practical advice part :
I had the right inspiration when I swapped my cap for Anh’s bob, my ears would probably have fried otherwise. I bought one the same evening, it’s a must have. It’s very very very dry, really! I drank 1.5 liters of water in 4 hours, knowing that the tour started at 4pm, when the sun’s intensity starts to decline. Needless to remind you that sunscreen isn’t an option even if you don’t like it like I do.
Day 2 :
The next morning, early wake up and the bus comes to pick me up directly at the hostel at 7am. As promised, the guide of the day speaks French. Approximate French but which will arouse all my admiration when she explains to me that she has been studying this language for only 3 months, all alone thanks to the Internet. Internet is really one of the most beautiful inventions of humanity.
We make a first stop in the small village of Toconao. The only interest lies in its very small church which has a nice cactus wood staircase. It’s cute but I’m not sure it’s worth a stop.
We stop at the edge of the Chaxa lagoon. This lagoon is interesting to observe pink flamingos. I am a little disappointed because I imagined to see them more numerous and closer. The guide explains to us that there are lithium mines that consume a lot of water which reduces the quantity of water in the lagoon and discourages the pink flamingos. Lithium is considered “the resource of tomorrow” and is indispensable for the batteries of smartphones, laptops, electric cars, … 30% of the world’s reserves are found in the Salar d’Atacama. Good for Chile’s economy, bad for nature… The spectacle of the flamingos and their reflection when they fly close to the water is however magnificent.
I also learn that flamingos are real gluttons and feed on shrimp 17h / 24! I haven’t eaten good shrimps since Vietnam, the urge to dive into the lagoon head first is pressing. I resist because it’s breakfast time.
The agency employee had told me about good breadsticks and he didn’t lie! It is the best bread I have eaten since I left France 8 months ago. A tourist explains to me that the bread comes from the “Franchuteria”: a bakery run by a Frenchman. A bakery in the middle of the desert, the French are definitely everywhere! This information does not fall in the ears of a deaf person and I go the next morning to buy croissants and pain au chocolat, yum!
Then we go to the Lagunas Altiplanicas, to get there we will climb to 4000 meters of altitude. No mountain sickness but we get out of breath at the slightest effort.
It’s lunch time and a good surprise: we are entitled to tomatoes, corn, salad, chicken breast, cucumbers, quinoa… to compose our own salad. It is worthy of a fashionable Parisian salad bar but we are in the middle of the desert. The guide explains us that quinoa is very expensive in Chile, 10 000$CH per kg, that is to say 15 euros and that it is 10 times less expensive in Bolivia and Peru which are the two biggest producers in the world. I hope that we will be able to enjoy it on the spot.
Next stop Piedras Rojas, the red stones offer a nice contrast with the lagoon.
We finally stop at the edge of the Atacama salar which is a very small glimpse of what we will discover in the Uyuni desert in Bolivia. Small disappointment: the guide explains us that it isn’t authorized to walk on it.
It’s time for the return and the end of this magnificent day where we will have nevertheless made 300 km of road!
Part 2: Practical Tips
- 12000$CH the visit of the Valley of the Moon (before discount) + 3000$CH the entrance fee
- 45000$CH the visit of the Piedras Rojas (before discount) + 5500$CH the entrance fee
- Hotel: Legal Hostal 12500$CH/bed (but we have been upgraded to a private room for the same price)
- Restaurants: you have to go away from the main street to find cheaper restaurants
- Expensive restaurants : 9000$CH the menu or even 8000$CH the dish
- Medium restaurants: 6600$CH per menu
- Cheap restaurants (next to the bus terminal): 4000$CH per menu
- Fast-food: 2500$CH the hot dog, 1500$CH to 2500$CH the pressed juice
- 2500$CH for a 6L can of water (which we advise you to buy, it evaporates at a speed!) -> water isn’t drinkable here, you must brush your teeth with mineral water
- there are few fresh products at the supermarket, buy some snacks (Springles) or Nutella for your excursions
- French tourism agency : Flamingo Travel Agency
- French bakery: Franchuteria (a little hard to find, it’s in an alley and opens at 9am)
- Vegetarian restaurant: Tierre Todo Naturale, a little expensive (8000$CH/ plate) but it is the only restaurant offering good salads. Being sick, Anh could only eat that
- For any excursion around San Pedro de Atacama
- Trade your cap for a bobsleigh (5000$CH in stores in San Pedro)
- Take a large bottle of water
- And lots of sunscreen
- To avoid mountain sickness, buy coca leaves (at the supermarket) to chew, avoid drinking alcohol and eat red meat. Drink plenty of water!
- It is possible to rent a bike to visit the Moon Valley and Death Valley (but it is better to go there early in the morning)
- There are many agencies in San Pedro de Atacama so do not hesitate to negotiate rates