The stark contrast between Bolivia and Chile was immediately evident upon crossing the border. We passed through Bolivia’s immigration post- a small hut in the middle of the desert, where we were once again asked for an illegal $20 departure tax (which this time we did not pay due to Zaida’s assistance and insistence) and were met ‘on the other side’ by a minibus to take us to San Pedro de Atacama. I say ‘on the other side’ because there were no barriers representing the end of one country and the start of the other. The only way we could tell we were in Chile, bar the ‘Welcome to Chile’ sign, was that a tarmac road had suddenly appeared in the middle of the desert, accompanied by proper road signs and even emergency runoff areas on the side of the road as we descended towards the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama .
Crossing the Chilean immigration post
The Chilean immigration post is situated on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, a 45 minute drive from the physical land border.
The Chilean officials are very strict on foodstuffs entering the country and we had repeatedly been told to eat any fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds we had as they incur a $250 fine if found in our baggage. However, the X-ray machines in San Pedro were not working, and a very superficial physical search of our bags was done- in fact my hand luggage was totally ignored. Other than the time taken to ‘search’ us, the border crossing was very quick and straightforward and we were soon on our way to the hostel.
First view of of San Pedro
My immediate impression of San Pedro was that it is not as developed as I had expected it to be. I was expecting the quality of the roads and buildings to be far better than they had been in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. However, I realised as I explored more of the town that they are trying to protect the traditional element and so the buildings are still made out of adobe and the dusty streets (complete with the ubiquitous South American stray dogs) are all maintained as part of the charm.
Having had such an early start to the day, and consequently an early breakfast, we had a short stop at the hostel before we headed out to lunch. However, before we could have lunch we needed some Chilean pesos, which turned out to be much harder to get than we thought.
Out of the four ATMs in town, all three of the Visa machines were broken. The last machine only accepted Maestro or MasterCard, of which we only had a credit card that Andrew didn’t want to use due to the extra charges for a cash advance. We ended up changing $100 of our reserve cash fund into pesos, and then paying for the rest of the group’s lunch on the credit card to get some cash as there was no additional commission charge.
Prices in Chile
The increase in prices in Chile was eye opening. We knew it was going to be expensive, but I don’t think we had quite comprehended quite how pricey things were going to be. Luckily most restaurants do a set menu of the day which is more reasonably priced, but when you have just arrived from Bolivia, which is one of the cheapest countries in South America, forking out almost $30 for lunch seems rather excessive! The hostel did have a kitchen that we could use, and even though we couldn’t find anything appropriate for dinner within the very small supermarket (there was no mince to make Spaghetti Bolognese for example) we were able to pick up breakfast items.
We decided not to do any activities that day and just to spend the time resting, relaxing and warming up! We went for a lovely dinner at La Estaka that evening, tempted in by the offer of a free glass of wine, but it was so nice that we ended up eating there the following night as well.
The wine seemed to have an interesting effect of several members of the group who were able to provide much entertainment during dinner. If anyone could explain to me why the waiter, who several of the girls were trying to chat up, gave one of them two cherries, I’d really appreciate it. Is it some Chilean chat up effort, or was the guy just a little crazy? It certainly had us all baffled!
After a good night’s sleep and a much missed homemade breakfast, we headed into town to explore. The town is actually very small, consisting of one main street and a plaza just off to the side. There are some side streets, but other than the odd shop, travel agency or cafï¿½ they mainly contain accommodation. We visited the very pretty 17th century Iglesia San Pedro, complete with creaky floorboards and doors made out of cactus. There wasn’t much to see other than that so we wandered around the shops buying a few souvenirs and my birthday present! Perhaps somewhat conveniently Andrew didn’t like any of the earrings I held up, and so I ended up with a lovely colourful bag which will be great for our travels- I just hope it lasts the year!
Chile sunset tour
Later that afternoon our group all went on a sunset tour to the Valley of the Moon, stopping also at the Valley of the Dinosaurs, Valley of the Dead and Tres Marias on the way.
This for me was a chance to see more of the real Atacama- the driest desert in the world. I had been told that nothing lives in the Atacama Desert, not even bacteria, so I had been a little surprised to see the green oasis of San Pedro. Obviously the town needs water to survive, but there is a considerable area surrounding the town which is used for farming and thus the irrigation of the area makes it appear quite green. On average it only rains 4 days a year, and is what the locals call ‘imported rain’. A warm moist air mass from the Pacific Ocean meets the cooler, drier air from the Bolivian altiplano which causes rain. The rain does not soak into the ground but instead creates puddles, streams and even a river for a short space of time.
We got to the Valley of the Moon just after 7pm and had just under an hour until sunset. We walked up the side of a large sand dune and then on to a rocky ridge running across the middle of the valley. Andrew and I wandered further along the ridge to see if we could get a better view, but the ridge just kept on going into the distance. When we returned to the group they were all stood in a huddle, out of the middle of which appeared a birthday cake with candles, chocolates and a couple of bottles of wine in order to celebrate my birthday. It was a lovely thought, and a beautiful setting for my birthday celebration- the setting sun, the glowing pinks and reds of the landscape and a wonderful view of the mountains and desert
We arrived back in town much later than we had expected (almost 9pm) so we went straight out for dinner. Andrew and I were a bit anxious about the time (service is surprisingly slow in Chile) as we were leaving at 11pm to go on an astronomy tour of the night sky. We finished just in time to head back to the hostel, grab all of our warm clothing, and then wait for the bus to take us out into the middle of the desert.
I had been a bit dubious about going to see the stars, but Andrew was really keen on the idea and it was highly recommended by our tour leader. Spaces are limited and fill up very quickly, especially the tour in English. It was actually very informative and well presented, and I found it so fascinating that the two hours in the cold desert night went surprisingly quickly. It is done by a French astronomer and his wife who set it up 7 years ago- it was slow to take off, so much so that they put the house up for sale and were planning on moving to back to France, but as soon as it appeared in the Lonely Planet and other guidebooks business took off. They have 8 telescopes in their garden, through which we were able to see Jupiter and four of its moons, Orion’s nebulus, Sirius, various star clusters and other galaxies. I had hoped to be able to see Sagittarius on my birthday, but as we were told when we were trying to identify different constellations, your birth sign is the only one that is blocked by the sun at the time of your birth.
So during most of December the sun is in between Earth and Sagittarius and you can’t see the constellation!
We had a very relaxing day on my birthday- a lazy morning having breakfast and speaking to my family, followed by lunch accompanied with wine, which was bought by the rest of the group for my birthday, and then later on an ice-cream to substitute for a birthday cake!
Unfortunately the celebrations had mostly happened the evening before as we were taking an 18 hour night bus to La Serena that evening – Happy Birthday Kerry!