The Most Popular Destination in North Chile
When we left La Serena to drive towards Antofagasta, we were once again looking for a place to stay for a while where I could work. Unfortunately, after our first day there, we were convinced that Antofagasta wasn’t the place. It was a Sunday, so we drove around to get a feel of the place without the weekday hassle. At the end of the day we were grateful that our water tank was full, and our empty gas cylinder also, but we just didn’t like the feel of the city. The next day we walked around the centre. I was glad we did because I didn’t want to write off the city until I had seen the centre. It has some interesting historic buildings, statues and machinery but, above all, it is a port city for the huge mining area of northern Chile. Our feeling about it remained: we didn’t want to stay.
But we stayed a couple of days more to have the truck washed and its oil changed, and in the process we saw a few more interesting sights of the city, like some amazing mosaics adorning a number of otherwise ordinary suburban apartment blocks.
Now we also needed to decide where we would go next! There were two possibilities – North to Iquique and Arica, or East to Argentina. Since we had entered Chile from the north on our last trip, we decided on Argentina via San Pedro de Atacama and the Paso de Jama. We had followed this route from Calama in 2008, but this time we took more time – and many more pictures!
Last time we came to Calama from Iquique, so the road from Antofagasta was new to us and quite interesting. The first thing we noticed was that the aftermath of the recent deluge was still present, with water damage to the highway, and dried mud on each side of it. Not far outside Antofagasta we came upon a traffic jam. It was caused by the movement of some large, heavy mining machinery which blocked first our side, and then the other side, of the dual carriageway. Along the way there was almost always a mine or two in view, and about halfway we came across a lot of abandoned villages, of ruined adobe houses, the homes of the mine workers of last century. In the same area there was an old cemetery, which Juergen walked to – I stayed in the truck. It looked amazing from a distance – and up close it was somewhat eerie. The crosses were mostly of wood but tied together with wire, and in the wind they made a noise like bones clattering. There were also too many small graves amongst them, but it belongs to a time when life was hard and infant mortality high.
As we approached Calama, the inland support city for the mining industry, a long line of snow-capped mountains came into view. They were mostly volcanos from appearance, and I was quite excited at the sight as I hadn’t remembered them from our last trip. Although they were not really clear, I encouraged Juergen to stop just before the city to photograph them in case we couldn’t see them after passing through it. My memory was certainly faulty: this long line of volcanoes, including the Licancabur, Acamarachi, Aguas Calientes and the Láscar, came to dominate the landscape all the way to Paso de Jama!
Calama is an uninteresting town – a bit like Antofagasta – but also useful. From our last visit, we knew that San Pedro de Atacama is a small tourist town, so we took this last opportunity to shop at one of Chile’s larger supermarkets, and also filled the fuel tank thinking it would probably be more expensive further on. We left the city and a few kilometres out we were interested to see a wind farm. The obvious use of renewable energy here in Chile impresses us but, like Australia, they still have a long way to go.
The road to San Pedro de Atacama goes up and up and up to over 3300m and then down again; San Pedro is at 2400m. To my delight, the volcanos became more visible along this route, but otherwise the scenery is brown and barren until you come down towards San Pedro with the Valle de la Luna before you – that view I certainly did remember.
We noticed that the town hadn’t changed very much from our last visit, as we wandered around when our energy allowed. Unfortunately we were both feeling tired, listless and a bit headachy – from the altitude. Although San Pedro is not very high, it is in an area known to have a stronger effect on some. Last time we had no problem, but we had come from an extended period in the mountains of Peru! We rested in and around the town for a couple of days before driving out towards the Salar de Atacama. We noticed a number of other overland vehicles driving around, and through, the town. We were lucky enough to meet a Swiss couple we knew from online forums, and to spend time with them swapping stories.
The road south out of San Pedro is paved and straight but not in great condition, and once again there was evidence everywhere of the recent flooding. First we drove into Toconao to check out a church we remembered from last time, only to discover that it was actually a bell tower located in the central plaza. Compared with a photo from our last visit, the bell tower looked just the same but the plaza had undergone quite a revitalisation. This time we were also looking for the Jere Valley, described to us as an oasis, but we failed to find it. We drove on, took the turn-off towards the Salar de Atacama (the largest salt flat in Chile), and left the paved road behind. The salar is surrounded by mountains with the chain of volcanoes, we had been coming ever closer to, along the eastern side.
The Salar is part of the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos and we returned to the Laguna Chaxa that we had visited last time. There were plenty of flamingos, Juergen found a number of small lizards and there was also some lovely afternoon light on the scene. Nice visit! After overnighting nearby, we drove further south to Peine. The road was fairly badly potholed and suffering water damage, but it runs between the chain of volcanoes, with some impressive multi-coloured mountains below them, and the salar. We stopped frequently for photo opportunities. It was beautiful.
Peine is described in the Sernatur brochure as: “Prototype of open Atacamenian townships. Declared a National Monument in 1982. The flat roofs of beams, branches, straw and mud, is one of the unchanged atacamenian architectural lines back to the 5th century BC.” It’s an uphill drive from the road, and a large section is fenced off for a Lithium mining company! The houses were not overly impressive. The village seemed to be almost deserted. The church was padlocked and when I looked through a hole I noticed that it wasn’t in use, hadn’t been for some time, and the roof had totally collapsed – I managed to take a photo through the hole ! There was a lot of building going on, which didn’t seem to be maintaining the heritage style. Overall, we were unimpressed.
While in the area we visited Socaire – “Considered the viewpoint of the Salar de Atacama, since from this sector, you have an impressive view of the Salar in all its extent and beauty.” (also from the Sernatur brochure) Socaire was a pleasant surprise. As well as giving an amazing view of the salar, the village had some lovely houses, 2 churches, and incredible views of those volcanoes. The surrounding area is famous for ancient ‘andenes’ – these are terraces carved into the Andes and used for agriculture, usually dating from pre-Columbian times. We walked from one end to the other and back again. At just over 3200m, the air was a bit thin but we weren’t suffering too much – a bit short of breath and that ever-present vague headache. Nevertheless, it was a relief to drive down again as we headed back towards Tocoano. This time we took the main road around Toconao instead of driving through it. We found a sign to the Jere Valley and followed it to a gate and an entry fee. The road onwards also looked a bit narrow for us so we decided to give it a miss.
We headed back to San Pedro and thought to spend the night at the overlook of Valle de la Luna, as we had in 2008. Unfortunately this now also had a gate and an entrance fee, so we drove on and ended up spending the night overlooking a gorgeous gorge! We believe it is part of Valle de la Muerte. There was some lovely evening light and the sunrise also gave an opportunity to photograph this sight. On the way back into town we stopped and walked a bit into the Cordillera de la Sal which is quite impressive, but also damaged by the recent downpour. We spent the rest of the day in San Pedro with our new Swiss friends then drove 5Km out of town towards Argentina to spend the night before climbing towards Paso de Jama the next day.
Although little had changed in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, except that everything cost more and there were entrance fees where none had been before, we enjoyed our more leisurely stay there and the new sights we had seen. I was especially impressed by that string of snow-capped volcanoes that I had completely forgotten about. [Link to our photos from last time – Chile starts in the middle.]
Practical Information (from an overlander’s view)
Diesel in not more expensive in San Pedro, the only Copec station is difficult to get to (hidden in a narrow dead-end residential street) – also a good place to fill with water.
Shopping in San Pedro is limited and certainly more expensive than elsewhere.
Camping options, even for large rigs, are plentiful in town. Outside you can find many scenic wild camping locations if your vehicle is self-contained.
Tours from San Pedro go out to the Salar de Atacama, Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte, Valle Jere, Laguna Miscanti, Geysers el Tatio, and as far as Potosi in Bolivia, passing Laguna Verde and the Salar de Uyuni. These, and many more destinations, are also easy to explore with your own (or rental) vehicle. Most roads are in acceptable to good condition, traffic is light.
Get some local brochures from Sernatur, the national tourist office; these are bilingual with so-so English descriptions.
Since most sites are managed by Conaf, the Chilean Government Body for National Parks, and each seems to have their individual entrance fee, it is advisable to buy an annual CONAF pass before coming to San Pedro!