San Pedro de Atacama was our first stop in Chile, a country I had dreamed about visiting for years. I was especially looking forward to visiting this little desert town, packed with fun tours and activities. I’d allocated six full days there, to let us make the most of it. However, little did we know that when we crossed the border from Bolivia into Chile, our time there would not be what we hoped for.
Crossing the border from Uyuni
The day started well. We woke up early and headed off to visit some incredible geysers and colourful lagoons, including some of the most spectacular scenery we’d seen to date. Bolivia sure is a stunner.
When we reached the Bolivian side of the border, a guard processed our passports. We’d been having an ongoing discussion with our tour guide for the last couple of days. We’d told him that we wanted to use our European passports to enter Chile, to avoid the high reciprocation fee Australians have to pay to enter the country.
Our guide told us that we would probably not be able to use them because we’d entered Bolivia on our Australian passports. He checked with the border guard who said the same thing. We were a bit annoyed with ourselves for not realising it earlier but still, what would be would be. We said goodbye to our guide and driver and hopped on our transfer to Chile.
As we arrived at the Chilean border, everything appeared calm in the office. It was a Sunday after all. Three young border guards there were watching the football on TV.
One was behind the counter and processed our entry. I told him that we had dual nationalities and showed him both passports. He replied, “which would you like to use”. I said “the French if possible”, as I handed it to him. He opened it and stamped it, not even looking for proof of exit from Bolivia. Off you go and the same for Simon.
“Welcome to Chile”, he added. Thank you! What a great start to Chile, I loved this country already. We’d just saved ourselves US$117 each!
Note: After publishing this article, a reader gave us the tip that in fact the reciprocation fee is only charged if you arrive into the country at Santiago airport. If you cross the border by other means the fee is not charged.
However, our elation didn’t last long …
While in La Paz we discovered that Bolivia’s presidential elections would be held on the 20th of October. This would more than likely cause major chaos across the country with the likelihood of large scale protests in and around the major cities. When we checked our travel plans, we discovered that we were due to leave the country on that day, which sounded perfect. We’d be able to avoid the issues as we moved on into Chile, South America’s most stable country. Well, at least that’s what we thought.
We’d been without internet for a few days as we explored the Bolivian salt flats. But as we checked in to our hostal in San Pedro de Atacama, the receptionist asked us if we’d heard what was going on in Santiago. She followed up with “I hope you’re not going there soon”.
We looked at each other and started to panic a little. No, we hadn’t heard a thing about Santiago, and yes we were going there soon, in six days to be precise. Furthermore, our best friends were flying over to meet us in Santiago in ten days, to spend a week celebrating my 40th birthday.
We had recently celebrated a year of full-time travel on the salt flats and we were longing to see some familiar faces and spend time with our friends. I’d been counting down the days for weeks. Agh … this could not be happening!
So what exactly was happening in Santiago? Major protests and riots had broken out in the capital after the government raised the cost of the metro fares. But don’t worry, the receptionist added, it’s safe here in San Pedro!
However, the protests had also spread to other places in Chile and lots of flights had been cancelled. Curfews had been imposed in many cities (but not San Pedro de Atacama), causing havoc, especially in downtown Santiago and at Santiago airport.
This did not sound good at all. But we just had to wait and see and hope it would calm down.
Road blockades and tour cancellations
However, as safe as we felt in San Pedro de Atacama, it still wasn’t a stress-free time. Road blockades and strikes let to some of our tours being cancelled or altered and we didn’t get to see everything we wanted. We also had issues withdrawing money from ATM’s for the first few days but thankfully everyone seems to accept credit cards in Chile!
But mostly, we spent our time there trying to get information on the situation in Santiago and Concon, where we were due to spend a week by the sea with our friends. Was it safe for them to come, or should they cancel? We spent the whole next six days stressed, as opposed to enjoying the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama. However, we did manage to enjoy parts of it.
Sunset trip to the Moon Valley
On our second day, we had signed up for a sunset trip to the nearby Moon Valley. As we entered the tour agency, we were told that they couldn’t access the second part of our tour where people normally go for the sunset. The road was blocked by protesters, so instead, we would watch the sunset from a different spot. That’s ok we thought, we’ll take what we can get for a few hours of distraction.
The Valley of the Moon was beautiful and we are glad we got to see it. The valley of the Moon extends for miles and (not unexpectedly) has some incredible moon-like scenery. We hiked up a few hills for incredible views, visited the three sisters (although only 2 remain after a tourist broke one of them a few years back!) and visited a former salt mine.
Full day trip to Lagunas Altiplanicas and Piedras Rojas
The following day, our tour to the Lagunas Altiplanicas and Piedras Rojas was running as scheduled. However, because that day was a major strike day, the visit to the salt flats (which was supposed to be included) was cancelled because the national park workers were on strike.
Our tour guide told us that we would instead be visiting some very old petroglyphs at the Quebrada Kezala archaeological site. This did not bother us too much. We’d just come from Salar de Uyuni and we were happy to see something a bit different. However, as we reached the archaeological site, we again struggled to enter. Our guide had to sweet talk the people guarding the gate and they eventually let us in. They added that no-one else would be allowed in after us!
After the petroglyphs, we moved on to the Lagunas Altiplanicas and Piedras Rojas. Once again, scenery so incredible that it almost felt surreal. Snow-capped mountains with lagoons so blue that you’d want to jump in if it wasn’t for the fact that you might freeze to death!
Afternoon trip to the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache
This trip was my favourite in San Pedro. The Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache are extremely salty, mesmerising blue lakes located right in the middle of the arid desert about an hour from town. The lakes are so beautiful that it’s hard to believe they are real.
There are a total of seven lakes. You can swim in a couple of them and so we did. However, the water was so cold that we didn’t linger for long. The salt in the lakes made swimming impossible, so we floated around. A bit like our quick dip in Jordan’s Dead Sea a few months earlier.
After our dip, we were both completely covered in salt but thankfully there were showers nearby to have a good rinse before returning to the bus.
On the way back to San Pedro, we stopped along the way to enjoy the sunset and a Pisco Sour. The Chilean way!
Enjoying the small town of San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro is a lovely desert town and there are many restaurants, bars, shops and markets to explore around town. We used the wifi at many of them, to try and re-organise our time in Chile and to constantly check the news!
There is so much more to do in San Pedro de Atacama
There are normally many more tours to do in and around San Pedro de Atacama. We wish we’d had the opportunity to do more. Unfortunately, with the time spent contacting people over the current situation and the tour cancellations, we didn’t even get to do half of them.
Some more incredible places to visit nearby are the Tatio Geysers, the Los Flamencos National Reserve, Rainbow Valley and more. There are also many cool hikes we would have loved to have done.
Hopefully, you get to visit San Pedro de Atacama in a better political climate, when you can enjoy it at its best. It’s a truly incredible town to visit if you are looking for some fun in the desert, breathtaking views and adventures.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama?
We stayed in Hostal Ayni. It was perfectly located just a short walk to the main street. The staff were very helpful into helping us dealing with the current situation. We could organise all our trips directly through the hotel for package deals.
Best on booking.com
Best location: Terrantai Lodge or La Casa del Pueblo Hostal
Top reviews: Posada Rancho Nuevo or Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa
Good value: Hostal Mirador or Hostal Campo Base
If none of those take your fancy, you can check HotelsCombined and search across all the major accommodation websites. We use it all the time.
The Salar de Uyuni Through My Lens: A Photo Essay
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