The Atacama Desert: Cycling, Crater Camps and Mysterious Flashing Lights
A word that keeps coming up when I describe The Atacama Desert to someone else is ‘other-worldly.’
Whether or not that adjective materialized in my brain organically (or via subconscious absorption of myths of extra terrestrial activity in the area) it fits the essence of this amazing place perfectly.
After doing some exploring of high-altitude geysers, hot springs and freezing our butts off in relentless gusts of wind, we made our way towards the desert. We took a winding, scenic back road to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. It took us past more hot springs, marshes and salt flats which were covered with flamingoes, vicuñas and a variety of duck that we had never seen before. As we neared golden hour, the rolling terra cotta-colored hills and the grasses which made their homes on them burst with vibrancy. #PlantsOnPink in real life . It was so beautiful that we stopped off to enjoy the sunset and camp before rolling into town the next day.
San Pedro de Atacama didn’t really differ much from the typical over-hyped tourist town in that it was over-priced and underwhelming. We quickly realized that this was a backpackers’ town and not compatible with vehicles. The streets in the center of town are narrow with some streets closed off to vehicles all together. Additionally, we arrived wary as we had read through numerous reports on the iOverlander app about break-ins of both unattended vehicles and those parked in secure lots. Of course, this put us on high alert, which meant someone always stayed with the vehicle if we could help it.
There are loads of hostels, established camp grounds, bars, restaurants and offices to book tours and excursions of the surrounding attractions. Many of the attractions which had previously been free now had entry fees, which was a bit of a bummer. After seeing how overpriced food and drink was, we were happy to have arrived with our own transportation and well-stocked up on groceries. We’d highly recommend doing your grocery run before you get into town. We stocked up in Calama. There was a pretty nice-sized produce stand near the bus station but the stores in town are pretty limited on everything else. Oh, also, there’s a really lovely French bakery for a variety of baguettes and croissants + coffee bar. Our favorites were the olive loaf, garlic loaf and pan de chocolat.
The first day, we decided to do some exploring around Valle de la Luna. There appeared to be a bypass which would take us past the first control point and into the valley without paying. Worth a shot, right? As soon as we began to approach the salt caves, we spotted another point of control. Busted. We played dumb and ended up paying the 3,000 Chilean pesos per person to continue further. We stopped at the salt caves first and then took a walk through the canyon leading away from it. Afterwards, we hiked up and along the great sand dune, which had some insane views. The landscape had us feeling like we were on an entirely different planet.
On the way down from the dune, we passed droves of people making their way up to catch the sunset. We decided to get a head start out of the park to find a place to sleep before dark. About 45 minutes before sunset, we discovered that the road to continue on to the rest of the sights was closed. We were disappointed that we weren’t going to be able to see the rest of what we paid the tickets for. The fact that they close off the road isn’t noted anywhere on the brochure you get with your ticket so we had no idea that this would happen or else we would have managed our time a bit better.
The next day, we rented bikes at Hostal Matty for $3,000 pesos (5 USD) /person for 6 hours. Not bad! They even gave us advice on which routes to take and marked them on a copy of a hand drawn map. We set out in the late afternoon once the sun calmed down a bit and biked up to and through a tunnel and then back down. We kept going to explore The Devil's Throat, complete with a hike up to a lookout for beautiful views at the end. Biking through canyons and exploring the desert was a solid and economical way to spend the afternoon.
The following day, we decided to check out Salar de Atacama, found it to be pretty underwhelming, turned around and left. On the way back to the main road, we spotted a dirt road off-shoot and followed it to a beautiful camping spot. It was quiet, private and had incredible views of the surrounding landscape at sunset. The mountains turned orange and then pink and then a deep purple before finally blending into the night sky. It was the perfect spot to relax, have a drink and whip up some beet burgers to sandwich in between the fresh bread we had picked up at the French bakery in town.
Next, came one of our favorite experiences of the entire trip: a long, super bumpy drive to an enormous crater. People who had done the drive before us emphasized the need for four wheel drive, which we do not have. Though we were able to make it, the drive isn’t easy and there are some parts of the road that get tricky so, be sure you know what you’re doing. The solitude, sunset views and being able to see the crystal clear Milky Way rise over the crater made it completely worth it in the end. After dark, we decided to hike down to the very center of the crater and sleep under the stars. It was much colder than we had expected (even with our sleeping bags) but we couldn’t bring ourselves to go back to the van.
Feeling the energy through our backs on the ground and the magnitude of the Milky Way going well beyond our peripheral vision is a feeling that we’ll never forget. To add a little weirdness to the mix, we kept seeing flashes of light over the edges of the crater. They were so faint and sporadic that we thought we were just imagining it all at first. We still have no idea what could have been the source of those lights as we were far away from towns or other people. We were completely alone out there. The creepiness of how isolated we were added to the magic…even while shivering from the occasional light breeze. Our stargazing soundtrack consisting of David Bowie and Louis Armstrong played on and we both drifted in and out of sleep. After a few hours, we finally gave in and hiked our frozen bodies back to the van for a few more hours’ worth of solid sleep. The sensation of movement as we skirted the line between awake and asleep felt a bit like we were sleep walking back up.
The next morning, we woke up cozy in our bed wondering (for a split second) if the memory of the sprawling night sky was just a lucid dream.