From the moment I started thinking about coming to Chile and researching what to see and do here, I knew I had to go to San Pedro de Atacama. Pictures of San Pedro de Atacama show cute stuccoed buildings, dusty shopping streets, and snow-covered mountains in the background. It is known for being the gateway to exploring the Chilean altiplano. From here, it’s an easy day trip to see flamingos on salt flats, hike volcanos, and bathe in hot springs near geysers. The surrounding land is so other-worldly they’ve literally named it Valley of the Moon and Valley of Mars.
It’s definitely my kind of town.
I went with three other teachers from the elementary school, who had all been before and were looking to see more of what San Pedro de Atacama has to offer. Our first stop was La Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon). There we climbed through dark and sometimes very tight spaces in caves (where one of us was perfectly dressed for the occasion in a Batman shirt). We then watched the sun set, and the moon rise, over the valley. It was nothing short of spectacular.
That would be the first of many spectacular views, as the following day we went to the ruins of a fort, the Pukara de Quitor, built by the native Atacaman pre-Incan society. Some hiking nearby led to stunning views across the valley. And how green this valley was! There were trees and plants – a welcome sight compared to the vast blanket of brown that surrounds Maria Elena.
We also spent time walking, shopping, and eating in town. We visited the church, which anchors the main square. Music flowed out of many restaurants, and a violinist appeared to be a regular in the main square. It had a very Europe-meets-Chilean altiplano vibe. We stayed in a hostel on the edge of town, where in the mornings we had a breakfast of eggs and toast and in the evenings we sat around a fire drinking and talking about music until 1 or 2 in the morning. Yes, I stayed up until 2 am! (Special thanks to chef and fire-master Andres!!)
Before returning to Maria Elena, we decided to check out the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache. A journey of an hour and half down a rough gravel road brought us to our destination. Pools of the clearest blue (and chilly) salt water emerged out of nowhere in the middle of parched earth, just waiting for us to jump in. So we took a dip in the salt-surrounded lagoons. Much like in the Dead Sea, the high salinity of the water makes everyone quite buoyant. I could have grabbed a book and read if I wanted to.
I was so fortunate to be able to go with my new friends. I would never have known about the Pukara de Quitor or made it out to the lagunas escondidas on my own. Everywhere we went I heard little to no English (except for me continuously saying “This is awesome!). This was surprising to me since the area is such a tourist hub. I came back with a couple of trinkets and plenty of wonderful memories, and am already looking forward to visiting again (gotta go see those flamingos). The experience was, as the Chileans say when something is super awesome, muy bacán!