When you’ve got 7 free days in one of the most geographically diverse countries in the world, it’d be criminal to just sit in the capital. Just 2 hours flight north of Santiago is the city of Calama, the gateway to the Atacama desert and my home for 4 nights.
The flight itself is unremarkable, like any other you’d take around Europe or the USA, but after the 14 hours epic down from London, it certainly felt quick. I’d booked with LATAM, one of two airlines to fly this route and their A321 was clean and new with wonderful Inflight Entertainment – download the app to your phone and then connect on board to hundreds of TV shows and films to pass the time. The future on entertainment on flights, in my opinion.
Not that my opinion had much sway though, the long night out of bed ensured that the window seat was utilised to doze off until the bumpy latter stages of the approach before touching down in the barren desert of Calama. The northern powerhouse city of Chile, Calama is the home of all things mining, pumping millions of copper dollars into the Chilean economy each year. However, for most travellers, it serves as the access point to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, just an hours drive away.
On the advice of a friend, I hired a proper 4×4 truck (think American pick-up style) threw my suitcase in the back and made my way out onto the dead straight strip of asphalt disappearing into the horizon in the distance. A field of wind turbines provides the first landmark, utilising the strong winds that blow in from across the plains. Each blade cutting through the air with the same efficiency as the excavators do in the nearby Chuquicamata mine, the largest copper mine in the world.
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The wind turbines give way to open desert stretching for as far as the eye can see in all directions, just the strip of man-made communication under my wheels providing any sign that other humans have been here before. Coach loads of tourists and empty trucks barrel past me in the opposite direction, a positive sign that I’m heading in the right direction.
The desert plains start to climb up into the hills snaking round rock formations and then down into the most incredible valley I’ve seen. Adjacent to the ‘Valley of Mars’, the final descent into San Pedro gives you a sneak preview into what you’re about to experience over the next few days. The one thing I didn’t expect though was the change in road quality on entering San Pedro.
Perfect asphalt highway immediately gives way to dirt track on entering town. Large holes worn out by the supply trucks litter the path ahead, making for an interesting navigation between them and the stray dogs which happily bounce between the cars and travellers.
San Pedro is a small town, the main square surrounded by just a few other streets populated by shops, restaurants and tour guide offices, where travellers with large backpacks duck in and out trying to find the best rates on the multitude of excursions available in the surrounding area. Due to the increased popularity of the area, accommodation prices have skyrocketed recently, the demand quite often outstripping the supply, so make sure you book ahead of time, particularly in the peak summer months.
After a long day, an early night was in order, ready for my 4am wake up for my trip to the highest thermal geyser field in the world…
Check back soon for the next part of my Atacama adventure…