Tuesday, August 12, 2014

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina

I'm so shit! It's been four months since my last blog update. I'm going to blame a variety of things including work (mostly), study (recently) and watching tv (cos it's still my favourite way to waste time). However, when I start something I like to finish it, and not writing up the final six weeks of this trip is really starting to bug me. Thankfully, even though this entry dates back to last Christmas, I typed up the main things in Word so I'm not having to remember back and make shit up.

The bus from the border to San Pedro, Chile does not take too long. I think it's like two hours or something. You can definitely tell when you are back in Chile - good roads, new cars, less chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident! Oh it's good to be in a developed country again. And Chile is my favourite South American country which makes it even better. However, this time it's just a brief stopover on my way to Argentina and then Paraguay.

San Pedro de Atacama

Immigration in Chile is not at the border where you get on the bus, it's in San Pedro. The bus takes you to the office where they stamp you in and scan your bag for fruit. Chile is strict so don't try and smuggle any in cos they will find it and remove it. A few people on the bus tried this to see and it didn't work.

Next up, me and my new friends from the tour went looking for a hostel. Since there were four of us, that worked out well and we didn't have to share with anyone else. Most people on the bus hadn't booked anything, which is pretty much the norm. 
San Pedro is a major hub for people coming/ going into Bolivia, Argentina or further north in Chile so there's a high turnover of people each day. 

San Pedro is compact and it didn't take too long to find a place. Most of the owners will ring around for you if the first place you try doesn't have space. This town is basically the Chilean equivalent of Uyuni, but how to do it properly. The town is all mud brick, well kept, clean, and totally set up for tourists. It's really nice. 

Even the street dogs are in good condition. How good is this one? He looks like a big smiley bear!

There are a lot of good quality restaurants here and pretty much all of them offer at least one veggie dish. I had no problem getting vegan food in this town. You will definitely not starve.

On our first evening the four of us went on an observatory tour. It was a bit different to the one I did in Colombia (which I preferred). However, the guy running this one was a Chilean/ Swedish physicist so he gave us a science lesson first (which was excellent) and then took us up onto the roof to look through powerful telescopes. Among other things, we saw Jupiter and Venus. Saturn is only visible in the winter months so we didn't get to see that.

If you're into astronomy (which I am), then the Atacama Desert is definitely one place you want to visit in your life time. It is home to the world's biggest telescope (read about it here). I recommend doing an astronomy tour while you're here. Just walk around and get some quotes. There's tours every night (assuming it's not cloudy I guess).

Besides star gazing, there are plenty of other things you can do in this area.The next day, one of my room mates got up at about 4.30am to do a full day volcano climb. The other one had no money so he couldn't do anything until he resolved that situation. Now one of the problems with San Pedro is that the ATMs can run out money on weekends. This is a fairly remote desert town don't forget, so the money truck only comes every couple of days. I managed to get some money out when we first arrived however, Matt was not so lucky. He had about one crusty US dollar on him, which no one in South America wants. Only take new notes people, post 2006 if possible. Plus $1 doesn't get you very far in Chile anyway. Speaking to locals eventually led Matt to some drug dealer in a servo. The guy had money to launder, which was perfect! Drug dealer put a transaction through on Matt's credit card (for like $350 worth of petrol or 175 Mars Bars or something) and then Matt walked out with 200,000 pesos. Nice. Who knew drug dealers could get you OUT of a tight spot!

Anyway, while all that was going on, Joe and I did a trip out to Leguna Cejar and the Valle de la Luna. We walked around the town quite a bit looking for a combo tour and only found one place (not in the main street) that offered it. This is definitely cheaper than doing separate tours, so ask around until you find the place. I have no idea which street it was on.

The drive out there is beautiful.

Leguna Cejar is a sink hole which is apparently 200m deep. They aren't really sure because the water is so salty, nothing will sink all the way so it's difficult to measure. At least that's my understanding of what the guide said in Spanish. 

If you're looking for a Dead Sea experience but in a less volatile part of the world, this is the place to go. You can just float around with no effort. The buoyancy is really interesting and you can make a bunch of crazy pictures you can't do in normal water.

Afterwards you are super salty and it starts to burn your skin so the tour guides shower you off with fresh water they bring with them. 

You can see the salt on Joe's guns.

Because we were on the combo tour, Joe and I got there about 45 mins before all the tour buses turned up and basically had the place to ourselves, which was really good. Once it got busy it lost some of its appeal.

After showering off, and changing (there are some good quality, purpose build change rooms and toilets there) we left for the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). 

You can rent a bike and ride out to these places but I wouldn't recommend it. This is the desert, and it's hot and dry and salty and there are dirt roads. Just pay a bit extra and get someone to drive you. It's worth it.

This is another amazing place. There is a Valle de la Luna in La Paz. I didn't go but Joe went and he said it was shit. This one is much better.

You can see all the salt coming up through the rock. And it does look a bit like what you'd expect the moon to look like!

Another absolutely amazing place. Well worth visiting.

So, unlike the one-night-wonder at the start of our tour, Uyuni, San Pedro is worth spending time in. There is also a large salt flat nearby (which you can see coming in from Bolivia) so if you didn't want to go to Bolivia you don't have to. While San Pedro is not overly cheap (especially after Bolivia), it has a lot to offer before you head off to your next destination.


When we arrived, Joe and I booked our bus tickets to Salta, Argentina fairly quickly. This was the week leading up to Christmas so we wanted to make sure we wouldn't get stuck in San Pedro for too long. It turns out buses were no problem. They seemed to be running extra ones given the time of year. About half the people on the salt flats tours (since you all go to the same places, you see the same people at every stop) were on the same bus as us. Clearly Uyuni to Salta via San Pedro is a common backpacker route. I wouldn't bother trying to book a ticket over the internet in advance of arriving in Chile unless you really need to guarantee your seat.

The bus trip is about eight hours and only goes during the day. Not sure why unless it's to make sure you are awake for one of the nicest bus journeys ever! This ride through the desert is very scenic.

Another salt flat.

After lunch you arrive at the border. Like most borders there's nothing there. Everyone gets off the bus, gets their luggage off the bus, gets stamped out of Chile, gets stamped into Argentina, has their luggage scanned, and then gets back on the bus. We were the only bus there at the time and it still took two hours. This was handy for some guy in front of me who had several ham sandwiches and a couple of bananas he had to eat or dump in the quarantine bin.

This is the view on the Argentinian side.

Hmm... Maybe this road is why you can only travel during the day.

By the time we got to the hostel it was pretty late. This place wasn't too bad. Comfy enough. Quiet enough without being boring. Decent internet. Basically what you want in a hostel. The only thing it was lacking was a pool.

Salta is a nice city but there isn't a lot to do there unless you're into horse riding. The city centre has some nice buildings to look at.

On my birthday Joe shouted me lunch at Chirimoya, an awesome veggie (mostly vegan) restaurant. Sadly, this was the only time I got to go since they were shutting down on Christmas Eve for a week or so. Apart form amazing food, you can also stock up on a few grocery items and they do vegan muffins etc. It's worth visiting.

On Christmas Eve I tried to go the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña but it was already closed for Christmas. This was annoying cos it's one of Argentina's best museums and I'd heard good things about it from other travellers. Oh well...

The main shopping mall was packed with last minute shoppers. These people under the pharmacy sign are all lining up to get in this shoe shop!

Lots of new people arrived at the hostel and it was decided that a group Christmas dinner was in order. This was actually a lot of fun.

While Joe and I were there, there were three Argentinian guys visiting from Rosario or somewhere. They literally spent the whole time drinking with short bursts of sleep between about 6am-9am. Then they would get up in time for the free breakfast and afterwards crack open some more beers. In the evenings, they would drive around looking for parties. On Christmas Eve they went out after this dinner and the one driving parked on a hill and forgot the handbrake. Of course the car rolled down the hill into something. He's lucky he didn't hurt or kill anyone. Drink driving is still a major problem in South America.

On Christmas Day it was time for me to say goodbye to my latest travel buddy Joe and head off to Paraguay. I couldn't find a direct bus from Salta to Asuncion. This meant I had to change in Formosa, near the border. Argentinian buses are at the more comfortable end of the scale, so the overnight journey to Formosa was fine. Then I had to wait a couple of hours at the bus station for my next bus to Paraguay. The border is not too far away. However, the difference in temperature is significant. Paraguay is by far the hottest country I've been too. This was a taste of things to come.

Next stop: South America's hottest and dullest country, Paraguay!