San Pedro de Atacama: Excursions

As someone who likes to do a bit of research ahead of time about places I am visiting, one thing that I found frustrating was the lack of online pricing available regarding excursions in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  I wanted to put together a budget in my mind of how much money I would need per leg of my trip, and knowing that I would be spending most of my time in San Pedro either sleeping at my hostel or out on excursions, not knowing the price of an average excursion made the pre-planning impossible.

Again, I gave a teaser on this topic here and also talked about other tidbits on staying in San Pedro here.  To recap, I had 2.5 days in town.  There are a standard list of excursions that are offered by any of the tourist companies in San Pedro, with the exception of the stargazing tour, which is only offered by one company in town.  Typical excursions include Valle de la luna, Lagunas Altiplanicas, Geysers del Tatio, Laguna Cejar, Puritama springs, archaeological tour, and stargazing.  I didn’t have time to do the Puritama springs and archaeological tour.

The main streets in town are lined with tourism companies and souvenir shops so it isn’t necessary to book any excursions before you arrive.  Having said that, there are more reputable tourism companies and there are less official companies.  I recommend asking staff at your hotel or hostel about companies that they would recommend.  I booked all of my excursions through Desert Adventures, which, on the whole, worked out fine.  More on that below.  Any prices that I quote were valid for April/May 2011; we were able to negotiate the price of excursions unless otherwise indicated below.

Valle de la luna (Moon Valley)

Cost: approximately $16 CDN.  This tour starts late in the afternoon, so it was perfect for us since we arrived in San Pedro shortly before noon (giving us enough time to find a place for lunch and book excursions).  There is an entrance fee to get in to the park (CP $2.000).  We walked around some valleys, which are really amazing reddish brown formations that rise tall above the ground.  There is tons of fine sand to walk through so it’s a good idea to wear appropriate footwear (though a girl in my group was wearing wedges and she managed).  The key for this excursion was to catch the sunset on a ridge, where you get a good view of the desert and the Andes.  However, our tour did not allow time to actually watch the whole sunset and I felt a bit cheated in my experience as a result.  Because we did not have flashlights (and were not provided with any by the tour company), it was smarter to descend the ridge before sundown as it is fairly steep.  There were a handful of people who had biked to the ridge to watch the sunset; if you want to do that, I suggest bringing lots of water and making sure you have lights on your bike as it gets dark quickly.  And it is very dark when the sun is down.

Lagunas Altiplanicas (Atacama salt lake and high plateau lagoons)

Cost: approximately $56 CDN.  This tour takes the whole day (8AM to 5PM).  There are entrance fees associated with the places you visit (CP $6.500).  We started at Los Flamencos National Park, where you see lots of flamingos and salt flats.  Then we drove to Miscanti and Miniques lagoons, which are a really beautiful deep blue-ish green.  Unbeknownst to us, these lagoons are at an elevation of 4000m, so beware that you might feel some effects of altitude sickness.  We had lunch in Socaire village, which was really delicious and included in the cost of the tour.  We literally just stopped there for lunch; no sightseeing.  Finally, we were brought to Toconao village for a quick walk around the main square; there were a few souvenir shops.  Pretty decent all-day tour to see some of the sites one after another.

Geysers del Tatio

Cost: approximately $36 CDN.  This tour starts very early (4 to 5AM) because you want to be at the geysers as the sun is rising.  This is when the geysers are the most active.  The geysers are at an elevation of 4320m, so beware that you might feel some effects of altitude sickness.  You won’t descend until you’re on your way back to San Pedro so allow time for yourself to acclimatize in the San Pedro area before heading to the geysers.  We saw the El Tatio Geothermal field where there are lots of active geysers – but they are not the highest elevation geysers in the world, as you will be told by your guide – but it is freezing cold (-15degrees C) so come prepared!  We got a light breakfast from the tour company before driving over to the thermal pool.  There are some benches and walls where you can put your towel and change of clothes.  The pool is lukewarm in most parts but will warm your core if you’re freezing from the air temperature.  Afterwards, we went to a very tiny Machuca village where we were encouraged to try some local empanadas or to look at the souvenirs.  It does get pretty hot after the sun rises, so be prepared to shed layers.  If you go to San Pedro, you’ll want to go to the geysers but it was not as big of a deal as I expected.

The picture from the teaser post is from the base of a geyser.  Sorry to say that I’m not able to confirm what the reddish brown pigmentation is…but it looks like iron.

Laguna Cejar (salt lake lagoon)

Cost: approximately $30 CDN.  This tour started in the late afternoon (3 or 4PM for 5 hours).  This was one of THE coolest things in San Pedro.  We were driven through some salt flats to a salt lake lagoon (40-50% salt).  I highly recommend taking a “swim”…or rather, you just float!!  Our skin began to sting after about 10 minutes in the water but it is an incredible feeling to be so nonchalantly buoyant.  Our tour guide brought a jug of fresh water with a pump so we quickly rinsed off after our swim.  Otherwise, you can walk around with a layer of white salt on your skin!  Next, we visited Ojos del Salar, which are two natural freshwater sink holes in the middle of the desert.  They are literally holes in the ground, where the water is a few feet below ground level.  I didn’t want to swim in them but the water provides an amazing reflection so I had a lot of fun just taking photos of reflections in the water.  We ended off at Tebinquince Lagoon, which is a salt flat with a really thin film of water on it.  The tour company brought pisco sours, juice, crackers, chocolate, and chips that we could have while watching the sun rise.  The reflections from the salt flat are also very neat.  Again, this tour was awesome.

Stargazing

Cost: CP$15.000 (non-negotiable).  This tour starts at 10PM (for 2.5 to 3 hours).  We were driven to an observatory just outside of town.  It does get chilly in the night so come dressed appropriately; the astronomer had some jackets to lend for free if anyone was cold.  The astronomer spent at least an hour explaining the skies and astronomy to the crowd; he was incredibly entertaining and really brought stargazing to life.  He also has a few ginormous telescopes set out in the yard and pointed at certain parts of the sky.  He explains what you will see in the telescopes then lets you go around on your own to enjoy the view.  The coolest thing was seeing Saturn through a telescope!  Afterwards, we all sat down for some hot chocolate before being brought back into town.  This tour is definitely worthwhile.

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