San Pedro de Atacama in a Glimpse
San Pedro de Atacama is a town in Northern Chile. It's a very popular destination among Chilean tourists and international visitors alike. Visitors come in large numbers, to use the town as a stepping stone to the amazing landscapes around it. Most attractions are part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, perhaps Chile's most varied and amazing national park. Prices in any of the laid back bars and restaurants fare well against Santiago's (Chile's Capital). Still, it's a fairly expensive location, as it's one of Chile's three most popular destinations, along Torres del Paine and Easter Island.
Once in the town, nearly all points of interest, restaurants, services, are within walking distance, with the exception of a few outlying hotels. Downtown comprises twelve small blocks, between the streets Domingo Atienza and Toconao from west to east, and Licancabur and Caracoles north to south. This last street is the main one, a pedestrian zone. Be aware that, since mid-2010, it's now forbidden to ride a bike in it. If you look gringo enough, chances are the cops will let you slide-but it's advised not to try. They're fond of ticketing cyclists in the evening. If you can't find what you need in the aforementioned twelve blocks, chances are you won't get it anywhere. Bike rentals are ubiquitous, and prices vary little. It can pay to rent one to visit the Pukara de Quitor, Aldea de Tulor, Valle de la Luna, and even Laguna Cejar. All of these are described in the next chapter.
First of all, always remember that the the altitude of San Pedro de Atacama is 2400m (about 8000 feet) above sea level. Some of the tourist attractions are well above 4000m (12000 feet). Therefore, if you have any kind of heart or lung problems, consult with your physician before booking a trip. If you get AMS (acute mountain sickness), expect no cure, except heading to lower ground. The symptoms are fairly easy to recognize: dizziness, nausea, headaches, shortness of breath. The best way to ameliorate the condition is to throw up first (seriously), then take an infusion of chachacoma, a local plant that also works quite well to ease headaches. The drink stinks, but actually has only a mild, bitter taste. A packet of chachacoma leaves costs one dollar, and can be found at the handicrafts market at the plaza. An alternative are coca leaves, but remember that you have to drink tea or chew on them at least four times a day, two days before going up! Also, the way to chew them is to put them inside your cheek, and letting them get wet with saliva, not actually biting them! This will release their juice all at once, which is terribly bitter.
The sun in San Pedro can often emit dangerous levels of UV rays! Especially in summer, using sunblock, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and long sleeves is essential. In winter, the radiation levels are more tolerable, and you can actually sunbathe. In summer, however, don't attempt it at all! Especially if your skin's white. The bare minimum UPF for sunblock lotion is 45, 60 and upwards being much better. Always remember to reapply it after an hour or so.
Other Health Concerns
San Pedro only has a Posta, a small medical facility with an ER and some assorted doctors. There are no pharmacies in the area, only a tiny shop that sells the essentials: sunblock, aspirin, condoms, anti-allergics, etc. (La Botica, located on Le Paige street, close to the police station) If you become seriously ill, or suffer a major lesion, expect to be transferred to Calama, or even Antofagasta, at great expense! While there are no major hazards in the area (such as lethal diseases, poisonous animals, and so on), take twice the care you normally would when hiking, cycling, and doing any other activity outdoors. This applies even more to the geysers, where burn-related injuries aren't that uncommon; the place is virtually disconnected from the world, so be extremely cautious when visiting!
You can rest assured, there's virtually no violent crime in San Pedro. However, the theft of bicycles and cars happens every once in a while, so take the normal precautions in that regard. Despite being poorly lit at night, the town is safe to walk around at all times-use your common sense if you see something suspicious. You might hear locals say that the only danger in town are stray dogs (leading even to the nickname "San Perro de Atacama"; perro means dog in spanish), and this is true. San Pedro boasts a huge population of them; most are friendly and harmless, but a few will attempt to bite passing cyclists. Cases of rape aren't unheard of, but most of these happen at parties, with heavily intoxicated females as the victims. In any case, they're rare.
Despite rumors to the contrary, exchange rates in town are decent, but watch out for wild price swings in the currency of your interest - the money exchanges in town usually are lagging behind this info, which can play in your favor... or otherwise. The dollar's very appreciated, and you can routinely get better rates there than in banks. Be mindful, though, that one-dollar and damaged bills won't be accepted. The euro rates are terrible, though, while other currencies' can be found somewhere in the middle. Again, they only accept larger euro bills, and only in mint condition. There's four places with ATM's in town: Banco Estado, in front of the museum (only accepts international MasterCards), Banco Bci (Caracoles-Vilama streets intersection, close to the plaza), Atacama Connection (they have two offices; the one with the ATM is on the intersection of Caracoles and Calama streets), and a last one at the western end of Caracoles, which only accepts international Visas. Until a few months ago, the operation of these ATMs was sketchy, due to frequent money shortages; now, with greater variety, this has somewhat improved. A tip: if an ATM refuses to give you money, it could be because its supply of a certain denomination is spent. Try with a different amount. For instance, if you wanted 35.000 pesos, round it down to thirty-thousand, or even twenty-thousand, and withdraw money twice (or a higher amount, which actually makes more sense).
Be aware that the ATM money supply is limited. On busy weekends it is not uncommon for all of the ATMs to be empty by Sunday and they are not refilled until Thursday. It is advisable not to show up in San Pedro without cash of some form.
Buses connect San Pedro with Salta and Jujuy in Argentina, as well as the rest of Chile. Several buses per day connect the town with Calama, operated by TurBus and other carriers (Frontera del Norte, Atacama 2000, and Intertrans). The trip takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes, costs 2.500 pesos (USD 5). Other buses from TurBus travel to Antofagasta (4 hours, $6000), Iquique, Arica (12 hours, 22.000 pesos), and Santiago. There are also trips from Uyuni, in Bolivia, and Calama. Bus passes are available from the Green Toad Bus Web which allow you to travel to San Pedro from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and the rest of Chile.
No airlines fly direct to San Pedro. The nearest commercial airport is Calama. Three airlines serve Calama: LAN, Sky Airline and PAL. Most flights are direct, and connect Calama with Santiago, but a few also fly to Antofagasta and Iquique. A two-way ticket can be had for as little as USD 120, but it must bought at least a month beforehand, and these flights usually leave either very early in the morning, or quite late in the evening. From Calama to San Pedro is about 90 minutes by bus.
At the Calama airport you may rent a car. Car rentals are fairly expensive, however, for Calama is Chile's largest mining hub, and therefore rentals offer mostly medium pick-up trucks. You will need an international driving permit if you're not Argentinian or Chilean. Rentals are cheaper in Antofagasta, but the drive to San Pedro is long (about four hours). Most popular destinations are fairly easy to reach with a good map, but driving high in the Andes should not be undertaken by beginners in the area! The roads are often in terrible condition, not signaled at all, there's no cell phone signal, and acute mountain sickness is a real threat. Getting stuck in the less-traveled roads of the "altiplano" can be a death sentence, since some aren't used at all, and see perhaps a car every two months.
Always travel with a full tank, since the only gas station in the area is in San Pedro. You can find illegal fuel vendors in some of the smaller towns, like Toconao, but they charge outrageous prices. Also, remember that fuel consumption increases dramatically with rising altitude. Check the condition of all tires, even the spare; flat tires aren't at all unusual on the many dirt roads that lead to points of interest.
Continue the Trail into Bolivia
You have to take attention booking with tour operators in Chile, since all the tours in Uyuni (Bolivia) have to be guided by Bolivian tour-guides, chilean tour guides are not authorized to conduct tours in the Uyuni salt flat. A handful of agencies offer 3 days/2 nights tours to Uyuni. It does not really matter who you book with, as they mostly join forces (at least in low season) and fill up their Land Cruisers with people from other agencies. The going price (starting at USD 140, March 2011) is some 40% higher here than in Uyuni, even though the itinerary is identical, only reversed. There is the advantage of there usually only being a few Land Cruisers at each site since you see things at different times of day to tours originating in Uyuni, where there can easily be a hundred tourists at each stop. There's also the possibility to return to San Pedro a day later, for a surcharge of USD 20.
Accommodations are quite basic, with frequent lack of (hot) water and electricity. Meals are filling but hardly gourmet and vegetarians may find themselves a little lacking in protein - bring plenty of snacks as supplies en route are extremely limited. If your tour agency does not provide water, ignore them when they tell you it is easy to buy on the journey-in our experience it was not, and you are better off bringing it all from San Pedro (at least 2l per person per day, although at that altitude more would be good).
A sleeping bag and plenty of warm clothing are essentials, it gets very cold at night.
The first night is spent at Laguna Colorada, at 4370m, so it is advisable to spend several nights in San Pedro, to acclimatise before taking the trip. Even then, AMS is a considerable risk-take the usual precautions, and if you have any reason to be particularly worried about altitude consider taking the tour from Bolivia instead, where you will have far more opportunities to acclimatise to high altitude beforehand.
It is essential to get a written itinerary from the agency, specifying all the sights in the order they are to be visited, and also meals and accommodation (whether shared or not). Some costs may not be included: Bolivian immigration, entry fees for national parks and museums. Ask about these at the agency.
Read travellor reviews of different agencies at the tourist information office. Estrella del Sur has had a lot of good travellor feedback with excellent guides (140 USD, March 2011). Keep in mind that most guides/drivers do not speak English. Choose your tour company wisely.
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San Pedro de Atacama
--Must in San Pedro de Atacama
Patagonia, Torres del Paine
Hotel Altiplanico - Web
Tucked away on a gentle stretch of land in the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, surrounded by the quiet presence of the Andes, Altiplanico San Pedro faces the impressive Licancabur Volcano, with a unique design inspired in the style of an Altiplano village. Explore the driest desert in the world at the hotel that was developed following the concept of visual silence.
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