The charming village of , located at 2,450 meters above sealevel, near the north side of the great salt deposit of Atacama (the biggest ofthe country), is perhaps one of the places in Chile which offers the widestnumber of attractions.
The village is located in one of the many oasis originated by the ‘Bolivian winter’, in the driest desert of the world: the Atacama Desert. That’s why it is even more incredible to find, in the middle of it, a place with really exuberating vegetation, formed by chañar trees, carob trees, and capsicums.
In the plains, covered by a green color that seems to come from more rainy areas, agriculture is practiced from ancient times, maintaining the same cultivation methods used thousands of years ago. The native inhabitants thank nature (Pachamama) for this miracle, through different religious festivities and ceremonies, mixing Catholicism and ancient beliefs into one of the most characteristic cultural manifestations of the north of Chile.
Walking around the farming lands and watching the traditional design houses, built in adobe, makes you feel as transported into another age.
San Pedro is located at the foothills of the Andean cordillera, which reaches 6,100 meters high in this area. The majestic and mystic volcano Licancabur (5,916 meters above sea level) is in front of the village, only 40 kilometers away. The name means ‘village hill’, and it was venerated by the Incas, who carried out ceremonies and left offerings in the crater of its top.
While being there and beholding the ruins of the altars and camps built by the Incas, it is unavoidable to think of the depth of their faith, their effort and stamina, which moved them to ascend until these impressive heights in such barren conditions.
The mysterious Moon Valley is only 15 kilometers away. As its name indicates, the form and colors of the rocks give the landscape a lunar look. Watching the sunset from this place, gazing how the light varies the colors of the volcanoes, which can be seen far away, towards a bright red, transforms this spectacle into an incredible and overwhelming experience.
Archeologically speaking, the area of San Pedro is quite interesting. The history of the area dates from 11,000 years b.c., the age of the oldest human remains found there. The Tulor village, which is 3,000 years old, is one of the best examples of the historical and archeological richness of the place.
The desert sand covers most of the ruins, and only a 4% of the constructions have been dug up, so we can only speculate about what is hidden under the sand.
Although Tulor is a magnificent representative of the Atacama archeology, it is not the only one. There are many other places under investigation, and some others remain hidden in the desert.
The High Plateau
Flamingos in the Chaxas lagoon
The high plateau is located between 4,000 and 4,600 meters high. The landscape is completely different from the one we find in San Pedro. It is usual to bump into brooks, lagoons and many salt deposits.
In spite of the hard climatic conditions, many animal species have adapted here, and they are able, for example, to live in water with high contents of salt and arsenic.
Apart from that, we are all the time surrounded by volcanoes, which are higher than 5,500 meters above sea level, which offer an almost surrealistic appearance. The volcano Lascar (5,592 meters above sea level) is the most remarkable example of an active volcano, because its last eruption happened in 1993, and its permanent fumarole can be seen from San Pedro. The ascension of the Lascar (rather simple, though it requires a previous acclimatization) allows the observation of the gigantic crater of 750 meters of diameter and 300 meters deep.
The great geological activity of the area has not only created the volcanoes, but also the remarkable Geysers del Tatio (4,200 meters high). To observe the geysers at full, the best time of the day to get there is at dawn, so it is recommended to leave San Pedro at 5:30 a.m., to get to ‘Tatio’ at 7 a.m. Some geysers reach up to 3 – 4 meters high.
The thermal waters near the geysers allow you to enjoy a wonderful thermal bath, while watching the dawn. The water temperature may reach up to 54 degrees Celsius.
The thermal fluctuation of the environment is very high: -10 degrees Celsius before dawn and from 15 to 20 degrees Celsius when the sun is up. Here we can also observe vizcachas and vicuñas.
A good way to end the trip to the geysers is visiting Puritama (3,500 meters above sea level) to enjoy a wonderful thermal bath. Puritama is a thermal river with temperatures of about 38 degrees Celsius, which is in a deep rocky canyon, where there are still old cultivation terraces and ancient ruins. They are open-air wells only surrounded by nature.
Sunset in the Miscanti lagoon
On the other side, we can’t let San Pedro’s skies aside, a spectacle in itself at night: the Milky Way offers a bright whiteness. After the Elqui Valley, these skies are the clearest and neatest of the planet.
Text: Kenneth Lein