The Driest Place of Earth – San Pedro de Atacama

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Flying from Santiago to Calama and then hopping a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama, initially I viewed the town and a launchpad to Bolivia and a Salt Flats Tour. Indeed the town does offer exactly this but what I realised upon arrival that it is also a destination in its own right. From the mind blowing scenery that surrounds the town to its history; I found myself surprised and awed by what was on offer. With San Pedro being the start point for Bolivian Salt Flats tours I spent my first morning wandering round the town and varying travel agencies trying to ascertain who was offering the best deal and when I wanted to depart. With tours leaving daily it seemed it was simply a matter of which agency I felt comfiest with, taking on onboard a mixture of firsthand and trip advisor reviews I settled with the company Green and White as they offered an early start on the final day meaning we would see the sunrise over the Salt Flats. After making is decision I was able to kick back and enjoy my time in the town. Named after the Atacama desert which sits just outside town and heralded as the driest place in earth, it was typical that I arrived just in time for the 15mm of rain the area receives each year. This however, didn't dampen spirits and in my first afternoon I joined a tour to Vallee de la Luna or Moon Valley.

Named Moon a valley by a Belgian priest many years previously it's easier to draw comparisons to Mars than the moon but either way the landscape was like nothing I've ever seen before. As we crawled through rocks carved by water, it seemed bizarre such landscapes could be formed from water when the area receives so little each year. Our guide explained that the ground in the desert is not porous and so does not absorb rainwater well meaning it can gather momentum and pour to lower points taking parts of the soft, sandstone like rock as it goes. In between the orangey stone sits salt crystals and for a time the area was mined for salt. However, with the towering Licancabur volcano in the distance there come some secondary minerals. One found in this area as a result of eruptions is arsenic. Needless to say, due to high levels being found in the salt, the area is no longer mined.

From the first set of caves / tunnels we went to the three Mary's, a set of rocks that have been sculpted by the wind, interesting but not as amazing as our next stop, the grand dune. A giant sand dune which is surrounded by orange rocky outcrops here we had an hour to explore the rocky spine that ran adjacent to the sand dune. The scenery truly took my breath away, I don't think I had ever seen anything like it and I found myself excited for the following landscapes I would see during my Salt Flats Tour. Our next and final stop of the tour was Mirador de Cali to see the sunset over the desert. Sat up above the desert valley it felt as if we had front row seats to the show, and it didn't disappoint as the sun slowly slipped away the sky changed to a magnificent orange and then deep blue. My only complaint with the tour was that we had to leave immediately after the sun had slipped beneath the horizon meaning we only saw the magical colours that fill the sky once the sun has set from the bus. The view was still great but with hindsight I would consider hiring a bike and cycling to the moon valley and Mirador rather than taking a guided tour as then you are able to have more freedom and see the full sunset.

Wanting to know more about the town itself I spent my last morning on another free walking tour, also with the Tours for Tips company I had used in Santiago and Valparaiso. Meandering through the towns mud streets we learnt about the native plants and their uses along with the towns history with Jesuit priests and why their interferences have led to some locals disliking all backpackers that pass through. It was great to see the town through the point of view of a local, and learn about the plants and also fruits and vegetables you can find in the market just outside of town. It's easy as a backpacker to visit a destination for its attractions and skip the historical part of the town. However, the further I travel the more my curiosity for each location is growing and these walking tours provide a much more interactive and informative answer to my questions than Wikipedia or lonely planet!

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