Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
The stories of San Pedro on our travels had us imagining a city with thousands of people. It turns out that only 5,000 people inhabit this tiny little town in Northern Chile on the border with Bolivia and Argentina. It’s a popular end point for the Salt Flats like what we had just done. People are also moving Northward in the opposite direction doing the same thing. It’s a popular transit point and also a very popular hangout for Chileans. This also makes the place one of the most expensive in Chile.
The average rainfall is less than 50mm (2 inches) a year. The place really and truly is very dry.
We had come here with the intention of participating in a few activities including Star Gazing, Sand Boarding and tours to the nearby scenic valleys resembling far away planets.
Top tip: Star Gazing is not good and does not happen on the days before and after a full moon. For example our desired agency (Space) was closed from September 4th to 12th for tours.
Showing our amateur astrology skills in knowing when good conditions would be, we decided to stay in San Pedro an extra couple of days in hopes of getting onto a tour.
This is a small town but there is a lot of varying accommodation from budget to super luxury resorts at $1000 a night. We asked a local and was told about “Hostal los Kanas” with a dorm bed for 7,000 pesos ($11.85) each. This was the most expensive accommodation for months. Even in the Galapagos we found double private rooms for $25. The place was off the main tourist street and seemed quiet and relaxing. The owners were also super friendly all the time.
We rented bikes for the afternoon from the nearby internet café for 3,000 pesos ($5). This included a lock, new tubes (in case of punctures) and a pump.
Pukara de Quitor
Our first destination was a 3km ride out to an ancient fortress. We’d read about some ancient heads on a gate and a good lookout point. We found half of a head on an arch but the lookout point would cost 3,000 ($5) each to access. We chose to skip the lookout point and headed to our next destination of Valle de la Luna.
Valle de la Luna
This is the best known of the valleys in the local area. Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) gets its name from its barren landscape that resembles the moon. You can find tours on the main street going here typically combined with some other locations for around 10,000 pesos ($17) plus entrance of 2,000 ($3.40). We’d chosen the bike riding to hopefully be a bit more independent and avoid some of the crowds.
It turned out the ride to the valley was a lot harder than we’d bargained for. There was a strong wind blowing against us making things much harder than we wanted. Our bikes were built for dirt more than road which also made the going harder on bitumen.
For reference to ride from town to the sunset point is roughly 12 km one way with a couple of steep up and downhill sections depending on direction.
We arrived into the pay control point at around 4.45pm and got our map of the park. It was 5km until the salt canyon which would take us about 30 minutes. Sadly we followed a number of other groups and this took forever. Without crowds, it should take maybe 20 minutes to get through the whole thing in one direction. The landscape up on top of the canyon was also spectacular.
We were then on our bikes again for about 2km to go to the parking lot for sunset point. This ride showed off more of the landscape that had been created by the strong winds.
The walk to the sunset ridge takes around 10-15 minutes. The ridge itself is probably several kilometres long. A lot of tourists head back towards where the carpark is, but some really nice views and tranquility are available in the other direction. We were up on top at about 6.30pm with official sunset at 7.25pm. This was at least 30 minutes or more too late. There were already long black shadows covering a lot of the interesting landscape.
For those with more time you should go to the amphitheatre rock and the viewpoint for the 3 Maries. These are 3 rocks next to each other carved out by the blowing sand. This may not be worth visiting based on at one other person’s opinion.
The sunset itself was really quite stunning as the colours changed on the rocks and views changed rapidly over the time. Sadly, you’ll be sharing it with around 100 other people.
The ride back was countless times easier with the wind at our back. It was only about 35 minutes one way from the sunset point to get back into the town of San Pedro.
Bring something to cover your face with if you have it as the tour buses and cars pass you on the way back picking up tonnes of duct. You’ll absolutely need a headlight of some sort to see where you’re going as there’s no street lights.
This was the main thing we wanted to do here. The world of astronomy has long known this area is one of the best places in the world to watch the stars. On average there are around 320 cloudless nights each year and almost no rain. We had to wait until a few days after the full moon to get our chance. We had chosen to go with “Space” who we heard good personal and online recommendations for. The cost was 18,000 pesos ($30) each for the tour.
The only complication with these tours is they are weather dependent. We’re not sure if it was just the night we were on, or it happens every night, but we had to return to the office multiple times (5pm, 7pm, 8pm) for confirmation. This was due to them waiting to confirm if it would be a cloudy night or not. In the end it was confirmed and we paid our money.
We were told to meet on a street corner at 9.50pm to be picked up by a bus. The group size maximum is 24 people, so be prepared to have a lot of people with you. In all honesty, the group size really doesn’t matter as much as online reviewers seem to make it out to be.
We were driven for around 15 minutes to a dark location outside of San Pedro where we would meet our guide, an English speaking Canadian (Hamilton, Ontario) who had been living here more than 4 and a half years. He began speaking about what we could see in the sky. At this point in time the only planets were Mars, Saturn and Uranus. A tip is that Planets don’t blink or flicker whereas stars do. The moon was not visible, which is apparently a good thing as it gives off too much light and hides many stars.
We got the feeling he could talk for days about the stars. We would learn why stars have different colours (different temperatures), different brightness (distance away) and names of them (we would fail that re-test). There was an explanation in the history of astronomy, not to be confused with astrology, the prediction of events using stars. The first telescope was used but not invented by Gallileo(SP??) some 400 years ago. The church placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life after he discovered that Earth was not the centre of the Universe.
We would learn the visible constellations of which many still really make no sense to us. The use of a really bright laser pointer helped in identifying key elements.
The explanations lasted for maybe 1.5 hours and then we visited the telescope farm of which there were 10 telescopes of varying shapes and sizes. Here they were setup to look at various things in the sky but needed regular readjustment as the Earth rotated and they moved in the sky. We would get a closer look at Mars, but it still just looked like a Red dot in the sky. No aliens to be spotted through that telescope. Some of our favourites were the clusters of stars you can’t see with the naked eye. One was shaped like a diamond studded butterfly. Another was a galaxy of some huge number of stars (3 billion or more).
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/