San Pedro – Dust and Desert

24 07 2010


San Pedro Atacama, northern Chile

“Shhh!” urged our guide as he wildly flapped his arms to silence his unwieldly group. I stopped in my tracks, scared to move for fear of alerting the lurking beast to my presence. I glanced around, everyone was motionless, hoping to hide under the sheet of darkness but instead we were illuminated by the brilliant moonlight.

“There it is. Listen!” he whispered.

I cocked my ears upwards and heard light rain falling on a tin roof, but we were in Death Valley, a rust-hued canyon, with only the stars as our canopy.

Just then I heard a rattle. “Is that a snake?” the woman next to me whispered.

Sunset from Valle de la Luna, San Pedro, Chile

“It’s the rocks,” Miguel, our Chilean guide, began. I could feel the group breathe again. “They’re expanding now that the temperature has dropped.”

We were standing in a purple silhouetted canyon near the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. The ravine was carved out millions of years ago by a river which dried up in a prehistoric era. The intense heat in the day causes the salt in the rocks to expand, but once darkness descends they creak until their sides have emptied.

All 10 of us serpentined through the gorge walls, 150 metres high, which loomed overhead. We should have been here in daylight but the football fanatic town of San Pedro (the town’s shortened name) came to a standstill to watch the final Chile World Cup match and pushed our tour back by two hours.

We’d raced against time, the wheels of the van spewing red dust in our wake, to reach the moonscape region of Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) in time for the sun’s diminishing rays.

A jagged peak was our perch, alongside a hundred other tourists, to the watch the undulating landscape transform its colours as daylight bid its goodbye in blaze of orange and lilac. A collective sigh ran through the still air as the mountains took on a kaleidoscope of pastel hues before settling on a purple pall, the full moon ensuring that their serrated edges were still visible.

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Moonscape of Valle de la Luna

Valle de la Luna is among one of the driest places on earth and according to Miguel some areas have been without rain for over a century. The lifeless terrain was chosen by scientists to complete a Mars rover test before orbiting it to the red planet. In the dusk, the environment appeared to be even more menacing than before.

The entire area surrounding San Pedro consists of a vermilion desert with gargantuan canyons, walls of red rock and dust stretching out to the hazy horizon. It resembles the Spaghetti Western film sets, I even saw cowboys sauntering down the adobe-brick lined streets.

Earlier that day I peddled to Quebrada del Diablo weaving between protruding rocks before being swallowed by a mouth of crooked peaks. The mirador, or viewpoint, stood proud over the dominating desert, volcanoes and rocky outposts.

Below me a gust of wind broke the midday heat, drumming up a dust storm and teasing it slowly across the expansive land before vanishing into thin air. The panoramic vista took my breath away, but to be honest the physical ascent to the top could have been guilty of that.

Inca Ruins of Pukara de Quitor

After accidently catapulting myself from the bike and crashing onto a mattress of sand, I headed (albeit at a slower pace) to the terraced ruins of Pukara de Quitor. Once a lookout post over an ancient trafficking route, the 12th Century Inca ruins were the settlement of an entire village. Now all that remains are the outer walls of several dwellings with pink dust coating the adobe bricks.

San Pedro - ruins of Pukara de Quitor

Luckily I’d timed my visit perfectly – I was the only person to devour the history and tranquility as I wandered along an hour-long trail to a vantage point. I peered down at the river I’d crossed earlier and shivered at the memory of the icy water cutting through my toes. I turned my face to the sun and momentarily enjoyed basking in the morning sun.

Ostriches and an oasis in Toconao

A 60-minute bus journey from San Pedro took me to Toconao, a lethargic and dusty Atacama village. The gleaming white plaza, found in every Chilean town and village, was where I’d find any action. But I’d stumbled there at siesta time and found coca-chewing grannies shading themselves in the church’s shadows while stray dogs watched me wearily. Everything else slept.

I wound along the banks of a river – an oasis in the middle of the desert. Its sides were walled with fruit trees, bushes and medicinal plants and the deep ravine lead to a small-scale national park. Mounds of white stone, mined for local buildings, merged into the vast desert. Dust and sand surrounded me while the unforgiving landscape soaked up the midday heat.

Back in the town however, things were livening up. I stumbled upon a local fiesta in honour of San Juan, the three-day long celebration that

The cemetery at Toconao, near San Pedro

 marks the start of the winter season (or summer in Spain). I was shepherded into a chapel which was someone’s converted living room complete with an altar, candles and alarming amounts of Virgin Mary pictures.

A welcoming lady donned her pride and joy – an ostrich pelt, complete with dangling bone legs and skull. I was clueless as to why she was jigging around the room in it and prayed, seeing as I was in the chapel, that I didn’t have to do the same. Someone was looking out for me as I was whisked away by a beer guzzling man. Now I just had to try to convince him that I was a tee-total…



  • The thinnest country in South America
  • Has a population of nearly 17 million
  • The south perishes in freezing cold gusts of Antarctic winds during winter while the north basks in the baking sun

San Pedro Atacama

  • The small northern town is easily navigated by foot
  • Is set in the middle of the Atacama desert
  • It’s nearby to the highest geysers in the world
  • Is the stop-off point for trips to Valle de la Luna
  • It’s 20 hours north of Santiago, Chile’s capital

How to get to San Pedro Atacama

There’s no direct link to the quaint desert town. Instead, hop on a bus to Calama, the closest main town and take a TurBus coach to San Pedro. Several leave daily, including one at 8.50am and 10.15am.

How to get to Toconao from San Pedro Atacama

Take the bus from the Atacama 2000 bus station. Two leave daily at 9.45am and 1.15pm. Return buses leave Toconao at 1.15pm and 5pm.





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