San Pedro de Atacama

Chuquicamata Mine

June 25th, 2013

Having already visited the underground mines of Potosí, it was now time to see a similar thing but with a much larger magnitude: the Chuquicamata Mine in Calama, the biggest open-pit copper mine in the world.

The mine offers free tours (a donation towards underprivileged children in Calama is suggested) which should be booked two days in advance (we just called in the morning, during off-seasons this seems to be no problem). If you are staying in San Pedro de Atacama, like we did, you can just catch a bus from there directly to Calama which takes about 1,5h and roughly sets you back 4,09 – 4,39 € (2.700 – 2.900 CLP). Once you arrive at the bus terminal in Calama, the visitors center of the mining company is just a couple of blocks down on the same road (about 20 min walk).

The tour starts off with a short stop at the old mining town where the workers of the mine and their families used to live. The mining company started moving the 25.000 inhabitants to Calama in 2007 and the last family left in 2008. The reason for this action was that over the years, the mine had expanded massively and was now too close to the town and therefore considered a safety and health hazard for the people living there. Walking around the deserted town reminded me of the documentaries I had seen about Chernobyl because all the buildings are intact and it looks just like everybody left in a hurry. Parts of the town, for example the former hospital, are now buried under mountains of gravel and debris from the mine.

The main part of the tour is, of course, the view over the pit from a viewpoint which had especially been set up for the tours. The dimensions are insane – the pit is now 4.900m long, 3.000m wide and 1.000m deep and can, apparently, be seen from space. It was not possible to properly capture the mine on photo because it`s simply too big. From the top, even the huge dump trucks, which cost US$ 5 million each (the mine has about 100 of them, one tire costs US$ 40.000 and each vehicle has six of them), look tiny. The view is absolutely impressive.

The tour ends with a “visit” of the extracting and melting facilities of the mine which is merely a stop of the bus outside the buildings, you don’t actually get to see any of the procedures. Also, further information is scarce and probably irrelevant for visitors anyway since they mainly come to see the mine itself. That being said, this tour is probably only interesting for people who are interested in this sort of stuff. If you are not, do something else in San Pedro, there are heaps of alternatives to choose from (see below for a few of them).

Quebrada del Diablo & Valle de la Luna

June 26th, 2013

On the second day I rented bikes (7,57€; 5.000 CLP per day) together with Daryl and Xiao, a couple from Singapore I had met on the Uyuni tour. Our first stop was the Quebrada del Diablo, a small canyon located about 6 kilometers north of San Pedro and it takes about 40-60 min to get there by bike. On the way there you have the chance to visit some ruins, though we did not do that.

Pretty much the entire canyon is accessible by bike, which is a large part of the allure of this place and you can ride as far into it as you desire. The canyon reminded me a lot of the ones you see in the movie 127 hours (for those who have seen it). We spent about 1,5-2h there and also climbed one of the walls which offers you a stunning view over the area. If you are there, ride into the canyon for a while until the walls become less steep (read: vertical) and then climb up one of those gravel slopes, it is worth it.

This activity is definitely a gem since not many tourists take the time to go there. Although it is incredible, we didn’t meet another soul during our entire stay in the canyon. If you come to San Pedro, visiting Quebrada del Diablo should definitely be on your list of things to do (winter is probably better for this activity, during summertime you’ll most likely fry in the sun).

After a lunch break in San Pedro we headed out towards the Valle de la Luna which is located about 14 km soutwest of San Pedro and it takes about 50 – 70 min to get there by bike. The admission to the valley is 4,54€ (3.000 CLP) for adults and 3,03€ (2.000 CLP) for students. At the beginning of the valley you get the chance of visiting the Cavernas de Sal, which are salt caves. Unfortunately we were not able to do that since we left San Pedro too late and would have risked missing the sunset if we had a look.

There is not much to do in the Valle de la Luna (which by the way looks completely different from the Valle de la Luna near La Paz, Bolivia) apart from just enjoying the breathtaking view over the Atacama Desert whilst the sun sets and dips the Andes into a fiery red. The scenery of this area is generally amazing because of the desert setting with the snow-covered volcanoes in the background.

Tours in San Pedro also offer a trip to this site by bus. But I recommend you just rent a bike for the day and discover the Quebrada del Diablo and the Valle de la Luna yourself, it is a fun and cheap way to do so.

Geysers de Tatio

June 27th, 2013

The Geysers of Tatio form the highest geyser-field in the world at an altitude of 4.200m. Originally, I planned to visit them on the first day but the roads were closed due to the recent “snow” in the mountains (there was in fact only very little snow, but people in the area are just not used to these conditions) which had made it impossible to get to the geysers.

The tour costs between 22,72 – 27,27€ (15.000 – 18.000 CLP), starts at 4 am and finishes around noon. The admission to the park is 4,54€ (3.000 CLP) for adults and 3,03€ (2.000 CLP) for students. The main reason for the tour starting so early is that the geysers are most active early in the morning. After a 2 hour drive we reached the geyser-field in complete darkness with temperatures as low as -10°C. After spending about 2 hours looking at various geysers of all sizes we had a small breakfast. Next to some of the biggest vents are natural hot springs and whoever dared could go for a dip. We passed on that, not because the springs themselves weren’t tempting but getting dressed afterwards would’ve been quite torturous due to the freezing temperatures outside.

A couple of years back, before the area became a national park and the bigger geysers were secured, two of them had claimed the lives of four tourists who were dumb enough to go right up to the edge which cracked, leading to them falling into the boiling hot water.

If you haven’t seen geysers before (we unfortunately missed out on the ones on the Uyuni tour, again, due to the snow) you should definitely visit if you get the chance.

Those are only three out of many activities that can be done while visiting San Pedro de Atacama. Chile is quite expensive (coming from Bolivia, I was in for a massive price shock) and the fact, that the Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world didn’t really help since it only makes things even more expensive. Otherwise I would’ve definitely stayed a few more days in this lovely town which definitely has its charm. If you do the Uyuni tour from Bolivia, make sure you end it here in San Pedro.

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