Shoutout to API for saving my trip to Atacama

November 21, 2019
Christopher Davis in Atacama Chile

Today’s blog post comes to us from University of Arkansas Little Rock student & API blogger Christopher Davis. He’s studying abroad with us in Valparaiso, Chile.

Hello readers (or those who are still sticking around out of a sense of obligation after dm’ing you this entry–your support is what keeps me going).  I wanted to continue to update you on my experience in Chile with a recount of a trip that I took to San Pedro de Atacama (shout out to API that made this trip possible)–with a few little tips from my experience.

Pre-Trip Context

San Pedro de Atacama is an oasis town in the Atacama desert in the Northern region of Chile (1052 miles from Santiago which can be better seen by the picture below). As an interesting tidbit (which I’ll revisit a bit later), this API trip actually came on the heels of having to turn down what would have been a week long trip to Atacama during the fiestas patrias of Chile with some acquaintances I met from Spain.  I wasn’t terribly thrilled about having to say no to the week long trip, but API came through giving me a little taste of what I missed out. The trip would last the weekend with us leaving on August 2, a Friday and coming back that Sunday.

A great time for napping

Given how much time I had to prepare and how short the trip was, I, naturally, procrastinated until the wee hours of the morning the day before to actually begin the packing process. Granted we were told only to bring what would fit into a carry on bag (so my backpack was perfect), but still things ended up a bit more rushed than I had hoped, and more importantly, I ended up with less sleep than I would have really liked. Don’t do this to yourself.

My saving grace was that the majority of the morning was spent in a handful of hour long transit stages: an hour long-ish bus ride from Viña del Mar to Santiago; an hour long flight from Santiago to calama [an airport in the North of Chile]; and another hour long bus trip to San Pedro Atacama.  Needless to say I had plenty of time to find new and interesting ways of to add to my sleeping [picture of me and Jermey sleeping]. It was glorious.

As a note that might be important for you who want to consider this trip, it is normal for there to be turbulence on your way to Calama.   The turbulence didn’t freak me out too much, but it did have an unwelcome similarity to the sensation I got when riding the Mega Drop at a state fair back home (that sudden feeling at the top of a drop when you’re free falling feel your stomach disappear and your senses turn for a second to “pending-death” mode). With all that said, I am writing to you, so I am alive (as far as you know), but for the less tolerant of motion, please bring a flying buddy to use as a human stress ball for the little lurches. There is no shame–I had to be a human stress ball on the flight to and from Calama.

A welcome throwback-looking town

When we finally arrived in Atacama, I was really impressed by the look of the town. It was quaint (a word I don’t get to use often!) The town is kind of a long stretch of clay walls sectioning off the town into different sectors.  The roads aren’t paved and so it’s just sand/dust with shops lining either side. I could actually imagine what maybe living in the adobe pueblos during colonial times might have been like, and so that was really cool to see.

We arrived at the hotel, got our roommates and room keys, unpacked and then went out for food. I was hungry…so very hungry and I had brought 30 thousand pesos for the weekend suspecting that that would be enough (I didn’t want to bring my life savings or anything crazy, you know?) However, it was on the hunt for food that I realized that had not brought nearly enough to last me (as a little spoiler, I did in fact run out of money before the weekend ended, and that was just because of buying food!). My advice is to expect to spend maybe 50 for every three days (probably a bit more if you want to buy souvenirs). And please please please, bring bills in small denominations (do not trust that your credit card will be accepted).

Money aside, at first the town seemed relatively quiet. There weren’t many people walking around. Sometimes the wind would kick up and blow things into your eyes.

Luckily another API student and I were able to find some empanadas for cheap relatively close to the hotel, and a few minutes later some other friends, making a total of four now, joined us to hunt for food. 

To my surprise when that’s when I realized that if I had walked maybe 10 more paces away from the empanada shop the town was actually a little bit more “happening”. It was nothing wild, but groups of tourists were walking down the roads going to different shops made just for tourists (like places to organize tours).  Our little group settled on having pizza and we split the bill.

The empanadas were amazing and the pizza was amazing. Get pizza from Atacama–you deserve it.

Day 1 – My First Star-gazing Tour

Now because we had arrived late in the afternoon, I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t have the chance to really do anything as far as tours were concerned.  Lo and behold, we had a star-gazing trip scheduled. I was excited because the skies would be pretty clear and I had never really star gazed in a non-light-polluted area before.  Another API student had described his experience with a star gazing tour beforehand–how the guide traced out the different constellations and described them. He hoped that we would have that experience. After hearing that, I hoped that would be our experience..

All of the API students arrived in a field at night. We had a brief introduction to some different astronomical vocabulary and then we were guided out to a big circle of chairs to view the stars. We were given blankets because it was cold. I had brought some layers and still the blanket was greatly appreciated.

The guide took the time to outline different constellations and point out different bodies of stars. He explained their meaning and segued into a bit of “philosophy” about the cosmos.  In a kind of national geographic narrator sort of way he talked about how our ancestors did the exact thing we were doing now, how all myths came from star gazing, and how the same stuff that makes up the stars we’re seeing are a part of us.

Was it getting maybe a bit close to being overly sentimental–maybe, but in all honesty I loved it.  There was something compelling about feeling connected to a group of long lost ancestors, even with all our modern trappings, by finding some form of diversion in looking at the sky. To imagine that, from a material perspective, we are the universe observing itself. That was really cool.

We took a look at the moon and even Jupiter through a telescope (and tried to get a good picture of both) [my picture of the moon] and after a group photo we made our way back to the hotel.

Day 2 – Freezing with Flamingos

The next day, I was pleasantly surprised by having a buffet-style breakfast in the cafeteria of the hotel.  There was yogurt, oats, eggs, sausage, fruit (oranges, kiwi) and bread and juice. It was so good, and enjoyed the options thoroughly.

After eating we were shuttled around to do some walking tours. We visited the Los Flamencos National Reserve in Salar de Atacama and we were able to take pictures of the flamingos there (but far away so as not to disturb them).

Next we visited the lagoons Miscanti and Meñiques (which actually used to be one lagoon once upon a time) It was at this point in the trip that wished I had brought more layers.   The view was beautiful and the water was so blue (and I love blue!). The mountains and volcanoes in the background looked amazing, but what the pictures will not convey is just how ungodly the cold was. It was terrible. The wind was blowing so hard and I could hardly stand still for the pictures that I did take–the cold on the star-gazing trip was a mercy. All the same it was a great time.

We came back to the hotel to eat lunch and then took a bus to the final location of our tour: la Valle de la Luna (the valley of the moon–named because the valley resembles the surface of the moon). We walked around la valle and the views here were gold!  All of the dunes and “canyons” were so beautiful. And at the end of this tour we watched the sunset (another first for me).

When we came back to the hotel, we dispersed again to have dinner (which is when I ran out of money), and began the process of packing for the trip back home the next day.  Before actually finding a place to eat a group of us had to wander before finding a place we all agreed on. At night San Pedro had a bit more life to it. Again, nothing crazy like in the cities, but the fancier restaurants had a bit more of a festive ambience. There was a karaoke night for one restaurant and an awards show going on in a closed off area (we could hear the music from the outside).

Day 3–A Day for more pictures

The final day I was able to have the wonderful buffet-style breakfast (may that hotel be blessed forever and ever more) and do a bit of homework. Before finally heading out we browsed the ferias for souvenirs (what I didn’t get in actual purchases I made up for in taking pictures) and then we finally made our way back to Calama, then to Santiago, and then Viña (from which I was ubered back to Valparaíso).

A few travel notes

I really do appreciate that I was able to have this chance of going–after having turned down my acquaintances from Spain, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to go at all during my time here.  For any of you who may be looking for a place to travel in Chile, I’d highly recommend going there.

Do some research on different tours–there was only so much I could do during a weekend, and please make sure you bring enough money to actually stay somewhat comfortably.  Even outside of the actual living costs it can get expensive. The good thing about even being invited on the trip by my acquaintances from Spain is that I could get a window into the costs to organizing the trip yourself. The plane ticket from Santiago to Calama alone cost me close to $100.  Then you also need to make sure you pay fare for a trip to Santiago (if you aren’t already living in the city). And to top it all off, finding living arrangements can become pricey (especially if you want to be able to use the little wifi that is available in the middle of the desert (which is honestly one of the last places on Earth Wi-fi has any business being)–fortunately the hotel booked by API did have Wi-Fi).

With all of the pragmatics aside, I don’t doubt you’d enjoy Atacama.  It’s a slow paced town it seems, that really is suited for a time to actually relax. Thanks for reading and I hope to check in with you real soon.


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