One week in San Pedro de Atacama: desert, snow and a valuable lesson

If I learned one thing from traveling it is to let go sometimes. As a control freak with a fear of missing out (which almost leads to a pleonasm) I normally like to plan everything in advance. In daily life that might work a bit. But it often turns out to be impossible while traveling. And the beauty of it is: it leads to unexpected experiences, friends, and memories.

Like the time I visited San Pedro de Atacama. Already, crossing the border from Bolivia was quite a hassle. It was winter in Bolivia and it snowed a lot. Even more than normally. Since the border was located at a high altitude, and the snow was even worst at the border, it had been closed for a couple of days. Luckily, we could cross on the one day the border was open. We were brought to the Chilean border, but the car that was supposed to pick us up from Chile couldn’t reach us. Therefore, our Bolivian driver drove us off-road into Chile. Quite spectacular.

San Pedro de Atacama turned out to be a sleepy desert town with two dusty main streets. My plan was to stay a couple of days and then move on to northern Argentina (Salta). But the road to the border with Argentina also reached a high altitude and was closed as well because of the snow. On my daily visits to the bus station I was always informed that the border would probably open in a day or two. But since I kept hearing the same message for a week (with the border still being closed) I decided to change my route and fly to Santiago from San Pedro de Atacama and take the bus to Mendoza from there. This meant skipping the north of Argentina and spending way more time than planned in San Pedro de Atacama.

Even though many tours from San Pedro de Atacama were also closed because of the weather, there were still many things to do. I had a great week. Here are some of my highlights:

Valle de la Luna and Valle Arcoiris

I visited the beautiful moon valley (Valle de la Luna) twice. Once during the day, to enjoy the amazing views from the sand dunes and to walk through this surreal (moon shaped) landscape. And once during the evening to see the full moon and some planets through a telescope. San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best places for stargazing but the weather and full moon made that difficult in the week I visited San Pedro de Atacama. Joining a full moon tour was a beautiful alternative for me though!

Another beautiful trip was the trip to Valle Arcoiris or ‘rainbow valley’. The landscape reminded me a bit of Petra, in Jordan, because of the color of the rocks: warm red and orange. But the rainbow valley is particularly known for its impressive rocks in several colors: green, blue, orange… which obviously gave the valley its name.

Food and drinks

And then it snowed in the desert! Not just at the high altitudes, but in the village as well. All locals were excited! Snow! In San Pedro de Atacama! And thus, I allowed myself a hot chocolate in my -in the meantime- favorite hangout: Roots. I enjoyed a croissant in my -also in the meantime- favorite French Bakery and I had an incredible hamburger for dinner at the Burger Garden. An American girl said it was one of the best burgers she had in her life, and that she, as an American, could know. I agreed, even though I’m evidently not a connoisseur, as a Dutchie. To top it off, I enjoyed a pisco sour (a typical Chilean and Argentinean drink -they argue about who invented it) with sage at Barros. Ok, I admit, I didn’t eat/drink all this in one day, but it sounds better for my blog :-).

Cycling and horseback riding

The area around San Pedro de Atacama is also perfect for cycling. I cycled to Valley de la Muerte (Death Valley or Mars Valley). The first part was on the highway, but shortly I entered the valley and I cycled on a beautiful dusty mountain road.  I walked up the last part; the sand made it hard to continue cycling. After a climb up the mountain the view was again rewarding, figuratively and literally breath taking! The photos speak for themselves I would say.


On other days I cycled towards Quepos (where I watched a stunning sunset from the hills of the ruins) and I enjoyed the area while horseback riding.

It turned out to be a great week, with breath taking views, sunsets, discoveries, food, drinks and nice people. And it reconfirmed one of my life lessons again: letting go of a plan can turn out to be great! So now, I’m planning to let go of my plan more often :-).