San Pedro de Atacama
We arrived in Calama and tried to stretch. Overnight bus rides aren’t our favorite things, but at least we got some sleep on this one. While we had a bus ticket all the way to San Pedro de Atacama, there was no car rentals there. Calama was as closest car rental place as you could get to San Pedro and it was still 100km away. Normally we would bus around to the sites and not drive, but San Pedro is a very touristy and remote place. The buses greatly restrict where and when you can go to places which results in a crush of people. If you have a vehicle, you can visit locations that the busses don’t go and/or times when the other people are not there.
Calama is one of the driest cities on Earth. 150,000 people working in and around one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world.
The bus station was in the middle of Calama, but the (cheapest) car rental was outside of town. A taxi and a 15-minute ride dropped us off at the Mitta car rental place. Most people renting vehicles go for pickup trucks, but we went for the cheapest sub-compact we could get. We ended up with a brand-new hatchback.
100 km later, we pull into our airbnb. Laura had opted for a nicer place as we would be staying for nine days around my birthday. It was a secure set of bungalows with a courtyard. Each bungalow had a rooftop patio, kitchenette, tiny living room, and breakfast delivered.
**As a side note for any who haven’t heard of or been to San Pedro de Atacama or the Atacama Desert, it is a beautiful and dry place. Sheltered by the Andean Mountains, the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. Some places there have NEVER HAD RECORDED RAINFALL. I am talking dry.
The harshly dry climate and high elevation (2407 m / 7900 ft) draws astronomers and sight seers from around the world. Pools of extremely salty water, volcanic regions, salt flats, and strange animals are a few of the many attractions.
After dropping off our luggage, we hopped in the car and went to see Pukará de Quitor which is just outside of town. It is an interesting pre-Columbian archaeological site with many kilometers of trails. It was a nice way to stretch our legs and get some fresh air after the bus and car drive.
We wondered the town in search of ATMs (our Airbnb decided they would prefer cash). After maxing out our daily withdrawal rate from the three functional ATMs, we had dinner and looked for tours and sites to visit.
Well rested from sleep in a real bed, we hopped in our car and motored to the nearby Valle d la Luna. The aptly named “Valley of the Moon” is an interesting grouping of geological features, hiking trails, and mining relics. You need to check in at the visitor’s center and pay a small fee. There was also limited windows when you could enter the park, so check ahead if you are going.
We stopped for a few hikes in the loose dry soil. On one hike we came across thousands of bees living in hundreds of holes in the ground. Despite the complete lack of water, plants, and other insects, these black bees (possibly Centris nigerrima) were active and thriving on one trail. We walked the trail through the swarms of them without any interaction. A few lay dead or dying on the ground, but none paid us any attention.
We walked among salt mines and abandoned mining equipment in on area. Several crumbling structures made of salt and dirt dotted the area. By the size and layout, I would guess they were for sleeping and possibly storage of salt that was ready for transport. Nowhere could water or vegetation be seen. It was an extremely stark kind of beauty.