We were lucky to spend a few days freestyle sightseeing in Atacama desert and this story is about amazing places we discovered to the North of San Pedro.
Atacama desert awed us with the variety of landscapes, abundance of animals and plants and especially with the authentic way of living, where humans seamlessly blend with nature in this wild and remote place. If you want to see stunning canyons of the United States, signature scenery of African savanna, unique beauty of Andes, surreal landscapes of the Dead Sea and endless steppes of Australia in one place – you are welcome to Atacama desert. There is no heart on Earth that would not melt from a smile of a llama or would not stumble when a flock of graceful flamingos suddenly take off and spread their strong powerful wings just above your head
Having travelled the world we hardly saw more indigenous villages, where people day by day remain true to traditions of their ancestors and modestly take from the progressing civilisation (that is already there, at their finger tips) only bare minimum that they need. Hot and dusty desert somehow became a sip of fresh air in our travel itinerary, and here is one of the snapshot of this amazing trip
CALAMA TO SAN FRANCISCO DE CHIU CHIU
Having landed in the airport of Calama soon after sunrise, we rented an old good Hilux and immediately took off exploring. First stop – San Francisco de Chiu-Chiu, home to one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in Chile and the most delicious carne empanadas we tried in the whole Latin America. We had a leisurely walk along very few streets in this cute village, took our time to enjoy and absorb the views of the famous snow-white church and stocked up with water and fresh bakery in one of the local mini shops. Wish we could stay more, but there is a long way ahead. Atacama sightseeing north of San Pedro includes so many beautiful places… It is a real struggle to plan your day accurately.
Back in the car and driving higher and higher to the mountains that shelter in their gorges the village of Toconce. It has eponymous view point that resembles an illustration to one of Jules Verne novels or a postcard you would send to your family from the end of the world. There should be several mountain trails around but as soon as you start to climb you notice how greedily you grab air at the altitude of 4 km, and how your unused heart starts to jump out of the chest in the midday heat. We definitely needed to give our bodies some time to adjust to the altitude.
It is hard to say what is more breathtaking – visiting Toconce or driving there. Snow peaks of ancient volcanoes contrasting with saturated blue skies at the horizon, empty road running hundred miles away into endless sands generously dotted with dwarf bushes and herds of llamas, lovingly decorated with necklaces and earrings, that are leisurely crossing the road here and there. You will hardly see any other car within an hour, so it is really only you and the majesty of Andes around
After Toconce we are rewarded with the next beautiful drive in complete solitude, we are heading to Caspara this time to check another old Chilean church. It is becoming harder and harder to resist the views and we make a couple of stops before arriving to the village. Photography is challenging in the blinding sun but those moments of simply standing there in front of ancient snow-topped mountains and enjoying the beautiful of nature are priceless
After a short stroll at Caspara we are heading back south. Scenery changes dramatically, road twists among the succulent green hills and herds of young vicunas pop up on the sides of the road. They are scared off by the sound of the car engine but very curious about the clicks of the camera shutter. Should you just turn off the car and start taking pictures they stop running away, turn around and stay there looking at you, enchanted by a strange new sound as long as you continue to take shots
Our way lowers down to Machuca – a settlement of 20 houses with a beautiful little church, and rather popular in the area home restaurant with signature llama barbecue. We are late for the treat unfortunately, so we will have to return another day. But before we move on – just a few beautiful moments more. Right after Machuca, on the way to Guatin, there are a couple of lagunas favoured by flamingos and our friends vicunas, lets take a look at what they are up to
GUATIN TO SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
Last stop of a long an extraordinary day – another small settlement called Guatin. Tour agencies bring excursion here to hike through giant cactus and fox-tail plants along the rocky banks of Puritama river. Well, we are our own agency and guides for the Atacama sightseeing north of San Pedro today. Therefore, having noticed a spot where several tourist minibuses are parked we pull over and park our used-to-be-red-in-the-morning Hilux nearby as well. A few steep steps down and we are inside the Cardones Gorge. From here you can just follow the stream as long as you like, and once you are finally bored of plants that are three times your height – turn around and do the same way back. There is an alternative hike nearby that will bring one to the Baths of Puritatma – we did not explore it since it was already quite late in the day
Sun starts to descend. It is time to head to San Pedro, to check into the hotel and have some rest after exhausting but stunning day. Sadly San Pedro is the town where 98% of all Atacama hotels are located. So no matter how far you go during the day, you’ll have to return there for the night
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