This is one of ten fun stories from ten years of travelling - the rest are here.
When you’re travelling, there are best-laid plans and then the things that actually happen. I’ve always wanted to go to the Atacama Desert in Chile. I’ve seen countless pictures of happy people jumping around the salt flats over the years. It’s great Facebook fodder as the flats are so, well, flat, that you can create crazy images by messing with the perspective.
We had every intention of going to the Atacama but when you arrive in the closest town, one that happens to be in the middle of nowhere (as you’d imagine, the Atacama being a desert and all), the main option presented was a tour.
But sadly I hate tours. I try not to, but I don’t mix so well with others – I’m socially selective, not anti-social – and I don’t like the idea of ‘forced fun.' The ‘look here, now look here’ approach that most tours take.
Sometimes I don’t want to look there, and I don’t want to be told what a pile of stones looks like, I can (often) make up my own mind.
What this means is that before I’d go on a tour, I’ll investigate all the other options first. The usual itinerary for the desert is one that takes place over three days. You see the salt flat, a salt hotel, some rocks, and other things. This did not appeal.
So we made our way to San Pedro De Atacama, the main town in the desert. San Pedro is a tourist town to the Nth degree. It’s one of those artificial places that only exists to cater to tourists, like London (kidding).
It’s nice enough, but it’s very much gap year and rich American tourists who fly in, ‘do the Atacama’ and fly out. This is great, but for someone on a longer term trip, this pushes all the prices up and makes it very hard to do anything in this kinda town.
Being a tourist town, every other building hosts a tour agency, our hostel did, the place next door did and the one after that – you get the idea. So many different tours, but all doing basically the same thing. The offering was almost identical im each of them.
But what’s the other option and is it better? Well for us, the other option was to hire a 4x4 – get a map and drive ourselves. How hard could that be?
Hard. Well not so much hard, more just awkward and badly planned on our part. Or bad luck on our part at least.
We picked up the 4x4 in the evening, with the idea of seeing the sunset and then the next day, getting up early, seeing the sunrise, and then visiting various sites around the area. We had our plan. What we didn’t have was fuel or money.
It turned out that the internet was down for one of the cash machines in the town, so it wasn’t giving money to any foreign cards. The only other cash machine in the town and been subject to an arson attack – not sure what the cash machine had done to ask for that, but it certainly wasn’t giving money out any more.
The next stumbling block came when we were hunting for fuel. We went round and around, and around and nothing. We could see it on the map, but I think whoever drew the map just liked the idea of a garage, rather than there actually being one.
We did, much to the annoyance of everyone on the road, drive down a one-way road. It was clear we were lost, we were going super slowly and yet people still found it necessary to yell abuse at us – people are dicks a lot of the time, have you noticed?
It’s a wonder I didn’t just run people over – it’s a wonder I don’t do that whenever I’m in a car (is something I’d never write down – oops).
With no fuel and no money, we decided against using our brains anymore, and instead, we just left the town and headed for the sunset.
The map told us that 10 minutes outside of town there was a left turn into the desert and from there we just kept going until we found the valley of the moon.
The tarmac road turned into sand that turned into full on desert terrain. But we powered on. It turns out that 4x4’s can go nearly 100mph through the desert. They bounce a lot and protest a little, but this one knew we wanted to see the sunset.
Side note (and it took me ages to get this joke when someone told it to me) – ‘what’s the fastest car in the world? A rental car’. I’ll leave that to you.
As the sun set, there was no sign of a valley of the moon. Though we didn’t actually know what that looks like so when the sun got low in the sky, we stopped the 4x4 and watched it set over the desert.
Then, in the dark, which was much scarier, we drove back to our hostel.
Now we needed a plan, we had no money, nowhere took credit cards, and we had less than half a tank of fuel.
‘We’ll get up early the next morning and drive to the nearest city.’ Alex announced. The nearest city was one hour’s drive away. Once there we had no idea where fuel would be or a bank, but it was at least a (plan).
We headed to bed around 9ish and then by 1 am, neither of us could sleep. We’re like children on Christmas Eve a lot of the time tbh. We decided that now was as good a time as any to set off for the city.
The nice thing about the desert is that you can build lovely straight roads that at 1 am you can zoom down.
The bright lights of the city loomed out of the desert. We didn’t have international sims, and at the time you couldn’t download local GPS to your phones, so we were driving blind. So to speak.
This time luck was on our side. Five minutes from the edge of the city we found a bank, and over the road a garage. We got money, fuel and a sack full of snacks and headed for the best stop to see the sunrise.
On all of the tours, they appeared to take you to one place for the sunrise and a choice of two places for the sunset. With this in mind, we decided to head to the other good place for the sunset as, we assumed there would be no people around and imagined that the sun would still come up regardless of where we positioned ourselves.
On this leg of the journey we had time on our sides, we made it to the side of the stunning volcanic Lake Miscanti. Got out of the car and walked down to the lake. Then rushed back to the car, as much as you can rush in high altitude because it was FREEZING. Then, better dressed and nearer to the actual sunrise, we set off again and stood on the banks of the lake as the sun climbed from behind the volcano and presented us with a moment that felt like being at one with the earth.
A magical, serene moment, just Alex and I (and a few 100 Birds), watched as the sun rose. It’s light reflecting off the water creating an array of yellow and gold hues that reflected around the volcanic crater.
We spent the rest of the day seeing the sites in the area, doing them in a slightly different order to the tour groups. We weren’t, of course, the only ones to have this idea, and we saw a couple of 4x4s with happy travellers visiting the sites.
Tours are great if you want to be sure that you’ll see something, you’ll get there on time and if something goes wrong there is someone to blame. If you’re a touch more gung-ho than that (or just stupid like us), then self-guided trips are by far the way to go.
Just after this trip Alex actually wrote a really informative posts about all the costings - check it out here.