San Pedro de Atacama, Iquique, Arica, and the Deserts of Northern Chile 


Countless visits to Moab, Utah have always lent the desert a special place in my heart. There is such amazing beauty that can be found in these boundless landscapes. I’m not sure whether it is actual beauty inherent in the desert, the starkness that magnifies the smallest amounts of color, or the massiveness in such expansive plots of earth that make one feel so small. What is certain is that few manifestations of nature can prompt so much inflection and captivate as a result of such brutal simplicity: pale blue skies, wispy white clouds, the warm grays, yellows and reds of rocks, soil, and mountains, and the relentless pounding of a hot sun. I find it a fitting metaphor for parts of life, with dogged pursuit and resilience broken by unexpected and truly genuine respites of explosive rainbows of color, oases in a dry desert. The last few weeks spent in Northern Chile have only reaffirmed my steadfast belief in the importance and perfection found in exploring strange places with the best of friends.


Our jaunt began in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town of 4,000 that is one of Chile’s top tourist attractions. I would sum it up as such: take Moab, add the adobe architecture of Taos, New Mexico, add an unending view of some of the largest mountains in the world, shrink it to a tiny town and inject abject poverty surrounding hordes of foreigners and you get San Pedro. San Pedro sits near the junctions of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, which are separated by the enormous Cordillera of the Andes. There are over 700 volcanoes in this area of the world, and many surrounding San Pedro exceed 17,000 feet of altitude, all the way up to Ojos del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world at above 22,000 feet. The endless view in both directions of these monsters neatly lined up in a row was nothing short of picturesque. Sunsets and the resulting alpenglow were accordingly phenomenal.


Despite being a tourist trap, we managed to emerge from San Pedro with our wallets relatively unscathed. Days were spent renting bikes and, including my twenty-third birthday, riding into the surrounding red hills and salt flats that definitely reminded me of Moab. 


We paid for a tour to the geothermal geyser field underneath the El Tatio volcano, the highest in the world in terms of elevation at 14,500 feet above sea level and only superseded by Yellowstone in terms of the height of the geysers. 


Despite freezing pre-dawn temperatures and a bus driver who kept taking troublingly deep naps between stops the tour was well worth it. 


The following day we met up with easily our best friends from this trip so far, an ever-present trio of Scottish architecture students living in Santiago with whom we’ve had some great weekends with in the past few months. We crammed six twenty somethings into a tiny rented Kia hatchback and took the best trip of the week up into the Andes to two perfectly pristine lakes resting underneath the 19,000 foot volcanoes of Miscanti and Miñiques.


We went in the late afternoon and had the place to ourselves, an absolutely incredible experience with truly the best of friends.


Unfortunately, the crown jewel of our trip to San Pedro, a summit attempt of 19,521 foot Licancabur, a perfect conical active volcano overlooking the town, was thwarted by an almost comical combination of an inability to cross the Bolivian border with U.S. passports and unmarked minefields surrounding and extending up onto the peak. The landmines remain as a legacy of border clashes between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia that saw the latter lose its access to the sea and develop a strong resentment towards Chile as a result of a permanent landlocked status. Nevertheless, the three Coloradans who simply wanted to climb a mountain were forced to look elsewhere for a hike that had a strictly zero percent chance of landmine danger. Luckily enough for us Chile has over 2,000 volcanoes, so we packed our bags and headed north to the coastal port of Iquique via a long bus ride through the blank desert for some time on the beach and subsequent alpine scheming. Leaving the Scots behind for the time being was the saddest event of the trip by a long shot, but overall San Pedro was dry, dusty, and otherworldly.  


We spent a short time in Iquique, a port city of 210,000 that Jackson fittingly described as being “a kind of crappy place with a great vibe.” Like most of Chile, it featured an easily discernible mix of infrastructural development and local poverty, very evident after walking in just a few blocks from the beach. Walking around the city revealed an interesting, genuine city that serves an important role in the interflow of commerce in the area, especially for the large mining industry in the region. 


Our time was mainly confined to the Backpackers hostel and the adjacent Playa Cavancha, which was wholly okay with us following a week in the desert. 


The next stop on our desert swing, following another long bus ride and a brief stopover in Arica, was the small town of Putre. An Aymara village of 1,300 resting at over 11,500 feet above sea level, Putre was nestled inauspiciously into a small valley carved between mountains on both sides. The drive in to both Arica and then Putre was yet another reaffirmation of the importance in finding beauty in unexpected places, in this case massive canyons and ridges on both sides of highways that alternated between concrete and dirt, snaking through chasms that swallowed up cars and busses into incredible, distant sunsets and breathtaking views. 


Putre seemed more Bolivian in culture than it did Chilean, with traditional Aymara people making their living off both the land and the occasional tourist coming to see the nearby national park. The Andean feeling made sense, as the borders with both Peru and Bolivia were roughly an hour away.


Prices were much cheaper than in the rest of Chile, with a full, three course meal at a sit down restaurant costing around $5. A large volcano rose imposingly over most of the town, the aptly-named “slum hill” (another solid Jacksonism). While the standard of living was certainly modest, people were very nice and friendly, exemplified perfectly when sitting in a restaurant and having every single person (complete strangers) stopping to wish you a heartfelt “buenas tardes y buen provecho” (good afternoon and bon appetit) upon both entering and exiting the room. The extremely strong sun and a buildup of early mornings and long bus rides resulted in a more relaxing stay than we had anticipated, but I was thoroughly pleased with Putre as a whole.


We had a few dinners of empanadas from a corner bodega next to the town plaza, which rated really highly for me. Having had quite a few ‘nadas at this three-month point in my time here in South America, there are a few important qualities I look for in the little guys, and these certainly delivered. Cost effectiveness is assumed in the ‘nada equation, but rating the actual product can be split into two categories: the dough and the filling. A good outside is baked and not fried, soft and warm while riding the thin line between melting upon eating while retaining the slightest crunch. 

The most common filling in Chile has been pino carne, which is a mixture of beef, onion, hard-boiled egg, and olives. The best of these have deeply caramelized onions and hug the doughy walls warmly. Other solid fillings I’ve had were seafood, mushroom and cheese, Neapolitan (ham, tomato, and cheese), and ave (literally bird). ‘Nadas have obviously earned a special place in my heart, and served steaming hot and with some potent ají (hot sauce) are a real treat. As with most truly great food, they are also best enjoyed from a hole in the wall spot where you just know that the lack of structure and flash leads to explosions of goodness. They are the perfect item: small enough to be a snack, hearty enough to make into a meal, and when good, unbeatable.


Back to real life, from Putre we tried to access Parque Nacional Lauca, 70 km away and sporting the twin volcanoes Parinacota and Pomerape. A first day of hitchhiking beginning before sunrise took us straight up the hill towards the Bolivian altiplano on, in succession, the back of a shipping truck, a 4×4 pickup, and finally a huge construction tractor-trailer that left us 16 km from the park at around 15,000 feet, so close yet so far away. 


The next day, however, was much more successful despite a combined cash balance of exactly zero Chilean pesos. We hitched a ride with an electrician heading up to drop supplies off at the Chilean/Bolivian border, riding comfortably up the barren ramp of land leading to the altiplano (high plains) and were suddenly dropped off at our desired destination to incredible views. 


Lago Chungara sits at just under 15,000 feet above sea level, and is surrounded by the volcanoes Parinacota, Pomerape, and Sajama, the first two of which straddle the border and the latter being the highest mountain in the area. We had the whole lake to ourselves at 8 am, an absolute treat. 


The encapsulating enormity of such mountains, all over 20,000 feet high, was as powerful as it was calming. The scene reminded me of my beloved Lake Dillon in Colorado, with 7,000 feet of altitude added on.


We hitched back to Putre with a tour bus carrying a middle-aged Italian-speaking Swiss couple that had come up from Arica for the day. As a result, we were treated to a partial tour of the remainder of the national park, seeing vizcachas (a type of rabbit), alpacas, and vicuñas galore. 


The altiplano is such an apt name for the area, which feels like a table that tops off at around 15,000 feet and extends for miles in every direction. The air was thin, the sky blue, the people nice, the views incredible, and the cost nothing. Really a great day to be thankful for on the eve of Thanksgiving.


The Lonely Planet description of Arica is in my opinion one of the book’s most accurate: “summery days of ripping big surf and warm sea currents bless this otherwise drab city flush against Peru.” We spent Thanksgiving and the next few days in Chile’s northernmost city playing on the beach and preparing for trekking to come in Patagonia. The city feels much more Peruvian than Chilean, a little more run down and gritty than the beauties of Santiago and Valparaíso. However, despite the difficulties of calling home on Thanksgiving from afar after months of travel, it is nice to be reminded of things to be grateful for, large and small, that make everyday moments special and extraordinary ones last forever. 


With love, happy Thanksgiving, and go Broncos.




One thought on “San Pedro de Atacama, Iquique, Arica, and the Deserts of Northern Chile 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s