Chile's Atacama Desert: Book tours carefully

By Karen Schwartz

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This August 2012 photo shows a rock carving of a llama in Yerbas Buenas, San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile. Thousands of petroglyphs decorate these rocks.

Karen Schwartz, Associated Press

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile — Here in one of the driest deserts on earth, it's not the sun, dehydration, altitude or arsenic-contaminated drinking water that are likely to get you, but the tour guides.

As challenging as it sounds, the Atacama desert in northern Chile is becoming an increasingly popular add-on destination for those traveling to Peru, Easter Island or Patagonia.

Exploring this mysterious landscape begins with a two-hour flight from Santiago to Calama, then a 90-minute bus ride past copper mines to the small town of San Pedro, population 3,000, elevation 7,900 feet (2,400 meters).

In this picturesque Andean village of adobe buildings built around a centuries-old church, one quickly notices the abundance of hotels, restaurants, Internet cafes, souvenir shops, trekking stores and tour agencies.

The latter advertise trips to see geothermal geysers, float on a salt lake, hike up volcanoes, ski down a sand dune or visit with an astronomer who will show you through powerful telescopes why this is one of the best stargazing locations in the world.

We booked our tours in advance, but relied on our hotel to choose the agency. That turned out to be a mistake. Tour operators here are not required to be licensed, and I learned after the fact that some threads on Lonely Planet's online Thorn Tree travel forums for the area warn about disorganized and downright deceitful tour companies.

We had two unpleasant experiences before we hit our stride. Our first tour was supposed to be an afternoon trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) to watch the sunset. Although we had booked an English tour, the guide spoke only Spanish, and responded to a request that he translate his talk by complaining about "stupid" Americans. Rather than endure four hours of animosity, we asked the driver to stop the bus and got off, as did seven others.

Walking back into town, we went instead to the Museo Gustavo Le Paige, a small museum packed with artifacts, including a room filled with gold treasures. Here, tours are given at set times in Spanish, French or English and are well worth the few dollars charged. The docent provided insight into the complex culture and tradition of the Incas and indigenous people of the region, as well as the changes wrought by the arrival of the Spanish.

We ended up coming back to that docent for guidance after our next adventure, a trip that began with a stop in Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama, one of the largest salt flats in the world, where we saw two species of flamingos feasting on krill. We continued on past terraced hills and ancient irrigation canals on our way toward the alpine lakes of Lagunas Miniques and Miscanti. And then the bus broke down.

We were stranded for two hours with no food and no bathrooms, while the driver braved choking diesel fumes trying to repair the problem. The guide told us it was too far to continue on foot — a four-hour walk — but assured us another bus would be along shortly. Competing tour buses refused to pick us up on their way in, though eventually, one stopped on the way out and took us to the closest town. (Apparently, a trip to the lake is considered a "tour" while a lift to town is called a "rescue.")

In town, the frustrated guide cursed and walked off the job when we asked if we could forgo lunch and have the replacement bus, which had finally arrived, take us to the lakes we'd come so far to see. Fortunately, the bus driver was happy to oblige, though we were stunned when we arrived at the lakes less than a mile (1.6 meters) beyond the disabled bus. It turned out our guide was new to town and it was his first run on this route.