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.
Hoping to avoid future fiascos, we decided to go back to the museum and ask the docent if she gave tours. She wasn't available but put us in touch with another employee, who said he'd arrange for a van the following day. Meanwhile, happy to share his knowledge, he walked with us through town, explaining Incan symbols we would not have recognized in everything from the multi-colored flags to the fence tops. Ultimately, he took us to a small, out-of-the-way restaurant, the Baltinache, which, reflecting the cultures of the couple that owns it, featured the delicious food of two indigenous groups, the Lickanantay and Mapuche.
The next morning we were picked up and taken to Yerbas Buenas, a site known for rocks decorated with more than a thousand petroglyphs, and then on to the Valley del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley). With the valley to ourselves, the hills in various shades of red, green, brown and white were mesmerizing. This guide's knowledge and professionalism were obvious. He thoughtfully brought a magnifying glass so we could examine the minerals, and treated us to a snack of wine and cheese.
He also told us of other expeditions, which we hadn't seen advertised. I only wished we had more time, having learned the hard way the importance of doing your homework when planning a trip to an out-of-the-way place.
If You Go...
GETTING THERE: LAN Chile Airlines offers daily round-trip flights from Santiago, the capital of Chile, to Calama. From Calama, you can get direct bus service to San Pedro de Atacama.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Hotels in San Pedro range from backpacker basic to a Relais & Chateaux property at $1,500 a night.
TIPS FOR BOOKING TOURS:
—Read recommendations in travel books and comments online.
—At your destination, ask fellow travelers about their experiences.
—Ask agencies about the guide for your specific trip. How long has the guide been taking groups to the destination and what are his or her qualifications or training? How many people will be on the tour, what languages will be spoken and how fluent is the guide? (Listening to translation from Spanish to English isn't bad, but if there are also translations into French and Italian, you'll spend more time listening to foreign languages than you will learning about the place.)
—Will you get a separate guide and driver or does one person do both? (You will get more information and a safer ride if one person isn't multitasking.)
—Does the agency own its vehicles or are the buses owned by a contracted driver? If the bus is owned by a third party, the tour agency won't know the vehicle's service record. Does the driver carry a first-aid kit and cell phone?
LONELY PLANET THORN TREE: Thread on tours from San Pedro de Atacama to the salt flats: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=1866518