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