After seeing some photos from the area surrounding San Pedro de Atacama, we almost never bothered coming to. We weren’t too impressed. We’ve seen plenty of deserts before.
I guess we should’ve known that often photos don’t do some places justice. We found ourselves wow-ed by the landscape around this small, adobe lined town with its dusty streets, and surprisingly overpriced cafes.
The desert is not for everyone, of course. San Pedro de Atacama desert’s beauty is one of the understated kind with its muted colors under harsh sunlight. Barren landscape dotted with knee length growths – so skinny and naked it’s not right to call it a bush just yet. Just clumps of sticks, really. And there’s the sand. Miles and miles of grey, boring sand.
But this northern part Chile is all that and more. Much more. Below are the reasons to visit San Pedro Atacama.
Highlights of San Pedro de Atacama
Jack in front of Lake Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti’s water is so blue it looks like a 4 year old has cranked the saturation slider in Photoshop waaay up. This lagoon is blue-er, prettier, and more impressive than we had expected.
Salar de Tara (or Agua Calientes)
A play of color between the white of the salt and the turquoise water was unlike anything we’d seen before. For us, this salt flat was more interesting than the its more famous neighbor, the Atacama salt flat.
Even better was the fact that we had the place for ourselves since our tour company is the only one that goes here.
Valle de La Luna and Valle del Muerte
Valle de Muerte, Chile
Valle de La Luna, Chile
Almost all tour companies in San Pedro offer a tour to these two valleys that end with a sunset over Valle de La Luna. The sunset was nice, but it was nothing spectacular. What was more interesting for us was the information we got from our guide on the geology of the area, and a walk through a canyon formed by house-sized blocks of salt.
However, the real highlight was running down the sand dunes in Valle de Muerte. Check out Jack’s happy jump over the sand dunes in the photo.
Visiting San Pedro de Atacama
We’re so glad we didn’t give the desert around San Pedro a miss. If your travel takes you to northern Chile, definitely give San Pedro de Atacama a peek and a look. Between the lagoons and the salt flats, the mountains and the desert…
It’s one of those places where pictures can’t seem to do them justice.
Many tour agencies in town can arrange trips to these destinations. We went with Cosmo Andino for two reasons: – They’re the only company that goes to an extra salt flat (that turned out to be our favorite) as part of their Laguna Altiplano tour. – They use re-usable plates and cups for their meals (as opposed to styrofoam cups like the other agencies). Definitely scored major points with us.
The main reason we came to Arequipa was for the food, typical comida Arequipeña such as ‘rocoto relleno’, ‘chupe de camarones’, ‘chicharrones’ and more. We had never considered ourselves foodies in the slightest bit before we got to Peru. Never before being obsessed with food, I think being away from good food for months in Colombia and Ecuador finally took its toll.
“Why do you want to go to that ghost town so bad?” – Jack looks at me in a way that he does whenever I suggest things he finds absurd. Like going out of our way to see abandoned buildings and machineries. Like going out of our way just to end up in a town and got our stuff stolen (but that’s for another story).
I guess he sees ghost towns the way I don’t get birdwatching. Or eyebrow waxing.
Humberstone clock tower in the main plaza
But ghost towns, along with cemeteries and weird museums, do fascinate me. My ideal ghost town would be the one depicted in Michael Chricton’s book: Andromeda Strain – where the town was left just as if the citizens all of sudden decided to walk out one day (well – in the book they die) leaving half eaten food on the table and children’s toys on the floor.
But Humberstone was not anything like that. The reason it was abandoned was something less sinister than a deadly extra terrestrial virus.
For awhile it was a prosperous town of 3500 that thrived on nitrate mining for fertilizer. These people had a town complete with a hospital, a public swimming pool, and even a theatre.
Posters advertising Chilean produced fertilizer
Then someday, someone came up with a way to make fertilizer through synthetic means: it’s cheaper to produce. Natural nitrate could not compete and the town slowly fell into decay. In 1960 Humberstone with its sister nitrate mining town, Santa Laura, were completely abandoned.
Inside a hospital room in Humberstone
The peeling wall of the hospital in Humberstone
The abandoned nitrate mine in Humberstone
Abandoned mine and its smokestack - Humberstone, Chile
Left behind children's toy guns made out of wire
Stories about how ghost towns come to exist always make me a little sad. I can’t imagine having to have to leave my home town against my will, either due to economic force or others. The idea of being pushed out and not drawn to anywhere else. Where did these people end up?
Similar post around the web: This ghost town in Ukraine is super fascinating.
Have you been to a ghost town?
Info box: How to visit Humberstone: Get yourself to Iquique (watchout for bag snatchers there). There are two companies that offer transports to Humberstone, they’re both located on Calle Barros Arrana in front of the market. The earliest leaves at 7 am. (1500 – 1900 pesos) How to get back to Iquique: In theory, you can catch any bus going in the other direction. BUT if you leave in the morning, there’s only one bus an hour that goes back to Iquique. I ended up hitchhiking back. Cost: 2000 soles Tip: Get there preferably before 10 am since that’s when the souvenir sellers come. There was nothing like being the only being walking around a ghost town.
There's something fishy around here - by hitthatswitch
We knew there was something fishy
about the $20 ‘tourist card’ fee the collectivo driver demanded from all the gringos in the taxi.
There were some signs that should’ve raised a lot more flags than they did that day at Tacna International Bus terminal:
– Guy 1 mentioned that it’s only levied for first time visitors (we had never heard anything like it before about Peru-Chile border crossing). – Guy 2 said something about the fee is for making the line goes faster (as in like a ‘bribe’?). – The price was quoted as both in Chilean peso and Peruvian soles but the two numbers are off by $4 each. Which is – well, significant.
But we were vulnerable:
– We just had a 6 hour bus ride and it was getting dark outside – I was sick and really wanted to get across to Arica, Chile as soon as possible
But more importantly: – We haven’t read anything about the scam> during our research Quite the contrary, we did read something about paying for a tourist card. Now that I looked at that post again I realised that the blog poster fell for the scam without realising it and that the scam has gone up from 15 soles to 50 soles, all within 4 months.
Because we’re so used to rely on hearsay and on our own research, we’ve learned to ignore our own instincts that were sounding the alarm with a gigantic hammer labeled ‘Use only in case of impending idiocy’.
So these guys really knew what they were doing on how to take advantage of the situation, because we went from ‘No, this is crazy. I’ve never heard that we have to pay.’ to ‘Well, maybe we missed something and they’re right?’
Between the guys rushing us around and being pushy and me being sick, and the only other gringo in the taxi having paid up – we paid too (the cheaper of the 2 ‘versions’ of the price).
It does seem to be a relatively recent scam since I only found the thread after researching a weird combination of searchwords. The regular keywords such as “Peru – Chile border crossing” didn’t seem to bring up that one thread.
Realising that because of this, there will be a lot more people falling for the scam, I had half a mind to do the 2 hour drive back to Tacna, Peru to confront the guys and to warn the others. But Jack mentioned, half-jokingly, that it might get us both killed. With $20 a person, it’s a big money maker.
So I thought I did the next best thing: put up warning on travel forums online and hope others doing their research about this particular Tacna – Arica border crossing will come across it.
And go back to my zen center and hope karma will get the best of those scammers.
And try to remember the lessons learned from the scam:
– Try to cross the border during the day (psychologically it helps us from feeling rushed). – Only pay ‘visa fee’ or any kind of immigration fee really to custom border officials. – Be careful of anyone wearing giant cold chains around their neck (ok, maybe not really).
On the bright side of things…
The Tacna – Arica border crossing itself was a piece of cake – very smooth and orderly. So now, we’re in Chile!
I have to say that nothing like being scammed colored our opinion of a country, that’s why I’m glad those guys said they’re Peruvians. We really, really want to like Chile – our host for the next weeks or so.
We have been impressed so far: friendly people and cars that actually stop for pedestrians on sidewalk (I know! Crazy, huh?). And oh, their soccer team is better too – they just kick Peru’s ass in their latest match: 4-2.
What’s your almost-scammed or fudge-I-got-scammed story from your travels?
Despite unpleasant things we heard about Cuzco (it’s expensive and overrun with tourists), we found ourselves unexpectedly charmed Cuzco’s architecture and alleyways.
It turned out that Cuzco is not as expensive as we were led to believe either: Our hostal and food cost is not any higher than the average we’ve been spending in Peru.
The thing is: it’s easy to spend a lot money in Cuzco.
Especially on food and tours.
Every other building in the Cuzco’s Old Town seems to be selling overpriced comfort food that reminds us of home: pizzas, burritos, hamburguers, etc.
There are hundreds of tour agencies in Cuzco offering everything from “meh” city tour to treks around the Sacred Valley.
Fortunately, good value on food can still be found in Cuzco.
Eating in Cusco
The buffet at Maikhani
Cuzco is big enough city that there’s a big range of choices of restaurants to pick from. Just to give you an example: a lunch at Jack’s Cafe, a popular gringo cafe in Cuzco, will easily set you back about 20-25 soles. Literally next door is a restaurant selling set menu that includes soup, main dish (a selection between Peru’s comida tipica: lomo saltado, aji de gallina, trucha frita, etc), and drink for a whopping 5 soles (less than $2).
Other good places to eat that became our staples are:
The market – The cheapest food in town can be found in town’s market – about 10 min walk from Plaza del Arma. Not necessarily the best in cleanliness or even taste, but it’s good value. Egg sandwich (1.20 soles), fresh juice (2.50 – 4 soles), and a plate of rice with fish (3 soles) is our breakfast staple. Try the quinoa drink (1 sole). It’s made of blended quinoa and apple (and maybe milk) – drunk warm it’s quite filling.
Hanaq Pacha – 10 soles set menu comes a variety of appetizer and main course to choose from, desert, and drink. The food leans towards Western influence – it’s a good value if you’re craving something other than ‘comida tipica’. Delicious food and friendly service.
El Encuentro – Right next door from Hanaq Pacha this place serves good and plentiful vegetarian menu for 7 soles. It comes with DIY salad bar, soup, entree, and tea. The entree is usually a version of stew/curry of some sort of beans.
Prasada – A late found, this hole in the wall place is a treasure. Serving vegetarian snack food such as pizza, falafel burger, vegetarian tacos, etc. The portion is decent, the service is friendly, and a really good value for the price (5 – 6 soles).
Jack’s Cafe – not quite budget, but a good value if you’re craving comfort food. They make the best cappuccino (seriously) and their breakfast dishes (huevos rancheros, pancakes, etc) are large enough for 2 people. Food from 15 soles.
Maikhani – Indian food buffet for 15 soles. Delicious curry dishes (when it says spicy, it’s really spicy). The vegetarian dishes are less stellar than the meat dishes, but still pretty good. Especially after you’ve gone curry-less for 5 months.
Things to Do in Cusco on A Budget (ruins free)
Jack and I choose not to get the boleto turistico since our interest in ruins is limited. If you’re a ruin non-enthusiast like us, the following activities are relatively cheap, do not involve ruins, and we found to be worth our time.
Maras and Moray – Of the two, we think the salineras of Maras is the one worthy of visit. Unfortunately, the transport from Cuzco is bundled in with a visit to the ruins in Moray which we thought was just ok. Interesting, but not worth the 10 soles admission. Any tour agency in Cusco offers this. 20 soles (not including entrance fees).
Ollantaytambo as a day trip – Doable as a day trip from Cuzco, we enjoyed Ollantaytambo as a fun place to walk around. Apparently it’s one of the few continuously inhabited pre-Incan sites in Peru – and if you know what you’re looking for, you can see characteristics of Incan masonry on the walls and on the foundation on the houses in Ollantaytambo. By the way, the hike up the pre-Incan granaries (across from the Ollantaytambo’s main ruin is free and provides a nice view of the town.
Chincero – known for its Sunday market, it’s a lot more traditional than the one in Pisaq. It’s not yet swarmed with kids dressed up in traditional clothing and hound tourists for photo ops.
Salsa lesson – Salseros Cusco on Colla Calle offers group salsa lesson for 10 soles for 1 hour every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (beginner 5 – 6 pm, intermediate 6 – 7pm, advance 7 -8 pm). Highly recommended. Many bars around Plaza del Arma offer free salsa lessons as well, but the quality of the lesson is lacking.
Chocolate Museum – Even though they weren’t as liberal with free samples as we were led to believe (bummer) we did walk out knowing more about this awesome fruit than before. The 7 soles sample (3 chocolate pieces and an espresso) was a good deal. Great view of Cuzco’s rooftops from its balconies.
Laguna Yanacocha – beautiful lake (more like a pond) surrounded by forests, little known in the area. How to get there: take a Cusco – Urubamba combi (that passes through Pisaq), then get off at Wayohari. The trail starts from the pueblo (ask around for the start) to the laguna takes about 1.5 -2 hour.
Budget Stay in Cusco
We stayed in quite different spots while we were in Cusco. We paid 40 soles for a private double room that include en-suite bathroom in all of these places.
Hospedaje Sambleno – decent room, hot showers (when it works), but fast wifi. Casa de Los Cerezos – small room, good shower, very fast wifi, and a kitchen. It’s next to Plaza San Blas, past a an artesanal market. Samanapata Backpackers – large room, good hot shower, wifi was just ok even though we were right next to it.
Spanish School in Cusco
We went and did private Spanish classes in 3 different schools in Cusco. Two of these I really enjoyed:
We don’t consider ourselves ‘budget travelers’ in a regular sense – chasing pennies and eating peanut butter sandwiches all day (funnily enough – peanut butter is expensive here so the stereotype doesn’t really work). But we do enjoy getting good value for our money (who wouldn’t?).