One of the most memorable parts of finishing the 3 day Bolivian salt flats/desert tour was the sudden smoothness of the paved Chilean road. The bus border crossing took about 1.5 hours as the procession of buses lined up at each customs/immigration station. There are no toilets at either the Bolivian or Chilean stations so be sure to ask your tour guide on the last morning where your last toilet will be if you think you’ll need one. Although he had a bit of trouble finding it, our transfer took us right to Guest House Diaguitas…after unloading the “rocas” (=rocks) as he laughingly referred to our travel mates luggage. We wandered a bit around town to line up rental bikes for the next couple of days and found Yali, a decent lunch spot near the BCI bank that had free WiFi. We shared a tasty meat lasagna and salad for lunch. San Pedro de Atacama is like a cross between a dry desert town that you see in the old westerns and a boardwalk in a busy beach town. Lots of tourists mulling about on its dusty streets filled with restaurants, tour operators and souvenir shops. We ordered a couple of empanadas (take out = para llegar) from Pizzaria Abdala, literally 2 doors down from our guesthouse on the corner, grabbed some beer and wine at the mercado next door to it as we waited, then headed back to the room to plan our next few days.
We picked up our bikes from Rent A Bike Emily at 522A Toconao street at around 11am. Although they didn’t speak English, we confirmed several times in Spanish that they were willing to let us keep the bikes until tomorrow for the same going rate of $12,000 CHP for 24 hours (and they had a bike small enough for Cynthia’s 5 foot frame). We were given the required helmets and vests for entering the parks, a lock, a spare tire for each bike, a tool kit and pump. Closest to town that we wanted to visit was the Valley of Death or Valley of Mars. We guess death because nothing living inhabits it and Mars because it does look otherworldly. We biked through the canyon which was simply amazing – you truly feel like you are on Mars (heat and all). We stopped at parking area 2 where we had to lock up the bikes. There we watched the sand-boarders for a bit; not sure of the risk/reward: the climb up the sand dune in the 100 degree heat looked exhausting and not comparable to the 20 seconds of sand boarding with the high likelihood of a face-plant in most participants future. From there we hiked up the sandy road to the look out for a great 360 view of the valley. The ride back to town was a bit more enjoyable since it was mostly downtown. We had lunch back at the room, picked up our laundry from the woman next door, and rested out of the midday heat for a bit before our next leg of the bike trip.
We left for the Valley of the moon around 4pm hoping to end the day with the sunset over the valley. We took the “walking” route which made it 11 km instead of 13 from town. At the Welcome Center, we found that if you go between the buildings where the tour line was, we could get our tickets quickly. It was another 5km over a rough road to the first site, the salt caves. We laughed after we realized that our rest stop at the top of a hill with an empty guard station was only a few seconds downhill ride to the Salt Cavern. Although a bit crowded with tour groups, we enjoyed our walk/crawl through the natural salt cavern. After our subterranean hike, we pushed our bikes uphill for about a mile. The road was just too steep and rocky for our rental bikes (plus we were starting to feel the effects of biking all day in the desert). We made it to the big dune “Duna Mayor”, stopping for a bit for a rest in the shade of the restrooms before biking a little bit further to the coliseum: a formation that looks just like a real stadium. We did a u-turn and rode back to the big dune for the sunset. A top the dune we got to watch as the shadows lengthened and the colors shifted as the sunset. We left just before sunset because we had about an hour or so ride back to the room: even with headlamps and safety vests, we anted to be safe. We made it back just after dark exhausted and very butt sore riding over the rough roads, but truly satisfied at what we’d seen and accomplished. We grabbed a pizza from the corner pizzaria and called it a night.
The next day we dragged our sore butts back onto the bikes for the ride to the Laguna Cejar which is famous for having about 5X the salt content as the ocean and thus swimmers can float almost on top of the water. It was 18 km south of San Pedro the road (again, not the major highway) well paved or hard-packed until the last teeth rattling 5 km. We made it in a little over an hour and Cynthia took a dip in the lagoon, laughing as she had a hard time orienting – seems laying on your back is best otherwise the water just wants to push your whole body upwards. It was an expensive 10, 000 CHP each before 2pm but it was on Cynthia’s bucket list and they had nice toilets, changing rooms and outdoor showers. We returned the bikes and had lunch at Yali again before heading back to the room to wash off all the salt and road dust and prepare for our trip to Iquique on the northwest coast of Chile.