We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama by overnight bus, in the high Atacama desert (the town has an elevation of 2,400m, or 7,900 feet above sea level). San Pedro is a super tourist town, that feels like a mix of Sedona, Arizona and some wild west desert town with gravel streets. The food is really expensive and it costs us about $13 to camp. The area offers hot-springs, geysers, trips in various parts of the desert, trips to salt flats, mountain biking, sandboarding, etc.
We signed up for a tour to wake up at 3:30 am to drive to the El Tatio geyser field, near the border with Bolivia and with an elevation of 4,200m, or 13,800 ft above sea level. The geysers don’t shoot high into the air like Yellowstone, but they are at the foot of a volcano very high up, and there are many of them in this area, with little salt ponds from the hot water spewing up. They take tourists there early in the morning when the wind isn’t blowing to see them at their best. It was pretty darn cold for the two hour drive, and we arrived there around 6 am to watch the sun rise over the geysers and the high Bolivian mountains. Then we drove to an high elevation indigenous community, that raises llamas and sells barbecued llama to tourists. It was very tasty and on the way we saw vicuñas, which are small camelids (like lamas or alpacas) that are endangered and being protected by the government.
We also went on a late night astronomy tour. The Atacama desert in Chile is both very dry and very high in elevation. The clear skies (free from night lights and moisture) are really good for star gazing, and there are many large scientific telescopic arrays and radio telescopes set up throughout the desert due to these very favorable conditions. We went on a tour that had their own fancy telescopes and we looked at the moon, Saturn, and various nebula through fancy telescopes and had some lessons on the constellations and astronomy in general. The moon went down around 1:00 and we had great views of the sky. Our last trip will be to the valley of the moon, in the desert, and then will will catch our 23 hour bus for Santiago.