The middle of nowhere

Do you remember how I said that it takes me almost 2 hours to get to the colegio where I teach English classes if I use public transportation? The first couple of weeks, I didn’t realize how ridiculous this commute was until I thought about it a little bit more: if I was willing to drive 2 hours each way to get to school, I could literally live at home in Neenah and drive down to Madison every day for my classes. Ridiculous. And to think that before living in Santiago, I thought a 15 minute walk to class was bad….

But guess what, I have good news! It turns out that Victor, the math professor at the colegio, actually lives in La Reina about 4 or 5 blocks away from me, and is nice enough to drive me every week! Let’s just say I am eternally grateful to this man for saving me countless hours of sitting on the metro and micro- driving in Santiago is WAY faster. It turns out that if you take a car, and you are a crazy Chilean driver (aka anyone who lives in Chile), you can get from the far east side of Santiago (La Reina) to the far west side (Maipú) in just over half an hour- never would have known that from taking the metro!

So anyways, Victor and I have started our own little Wednesday morning routine. Every Wednesday, I wake up at 6:30, shower, get dressed, and grab some breakfast. At 6:55, Victor calls me and tells me he is on his way, I leave the house, and exactly at 7:00 he picks me up at the intersection right by my house. For the first 15 minutes of the drive, we talk about our weekends and random things about Chile, where are the best places to travel, problems in the school systems, etc. and then for the rest of the ride, I pretty much half-sleep as Victor listens to his favorite classical music CD. We get to the school bright and early, because Victor likes to be able to choose his favorite parking spot—and when I say bright and early, I mean that we are literally always the very first people there! We go inside, and Victor (being the cute 70-year old man that he is) always gives me a little bowl of walnuts and pistachios to snack on while he goes about preparing for his day. So I normally just have 45-minutes of down time/ extra studying time every Wednesday morning, but today, since I have no work for my classes today or tomorrow, I figured it is pretty much the perfect time to write my late (as always) blog post on one of the coolest places I have ever been- San Pedro de Atacama! Here we go—the pistachios are inspiring me…

So let’s see… where to start? Probably with the very basics of San Pedro, I suppose,

because unlike the entire Chilean population, most people in the United States probably have no clue where I am talking about. Quite simply, San Pedro de Atacama is a tiny little town smack in the center of the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world (some parts of the desert haven’t seen rain for 300 years!). The town is about 20 hours away from Santiago on bus (at least), or about 3 hours away flying. The ridiculous thing is, it only costs about $20 more to fly there than to drive, because gasoline is so expensive in Chile. Needless to say, we chose to spend the $20 and save 30 hours of our life. But it is not possible to just take a quick flight from Santiago to San Pedro and be done with it. No, no, getting to the center of nowhere is definitely not that easy. Turns out that to arrive in this small isolated desert town, I ended up taking a normal bus in Santiago to the center of the city, a shuttle bus to the airport, a plane to Calama, a taxi to the bus terminal in Calama (a city about an hour away), and (POR FIN!) a bus going to the center of San Pedro. In total, 3 buses, a taxi, and a plane just to arrive at our destination. Plus that doesn’t include the 25-minute walk in the dark with our luggage from the San Pedro bus terminal to our hostal at the far edge of the town- but by that point we refused to take another taxi!

San Pedro somewhat reminded me of Pichilemu in that it was very tiny and pretty much exists for the sole sake of tourism. San Pedro contains hostals, tourism offices that offer tours around various parts of the desert, a few convenience stores, and a few arts and crafts stores. That is all. There isn’t even a real supermarket! I suppose there is a gas station somewhere in the town, but I am not even positive about that, because the first day we were there, some of the tours were not operating because the town was out of gasoline! Let’s just say the people of San Pedro lead a VERY different life than the people of Santiago…

I was super excited to go to San Pedro, because #1: I had never been to a real desert before, #2: Everyone I had talked to had told me nothing but great things about it! Well, other than the fact that a ton of people get altitude sickness there, but that is beyond the point.  And… #3 (the most important of all): We got to fly on a plane to go there! Yes, that’s right… after only flying on 2 planes during the first 18 years of her life, Heather Smaby has now become practically a regular in the Chilean airports! As much as I am thankful for TurBus for bringing me to all kinds of awesome places around Chile, there is honestly nothing quite like flying. One of my favorite sensations in the entire world is the moment the plane lifts off from the ground, when you don’t know exactly where you are going, only that you are headed for a new place and new adventures.

My Chilean home viewed from the air.

Honestly, the main reason San Pedro is such a popular tourist destination isn’t because there are a lot of things to DO, it is because there are a lot of incredible things to SEE. Let’s just say that even though there is no way any picture will ever do justice to the amazing desert views, I took over 200 photos during the weekend—and it is time to share!

Highlights from the long weekend….

-Laguna Cejar: When I imagined desert before going to San Pedro, I pretty much thought of people walking around with camels and without water, lost in an unending field of sand. Honestly, there are a lot of parts of the desert we saw that are exactly that, but surprisingly, the Atacama Desert has a lot of diverse geography. Aka there are lakes in the center of the desert! Highlight of the trip, and quite possibly one of my favorite things I have seen in Chile up to this point. Lakes are up there with popcorn and peanut butter on my list of favorite things, and to find 3 absolutely gorgeous lakes in the middle of the driest place on earth was pretty darn fantastic. Santiago doesn’t even have them!

At long last: a LAKE!


It is like the Chilean version of the Dead Sea: there is so much salt, you float!
Lake #2
Lake #3: the entire lake bottom was made of nothing but salt!
Our hands after getting out of the salty lake!

-Wildlife: Chile has a surprisingly small amount of wildlife, other than the normal things like birds and stray dogs. You can literally go camping in the middle of nowhere in the Andes mountains and have no worries about bears, moose, etc. What Chilean wildlife lacks in quantity, however, it makes up for in quality. And this trip showed me some of the best Chile has to offer!


Fun fact: I learned why flamingos only stand on one leg at a time. Naturally, flamingos such as these ones live at really high altitudes, so it gets really cold at night and during the winter. A lot of times it is so cold that the water actually freezes as the flamingos are sleeping, so they have adapted to sleep on one leg so that when they wake up and the water has frozen around them, they can use their free leg to chip apart the ice so they are free!

Vicuña: a close relative of the llama.
And, of course, the ever famous LLAMA of South America! Just chilling inside a random store…. The store owner then tried bribing it with potato chips to leave the store.

-Tatio Geysers:

The highest geyser field in the world. Worth waking up at 4 am to see? I would say so!

-Natural hot springs:

You can definitely swim in the them, but you have to be super careful because some parts (the parts by the water sources) are literally burning hot and you have no way of knowing where they are located in the pool!

-Other absolutely beautiful places:

Volcanoes, lake, and desert all in one!
Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley): just as hot as Death Valley in the United States
Valle de la Luna at sunset

Overall, the desert is probably one of the strangest places I have ever been.

Well maybe not the strangest place in general (I have been on some pretty weird family vacations), but definitely the strangest with regards to temperature. During the day it always got SUPER hot and you felt like you were being burned alive by the sun. I’m pretty sure I wore more sunscreen in this one weekend than in the rest of my life combined. But the tricky thing is, during the night it is absolutely FREEZING (literally- it was below 0 degrees when we woke up to see the geysers at 4:30 am). Let’s just say packing was quite the challenge, but I ended up bringing both my swimsuit and my winter jacket, and I used them both!

The desert definitely showed me a different side of nature, a new beauty that I have never known. The words fantastic, stunning, and breathtaking honestly cannot even begin to describe the awesomeness of the Atacama Desert. To me, it is incredible that so much beauty can exist in such a random, isolated place, without anyone even knowing about it. Before coming to Chile, I had never even heard of the Atacama Desert, much less a random town called San Pedro where you can see some of the most beautiful views in the world. It just goes to show that there are always more things to see, places to explore. Just when you think you have seen it all, you land yourself in the center of absolutely nowhere and find something even better than you would have thought possible!