Christmas in San Pedro de Atacama

My first day in San Pedro de Atacama was just starting.  I used hostel kitchen to prepare fruit salad (you can buy fresh mango and bananas everywhere in town) with some yogurt. It was definitely cheaper option than breakfasts in town which easily get to 5.000 pesos.

Renting a bike

After that I went to town to rent a bike. The cheapest ones were for 3.000 pesos for six hours, 6.000 for full day. I was probably first customer that day. I told the owner that I want to go to Laguna Cejar, he told me that I would need 1 hour to get there. It is roughly 19 kilometres with no hills. We made a deal. It is necessary to fill up one form (name, passport number and hostel name). He also wanted to keep my driving license, but I left it at the hostel so he let me go without requiring it. It was time to get a bike, some additional equipment.

Shop was full of nice red bikes and I was little disappointed when he told me to hold one of them just to get grey bike (which was not as nice as the red ones) from the bottom of the stack. He also gave me helmet, yellow (high visibility) jacket, air pump and repair kit. He also added small map with the destination and instructions how to get there, explained how not to get lost in town and that was it. I was ready to go.

Cycling in a desert

I got out of town quite easily enjoying the ride. Road was easy to follow as there were not that many junctions and in case of getting lost I had MapsMe on my phone with offline maps. Little further from town road quality went rapidly down, asphalt was quite patchy and sometimes not present at all. Instead there were parts of rock-hard desert sand / soil with lot of bumps. It was possible to use very edge of the road and ride in a sand which was at some places very deep and was slowing bike down a lot. I chose faster bumpy way.

There was not much to see on the way to Laguna Cejar, desert to the left, desert to the right. In was possible to see mountains far away in the east but that was pretty much it. I was getting close to the lagoon, made a stop, had a drink and checked a map. I saw that there is one more point of interest nearby – Ojos del Salar. These should be two big holes near the road full of water. Which is quite special as they are in the middle of the desert. It was another 15 kilometres. I was still full of energy and had a lot of time (bike should be returned at 3PM) so I decided to go to Ojos first. Again road was more or less bumpy with not much to see.

Ojos de Salar

It was getting hot and my bottom was starting to feel quite sore and uncomfortable thanks to all the bumps. I hoped that I’ll be at the Ojos soon. It was hard to spot, even though they are really close to the road. They are just holes in the flat land. But I finally got there. It was time to have a snack and closer look. I was not brave enough to try and swim in it, I did not even know if it was allowed. So I walked around, took some pictures and gave my arse some time to recover. During that time two cars full of tourists arrived, I’ve overheard that the Ojos are connected underground and that they contain sweet water.

I had my snack and little rest, proper look at two water holes so it was time leave. Only difference on my way back was that it was getting warmer. I was really glad that my next stop was Laguna Cejar. From what I read it was possible to swim (float) in a salty lagoon. Final stretch of the road leading to lagoons was quite bad and bumpier than previous part, I had to stand on my bike to get there.

Laguna Cejar

I made it to the entrance. There were actually two of them. At first one they took my details (name, age, passport number) and at the second one I had to pay. Entry was 10.000 pesos as long as you arrive before 2PM otherwise it is more expensive – 12.000. I also got small brochure with information about lagoons (there are actually three lagoons there) it was provided in Spanish and English. On top of that I was informed that only one of the lagoons is for swimming the other two are for watching. I went to the first one, it looked similar to lagoons I already saw in Uyuni. There were even some flamingos (only few of them and quite far).

Laguna Cejar near San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Cejar near San Pedro de Atacama

So I did not stay long and went to the swimming one. There were showers, toilets and changing rooms (actually quite nice) on the way. From changing rooms to lagoon it was only about two hundred meters. There were some tent like structures to provide shade but they were already occupied. I put my towel on the ground and went for a swim.

Swimming in salt water

There was shallow part with water not reaching much higher than my knees which suddenly ends in seemingly bottomless abyss. Water was cold but because it was really hot I was enjoying it. Still took me a while to make that one last step and get water above my thighs. It was my first experience with very salty water so I was little surprised that what other people told me was true. I was really floating, just laying on my back, doing nothing and not sinking to the bottom. It was relaxing.

Swimming was strange, because of the floating effect, my feet did not get properly below water and I was just scratching the surface. Swimming done I was heading to the shore. Walking in the shallow part was little painful and I was looking with envy at people with swim shoes. Lying on the towel I had some time to sunbath and read. When I had enough of sunbathing I took a quick shower to get rid of all the salt which dried on me.

There was special place designated for picnics (it is not allowed to eat anywhere else in the area) so I stopped there, had another snack and used that time to dry my towel. No one stole my bike so I mounted it and headed back. It was a long (and now little bit boring) ride. Roads did not get any better since the morning so I was spending more and more time standing on the bike because my bottom was screaming for help and soft cushion. I was glad I made it back. I returned bike and asked owner if he is open tomorrow (it was 23rd of December so I was not sure if they would open or not) as I wanted to visit other interesting places north of the town.

Christmas shopping in town

I returned to a hostel for a quick nap (which was not as quick as expected). Awake and refreshed I went to town to do some Christmas shopping. Closer to the centre I got the more expensive stuff was. My shopping involved lot of walking because I did not want to pay more than necessary, prices were already quite high. Three hours later I had everything I was looking for (and even more). I even found something like a supermarket (it was 10 minutes walk from the centre) with lower prices and option to pay with card. In the evening I was quite sure I won’t be cycling next day as some parts of my body were sore and did not agree with that idea. That was pretty much end of the day only followed by quick dinner and sleep.

It was Christmas Eve day (24th of December is the main Christmas day in Czech Republic, we don’t do much on 25th). I went out to town thinking about stopping at Tana’s hostel to give her presents (or leave them at reception). The door was closed and no one was around so I went to main square instead.

Pleasant encounter

Tana was sitting there on a bench. We talked about what we saw previous day (she cycled to the Devils throat, Dead and Moon valley) and how difficult it is to sit. Tana and I had a breakfast and spent a day walking around town (multiple times around as it is really small town). We looked at prices of Christmas dinners and they were way above our budget (3 courses Christmas meals were starting at 20.000 pesos). So we decided to look for something Christmassy and less expensive, ideally fish (because fish is traditional meal in our country). We decided to get a salmon with shrimp sauce, fries and rice (interesting combination). It did cost us 9.000 pesos and was the most expensive meal in South America so far.

Christmas salmon dinner at San Pedro de Atacama
Christmas salmon dinner at San Pedro de Atacama

After dinner we went to the main square. There was a group of people dancing and playing on drums heading to the church. We went with them but there was not much happening inside, they were just getting ready for evenings mass. We spent some more time talking at the main square looking at the giant Christmas tree. It was getting late and we were tired so we decided to go back to our hostels. I was not able to sleep so I went back to town, church was full of people now and they were singing Christmas carols (I knew the music but words were difficult to catch as they were singing in Spanish).

Good bye San Pedro

Next day was our last day in San Pedro de Atacama. We had a bus booked to our next destination – town Arica in the very north of Chile. It was with a company TurBus and did cost us 29.000 pesos (in cama bus). With big backpacks on our backs we did not want to walk around town any more. We had only short stop at main square, hoping we’ll see nativity scene with baby Jesus (he was not there on previous days and he was not present today either).

We spent rest of the day at the bus station. There were seats and even some power sockets. There was only one restaurant open at the bus station and they only had coffee (all the rest was sold out). I was getting hungry so I went out to look for some food. Two minutes from the station was a fast-food with hot-dogs and hamburgers (they call hot-dogs “completo” in Chile). I ordered one burger and one completo. Lady told me it would take five minutes so I decided to wait there and not run back to bus station to let Tana know. After ten minutes of waiting I realised that lady probably said fifteen minutes (I still have problems with Spanish numbers).

It was too late to run back to station to let Tana know where I am and I had no other way to let her know (no WiFi there). When I finally got back it was dark (good timing Sun) and Tana did not look happy. I knew I made a mistake. I ate burger and little bit of completo. It was best hot-dog I have ever had, they serve it with a lot of tomato / avocado pasta and mayo on top. Shortly after that our bus arrived. Tana finished completo (even she said that it is very good hot-dog) and that was it for a day, rest of it was another boring bus overnight journey which ended up in Arica.

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