Leaving Mendoza early our last morning, we hopped on our last Andesmar ride for the scenic trip over the Andes to Santiago, where we planned to catch a bus that night to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus ride was typical of that route - beautiful scenery with an absurdly long wait at the border. We had to have been there at least three hours before we made it through, but other than getting to Santiago a few hours later than expected, all was good.
We had tried to research which companies made the trip from Santiago to San Pedro, but there is scant information online about buses in Chile. Unlike Brazil and Argentina, there is no aggregator that you can use to learn more. You have to go to individual company websites and, even then, good luck finding info on them. Tur-Bus and Pullman are the biggest companies with the widest reach, but their websites aren't great. Plus, no chance of buying tickets online as you have to have a Chilean identity number to do so. So, once we got to Santiago, we went to the closest Tur-Bus counter and lucked into the last two seats on that night's departure. The employee then led us from the bus terminal we were in, across two streets, to the terminal where our bus was leaving from. After insisting on a tip, he left us to our own devices and we had some dinner before getting on the bus (we only got a light breakfast on the bus in semi-cama). The bus ride north was pretty uneventful, save for a 90 minute stop in Iquique that didn't make much sense.
We got to San Pedro 36 hours after leaving Mendoza and hopped off the bus. We waited for all the bags to be taken off before getting ours - we were the only ones who boarded in Santiago for the whole ride. We watched all the bags come off and I grabbed Anais's bag from the bus attendant and handed it to her. I turned around for mine.....except it wasn't there. My heart started racing and I started cursing under my breath. We searched the compartment. The employees rapid-fired Spanish at each other and at us to no avail. It wasn't until I turned around and saw the fear and confusion in Anaïs’s face that it really hit me - my bag had been stolen.
After more futile attempts at conversation between us and the bus employees, then with a local police officer, a guardian angel was sent to us in the form of a wonderful woman named Carla. An employee from another bus company who spoke both English and the unique form of Chilean Spanish, she helped translate what was being said between the parties. She stayed with us from the bus terminal as we went to the police station and made a police report. She guided us towards our hostel afterwards and told us to come see her if we needed anything else. We ended up booking our tickets back to Santiago with one of her companies (Ciktur) and she let us use our credit card, even though she was only supposed to do that for Andesmar buses to Salta. Her kindness and genuine, selfless help were more than we could have prayed for in our time of need.
We did our best to enjoy San Pedro in spite of the situation and we did a pretty good job at that. The day after we arrived was dedicated to sorting out canceling a couple backup credit/debit cards that had been in the bag, visiting the Tur-Bus office to fill out a lost bag form, and rescheduling our itinerary. That night, we went out to eat at a restaurant named Baltinache. Showing up at opening is recommended if you don't have a reservation (which is a good idea for this place during high season) because the delicious food there is worth it. The waiter was very nice, doing his best to explain everything slowly and clearly and giving his suggestions. The meals are set price and you have multiple options to choose from, so his patience in explaining the menu was extremely appreciated. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal here and would go back in a heartbeat.
The next day, we had a busy day that started with an early pickup for our Lagunas Altiplanicos tour. After a stop in a small, receding salt lake that was lackluster after Uyuni, plus a stop at our included-lunch restaurant to place our orders, we continued the uphill, soon off-road drive to the lakes. Located at about 4,200 meters, Lagunas Miscanti and Meniques offer beautiful views of the surrounding volcanoes and the lakes themselves.
After a rare desert fox sighting and the included lunch, we headed back to town to rest and prepare for our evening activity - the STARS tour. San Pedro is home to ALMA, a science facility consisting of 66 radio telescopes that scientists can rearrange into different patterns to create a sort of super-telescope that they are using to peer into the birth of stars. Sadly, that was not something we got to visit, but we did the next best thing - the Space Star Tours facility just outside town.
An amateur observatory run by a Frenchman and his wife, the tour consists of an introductory talk about the history of astronomy. Our English tour was led by a Canadian named Mike who was incredibly knowledgeable and witty to boot. After showing us many constellations and explaining their past uses, Mike led us over to the ten telescopes they have on offer. These are pre-aimed at various stellar phenomena, ranging from Jupiter and the 4 moons Galileo saw to individual stars, constellations, galaxies, nebulae, star clusters - I'm getting excited remembering all that was on offer! For a big space nerd like me - and for a normal person like Anaïs - getting to see everything through telescopes was incredible. The tour ended up being one of the highlights of South America.
Sadly, we don't have very many pictures of our time in San Pedro. Our camera charger was the one important charger that had been in my big bag, so we were trying to conserve battery. That being said, between the tour to the Lagunas Altiplanicos, a great meal at Baltinache, and an incredible visit to the STARS amateur observatory, our compressed two days were so enjoyable that, most of the time, I forgot my bag had been stolen.
Looking back, having my bag stolen certainly sucked, but it couldn't have happened at a better time. Santiago is full of clothing stores, outlet malls, camping gear shops, and everything else a traveler might need. I got a brand new wardrobe, which was great because most of my clothes had stopped fitting properly months before (you lose weight hiking a lot, no matter how much you eat). I bought an Osprey Porter and upsized my bag a bit from 40 to 46 liters, which has helped make packing a lot easier for us. Plus, our property insurance company - Clements Worldwide - was very easy to work with and covered the cost of nearly everything I lost.
In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise. The only things I lost that I really miss are a couple pairs of ExOfficio underwear (yes, they're that amazing for travel) and the clothes I visited Machu Picchu in, which was my number one must visit locale on our trip. Regardless, all I really lost was clothes as most all of our electronics/documents/medicines were in our day bags on the bus with us. As I said, the camera charger was lost, as were about 8 months of contacts, but my parents were saints and shipped me replacements from home (I still curse myself for not getting more ExOfficio underwear....).
And while I'll never be able to think of San Pedro without thinking about losing my bag, I'll also always think of looking at Jupiter as Galileo did, watching shooting stars zip across the night sky, two incredibly beautiful lakes, and the selfless aid of a complete stranger.
I will never recommend Tur-Bus to anyone. I can't prove this, but I have no idea how someone could access the locked luggage compartment without the aid of someone who had the keys, unless they were an incredibly fast lockpick. Not only that, their buses were not that nice, their service on the one trip we took was terrible, and dealing with them afterwards while trying to make a lost-baggage claim was horrendous and we eventually gave up. I'm very aware my opinion is wildly subjective and biased by losing my bag, but that's why it's called an opinion.
We found out from Carla and talking to a friend in Santiago that Calama, the city that acts as a gateway to San Pedro, is notorious for having bags stolen from buses, both from the cabin and the luggage compartment. We were told it is a mining town, mostly populated by men who work the mines, and they are often involved in various types of extra-curricular activity. Keep a close eye on your belongings there.
We booked our Lagunas Altiplanicos tour through our hostel, Backpackers San Pedro. The tour was 40,000 CLP per person and included lunch. We booked the STARS tour via email and paid 18,000 CLP per person at their office in town by credit card.