San Pedro de Atacama, Chile sits in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the center of the world’s driest desert. Despite the fact that areas around San Pedro have never had rain in recorded history the region still bursts with life and activity. The town of San Pedro de Atacama itself might seems touristy, but there is an endearing charm to the dusty streets, slow pace of life, and mud-slabbed buildings. The surrounding areas of this desert town, however, are what make this one of the top travel destinations in all of South America. Geysers lift from the dry surface, salt lakes form in the earth’s gentle depressions, ancient faces are carved into dry rock walls, and gorgeously carved valleys show off their beauty all within striking distance of this adobe town. San Pedro de Atacama has a way of drawing travellers in and holding them in with its charm. This is one of the most special travel destinations in all of South America for very good reason.
Time Needed: 3-5 days
Budget: 35-55$ a day
Travel Tips: If you are in transit to or from Bolivia or Argentina be sure to change your money outside of San Pedro. The rate of exchange here is absurdly high. Also, although there are now 4 bank machines in town they are famous for not working, if possible, try to draw some reserve cash just in case.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama
- Ojos Salar: It is amazing to see water of any sort in the driest desert in the world, but the way these lakes are formed makes it all the more impressive. These two lakes are perfectly formed circles surrounded by salt. The content of the water is so salty that the floatability levels are actually much higher than the famous Dead Sea. The price of tours out to here are between 25-30$,
- Tatio: The Tatio Geysers are a sight to see, and if you’ve never seen geysers you’re in for a treat. These are said to be the highest active geysers in the world, and are impressive regardless of their altitude. The downside? You need to get up at about 4am since the geysers are most active first thing in the morning. The price of tours to Tatio Geyers range between 35-80$ depending on whether you include trips to the hot springs or a nearby village to your day.
- Valley of the Moon: This is the most popular trip to take from San Pedro de Atacama partly due to its proximity to the town site, but also because of its sheer beauty. Take a tour that ends here at sunset and you will not be disappointed. Options on tours hear can also include sandboarding on the dunes and visit to salt caves. Tours run between about 15 and 25$. It is also a popular to rent mountain bikes to pedal your way out here.
Pukara de Quito
: This is the most affordable activity because it is one of the few that you can do on your own. Sitting just a couple kilometers outside of San Pedro de Atacama sits the ruins of this adobe fort built by the Atacaman people to fend of the Inca societies pushing into the area. If you go beyond the gates of the site you’ll also see two impressively carved faces and an arch etched into the rock wall. Entry to the site is only about 3$. You can make the 45 minute walk here or rent a bike and take a 15 minute ride to the site.
- Star gazing: A quirky Frenchman named Alan, along with his wife, have set up an impressive set of telescopes along their property just outside of San Pedro. Each day they offer trips out to show people different constellations and planets via their telescopes. This is one of the best places in the world to go star gazing due to the combination of high-altitude and clear skies, and shouldn’t be missed. A bus picks passengers up in town for the tour which costs about 25$. Pack a jacket as the night air gets quite cold in San Pedro.
- Plaza and Markets: The plaza in town is featured by a cactus roofed church that begs for photos. Along the edges of the plaza are a number of markets offering interesting trinkets and bits of clothing from the area. Just off the square there is also the Archeology Museum which is worth a quick wander if open.
- Horse riding: Horse riding can be organized in town, and is a popular activity for many travellers.
- ****Note: For tours try Turis Tours, their prices are slightly higher (although you can negotiate) but are the best quality in town. Atacama connections offers some of the best rates and offer good tours as well.
Where to Eat in San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama isn’t exactly a culinary mecca, but it does have a couple good places to eat. The higher end restaurants, most of which are found on the main street of Caracoles, are all decent. Try a place called Adobe which has a friendly staff and nice environment. On the side streets you’ll find cheaper meals, but the quality dips significantly. My secret spot in town is the corner market at the bottom of Caracoles which has the best empanadas in Chile, and great dessert empanadas like peach and apple.
***Note: San Pedro de Atacama is still run by very traditional laws, meaning it can be hard to get a drink in town. Most bars limit the amount a person can drink to one drink, although people who are eating as well are allowed more. Don’t be surprised if you head into a bar and they refuse to serve you alcohol unless you order food. This is also the reason you wont find too many bars in town. If you’re fixing for a party, ask one of the servers in town where the party is as there are usually secret parties out in the desert which they organize transfers to and have bars set up at. It’s a great party if you ever get the chance to take part in one, don’t miss it.
Where to Stay in San Pedro de Atacama
I have passed through San Pedro on 7 different occasions 3 of which I was put up by Residencial Don Raul. If your budget is a little bit looser this is a great place to stay although rooms cost about 50$ a night for a single. 3 of the other times I stayed at a place called Takha Takha, which is right across from Don Raul. It is a step down, but so are the prices. A single costs about 20$ a night as long as you don’t mind sharing a bathroom. You can also camp here. The last time I passed through town I stayed in a true backpackers hostel called Hostal La Ruca, which was fantastic as well and cost about 12$ for a bed. San Pedro is growing, and I fully expect a steady stream of new hostels popping up each month.
Getting out of Town
San Pedro acts almost as a tri-border. If you’re heading across the Altiplano and Salt Flats of Bolivia it is here that you will start your journey. You are likely to be taken by bus to the Bolivian border where you will meet a jeep to take you across to Uyuni, Bolivia. A couple days of week you can also get to Salta, Argentina.
To get to Chilean destinations is much less complicated. Tur-Bus, who has an office in town has trips to Calama (2hrs), Antofagasta (8hrs), La Serena (17hrs) and Santiago (24hours). Once you get to Calama or Antofagasta you can also transfer to northbound destinations such as Iquique and Arica.
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