Article updated January 2016
San Pedro de Atacama is a small, quaint old town in the Atacama Desert, in northern Chile. It’s popular for its proximity to awesome natural landscapes, its stargazing opportunities, wildlife spotting and its traditional architecture.
What to Do
San Pedro is a little adventure park for nature enthusiasts. There’s cycling, sand duning, walks, astronomy observation opportunities and horse riding, all allowing for optimal appreciation of the landscape. In my opinion, the most impressive of these phenomenal offering is Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) – a national park close to San Pedro de Atacama, an incredible display of natural beauty and impressive geological formations.
You’ll see people cycling here from the main town – look out for bike rental shops in San Pedro. It’s only about 10 mins by car but the park is big, so if cycling that far is a bit much for you (unsealed roads, for a lot of the way) get yourself on a tour or do what we did, and take your rental car out there. You could wander around with your camera for hours, but what a lot of people do is wander for a bit, and then position themselves at a high point in time for sunset. From there you’ll have a vista of the park, and when the fading light hits the rocks and sand, the colours really leap out.
Now don’t be daunted by the size and far reaches of the things you’ll want to see. The tour offices in San Pedro de Atacama are plentiful, forthcoming with maps and information, and you will always have a choice of things to do and see. If you’re on a budget though, all the tours may challenge your finances: if you’re comfortable haggling and organising yourself, good luck to you. However, I would probably feel more comfortable arranging to travel with (new) friends, share a hire car, and take yourselves everywhere you want to go.
Popular sights to see in the area:
- The local church in San Pedro – a beautiful adobe building
- El Tatio Geysers
- Puritama Hot Springs –Termas Baños de Puritama
- Pukará de Quitor – a pre-Columbian archaeological site
- Observatories – the desert location provides the clearest night sky you’ll possibly ever see. Stargazers and astronomy buffs, welcome.
- Specifically: The ALMA Array observatory – only 40 minutes or so outside of San Pedro de Atacama, it is “the largest astronomical project in existence.”
- Tulor – adobe ruins
- Astronomy tours – either do an internet search to find one that suits you, or shop around once you get there.
- The Salt Plains – Salar de Atacama
- Valley of the Moon – Valle de la Luna
- Valley of Death – Valle de la Muerte
- The Los Flamencos Nacional Reserva – this is a giant national park, filled with flamingos and other wildlife
- Laguna Chaxa, where you can see flamingos
- Laguna Cejar – where the salt content is so high you will definitely float (bring swimwear!)
- Altiplanico Laguna – high-altitude lagoons, named Micanti and Miñiques
For more information about tours, see Explore-Atacama, SandboardSanPedro, Atacama Horse Adventure and SanPedroChile.com. For specifically astronomy tour information, see Seti.cl, San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations, Astronomical Tourism, and Astronomic Tours.
Do note in planning your trip that some of the stargazing/astronomy tours may be suspended close to the full moon as the sky is too bright during that phase of the moon for ideal stargazing.
Like most desert destinations, it pays to think ahead regarding when you want to visit. Depending on the activities you might want to do, keep in mind that it can get very hot during the day (even in winter) and extremely cold during the nighttime. If you’re planning on cycling or any other physical pursuit, be sure to take your hat, suncream and lots of water. There aren’t many places outside San Pedro de Atacama to buy things (I only saw one store in a very small town), so take a few bottles of water everywhere.
There’s no other way of saying it – San Pedro de Atacama is an expensive place to sleep. Of course there are hostel options – check Hostelworld.com, Hostelbookers.com. For anything a bit more comfortable, expect to pay significantly more. Try Expedia.com and/or Booking.com. We stayed at Hotel Kimal and though basic, it was quite comfortable.
Getting There and Around
There are a few options for transport. You can get a bus to San Pedro de Atacama (from Santiago definitely, you will have to check with local bus companies if you’re travelling from elsewhere). Check TurBus, Pullman and/or Pachamama. Once there, you can easily get around the town on foot and take organised tours.
As mentioned, when I went, we hired a car and really enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of choosing for ourselves when and where we wanted to go, and for how long.
Where to Eat
There are a few options. Hotel Kimal, where I stayed (and was very happy with) has its own restaurant. The food is decently priced and very tasty. There are several other restaurants around town, which I can’t vouch for, as well as little cafes and lunch spots where you can pick up sandwiches and empanadas and the like.
Other Things Nearby
Bolivia – a lot of people pass through San Pedro de Atacama on their way to Bolivia from Chile, or to Chile from Bolivia. Tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama offer several-day tours there, or you could drive there in a few hours. Maybe you can add Bolivia to your list!
Iquique and Humberstone – you can combine San Pedro de Atacama with a trip to these other towns in northern Chile. I highly recommend it.
Note: This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question before planning your trip.