Atacama desert, Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

The hub of tourist activity in north Chile and more specifically in the Atacama desert region is the little town of San Pedro de Atacama. This is the main street, Caracoles.

Why travel  to San Pedro de Atacama?

San Pedro de Atacama, plaza de armas, chile

San Pedro’s Plaza de Armas with Licanbur volcano in the background. Photo by Pierre CB.

Ancient home to the Atacameño people hundreds of years before the Spanish, or even Incas arrived, the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama is now home to adventurous travellers from all over the world.

San Pedro, 2, 400m above sea level, has no private buildings higher than those pictured above, and almost all are made of adobe (mud and straw) brick and separated by mud streets and crumbling walls.

San Pedro’s raison d’etre is it’s proximity to some very special sights, the most spectacular being the Tatio geysers (El Tatio) , about 100 kms/62mls away, The Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna, 14kms/9mls) and some parts of the adjacent salt lake (Salar de Atacama). Due to the amazing clarity of the Atacama’s night sky and lack of light pollution, star gazing is also a special and popular activity.

San Pedro itself harbours a couple of attractions: a chunky 17thC church sporting a cactus wood ceiling (photo below) and the Museum of Archeology, a fine collection of well documented artifacts illustrating pre-Spanish societies.

San Pedro is totally about tourism and offers an excellent selection of accommodation (more sophisticated than the exteriors may suggest) and restaurants, though prices are not low, internet connections are poor and some local tour operators little more than quasi-legal bandits.

San Pedro de Atacama church, chile

San Pedro de Atacama’s little but lovely church.

Try to check with other travellers on the most worthwhile sights and how best to see them before offering your wad to anybody with a 4WD vehicle. We have done our best to illustrate what we think are valid sights, though we make no claim to be perfect – we get lost, frazzled and impatient too.

San Pedro possesses no airport so flyers must land at the less than attractive mining town of Calama, 100kms away on a fine road. Unless you have an urge to see a truly massive hole in the ground at Chuquicamata (tours to the the 4km long, 700m deep open-cast copper mine can be taken) or your flight arrives very late there is little reason to suffer in Calama.

Many overlanders also bus into San Pedro fresh from Argentina, Bolivia or Peru. Or are on their way there. . .

Valley of the Moon

Atacama desert, Valley of the Moon.

The easiest major sight near San Pedro is the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) and its Great Sand Dune. Note walkers on the crest of the dune.

The Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Chain) contains The Amphitheatre (pictured above, background), a salt-rock canyon, caves and some weirdly eroded shapes but the best sight of all is from or of the monstrous dune (above, foreground) at sunset.

You will not be alone there, unfortunately, unless you’re an early riser and choose to get there for sunrise instead.

The Valley of the Moon is about 14kms (9mls) from San Pedro and doable by mountain bike if you’re fit.

Valley of the Moon, Tres Marias, Atacama, Chile

Another shot of the Valley of the Moon, this one showing a more moony aspect. Note walkers in the background. The Three Maries (Tres Marias), on the right in the picture, are made of salt, quartz, clay and gravel and are about 1 million years old.

Valley of Death cycling, Chile

The Valley of the Moon is bikeable and well signed, the Valley of Death is bikeable and not signposted at all.

How long to stay in the Atacama region?

It would be possible to see El Tatio and the spectacular altiplano/mountain scenery in one day and do the Salt Lake and Valley of the Moon in another, though that would be rushing it, particularly since you may need to acclimatise for two or three days in San Pedro (2, 400m) before heading for El Tatio (4, 500m). 4, 500m is quite high enough to squash your eyeballs into a different shape and starve you of oxygen so you go wobbly and/or nauseous, thus making the expensive and magnificent trip into an unpleasant endurance contest.

Perhaps spend two or three days doing the Salt Lake, the two valleys and whatever else takes your fancy before venturing up to El Tatio’s heights.

Atacama Desert pool, Chile

Taking an afternoon dip in our private hot pool in the Atacama Desert. Well, nobody else there so it seemed private.

Renting a car for Atacama exploration

Valley of Death, Atacama Desert, Chile

Another valley just a few kilometres from San Pedro, much favoured by sand boarders (boards rentable in San Pedro), encouragingly named ‘The Valley of Death’ or Valle de la Muerte in Spanish.

If you have reasonable financial resources, speak some Castellano (Spanish) and like a challenge then hire a vehicle. For serious exploration it should have high ground clearance, though 4WD is not vital.

Air conditioning is close to essential unless you don’t mind arriving at your destination with a melted face and dressed like you’ve just climbed fully clothed out of a swimming pool. The Atacama is a very hot.

Many of the rentals are 4 seater pick-up trucks, presumably since that’s what locals want when the car gets sold on a couple of year down the line, though it’s not ideal as you clearly can’t lock your baggage away nor can you protect your peanut butter from melting in the blazing sun.

On the positive side people who get car sick from the inevitable bouncing over very rough tracks are magically cured by rides in the back, clutching the roll cage and road surfing.

The easiest place to rent wheels is on arrival at Calama airport, needing just an hour’s drive to get to San Pedro.

p. s. If you’re planning to drive to El Tatio, a spectacular sight, you’ll certainly need a 4WD and a guide.

Gas station, Atacama Desert, Chile

A typical Atacama gas station.

Pukara de Quitor & Tulor

Pukara de Quitor, Atacama Desert, Chile

Pukara de Quitor fort, 3kms from San Pedro and barely worth the trouble of getting there. Photo by Lastutok

A pre-Inca fort famously stormed by Pedro de Valdivia’s 30-man cavalry, overcoming 1, 000 defenders. This sight is within easy reach of San Pedro but it’s still only just worth the trouble to visit (and pay an entrance fee) unless you have a special interest.

Tulor is another sight that is of arguable value. It was a village of up to 2, 000 people from about 800 BC, with interconnected, thick-walled buildings. The villagers moved to the present San Pedro location when the river dried up. There’s very little  visible now part from sagging mud walls  and walking through the ruins is not permitted, so over to you, the viewer. . . vale la pena?