Once upon a time, just a few years ago, San Pedro de Atacama was a mere springboard for Chilean desert and Bolivian Salt Flat adventures. Today, it’s become one of the country’s top travel destinations. Guide to San Pedro de Atacama – Chile’s (Worst Kept) Hidden Secret shows you why crossing arid lands and endless white horizons to reach a remote speck of a town, could be the best thing you do all year.
Overview of San Pedro de Atacama
You know how you dream of travelling to some amazing place, and you have a list of great things to see and do when you get there and then some other random place grabs your attention along the way and, in hindsight, becomes an unforgettable and surprising highlight? Yep. That sums up San Pedro de Atacama quite well. It was exactly like this that this once unassuming town was ‘discovered’ and pinned on the Gringo Trail map for all posterity.
The base town for journeys of discovery to the mesmerising Atacama Desert and a brilliant start or end point for crossings of the Bolivian Altiplano, San Pedro de Atacama is one of Chile’s best highlights and a travel destination in its own right. Some of our guests have amusingly joked that crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats for three days is a bit of a convoluted way to reach it, and we think it hilarious if only because it is arguably half-true.
If you’re searching for South America’s must-see destinations, you’ll find two of the best right at San Pedro’s doorstep.
Sitting at a crisp altitude of just over 2,400m, San Pedro boasts an eclectic history. It may seem to have been created as a traveller’s hangout but in fact, this has been an important trade route – between the Pacific coastline and the Andes Mountains – since before the Spaniards even arrived. Back then, llamas were traded for fish, and nowadays what is mainly traded are the fantastic travel stories between all those who converge in the town’s tree-lined square.
What’s San Pedro de Atacama like?
This glorious outback desert town looks like something out of an old Clint Eastwood movie. No…not the modern romantic drama ones, the old-school Western ones! Sand-filled narrow streets, gorgeous mud houses and horses trotting past as you sit and sip a café con leche in the main square. Dry and hot days and the most awe-inspiring star-filled skies at night. San Pedro is that desert oasis you dream of, when you want to experience life in the middle of nowhere but still have wifi, great food and fun evenings out. It’s no wonder this has become a tourist magnet and, it should be said, an expat haven. Tourists have been coming here and not leaving for years now, only now they are not only 20yo carefree nomads. People are moving here purposefully, with the intent on spending quality time in one of South America’s most enticing regions. They bring a touch of modernity and comfort to the back of Chile’s beyond. Along with plenty of comforts, San Pedro offers an array of activities for the actively minded. Horseback rides, hikes, sand-dune climbs and multi-day adventures. Base yourself here and you’ll have a world of desert options at your fingertips.
So much so…that you may never want to leave.
San Pedro de Atacama’s Best Highlights
San Pedro is nothing more than an (ever-growing) cluster of guesthouses, cafes, shops and restaurants, one which should take you a couple of days to explore, albeit only superficially. An array of great activities like cycling, mountain biking, horseriding and even hard-core specialised mountaineering is primarily what keeps travellers here for weeks if not months on end. There is a surprisingly huge amount of stuff to do and places to discover in the outskirts of town and within short distances.
Nearby attractions include multi-hued landscapes dotted with extinct volcanoes, valleys of the Moon and the Dead and hidden corners boasting pre-Columbian historic ruins. You’ll find lakes of a thousand colours teeming with flamingos, ethereal steaming geysers and the world’s largest salt flats. All are but a drive away from San Pedro de Atacama.
El Tatio Geysers
Just a 2-hour drive out of town is where you’ll find the world’s largest – and one of the highest – collections of geysers. El Tatio sits at a head-spinning altitude of over 4,000m so any walking around here must be done very, very slowly. Dawn trips are very popular as El Tatio is at its most resplendent when sunlight is minimal. Make sure you come prepared with thermals as temps up here can be brutal all year long.
The Atacama Desert
One of the best stargazing destinations you could visit, anywhere on earth, Chile’s Atacama Desert is the stuff of dreams. As salt-enriched ground crumbles under your feet and those seemingly impossible-to-climb sand dunes vie for your attention (especially at sunset), this would have to be one of the most stunning deserts in the world. Renowned as the world’s driest, the Atacama is an assault on all the senses. With zero light-pollution hindering the night-time spectacle, this is the best place to view the sky in the Southern Hemisphere and now home to several world-class observatories.
Valle de la Luna
The Valley of the Moon is perhaps the best-known Atacama desert site near San Pedro. If you happen to find the town totally empty at around sunset you can trust everyone is here to catch the spectacular last rays of the day. Part of the Salt Mountain Range of northern Chile, the valley of the Moon boasts the most crumbly ground you’ll ever walk on, and taking leaps can be unsettling at first. It seriously feels as if you’re about to burst through the earth’s surface and go tumbling down into the core at any moment. Coupled with warm-coloured mountains and deep canyons, as well as the striking Valley of the Dead, the Atacama boasts an otherworldly atmosphere that’s totally indescribable.
People, history & wildlife
The best bonus of all the excursion options is that you can include many other stops along the way. You’ll come across plenty of wildlife, with flocks of vicunas and guanacos being regular visitors. You can dip your toes in steaming hot natural thermal pools, bob away in super salty lagoons and visit small charming villages on your drives out of town. Although this may seem like a truly inhospitable place, you’ll be surprised to discover that people have been living and thriving here for almost 10,000 years. The history of Chile is an eclectic one and so it is with this remote region as well.
San Pedro’s location on the border between Chile and Bolivia is one of its best attributes by far. Just hop over the border and discover even more unforgettable sites.
The Bolivian Altiplano
A wonderful natural border between these two outstanding countries, the Bolivian Altiplano is a brilliant playground for those who love their landscapes to be colourful, dramatic and ethereal. This land was the muse of artists like Salvador Dali, and is a nearly-endless wave of visual sensations. Striking rock formations carved by millennia of strong winds, colours fed by a multitude of minerals and natural lagoons and lakes that defy Mother Nature’s usual colour palette. An astonishing place to cross by land, the Bolivian Altiplano is one of the world’s true wonders.
Of all the exceptional travel experiences you could have in South America, Bolivia’s Altiplano and neighbouring Uyuni Salt Plains are among the most memorable.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The Uyuni Salt Flats are a photographer’s dream gig and the one San Pedro de Atacama highlight that honestly needs little introduction. Head here for a day, or a blissful overnight stay in an Airstream camper or a multi-day crossing by 4WD. Whatever the case may be: if you head to San Pedro de Atacama and choose NOT to experience the Uyuni Salt Flats then you and I, dear reader, need to sit down and have a chat.
Best Time to Visit San Pedro de Atacama & Chile
The climate in Chile is as varied as its landscapes and although the country is relatively small it stretches north to south for an impressive 4,200km. Throughout its length and minimal width, you’ll always find an ‘ideal’ place to visit if you’re bound to a specific month. No matter when you must/want to travel, we’ll help you find you a stellar destination to visit in Chile.
When it comes to planning a visit to Chile where San Pedro de Atacama is a pivotal destination then keep in mind that AccuWeather predicts dry weather for the next couple of centuries at least BUT do keep in mind all you other desired destinations as well.
The Austral summer (between October and March) is fabulous stargazing time, while the best time to visit the Altiplano is in October and November for super clear days and resplendent nights of starlight dreaming. The Uyuni Salt Flats offer a unique perspective at any time of year. In this corner of Bolivia, days are hot and nights are cold all year long, the only difference offered is with rain. For mirror-like reflections visit during the wet summer months (Dec/Jan/Feb) and at any other time for astonishingly stunning white and dry horizons.
Accommodation Choices in San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro may have started as the domain of the hippie backpacker but has evolved into a discerning mecca offering a smattering of glorious boutique resorts with surprising luxuries and spectacular landscaped gardens and viewpoints. Choices are plentiful no matter your travel style and budget.
Chile is one of Latin America’s most diverse nations and San Pedro de Atacama a wonderful example of just how divine the whole country can be. From vibrant cities to remote northern deserts and the awe-inspiring fjords and glaciers of Chilean Patagonia, this is one of the most addictive holiday destinations you’ll ever visit. So make sure to include San Pedro de Atacama in your next tour of Chile and let us here at Chimu help you plan a wicked journey through a spellbinding land.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”