Atacama desert is not only the driest place on Earth but also a place that can surprise you quite a bit. If you imagine sandy lands as far as you can see, you will be disappointed as the Atacama is a feast for the eyes. From the mountains, salt flats, volcanoes, pink flamingoes, blue lagoons to many different shades of blues, pinks, and purples at sunset, Atacama will make a trip hard to forget. The most popular place full of attractions is a little rustic town San Pedro de Atacama. Here you have a few amazing things you can do in San Pedro de Atacama:
1. Watch the sunset over Moon Valley
You wonder where the name of the valley comes from? There will be no surprises once you see it with your own eyes. Apparently, the landscape is very similar to the surface of the Moon. It is really like transporting yourself to a different world. I went there a few times, and without any hesitation, I must admit that it is most beautiful at sunset. The evening sun creates the view of the desert full of pastel colors that change moment to moment. Of course, you can go there much earlier to do some excellent hiking or cycling since the valley is quite big. The valley is rather close to San Pedro so you can easily go on your own by car or cycling, but be prepared for the heat if you choose the two-wheel option.
A quick tip:
- Depending on the season the last time to enter the valley is 5 pm in winter and 6 pm in summer. You won’t be able to enter after that. It involves a fee, which changes too depending on your time of entering the park. The highest fee is approx. $4.
- Wear comfortable shoes; best would be hiking boots.
- Wear a hat and bring sunscreen.
2. Go to see the high-altitude geysers
The geysers are located at the feet of the volcano Tatio. It is one of the biggest highlights of the trip to San Pedro de Atacama, I would say. To be able to go on the trip, whether you go on your own or with a tour provider, prepare yourself to get up long before the sun comes up. It takes around 90 minutes to get to the geysers from San Pedro de Atacama, and the road is not the easiest. I can assure you, however, that all the pain of getting up at 4:30 am and any possible discomfort caused by altitude and cold will be hugely rewarded the second you see the sun rising from behind the volcano. If you come with a tour, they will cook nice breakfast for you that will include a hot chocolate straight from a boiling hot geyser. There is also a thermal pool for the perfect end of the visit.
A quick tip: Since the geysers are at high altitude, you might suffer from altitude sickness. To minimize it go to sleep early the previous night, avoid drinking alcohol and heavy meals. If you must eat breakfast before the trip, eat something light.
It is also very cold there early in the morning, so prepare yourself for below zero temperatures.
3. Eat homemade empanadas in an Andean village
In a little village, and by little I mean around ten houses, on the way back from the geysers make a stop in Machuca. If you go with an organized group, the stop in the village will be most likely included as it is surely a nice experience. The locals living there wait every day with freshly made empanadas for tourists heading back to San Pedro. The fry them in front of you so it cannot get any fresher. You can see the real life of Andean people, who mostly live from the income from llamas.
4. Watch pink flamingoes
There are a few places to watch flamingoes near San Pedro de Atacama, but the most common one with the biggest chances to see those pretty birds is lagoon Chaxa. It is located near a town called Toconao around 50 km south of San Pedro. It is on the way to Miscanti and Miniques, so during one day, you could combine those two places.
5. Take an astronomic tour
It is widely known that some of the clearest skies are in the Atacama. There are few cities that are mostly located on the shore, so the light pollution is minimal. It does not rain almost at all and clouds are not that common. No wonder there are some biggest observatories in the world in the Atacama. To get an ultimate ‘starry’ experience, you can visit ALMA Observatory near San Pedro or go on a night excursion to watch the sky with a glass of hot wine. Or even better do both if you have time.
6. Lose perspective at salt flats
The salt flats in the Atacama are not that well known amongst tourists, mostly because not so far away there is the famous Uyuni, but they are also beautiful. If you plan on excursions to altiplanic lagoons, you are most likely to visit Salar Tara or Salar de Atacama. The snow-white ground will make a lovely background for your photos.
7. Discover turquoise lagoons in the middle of a desert
Atacama is many things, but boring is not one of them. I cannot remember how many times if was surprised by its beauty and finding turquoise lagoons in the middle of the desert was one of those times. The most beautiful, in my humble opinion, are the lagoons Miscanti and Miniques, around 28 km from the town Socaire. Mirror-like lakes and mixture of colors make quite a picture-worthy view.
The lagoons will make a full day excursion whether you go on your own or together with a group as it takes over two hours to get there.
General tips for San Pedro de Atacama:
- Always carry a bottle of water with you.
- Wear a hat.
- Use high filter sunscreen.
- Bring some warm clothes for the night.
- If you hire a car to make sure that you put gas at every available occasion as there are not many petrol stations in the region.
- Most places involve a small fee.
The sun in Atacama is very strong, and even if you normally don’t burn easily, it is not the same there. Make sure you always have the mentioned items with you to avoid any unpleasant effects of heat and sun. Nights are usually cool so that you will need a warm hoodie or a jacket.
Cash: What I had learned from living in Chile for long is that you always need some cash with you. There are cash machines in San Pedro, and many places accept cards but come with some cash in pesos.
Tours: There are many tour operators in San Pedro. There are some tours however that you can do on your own, like Moon Valley for example. You can also hire a car and do the other tour on your own, but joining a group will save you some time and effort.
When to go: The weather is San Pedro de Atacama is good all year round. Of course in autumn and winter months (April until October) it will be cooler (with snow at times, but rarely), but it does not make that much difference. In January or February, altiplanic winter might occur, which means heavy rain for a day or two.
How long to spend there: I would say that 3-5 days is enough to see all the attractions near San Pedro de Atacama.
Petrol stations: There are not many petrol stations in the Atacama. There is one in San Pedro, which is quite difficult to find. It is located in a yard of a hotel. Go along the street called Toconao and look for a small sign ‘combustible’ showing directions to the station and if you ask locals for directions use ‘benzinera’ or ‘gasolinera’ words. Have cash with you.
Where to Stay in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
One of the best hotels in San Pedro de Atacama and one of the most expensive. It is a cute boutique spa hotel with a lovely view of the famous Licancabur volcano. It is an all inclusive hotel with tours included in the price.
They offer excursions to all the attractions and horse riding. If you are not in the middle of adventures and sightseeing, you can relax in one of the swimming pools, sauna or hot tub.
Pascual Andino has cozy rooms in San Pedro de Atacama. Only 100 m from Caracoles, the town’s main street. A daily buffet breakfast is offered. Wi-Fi and private parking are free.
Comfortable rooms are equipped with private bathrooms with showers. Extras include a safety deposit box. At Hotel Pascual Andino you will find a 24-hour front desk and a garden. Guests can stop by Padre Le Paige Museum, 150 m away.
Located only 700 m from Caracoles Street, Hostal Kirckir offers accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama. A complimentary breakfast is available daily, and guests will find a mini-market steps away from the hostel. Guests staying at Kirckir are offered bicycle rental for a discount with all the equipment necessary.
At Hostal, Kirckir guests are welcome to use the fully-equipped shared kitchen. Additionally, the hostel offers handy tourist information including free maps and brochures, as it features a travel agency on-site. Other facilities include a 24-hour front desk, a shared lounge, and laundry facilities.
Where to Eat in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
It is probably the most crowded place to eat in San Pedro, and it is actually not surprising: the atmosphere is good, and the food is good. A big restaurant with a fire in the middle and occasional live bands create a wonderful atmosphere to have a perfect evening after a whole day of adventures in the desert.
This place is excellent for breakfast and lunch. They serve simple, natural food and make most delicious mango shakes and quite decent crepes.
About the Writer
Anna Nowak is a psychotherapist with a travel passion. She left her home country, Poland, 12 years ago and had been traveling and living abroad ever since. Currently, she is based in Madrid after two years of living in Atacama. Anna is the founder of a travel blog with the focus on mindful traveling- Postcards from the World.
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