San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama
If it is your first time in San Pedro de Atacama, we recommend that you stay at least 3 full days. One reason is because of the altitude and another is for the number of interesting tours and activities that can be done. Every night in San Pedro de Atacama feels like a Saturday night; it's a real hive of activity. The main street, Caracoles, is filled with people wandering from one bar or restaurant to the next. The low season is only 3 months from April to June but even then there are enough to people to have a number of tours running every day. Most of the tourist agencies and craft shops are open until at least 9pm every night of the week.
The stars at night are incredible. If you walk a couple of minutes in pretty much any direction from town, you will be out of the city lights and have a wonderful panorama of the Milky Way and thousands of stars that you would normally never see.
San Pedro de Atacama is 2400 metres (7874ft) above sea level so you might find that you run out of breath a little more quickly than normal. Once you get over 3000 metres (9842ft), it will start to be more noticeable. The locals call it 'puna'.
It almost never rains in this region. In fact, if it does rain for more than a day the locals start to worry since their houses and buildings are not built to withstand it. Almost everything is constructed out of adobe or mud bricks. There are many constructions, especially restaurants, which have a part of the roof open so you can marvel at the starry night sky.
It is quite cold once the sun goes down, so bring some warm clothing along. During the day it can go to the other extreme, very hot, so make sure that you always have enough to drink.
There is a large variety of restaurants and most of them offer some type of fixed menu which works out a lot cheaper than choosing dishes individually. In winter, almost all of them have an open fire blazing away in the middle of the room. The quality of food was something that surprised us at virtually every place we visited. It was like they had 'real' chefs doing all the cooking. Some of the dishes were works of art that just so happened to be yummy at the same time.
One place that we liked was Casa Piedra, which is on the main street Caracoles. The service there was wonderful with the staff going out of their way to be helpful. We had to struggle to finish our meals since they dished up more than healthy portions. Their 'wine cave' is an interesting sight. Another place we visited on the same street is called Adobe. It had a very nice ambience, the type of place where you would propose marriage (as someone did while we were there). I wouldn't recommend going there while you are hungry though. The dishes were wonderfully produced though a little on the small side. The dishes looked nice, tasted good but you wanted to get a hot dog or empanada afterwards.
How to get there
Most travelers arrive to San Pedro by flying to Calama which is located only about an hour and a half away by bus. If you book your tours before, in Santiago or online, you can arrange for transportation to pick you up at the airport and take you to San Pedro.
There are many different tour guides and agencies in San Pedro de Atacama, and due to the great amount of competition, they all operate at about the same price. The difference is found in the knowledge provided by the guide, the food served (if any), and the quality of the transportation. Some tourists prefer to book ahead of time in their own country, but we found that you can also book tours once you arrive. Even if you arrive in the evening, you can normally find an agency that is open that will still have space on their tours the next day (otherwise they would have already closed and long gone home :) )
What to Do in San Pedro de Atacama
The tours that follow below are the typical ones to be done from San Pedro.
Half Day Tours
Valle la Luna and Valle la Muerte: from 4pm to watch the sunset over these beautiful sand dunes and paints magical colors across the sky. This is a must see in San Pedro, and generally recommended as the first trip to take as you arrive in the afternoon. The climb up the petrified cliffs of sand and salt lead you to scenery that is incredibly captivating, yet is considered to be the most inhospitable area in the world where no life exists. There are some areas in the valley where not a single drop of rain has fallen for hundreds of years. There are dry lake basins that contain salt, which reflects the light across the desert. Sunset in Valle la Luna is indeed spectacular. It is located only 15 km from the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
Tatio Geysers: This is an early morning trip to see geysers (at the crack of dawn) way up in the Andes. See our article about the Tatio Geysers.
Monjes de la Pacana: Quite a fun half day tour, here you will be taken out to see some of the strangest rock formations that have been carved out by Mother Nature over time.
Puritama: A trip to these hot springs is a great way to wash the dust off you from your travels. These springs, owned by the Hotel Explora, but opened for all tourists, are beautifully set into the natural surroundings, with wooden footbridges lined with vegetation leading the way to the pool that stays at approximately 30° C. There is a small bathroom with an area for changing near the pool, so bring your swimsuit and dive on in.
Archaeological Tour: The tour involves a trip to San Pedro's museum, which is named after R.P. Gustavo Le Paige who uncovered and saved many of the artifacts that can now be found within the museum. Some of the many wonders within the museum of over 380,000 artifacts include mummified bodies and the treasure room, full of golden artifacts. From here the tour will also take you out to the amazing Aldea de Tulor ruins. The ancient city was constructed some 3000 years ago and is made up of completely circular walls, a unique formation unlike any other anywhere else in the world.
Full Day Tours
Altiplanicas Lakes: Found in the National Reserve of Los Flamencos, the beauty of the area cannot be captured in mere photos, although we recommend trying as much as possible. The tour takes you to see each of these amazing lagoons whose blue green waters attract an abundance of natural life and reflect the beauty if the stark contrast between the snow capped mountains and desert plains. The lagoons are located about 90km from San Pedro at over 4000 meters above sea level. Tours usually stop off at Toconao on the way back with its church from 1750 and a nearby oasis called La Quebrada de Jere.
Laguna Verde: The tour crosses over the border into Bolivia in order to see the amazing Laguna Verde. The salt lake gets its stunning emerald green color from the magnesium and other minerals in its water. At 4,300 metres above sea level, this is one of the highest lakes in the world. The scenery around the lake is dominated by the Lincancabur volcano.
Tatio, Caspana, Chiu-Chiu, Valle de Lasana: This trip begins with a trip to the geysers of Taito, where the steam rising across the early morning sky is breathtaking. The geysers are formed by the pressure of cold water meeting the volcanic magna below the earth, needing to escape. It is best to observe this magical vapor at dawn. From there the tour goes to the small village of Caspana where some 400 people live in small rock homes and onto the village of Chiu-Chiu which is of special importance, as it is the home to Iglesia San Francisco. This church is an icon of the north of Chile, as its simple architectural beauty has captivated people for centuries since its original construction in 1675. From there the trip ends at Valle de Lasana where an ancient fort still stands. May and July are good times to visit Lasana as there are a few different festivals during this time. This trip is especially interesting to see how the locals have learned to work with this harsh land and cultivate it.
Where to Stay: Hotels
Explora: You will feel like you have walked into the desert's most beautiful resort, rather than merely a hotel. The Explora is an all inclusive experience, leading excursions and tours throughout the Atacama valley. The hotel is located outside of the city, boasting beautiful views of the mountainsides surrounding the hotel. There you will enjoy your night's sleep in one of their luxurious beds. While staying at the hotel feel free to ride one of the many horses in the private stables, take a mountain bike across the sand dunes or just relax at the open bar on one of the terraces. Explorations include much more than just your average trekking excursion, they even have their own observatory for their "astronomy for all" program. You will also be highly impressed with the quality of the dining both within the hotel and while out on explorations.
Terrantai: The architecture of the building is based on the techniques of the ancients, with the rounded rocks of the local lands roughly sticking out of the exterior walls. The lodge is located in the heart of the city, near the church, craft fair, and only a few blocks from San Pedro's museum, yet its thick walls block out the noise of the city streets and you can escape into its rooms and restaurant. The restaurant offers a traditional menu, prepared with local ingredients and homemade breads. Breakfast includes a buffet.
Kimal: The building is done in the classic style of Atacaman construction in adobe and rough wood, with comfortable furnishings. They have a perfectly round pool with a beautiful waterfall. If you dine here at the restaurant you are also invited to enjoy the pool and patio area. There is a buffet at breakfast, a set lunch with three courses, and a full menu at dinner.
Hostería San Pedro: Don't let the name fool you, this is no simple hostel. This hotel is made up of a collection of rooms and cabins all located around a large pool. Continental breakfast is included in price.
Tulor: There is no other hotel like this in the world, with its design based on the circular structures of the Tulor ruins; this luxurious hotel is comprised of rounded edges and soft curves. The owner is an archeologist whose work has inspired her to bring this ancient construction into a modern hotel. Even the small pool is bean shaped.
Lodge Altitude: This is one of the newer hotels in San Pedro, having opened in 2005. They are located just outside of the city of San Pedro. The rooms are clean, bright and large with everything up-to-date, including the internet. This is a great place to come if you want to feel at home, chill out in a hammock, have a barbecue, go for a swim and let yourself soak all that San Pedro has to offer you.
Casa Don Tomas: It is located in the heart of the city, only a 5-minute walk from the main road and most of the restaurants. Built in the classical style of the area, the wooden furnishings compliment the hotels atmosphere. The rooms are simple and somewhat on the smaller side, but kept up nicely with a private bath for each room. Be sure to bring your bathing suit for a dip in their beautiful pool. All rooms are nonsmoking.
Where to Stay: Hostels
There are many hostels and other places to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, though prices seem to be a bit more expensive compared to other towns in Chile. Sometimes within the town itself prices vary considerably.
There seems to be a problem with hostels not having hot water. The first hostel we stayed in (San Sebastian) said they had hot water, though it only got to a lukewarm state intermingled with short bursts of cold. The next day when we had found another place to stay (with hot water) another foreign couple went up to the counter while we were getting something to eat and asked specifically if they really did have hot water. It seems a recurrent problem, so I set their minds at rest for the owner. If you stay at a hostel, ask if you can check to see if the water really is hot before you commit yourself.
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