San Pedro lies in the north of Chile, acting as a gateway to the driest desert in the world, the infamous Atacama. Situated anywhere else, San Pedro would not be worth a visit, but with the wealth of adventures to be had in the surrounding area, you simply must go if you´re ever in Chile.
Using San Pedro as a base, you can easily explore the otherworldly valleys,high-altitude lagoons, and ancient hillside ruins. You can also gawp at the night sky – possibly the clearest in the world – by taking an astronomy tour, or simply walking a little away from the light of the town. On my first night there, we had a short power cut. I was talking with friends outside, when the whole town suddenly went dark and the sky transformed into a million specs of light. The cloudy pillar of the Milky Way was visible from the centre of town. Unfortunately, the lights came back on around ten minutes later and the sky reverted to its original state (which is still about 100 times better than any other town). Taking a night trip into the desert is definitely worth the effort. A starry night here is something you will never forget.
Ideally, you will need 4 days to make the most of your time here. The town is small and easily walkable, not requiring much time for exploration. It´s stuffed with tour agencies and empanada shops (the best kind), but doesn´t have any tourist attractions as such, apart from a few miniature museums. More time will allow you some relaxation and wiggle room, less means you will need to select your activities wisely. Without further ado, here are the best thing to see and do around San Pedro de Atacama.
Where to Go
1. Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, is a spectacular valley located just 13km from San Pedro. The entrance fee ranges from $2,000 Chilean Pesos to $3,500 (£2.50-£4), depending on the time of day, age and whether you´re a student or not.
The information desk at the entrance provides free maps of the valley, allowing you to plan a rough route. If you follow the main road from the entrance, it will take you all the way to Las Tres Marias, 3 unusual rocky formations that jut out of the desert floor. One of them was broken by a tourist climbing on it, and a boundary has since been placed around it, to stop people from getting too close.
The first stop, around 3km from the entrance, is the salt caverns. They´re a winding and narrow cave system, containing unearthly geological structures. You can walk the snaking trail in around 20 minutes and either carry on along the main road, or take a right as you exit the caves and explore a less visited part of the valley. There are more surreal cliffs and caves, but the further you head in this direction, the less people you will encounter, and the more it begins to feel like you are truly isolated in the desert. The midday sun beats down on your face and neck, no matter which way you look. The only shade is under the wall of the valley, however, there have been numerous incidents of rocks falling lately and a large portion of this route is currently closed.
The main view that everybody comes to see in the Valley of the Moon is the sunset, particularly from the top of the giant sand dune. The path is sandy but well worn; it shouldn´t pose a problem to anybody. The view from the top makes you understand the logic behind the valley's name. It was also here where NASA tested the prototype for the Mars rover, due to its strikingly similar terrain.
Watching the sun drop behind the ridge is beautiful on its own, but it doesn´t compete with the red-gold afterglow that engulfs the desert. At the top of the dune, you can walk along the ridge in either direction. The right allows you a view of the sun setting behind the sand dune, and if you turn around, you have the full chain of the Andes mountains, complete with several large volcanoes in the distance. The left has a view of the craggy hills and the interminable desert. The path goes on further, too, meaning there is more space to find your own spot, away from the crowds. This is the busiest time on the sand dune, but the view is remarkable all-day long. A sunset here is one you will remember for the rest of your life.
How to get there
Getting to Valle de la Luna can be done in a number of ways, depending on your preferences. Cycling is easy. You can rent bikes all over town, anywhere from $3,500 for 6 hours, to $5,500 for a full day. The ride from the centre of town to the entrance takes about 25 minutes. The first half a mile is uphill, but the rest is completely flat. However, upon entry into the actual valley, the road becomes rickety and there are steep sections, too. A helmet and visibility jacket are essential for you to take the bike into the valley. I made the mistake of cycling there without either, and was told upon arrival that they would not let me take the bike inside without them. Which brings me onto the second option.
Hitchhiking is incredibly simple in and around San Pedro. The first place I ever hitchhiked alone was just outside of San Pedro, along the dusty 95km stretch to Calama, then 217km to Antofagasta the following day. I was picked up by the first car. Likewise, in Valle de la Luna, instead of walking for miles in the desert, I stuck my thumb up. Again, the first car let me in, dropping me off at the salt caves. From there, I hitched around the entire valley without any problems. Some people are uncomfortable with hitchhiking, and that is completely understandable. It´s easiest in a place like this though, where there is only one road and all the cars are driven by like-minded tourists, heading in the same direction. It also helps that you´re in the arid Atacama and people feel guilty if they have to leave you to walk under the scorching sun.
If hitching and cycling aren't for you, then the third option is to take a tour, which will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and transport you to the entrance (most tours don´t include entrance fees), visiting each of the locations with a knowledgeable guide, before dropping you back off at your accommodation. Tours last around 4 hours and with a bit of haggling, can be found for around $6,000 Pesos (£7-£7.50). They usually start at 2 or 3 pm so that you can catch the sunset, but an earlier one is possible.
Another good idea is to rent a car in San Pedro and drive there yourself. The main roads around the town are smooth and good quality, however the valley itself consists of dirt roads, with many hills, bumps and turns. There is ample parking at all the main sites. While this way may be slightly more expensive (particularly if not in a group), you can also use the car to visit other attractions, further afield.
2. Valle de la Muerte / Valle de la Marte
The Valley of the dead, also known as the Valley of Mars, is a lot closer to San Pedro than the Valley of the Moon. Its surreal landscapes are just as astonishing, but they have the bonus of being less crowded than their bigger and more popular neighbour. That's not to say that nobody visits the Valley of the Dead, but it definitely doesn't get as many tour groups.
The entrance is on the right-hand side of the road to Calama, a mere 2km from the centre of town. The fee is slightly less than Valle de la Luna, within the $2000-$3000 range (£2.50-£3.50), and it´s the same price all day long.
This valley is the perfect place to sandboard. It's within walking distance of the town (where you can rent boards), and whilst the Valley of the Moon has a huge sand dune, you are not allowed to sandboard on it. As well as climbing the dune to ride back down, it is also worth going up for the view alone. The desert rolls out before your eyes, stretching all the way to the jagged Andes mountains, cowboys ride through the rugged valleys, kicking up dust in their wake, and bizarre outcrops defy logic at every turn.
I made the mistake of climbing the dune in a straight line, from the base to the highest point. Don't make the same mistake as me. I had to use both my hands and my feet, as the surface was almost vertical. My feet sunk into the sand a good 30cm with each step, making the whole ordeal unnecessarily demanding. Every time I looked up, the summit seemed to be further away than before. I had to take breaks, burying my hands in the cold sand beneath the surface to prevent me from tumbling back down. I lay there, face pressed against the gritty dune, in an almost perpendicular plank position, sucking in the dry air, lips shrivelling with each shallow breath. But I refused to go back. I´d already started now and I wasn´t turning around until I saw what I came to see.
I had half the desert in my shoes by the time I made it to the top - so much so, that my feet were welded in place, with not even a sliver of space. Luckily, I had enough water to make sure I didn't pass out from the midday heat. Despite taking the most difficult route (there is a well-trodden track for sandboarders, which takes you up diagonally), it was well worth the effort.
You can also continue on the path further into the valley, which winds its way up to the opposite side of the sand dune, giving you a view of what lies beyond the towering ridge. It looks like an extreme Motocross track, built for giants. I still struggle to get my head around how these valleys were formed.
How to get there
You can travel here using the four methods stated for the Valley of the Moon, with one additional option.
The easiest way to get to the Valley of the Dead is to walk. If you exit the town from Licancabur street, stick to the main road towards Calama. The sandy hill, directly in front of you as you leave the town, is the entrance. It should not take longer than 25 minutes to walk there, if you are of reasonable fitness. The good viewpoints can take up to 2 hours to walk to, depending on your pace and how often you stop. Take plenty of water and some snacks. There is only one road, so unless you venture off and into the desert, it´s impossible to get lost.
Just as with the Valley of the Moon, you can hitchhike here, although there are nowhere near as many cars inside the valley. You are more likely to encounter horses here than anything else. However, a car will pass by every now and then, and it´s very easy to stick a thumb up and jump in the back.
You can take a tour, too. There are many more tours to the Valley of the Moon, but you can still get one here, or even a joint tour of both. It´s slightly cheaper and slightly shorter because it´s a smaller and closer place.
You can rent a car and stop here, along with many other places. It would not be advisable to rent a car solely for use here, though.
Finally, you can cycle. It´s easy to get here, despite a little up-hill section. Cycling in the actual valley can be quite difficult however, as the sand can be thick. I walked to the top with my bike, then rode down (without peddling), but my wheels jammed in the sand and I flew over my handle bars, almost rolling off the steep road and into the Valley of the Dead below. It would have been a fitting place to die, but it was not to be. You can also cycle from here to Pukara de Quitor in a relatively fast time, as there is a path directly from entrance to entrance.
3. Pukara de Quitor
This fascinating hill-side ruin was once a mighty fortress, perched in a great defensive location, destroying the element of surprise for invaders. You can find it 3km north-west of San Pedro. Like most of the attractions here, there is an entrance fee of a few thousand Pesos. If you have a bike, there is a place to lock it at the entrance.
You can choose between climbing the ridge that runs along the 700-year-old ruins, or the hills in the distance. The hills contain several view points and shelters to rest, as well as a few interesting structures at the top. From the peak, you can look down on the Valley of the Dead to see it from a different perspective. You can also gaze into the valley that leads to Catarpe - an interesting and adventurous bike ride away.
The view from the top of the hills is worth seeing, whereas the short path parallel with the ruins is a bit hit and miss. You see much of the same, but from an inferior angle, and whilst you can get a lot closer to the ruins, you can´t go inside them. Having said that, the path is short and is probably worth the 15 minutes it will take to walk.
Near to the entrance of Pukara de Quitor, is another path. Instead of taking the ramp up to the bike storage and ticket office, go the opposite way, sticking to the wall of the rock, and follow the path up to a cave and some amazing archaeological carvings. The cave is pitch black at certain points, so make sure you have a torch handy. Be careful with your head, too, especially f
or tall people like me. You´ll be bending a lot. On the other side of the cave is a small open area, where you can witness the unusual rock formations up close, and add your own cairn to the masses already there, before heading back the way you came. It might be a good idea to take something to cover your nose and mouth, as you will inhale a lot of dust. Outside, you can marvel at the two giant heads, that have been carved from the cliff face.
How to get there
All the above options apply for here. You can walk, rent a car, take a tour or cycle. Hitchhiking is a little more difficult here because it´s not on the main road, but if a car goes past, chances are that it´s heading to Pukara de Quitor.
Cycling here is probably the best option, because afterwards, you can continue to the Valley of the Dead, or further towards Catarpe and the Garganta del Diablo (the Devil´s Throat). If you do continue along the small river towards Catarpe, keep in mind that you will have to cross the river at some point, and for some unknown reason, bridges don´t exist here. Don´t wear your best shoes.
Arguably the best activity to do here, based on the area´s pristine skies, is look upwards. Within the next year, over 70% of the world´s astronomical observatories will be based here. From this desert, you can see the Large Magellanic Cloud with the naked eye, a foreign galaxy that orbits the Milky Way, over 150,000 light years away. You can also see the Small Magellanic Cloud, fainter and even further away. It´s the farthest visible object in the southern hemisphere, without the aid of telescopes. You can also stare into the heart of our own galaxy. Do you know that strip of cloud-like substance you see in films and the best astrophotography? You can see it with your own eyes.
It takes a brilliant camera to be able to pick any of it up (I´m not knowledgeable enough in photography to take good night photos with the RX100 - also, I don´t have a tripod. I´m blaming it on the tripod), but luckily for us, almost all astronomy tours will take a group photo on their own cameras. You can ask for one on your own, too, but some companies charge extra.
A tour will set you back around 15,000 Chilean Pesos. Be sure to haggle and ask around. In 2016, I used the company, Una Noche Con Las Etrellas, and I couldn´t recommend them enough. They took me on a 2-hour tour, pointing out all the visible constellations of the zodiac and explaining the reasons behind them. The guide also told us that there are technically 13 constellations along the ecliptic line and that 3,000 years ago, the Babylonians opted to leave one out to match their 12-month lunar cycle. Also, the constellations have shifted slightly during that period, meaning that the physical constellation behind the sun at the time of your birth, is likely different from your zodiac sign. I grew up believing I was a Capricorn, only to have my goat-like dreams shattered and to discover I was technically born while the sun was in Sagittarius. That´s not even a real animal (coming from a goat-fish, I know my animals). They also showed us a short documentary and allowed us to feast on little sausages and snacks.
In 2017, I asked around town for the same company. I was informed that it was the same one, same price, same duration. However, the tour only lasted one hour, and wasn´t half as good, nor was it the company advertised, yet it still cost $15,000. Thankfully, the stars were just as beautiful, and it was hard to be too annoyed under a spectacle like that.
To avoid being ripped off, and to avoid paying $15,000 in the first place if you´re on a tight budget, it might be a good idea to walk a little outside of town (take a torch), and watch them yourself after doing a little research. It obviously helps if you have an experienced guide who can point to Saturn as soon as you ask him, but if you don´t want a tour, then you should still see them in your own time.
In the main street of San Pedro, Caracoles, you can often find people with a telescope on the street, willing to show you the planets. Both times, I visited in August, the tail-end of their winter, and Saturn was the easiest to see. Early at night, it is possible to spot Mars and Jupiter, too. At different times throughout the year, it´s possible to see all the first six planets with the naked eye.
5. High Plain Lagoons and the Atacama Salt Flats
The high-altitude lakes are definitely worth checking out if you´re in the area, however, if you have recently come from Uyuni on a 3 or 4-day tour, or plan to go after San Pedro, then they´re relatively similar to the Bolivian ones. In fact, the Bolivian ones are probably better, as they´re a lot closer to the base of the mountains, making the view much more striking. The same applies to the salt flats. Bolivia´s are the largest in the world, and while that alone doesn´t make them superior, they trump the Atacama salt flats in sheer epicness, in my opinion. That´s no disrespect to the wonders of Chile.
You have the opportunity to watch pink Flamengos in Chaxa National Reserve, walk on a frozen lake at Red Stone, and see Vicuñas (a relative of llamas and alpacas) in their natural habitat - the hills above 3,000m. The Atacama Salt Flat produces 27% of the world´s lithium, making Chile the largest producer on the planet, ahead of its neighbour, Argentina (3rd). Bolivia also has ample lithium supplies, but has only just begun to mine it.
It´s best to start early for these places, as they´re a bit further away than the majority of the attractions. There´s not much that will stop me being miserable in the morning. Game of Thrones, chocolate, and driving into the heart of the Andes are probably the only three. I drifted in and out of sleep on the ride there, catching dreamlike glimpses of snowy peaks, sprawling desert and grazing vicuñas, half-listening to the guide talk about how vicuñas are still hunted for their fur, despite it being illegal.
I woke when the smooth road swiftly changed to a jolting sandy track. I bounced up and down, bashing flailing limbs off parts of the jeep that I didn´t even know existed. Then I was hit by the cold. Mornings at high altitude aren´t pleasant for the half-dressed. Luckily, I was prepared. I´d experienced this mishap first-hand last year when I travelled through South America in winter, with only summer clothes (and no, I didn´t think it was summer here, either. I knew it was winter, but packed light because I was going to sunny Central America first. Bad move, I know, but I ended up buying an alpaca hat, gloves, scarf, jumper and socks, so it was all good).
You can also go to the Tropic of Capricorn in this area. Our guide stopped for a photo at the sign, but that´s all it is, really. A sign to say an imaginary line passes through here. The only reason I liked it was because I was still living a lie, believing I was actually born a Capricorn. What a deceitful world.
How to get there
The best way to go to these places is by taking a tour. It may hurt your wallet, but if you aren´t planning on doing Uyuni, then it´s worth it. As part of a group of 9, we managed to negotiate a price of $27,000 each, for a full day, visiting all the aforementioned places, as well as Toconao, a traditional village. The main square has large cacti that grow 1cm per year. These cacti were over 2 metres tall, meaning they were planted in the early 1800s! You can explore the handcraft shops and go souvenir hunting, check out the old church, or taste local homemade ice cream. They have Rica Rica flavour, which is a mint-like herb that grows in the shrubby area of the desert. The driver makes a short stop here, too, for you to harvest your own supply.
It is also possible to rent a car and drive there yourself. This may work out cheaper if you have a full car. Just make sure you have a map, preferably a map app, with GPS. Doing it this way, you can visit other places, too, and take as long as you need in each place, staying in the desert for the sunset and stars if you desire. Ask around town for car rentals.
Other things to do in the area include:
Cejar Lagoon - A lake with a higher mineral concentration than the Dead Sea, meaning you can float! What they don´t tell you is that there is a huge entrance fee and at this current moment, a lot of people have been having allergic reactions to something in the water. Because of this, they have limited the time inside to 15 minutes. I didn´t go, solely for this reason, however if you want to, it´s around 20km south of San Pedro. Tours go there regularly, or you can drive, or cycle if you´re up for a long ride.
Tatio Geysers - Expect an early start if you visit these. They´re most active around 4.30 am, but again, if you´ve recently been on the Uyuni tour, then they aren´t essential. I never visited them because I´d seen (the supposedly more impressive) Bolivian geysers, but I have heard good things about Tatio.
Hot Springs / Aguas Callientes - There are lots of hot springs near San Pedro de Atacama. They all have entrance fees that likely aren´t included in any of the tours. Ask around the agencies in town for prices. I visited hot springs in Peru and Bolivia - there is nothing quite like bathing in hotter-than-bath water in the middle of the freezing cold Andes.
El Mano del Desierto - Near to Antofagasta, a giant hand comes out of the desert floor, Carrie-style. I have never been because it was annoyingly difficult to get to from Antofagasta. They suggested a taxi, but as you can expect, the price was a joke. The best way to visit is by driving there, even better if it´s a stop on a longer journey.
Hot Air Balloon over the Atacama - This is something I have never done but would love to. Watching the sunrise from atop a balloon would be an unreal experience. I almost took one over Luxor, in Egypt, but decided against it. Prices vary, but expect to be paying upwards of $150,000 Chilean Pesos.
The Flowering Desert - A lot further south from San Pedro, but still in the Atacama, near to La Serena, there is a natural phenomenon taking place in the desert, causing flowers to blossom everywhere. It only happens once per year and this year is supposed to be the largest ever.
How to Budget
Generally, San Pedro is slightly more expensive than other towns of similar size in Chile. The customers are predominantly tourists, which means the prices are inflated. Food is relatively expensive in the restaurants, but there is a row of cheap eateries, in which you can get 2 courses for around $3,000. They can be found by heading through the artisan market on the main square, then heading across the car park in front of you as you exit. You can´t miss them. If you turn right here and follow the road, you will come to a fresh produce market, where you can buy cheap fruit, vegetables and meat, to cook your own meals.
If you don´t have money to splash on tours, then you can still visit all the places. Finding a group to split costs of a car is one way, or renting a bike for all of the closer destinations. Always haggle with souvenirs and tours - never accept the first price. As for astronomy, you can still see the same stars as everybody else, even if you don´t want to pay for a guide to point out which one is which.
Hostels can be found for a reasonable price, but are more than Bolivia and usually a bit more than other towns in Chile, too. You can generally turn up and get one on the day in the low season (April - June), but in the high season, you may want to book in advance. Hostels start from $6,000 per night, and usually the cheapest deals can be found by asking around town. Booking online tends to be a little more expensive, starting at around $9,000 per night.
When to Go
The Atacama is dry, with clear skies all year round. You can count the number of clouds you see in your time here on one hand - most likely, you won´t need any hands. On the astronomy tour, the guide said that only 30 nights of the year are cloudy, and even then, they´re not terribly intrusive.
Chilean summer runs from December to February, and their winter, from June to August. However, the climate here doesn´t change that much. Due to the altitude (2,408 metres above sea level), San Pedro experiences cold nights all year round, with the lowest being in July and August, at -1° C, and the highest, around 5-6° C, in January. In the day, the winters can reach 20° C, and the summer, 25° C. The altitude makes the days seem hotter though, because the sun´s rays have less of an atmosphere to cut through before reaching you. Combine this with the unusual clarity of the sky, and basically, you will frazzle.
If you want to avoid the crowds, then the best time to visit is just before winter (northern summer holidays), but after southern summer. April - June is classed as low season here. There will be less people, but never expect it to be empty. San Pedro is a tourist hot spot.
What to Bring
Altitude Sickness Tablets - Depending on your attitude toward altitude, you may wish to bring some medicine. Some people simply don´t agree with being at higher elevations. While 2,408 metres isn´t ridiculously high, some of the activities can go well over 4,000m. You can also buy local remedies for altitude sickness all over town. Coca leaves are helpful for long uphill hikes. Just don´t swallow them.
Vaseline or Lip Balm - This one is fairly self-explanatory. You´re in the driest desert in the world. Without it, your lips will crack, bleed and split. I speak from experience.
Sun Lotion - The altitude makes you burn a lot faster than if you were at sea level.
Map App - While there´s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned paper map, it won´t help you if you don´t know where you are in the first place. MAPS.ME is a good choice as it allows you to download the maps for offline use (like most apps), but it also shows walking trails and footpaths that are mostly invisible on Google Maps, for instance.
Water and Snacks - Again, it´s self-explanatory. You need lots of water in the driest desert on Earth. If you´re stranded, don´t count on rain to save you. Certain areas here receive less than half an inch per year. Some native people have never seen rain in their entire life, particularly closer to Antofagasta. A little snack is helpful, too, as there aren´t any shops outside of the towns.
Camera - This is an unforgettable place, but it doesn´t hurt to keep photos.
How to Get There
It all depends on where you start.
From Santiago - There are several flights from Santiago to Calama (the nearest city with an airport), daily. Depending on how far in advance you book, and which dates you want to fly, they can be as cheap as $25,000 (£30), one way. The flight takes around 2 hours. There are also a few select busses that go directly from Santiago to San Pedro, but they take over 20 hours, and most stop in Calama. Busses also start from around $25,000, but don´t vary as much in price as flights.
From Calama - Calama is around 100km away from San Pedro, but is home to the nearest airport. Busses from centre to centre, cost a few thousand Pesos. Direct transfer from the airport to your hotel can be found for around $12,000 (£15). Calama isn´t much of a place for tourists on its own. There isn´t a great deal to see, and there aren´t hostels or budget hotels. It´s best to head straight to San Pedro. You won´t miss much.
From Bolivia - The best way to enter from here is via the Uyuni tour. This is often cited as tourists´ favourite thing to do in the whole continent. When booking in the town of Uyuni, ask to finish the tour in San Pedro, rather than return. You visit many amazing sights along the way, including the largest salt flats in the world, frozen lakes, coloured lagoons, volcanoes, mountains, thermal baths, active geysers, a hotel made from salt, a tree made from stone, and countess other crazy places.
From Peru - You can follow the Pan-American Highway from Peru, over the border, through Arica and into Iquique. This is a great town to sandboard and surf, but from here you will find many busses heading to San Pedro.
From Argentina - There is a route from Argentina that passes directly through the Flamengo Reserve. I´ve never taken this route, but I imagine that it will be similar to any other bus. Ask around in your starting town´s bus station for details. Most South American bus companies don´t have much of an online presence, but in general you can waltz into any station and state your destination, and they will get you there (you may need some basic Spanish skills or a big smile and Google Translate).
From Europe - Chile does not have the best connections with Europe. In fact, from the UK, it´s one of the most expensive countries to fly to in the world. If you are planning a trip around the entire continent, then it would be better to place Chile somewhere in the middle. There are ample routes into neighbouring countries. If you wish to fly to Chile, flights start at around £450*, with stops (usually in Rome), one way, from London to Santiago. They drastically increase in price if you are limited to specific dates.
*Based off a quick search on Skyscanner and previous experience.
Have you been to San Pedro? Is there anything you think could be added to this guide?
Let me know in the comments below!