I wasn’t sure about adding San Pedro to our itinerary at first. But Karin insisted, so finally, I agreed. And I wasn’t disappointed, quite the contrary. It’s totally a must-see destination in Chile! There are many things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, but here are the highlights based on our experience: the top places to see, hotels in San Pedro, travel tips, and even a funny story. Dive in…
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San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is something like tourists’ Mecca of the Chilean desert. Now I see why, it’s packed with epic views, extraordinary landscapes, and thrilling experiences. San Pedro sits on a desert plateau at 2 408 m (7 900 feet), surrounded by volcanos and the Andes. Thanks to these conditions, earthquakes of magnitude between 4.0 and 5.0 are nothing special in San Pedro. It happens every other day, apparently. We were dying to experience such a thing, so I even download a special earthquake-alert app for Chile, but I guess we must have slept through it.
How to get there?
The nearest airport is in Calama, an hour’s drive northwest of San Pedro. There you can rent a car or use a shuttle bus. I would recommend the rental, not only it’s much more comfortable, but it also comes in handy when exploring the San Pedro surrounding.
10. Valle de la Luna
Have you ever wondered how Neil Armstrong felt after they landed on the Moon? Well, in San Pedro, you can get pretty close to that. The Valley of the Moon or Valle de la Luna in Spanish is a large sedimental plateau behind the streets of San Pedro. The whole area around San Pedro resembles the mysterious moonscape, but the sunset at Valle de la Luna is surreal.
The Moon Valley is a part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, which is famous for its salt lakes and impressive sculptural shapes. These are created by thousands of years of the volcanic ground folding under the salty water, which is streaming down the hills to the lagoons after every rainfall. On the other hand, there no humidity…the place is drier than British humor, which makes it one of the most inhospitable places on earth. But the breathtaking color play at sunset is something you can’t miss out on!
Points of interest
- Tres Marias (Three Marias rock formation)
- Duna Mayor (The Great Dune)
- Mirador Achaches (viewing point)
- Mirador de Kari – Piedra del Coyote (viewing point)
How to get there?
To visit the Valle de la Luna, you need to either book a tour with a guide (that includes bus ride), rent a bike, or get there by foot. I would just like to point out, that the walk may be extremely unpleasant in the burning sun, so remember to bring enough water.
The Guided Tour
There are myriads of travel agencies and companies offering various tour packages. And thanks to natural competition, there’s no need to worry about scammers. I find it best to book the tour on site. The approximate price is 20-25 USD (19-22 EUR) for a 5-hour tour.
The Moon Valley Trail
This trail wrap up all the best spots to admire these vast desert plains, either by foot or on bike. Reserve around 5 or 6 hours, there’s only mild elevation (414 m/1 360 ft), but it’s still around 20 km (12.7 mi) in the desert. I strongly recommend planning your trip for an afternoon, so that you will be coming back as the sun gets down and provides you with stunning pictures. Also, the evenings are quite chilly, what makes much better conditions for a walk.
9. Mars Valley or Death Valley?
Very similar to Moon Valley is the Mars Valley few kilometers outside San Pedro. A rocky terrain full of silence and sand, where many tourists try their first sandboarding. Alas, we didn’t have enough time for that.
Fun fact: The Death Valley denomination is the outcome of a silly linguistic distortion. In Spanish it was originally called Valle de Marte—The Mars Valley, but over time it became Valle de la Muerte—The Valley of Death. I guess, the clickbait version got way more popular.
8. Pukará de Quitor
Stick to the San Pedro River Canyon and visit the monumental rocky fortress that has guarded the place for over 500 years. The indigenous Atacameños built the citadel to fight back the Spanish conquistadors. Unfortunately, the cannonballs are much stronger than mud and rock, so the battle was lost, and the rebels beheaded. The place marked National Monument now offers a fantastic view over the valley.
7. Devil’s Throat
Around 4 km further north, the Devil’s Throat towers over the Canyon. The impressive rock formation got me flashbacks od Death Valley in California, or certain scenes from The Hills Have Eyes. Either way, the whole river canyon is accessible by car, bikes or even by foot, as it’s close to the city.
There is a handy hiking trail to Pukará de Quitor and the Devil’s Throat from alltrail.com. However, to save the time and sunburns, we drove there by car. It took us approximately 3 hours, taking into consideration enough time to explore and enjoy both places.
6. Puritama Hot Springs
Puritama Hotsprings Aka Termas Baños de Puritama is a must while staying in San Pedro. The Puritama Hot Springs are located just 30 km (18.7 mi) northeast of San Pedro, easily accessible by car. The hot underground water flows into Puritama River and creates eight natural pools for you to hop in. With a temperature around 33 °C (91.5 °F) and high sodium sulfate content, the springs are said to have a marvelous effect on rheumatism, helping to fight stress and fatigue. Easy, are you experiencing burnout? Soak in the hot waters of Puritama to re-ignite your inner fire.
Especially in the high season (December to February), the Puritama Hot Springs are packed with tourists. Don’t forget to book your visit 2 or 3 days in advance. It’s better on-site, but it’s possible to do so online as well, in case you’re not staying in San Pedro for so long (which would be a shame).
- Opening times: daily from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (closed in case of adverse weather conditions)
- Prices: 65-100 USD (58-89 EUR)
- Don’t forget to bring a bathing suit, towel, hat, sunscreen, and flip flops/sandals.
Our Top Tips for San Pedro de Atacama: 🚙 Rent a gasoline-motor car with a cruise control system and automatic gear. Diesel motors tend to give up in high altitudes. 🥶Pack warm clothes! You are in a desert, but also at a high altitude.
5. Los Flamencos National Reserve
Los Flamencos is a large national reserve covering an area of 740 sq km (290 sq mi) of salt flats, lagoons, volcanos, and hills on the borders with Bolivia and Argentina. It’s divided into 7 individual parks, all in the altitude up to 5 000 km (16 404 ft), so watch out for mountain sickness (but about that later).
The reserve protects a unique ecosystem living there despite the extreme conditions. Perhaps the most famous inhabitants are the flamingos, which after all gave the reserve its name. There are actually three species: Andean, James, and Chilean, which breed at the salty lagoons rich in small shrimps. Apart from flamingos, you can spot the Andean fox, ducks, and lama vicuña.
There are many lagoons, volcanoes, and epic views. Book a guided tour in San Pedro, or get there by car on your own, anyway, the sunrises and sunsets are magical, so try to plan your trip, so that you can enjoy the views at the right time.
Tip: On the way to Los Flamencos National Reserve, you can visit the astronomical capital—ALMA Observatory. The public visits are now suspended due to COVID-19; however, you can always check the official websites for updates. It’s necessary to book your tickets in advance, so you would have to check it anyway.
4. Laguna Chaxa Park
Laguna Chaxa Park is a part of Los Flamencos National Reserve located 60 km south from San Pedro and comprises several highlights.
Ojos del Salar
The two perfectly round-shaped lagoons on the way to Chaxa lagoon are very popular among tourists. The name literally means “the eyes of Salar” and the reason seems pretty obvious once you see the shape. I wasn’t particularly thrilled about that idea, but if you desire to try out the salty waters (and you’re there on your own, without a guide), you can jump in one of them… preferably the left one (as seen from San Pedro). The locals say there’s a rusty car in the right one and you might easily hurt yourself from the edges.
Laguna Chaxa and Laguna Tebinquinche
We passed the opportunity to take a dip in the eyes and continued further on the way to the two largest lagoons of Atacama Salar. As we arrived at Chaxa lagoon, we could see the flamingos chilling (as in Chil-e-ing, haha) in the water and feeding on the shrimps. It was hot as hell in there, but the view of the birds everywhere, the mountains in the backdrop, and the clear blue sky merging with the water were worth it.
Unfortunately, the salt flat is rich in lithium, and the heavy mining industry together with crowds of tourists endanger the unique biosphere. The park rangers and regulated opening times helped, but still, be considerate to the environment and stick to the paved paths.
- Opening times: 8 am to 8 pm
- Prices: 3 000 CLP (4 USD), cash only
Tip: Bring enough water with you, there is no kiosk or shop on site. If you’re there for the sunset, don’t forget a jacket too, it gets Chilly in the evening 😉
3. Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons
Miscanti and Miñiques, the Altiplano Lagoons at the foot of the volcanoes are breathtaking. Honestly, none of the pictures of the Atacama Salt Flat above do it justice. You just need to experience the atmosphere. These two lagoons are special thanks to the lava rock that splits the original lagoon in two.
The Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons are 118 km (73 mi) south from San Pedro. Make sure to stop in the Socaire village. It’s a cultural refuge of the native Atacameño tribe, now facing a threat of drinking water shortage and mining companies’ pressure. So, think about buying some authentic souvenirs while you’re there.
Tip: For those who are interested in the challenges the native tribes have to face, read the article concerning Socaire in the Wall Street Magazine.
- Opening times: 9 am to 6 pm
- Prices: 3 000 CLP (4 USD), only cash
2. El Tatio Geysers
Geysers del Tatio is the 3rd largest geyser field in the world (after Iceland and Yellowstone Park). Although, the geysers are cool and the intervals between the shooting are predictive, I liked the route from San Pedro better. It was much less crowded (there were already like 2 000 visitors at El Tatio in the morning) and the sunrise in the desert was simply magical.
You need to get up at 4 am to get there in time. The steam from the geysers gets less visible as the day passes. Geysers del Tatio are also the highest in the world, which means it’s really cold up there. Aye, you’re in the desert, but 4 320 m (14 173 ft) above sea level. The temperature is constantly around 8 °C (46 °F), therefore I strongly advise wearing layers.
- Entrance Fee: 12.50 USD (11 EUR)
Storytime: Karin and AMS
There is almost 2 000 m (6 562 ft) difference in altitude between San Pedro and El Tatio. Count in the jet lag, no time to get accustomed, little sleep and you got perfect conditions for Acute Mountain Sickness syndrome. And that’s exactly what happened to Karin. She was alright at first but slowly started experiencing facial swelling, headaches, and nausea. So, she basically went to see the geysers and then spent the rest of the time waiting in the car, to get back to San Pedro.
The mountain sickness can be harmless when treated properly, but severe if ignored. I wrote the whole article on the big 3 of Altitude Sickness and how to treat it. However, Chileans have their own life hack when it comes to this—a tea made of Coca leaves. As a loving husband (and a knight in the shining armor) I hurried to the nearest restaurant to ease my wife’s pain. It’s bitter as hell but effective. Karin can confirm.
1. Vado Río Putana
On our way to see the El Tatio geysers, we made a few stops to fully immerse in the breathtaking scenery the Atacama offered to us. One of them was the Vado Río Putana viewpoint. Initially, we just thought that we are going to drive to El Tatio and back, so this stop was totally spontaneous, but gorgeous.
Maybe it was all about the sunrise light sparkling on the pampa dew, but for me, it was a better experience then the geysers in the end. One would say there’s nothing to see except the landscapes…well, personally, that was more than enough. If you want to dig deeper though, it’s possible to book a tour guide in San Pedro, that will explain everything about the delicate ecosystem.
And again…the unique atmosphere of that place is not something you can simply capture in the photo, so even though my shots are hype, it’s nothing in comparison to the real-life scenery.
Where to stay: Best Hotels in San Pedro
Despite its popularity, San Pedro is still rather small and dusty. Although, that doesn’t mean there’s some shortage of quality hotel services. Here are the top 5 hotels in San Pedro.
Hotel Pascual Andino 3*
The boutique hotel Pascual Andino sits right in San Pedro city center. The fusion of indigenous styles presents the warm and typical architecture of wood and mud walls. The sun terrace with a small plunge pool is part of the complex, as well as friendly and helpful staff.
- Prices: from 170 USD (150 EUR), breakfast included
- Address: Gustavo Le Paige 150, 1410000 San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Hotel La Casa de Don Tomás
In walking distance from San Pedro downtown lies La Casa de Don Tomás. A charming small hotel with a rustic feel and modern comfort. The hotel restaurant is renowned for its indigenous cuisine.
- Prices: from 183 USD (162 EUR), breakfast included
- Address: Tocopilla sitio 18, 1410000 San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
The stylish, boho, adult-only hotel Desértica is an ideal desert refuge. The circular rooms refer to pre-Hispanic Atacameño buildings and the garden with a pool is a perfect spot for an evening cocktail. The hotel also offers free bike rental to explore the city’s surroundings.
- Prices: from 285 USD (251 EUR), breakfast included
- Address: 455 Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Terrantai Lodge Hotel
In the heart of the San Pedro old town, hides Terrantai Lodge. Inner courtyard is a peaceful oasis with a small outdoor pool. The food is said to be exquisite and the complimentary wine and tapas from 6 to 8 pm are the cherry on the top.
- Prices: from 310 USD (275 EUR), breakfast included
- Address: Tocopilla 411, 1410000 San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa
Tierra Atacama boasts with al-fresco hot tub, outdoor pool with views of the Andes and eco-friendly designer rooms. The intimate atmosphere is only one of the many bright sides of this hotel. Gaze at the bright stars and the striking landscape while falling asleep.
- Prices: from 700 USD (618 EUR), breakfast included
- Address: Asequitor s/n, 1410000 San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
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