San Pedro de Atacama is the best access point to Atacama Desert, one of the most unique places on earth.
Located in the north of Chile and close to the border with Bolivia and Argentina, and pushing all the way into Peru, Atacama is known to be one of the driest places on earth (it has an average rainfall of around 2 cm per year). Rainfall doesn’t even happen every year, and some places have not ever recored rainfall at all! But when it does, the effects are outstanding (just check this post to see what I mean).
You realize how dry it is when you wake up in the middle of the night, almost choking on a dry cough and desperately in need of water (take my word for it: it happens to everyone!).
If you are planning a long term trip across South America, or just a trip to Chile, you really should make it a point to go to San Pedro de Atacama, and I promise you this will easily become the highlight of your trip. It’s a cool place to visit alone (in fact, it’s one of the best places to travel alone) as you will get to meet lots of other travelers.
Despite being so dry, the Atacama Desert features an incredible biodiversity. You will find a great variety of flora and fauna; interesting rock formations; colorful lagoons. And since it is at a high elevation (San Pedro de Atacama is at 2400 meters above sea level) the air is so dry and clouds hardly ever make an appearance in the sky, and very few people live in the region (and so there is hardly any light pollution) this is the world’s best location for star gazing.
In this post, I highlight the best things to see and do in San Pedro de Atacama, and share some practical information that will help you plan your trip.
13 Cool Things To Do In San Pedro De Atacama
Look at the stars
If you love looking at the star, you are in for quite a treat. As I have said before, the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth. As it sits at quite an elevation and there are very few people living there (and thus virtually no light pollution), you will have an incredible view of the starry sky on any given day.
What you have to do in order to look at the stars is just get out of San Pedro de Atacama.
If you want something more structured, you can opt for one of two things:
- A free star gazing tour – for this one, you will enquire in town. I did it when I visited, it was run by an expert who was just new in town and very keen on establishing this tour, but I am not sure it is still currently available.
- An astronomical tour of San Pedro – in this case, you will have a more structured experience, with two different viewpoints and also astronomical equipment to make your experience all the more enjoyable. Make sure to book in advance as the tour is often sold out. You can book it here.
Visit Valle de la Luna
Visiting Valle de la Luna is a must-do when in San Pedro de Atacama. At a quick drive from San Pedro, there you will find some impressive rock and sand formations of varying colors and often covered in white because of the salt left by drying lakes.
This area of Chile is famous for the beautiful sunset, with skies that dramatically change color to become first orange then all shades of pink.
If you have your own car, it is fairly easy to get to the Moon Valley. Alternatively, you can join a convenient guided tour which usually also includes Mars Valley (also known as Death Valley). These are a few good options:
And Death Valley
So, the name of this place is actually a bit confusing. Most people in San Pedro de Atacama call it Valle de la Muerte – Death Valley. But then when you get to the area, you will see signs referring to it as Marte, which means Mars (hence its other name, Mars Valley). I guess it’s easy to confuse the two names, as there is much of an assonance between Marte and Muerte. Anyways – they are the same place.
Valle de la Muerte is one of the most beautiful places you can hope to see in this part of the world. If you have a picture in your head of a desert that is mostly made of sand, you will find it there. It’s literally 5 minutes outside of town, and the sights are just incredible – it is surrounded by volcanoes!
Tours to Death Valley depart regularly from town. You can go horse riding there – check out this tour – or even sandboarding (more about that below).
GOOD TO KNOW: If you want a complete change of landscape, go to the Huasco Valley on the southern edge of Atacama Desert. This is thought to be “the garden of the Atacama” and thanks to its favorable climate it’s become famous for its production of wine and olive oil. It’s home to the Diaguita people, one of the indigenous groups living in Chile.
If there is one thing you should not miss out on when in San Pedro de Atacama, that’s sandboarding. Honestly, it is an exhilarating thing to do, even if you have no idea how to stand up on the board – which was very much my case.
Two daily expeditions leave from town – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon – to take you to Valle de la Muerte, where your guide, who’s obviously also a champion at sandboarding, will give you all the necessary training for you to go down the dunes. It’s quite a bit of effort, because every time you get down you have to walk up the dune carrying your board, and that is quite a workout – yet it is so worth it.
By the end of it, you are covered in sand (I think it took me a few days and multiple showers to finally get rid of it).
I recommend joining morning tours as the heat picks up quite a bit in the afternoon. Sandboard San Pedro is the most quoted company for this activity. You can book it here.
Go to the Rainbow Valley
Another really cool place you can visit from San Pedro de Atacama is the Rainbow Valley, or Valle del Arcoíris in Spanish. It actually one of the least visited places in the areas, but an interesting one. During your trip there you can also visit the Petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas, which show images of guanacos, foxes and humans.
As the name recalls, Valle del Arcoíris or Rainbow Valley is an extremely colorful place. You will see multiple rock formations in various shades of green and red, as well as white, along the hills through which Río Grande cuts through.
If you have your own car (best if a 4 wheel drive), getting to the Petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas and from there to the Rainbow Valley isn’t hard – the signs are quite clear. Alternatively, you can opt for a tour departing from town in the morning, such as this one.
Go to El Tatio Geyser
At 4320 meters above sea level, and with the incredible backdrop of the Andes, El Tatio Geysers certainly marks one of the best day trips from San Pedro de Atacama. You will find a series of fumaroles, and small mud pools that literally bubble, as well as hot springs. Beautiful in normal circumstances, they are even better considering that tours live at the wee hours and it really can be cold at that elevation – the hot springs come in as a relief! You can book your guided tour here.
Explore the Salar de Uyuni
The Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flats, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth. It’s located in Bolivia, but San Pedro de Atacama is the perfect base to visit on guided multi-day tours.
This is the world’s largest salt flat, with salt rock a few meters thick. It’s also has the largest reserve of lithium in the world, close to zero vegetation other than cacti (there is cacti island you can visit during the tour, which is quite impressive to see considering that it is surrounded by the salt lake!), and even less animal life (just pink flamingoes).
Scattered around the area there are several lagoons – the White, the Green and the Red. Their names obviously refer to the colors! Another lagoon is the Laguna Hedionda, literally “Stinking Lake” – I guess you can figure out how it got its name.
The salt flats are surrounded by the beautiful Andean Peaks and volcanos give it an even more eerie look.
You really need a guided tour to see Uyuni, and you have to make sure you pick a great one as you will be in a high elevation desert for 4 full days – you want to check reviews before booking, and make sure the jeep you will be on is a good one!
This tour comes highly recommended.
Visit another salar
For a lesser-known place to visit from San Pedro de Atacama, you may want to opt for the Salar de Tara. This is one of the things to do in the Atacama desert for which you are better off taking a guided tour because – much like in Uyuni – there are no roads or tracks and you really need to know where you are going!
Another beautiful salar in the Atacama Desert is the Salar de Talar. You can go there on a day trip that also takes you to Las Piedras Rojas (the Red Rocks). This tour here comes highly recommended.
Visit the many lagoons
Los Flamencos National Reserve is a must-see when in Atacama. It’s where the Moon Valley and the Salar de Atacama (Atacama salt flats) are located, and there are several beautiful lagoons where you can admire pink flamingoes and other birds, including the Andean condor.
The most famous lagoons are Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques; but a good guided tour will usually take you to other lagoons as well such as Chaxa (where you can see 3 different kinds of flamingoes), Tebinquinche or Cejar. Baltinache are probably not as famous, but beautiful and since they are very salted, you pretty much float there!
You have many options of tours that takes you around Atacama Desert and the many lagoons. I have selected the best ones:
- Salar de Atacama, Altiplanic Lagoons, and Toconao Day Tour
- San Pedro de Atacama: 4×4 ATV Tour to Cejar Lagoon
- San Pedro de Atacama: Hidden Lagoons of Baltinache
- Piedras Rojas, Altiplanics Lagoons & Salar Full-Day Tour
- From San Pedro de Atacama: Cejar and Tebinquinche Lagoons
Enjoy an afternoon at Termas de Puritama
If you are looking for a truly relaxing time while in San Pedro de Atacama, opt to go to the Termas de Puritama, beautiful natural, incredibly clear hot natural pools. The fee to get in is around $22 USD, and you have to add transportation to get there (you can book it here).
Go go Toconao
At about 38 km south of San Pedro de Atacama, the village of Toconao is an interesting place to visit. There is a nice church with a separated bell tower that dates back to 1750. I wouldn’t spend more than an hour or two exploring. You can go there independently or on a guided tour such as this this one.
Do a buggy or ATV tour in the desert
If you want a bit of an adrenaline rush during your time in San Pedro de Atacama, you may want to opt for an ATV or a buggy tour in the desert. This is a great way of experiencing this part of the country, as you will be going through a variety of terrains, admiring beautiful mountain peaks and volcanoes, and learning about local wildlife at the same time. The even better news is that it’s yet to become a popular activity, so you won’t have to share the place with many other tourists. You obviously need a guided tour for this – you can book it here.
Hot air balloon ride
Last, but definitely not least, one of the coolest things to do in Atacama Desert is a hot air balloon ride. Tours starts before sunrise, because the idea is that you will be catching that from the sky – and trust me, it is quite a show. You will be up in the sky for anything between 30 to 90 minutes – it really all depends on the wind conditions. The good news is that being this San Pedro de Atacama, there are basically no chances of rain ever and you can rest assured your tour won’t get cancelled for bad weather conditions!
Once up, the views are simply breathtaking. You will be able to see all the way to Volcano Licancabur and the rest of the region.
Hot air balloon rides aren’t cheap – they are in the range of $250 to $265 USD – but in my opinion totally worth it. You can book your ride here.
Practical Information On San Pedro De Atacama
When to visit San Pedro de Atacama
The best time to visit the Atacama Desert is between December and March. At that time of year, the temperatures are a bit milder during the day and cooler but not cold during the night, making it truly pleasant. I visited at the beginning of March and found close to perfect weather.
Guided tours of Chile that also go to Atacama
You can easily visit San Pedro de Atacama independently – that’s what I did. But if you are not a fan of planning or would rather leave the task to the experts, you may want to consider a guided tour that takes care of all the organization – so that the only thing you need to worry about is packing.
I have browsed the web for the best guided tours that include Atacama Desert in their itinerary, and here is what I found:
- Buenos Aires to La Paz – salt flats, sand and dunes: this 15 days tour by G Adventures takes you to some of the most unique places in South America, including obviously the Atacama Desert. You can also opt for the same itinerary, but starting in La Paz.
- Southern Divide: a 3 weeks G Adventures tour that starts in Lima and finishes in Santiago. It really hits all the highlights of South America, including Machu Picchu, Uyuni Sal Flats, and San Pedro de Atacama.
- The scenic route – Lima to Buenos Aires: this 30 day tour is similar to the one above, but it also goes to Patagonia. Literally the best of the continent!
How to get there
Despite being a very small town, San Pedro de Atacama is well connected to other places in South America.
Below are the various options to get there.
From Santiago de Chile
If you are traveling from Santiago de Chile, you will have two options:
BY PLANE: There are regular direct flights from Santiago to Calama. Once there, you will have to take the bus to San Pedro de Atacama (1 hour journey).
BY BUS: There are regular daily buses from Santiago to Calama. The journey lasts about 22 hours on comfortable buses with recliner seats and an entertainment system. You need to book in advance. From Calama, it is another hour by bus to reach San Pedro.
There are direct buses from Bolivia to Calama, from where you can take another bus to San Pedro. However, most people cross the border on guided multi-day trips across Uyuni Salt Flats such as this one.
There are direct buses connecting San Pedro de Atacama to Salta. The bus ride lasts about 11 hours on comfortable buses with reclining seats and must be booked in advance.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
You will find a good range of accommodation options in San Pedro de Atacama – from boutique hotels to hostels suitable for budget travelers. I have selected the best ones:
- Planeta Atacama Lodge has beautiful, spacious rooms decorated in traditional local style. It is located 20 minutes from the center of town but the bonus is the magnificent views. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- Hotel Desertica has nice, big rooms around a well kept garden in an idyllic setting. It’s a bit out of town. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- La Casa del Pueblo Hostal is conveniently located in the center of town. Rooms are small but perfectly equipped. You can pick among those with private or shared bathroom. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- Anka Hostel is an excellent options for travelers on a budget. There are private rooms as well as dorms. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Other useful information
Should you want more information on Chile, you may find it on one of these guidebooks:
- Lonely Planet Chile and Easter Island
- DK Eyewitness Guide of Chile and Easter Island
- Insight Guides Chile and Easter Island
Finally, if you’d rather rent a car for your trip to this region and move around independently, you may want to check this one out.
Further readings about Chile
Make sure to read my other posts about Chile: