My guess is you’ve never head of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile’s north? I didn’t think so. Neither had I until I found out it was an option to end my Bolivian Salt Flats tour here.
I didn’t know anything about San Pedro de Atacama when I booked my transfer here, but I thought why not? It turns out this town offers a lot for the active adventurer.
San Pedro de Atacama is located about a 30 minute drive from the southern Bolivian border. The simplest way to get here is by doing a 3-day Salt Flats tour from Uyuni, Bolivia and organise a transfer across the border. Many travellers take this option.
The northern Chilean town is surrounded by desert, lunar-like landscapes, massive volcanoes, lagoons, geysers and even salt flats – the perfect playground for adventurous travellers.
Here’s a snapshot of activities you can do from San Pedro de Atacama.
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Valle de la Luna is the star attraction and not many travellers leave San Pedro de Atacama without checking it out. Every tour agency in town offers a trip to Valle de la Luna, with buses leaving at 4pm daily. The cost varies but is around 14,000 Chilean pesos (about $28 AUD) at most agencies. There’s also an extra 4000 Chilean Pesos ($8 AUD) worth of reserve entrance fees when you get to the valley.
You can also visit the valley independently by renting a car or bike.
Valle de la Luna was formed by the accumulation of sand, clay and salt into mountains which were destroyed by the earth’s movements, but shaped by wind and water over time.
There’s six stops on the standard tour starting with the Death Valley lookout. Then it’s over to the breathtaking Stone of Coyote viewpoint; a fun walk through a salt cavern; and a look at the Amphitheatre and Tres Marias rock formations.
The final excursion is up to the sunset viewpoint. You’ll get a good view of smooth sand dunes from here as well as seeing the sun set behind the mountains, creating a rosy glow across the desert.
2. Go high altitude trekking
There’s a number of trekking options in San Pedro de Atacama – and many of them are high altitude. You can hike up volcanoes, getting beautiful views over lagoons and into Bolivia.
I opted for the Cerro Toco hike, which takes you up to a whopping 5,604 metres above sea level! That’s higher than Everest Base Camp.
Cerro Toco is a fairly easy option if you want to bag a high altitude peak in San Pedro de Atacama as the hike starts at 5,200 metres above sea level.
But don’t let the distance fool you, the altitude (and the cold) will still take your breath away. I’d been travelling at a fairly steady 4,000 metres above sea level for the two weeks prior to this hike, and the last 200 metres sure was tiring – and I felt like I’ve never been so cold in my life!
The hike will take you up barren slopes as you wind your way up the peak. The guide will make sure you take it slow and check for any signs of altitude sickness.
The views at the top can only be described as incredible. You get a 360 degree view from up here, with distinctive landmarks including the Licancabur Volcano and Bolivia’s White Lagoon (Laguna Blanca).
If you want a harder option, you can hike up 5,592 metre Laskar Volcano, starting at 4,600 metres above sea level, or do the two day trek up 5,950 metre Licancabur Volcano.
3. Visit salt flats, geysers, valleys or lagoons
There’s dozens of tour options and you’re sure to find one that suits your tastes and budget. However, if you just came from Bolivia’s Salt Flats, you will find many of the tours are very similar to what you just saw so do your research.
Options include tours to the coloured landscapes of Valle de Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley), El Tatio geyser field at sunrise, Tara Salt Flats, and thermal pools.
Rainbow Valley features unique green and red coloured mountains and rock formations.
Many of the tour options can also be reached independently by hiring a car.
4. Sandboard in the desert
One of the most popular activities in San Pedro is to go sandboarding down the desert sand dunes.
Tours run regularly during the day, and also at night if there’s a full moon.
5. Go stargazing
The night sky in the Atacama Desert is said to be the best in the world due to the lack of pollution and regular clear skies. This is one of the driest places in the world.
Stargazing tours take you out to South America’s largest public astronomical observatory and you can gaze into the stars through high powered telescopes, and learn from an astronomer about constellations and other night sky features.
With so many activities on offer, San Pedro de Atacama is a worthy stop on your South American itinerary – especially for adventurous travellers. You may find yourself staying longer than you planned.
Things You Should Know:
- San Pedro de Atacama is a very touristy town due to its natural attractions, meaning there’s lots of tour agencies to choose from. Best to ask your accommodation which agency they recommend, or many hostels or hotels can book for you
- With a touristy town also comes lots of accommodation options. If you’re on a budget, there’s dozens of hostels to choose from.
- While there’s many tours on offer, many sights can be reached independently by car. There’s a small Europcar car rental agency in town with a small number of cars available. Valle de la Luna can also be reached by bike.
- The town is located in the desert, which means it’s very hot during the day, but can get cool at night so pack accordingly.
- You can’t drink the tap water in San Pedro de Atacama, but bottled water is easily available.
- There’s only a couple of ATMs in town and many tour agencies and accommodation only accept cash. Stock up on cash as soon as you arrive as the ATMs are known to run out of money especially on weekends. Unfortunately the ATMs charge foreign cards with a transaction fee of around 5,000 Chilean Pesos (about $10AUD).
- San Pedro de Atacama can be reached from the Bolivian border by pre-arranging a transfer with your Salt Flats tour provider, or by bus from Salta, Argentina or Iquique, Arica or Calama in Chile.
- To move on from the town, buses leave at least once daily to Arica and Iquique or to Calama and Antofagasta several times a day. You can buy your ticket at the bus station.