The 2000-square-km Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the most arid in the world. Each year thousands of tourists flock to San Pedro de Atacama, from where they set out to explore some of Chile’s surreal landscapes of the Atacama Desert with natural phenomena and ancient settlements.
Here 5 recommended places to visit in the surrounding Atacama Desert, but first let’s get an impression of this colonial town itself.
The Colonial Town of San Pedro de Atacama
For centuries the natural oasis of San Pedro de Atacama served as a stopover for nomads crossing the Atacama Desert. In 1540 Pedro de Valdivia (more on him below under ‘Historical Ruins) founded the town. His house still stands along the east side of Plaza de Armas.
The Spanish built the whitewashed church on the plaza in 1641. It was reconstructed in 1745 and the tower was added in 1890. Check out the ceiling made of wood from the algarroba tree and the cardón cactus.
In the 19th century San Pedro de Atacama was strategically situated between the mining towns along the Chilean coast and the Argentinean city of Salta. From Salta, llamas and mules transported food and wood to the mining industry. While in time this transportation was taken over by the seaports, nitrate mines in the Atacama Desert were discovered and cattle were transported from Argentina to these mines via San Pedro de Atacama as well.
Today the town lives on on the cultivation of vegetables and fruit for Calama’s market, one hundred kilometers northwest of town. Income is also generated from the salt and lithium mines in the Salar de Atacama. Thirdly, the town lives on tourism – the nomads of today are national and international travelers, who come to enjoy the town’s friendly atmosphere, to stock up on Andean handicrafts and to organize trips to the surrounding areas.
Here are 5 fantastic destinations in the Atacama Desert to add to your bucketlist:
#1 – Atacama Desert’s Cordillera de la Sal or Vale de la Muerte [Death Valley]
Two kilometers west of town is the turn-off into the Cordillera de la Sal. At one time this was a salt lake but it was pushed up and folded into bizarre rock and sand formations with the formation of the Andes.
A beautiful track meanders through the rocks and sand dunes, and curves back to the main road. It is passable by car, but the sandy stretches require four-wheel drive.
#2 – Vale de la Luna – Sunset at the Moon Valley of the Atacama Desert
The main road towards Calama, leading along the Cordillera de la Sal, climbs quickly and at its highest point offers amazing views of the uninhabitable, polychrome Vale de la Luna, or Moon Valley. Fifteen kilometers from San Pedro is the turn-off to Vale de la Luna, arguably the most popular attraction in this part of the Atacama Desert.
Most visitors come on an organized tour from San Pedro de Atacama but it is possible to hike or bike here as well. The most popular times of day to visit are the end of the afternoon when the sun brings out the best colors, and sunset, which is taken in from the top of a sand dune.
#3 – Salt Lakes and Flamingos
You can visit nearby salt lakes either by car (rented, private, or through a tour) as well as by bicycle. The lakes fall under the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, which gives them a protected status – many of the lakes are nesting places for flamingos.
South of town lies Laguna Ceja, which you can visit on a day trip by bicycle. Swimming is allowed and thanks to the high concentration of salt your body will float. Bring sweet water to rinse.
The other lakes such as Laguna Chaxa, Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques and Laguna Tara are further away and require a car to be reached. Rent a car in Calama or book a tour in San Pedro de Atacama (see below for more info).
#4 – Atacama Desert’s Hot Geysers and Hot Pools of El Tatio
One hundred kilometers north of San Pedro de Atacama are the hot geysers of El Tatio, which is the biggest geothermal field in South America. At an altitude of 4320 meters the air is rarefied so move slowly when you get just out of the car to get used to it.
At six in the morning starts a spectacular show of steaming fumaroles, reaching temperatures of 85 degrees Celsius. It’s also freezing cold that early so bring enough warm clothes!
Nearby the geysers are thermal pools where you can enjoy a warm bath.
#5 – Historical Ruins in the Atacama Desert
At walking distance from town lies Pukará de Quitor. This was the center of the Atacameño culture and subsequently became a stronghold on the Camino del Inca (Inca-road) in the 15th century. The pre-Columbian for (12th century) was destroyed in 1540 by the conquistador Francisco de Aguirre: four thousand Atacameño Indians, unfamiliar with horses and guns, were killed by a mere thirty cavalrymen.
Aldea Tulor is another pre-Columbian village, dating back 3000 years and remarkable for its circular clay buildings. It is located ten kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama, on the route to the Moon Valley.
Practical Information on San Pedro de Atacama – How to Get There & Around
San Pedro de Atacama lies in the middle of the Atacama Desert. Most travelers arrive by (long-distance) bus from Calama (Chile) or Salta (Argentina). Calama and Salta both have airports with flights to and from numerous domestic and international destinations.
While the colonial town is small enough to be explored on foot, you will need some form of transportation to explore the surrounding tourist attractions. Transportation options are:
- Rent a bicycles or a horse in town. This may be a good option to explore the nearby attractions such as the salt lakes.
- Rent a car. Note that not all car rental agencies allow you to cross the border with a rental car, so check the small print on that.
- If you want to learn more about traveling in Chile (or the rest of the world) in your own vehicle, check out my other website, landcruisingadventure.com, which is dedicated to overlanding (= independent, long-term travel with private vehicle).
- Sign up for an organized tour. San Pedro de Atacama’s streets are lined with travel agencies that offer trips to the Atacama Desert, Tatio Geysers and four-wheel drive adventures to southwest Bolivia.