San Pedro de Atacama, at 2,400 meters (7,800 ft) of altitude, is a small town in northern Chile, near the Bolivian border. With about 2,500 inhabitants, the city is located in the Altiplano region of Chile, from which you can see some of the highest peaks of the Andes.
Nowadays, San Pedro holds the title of the Archaeological Capital of Chile. The incredible landscapes that surround it, make it the base city to explore the charms of the Atacama Desert.
While the town that acts as a host to exploring the area is quite small, a desert oasis if you will, the area is massive with loads of nooks and crannies to explore. We spent 5 days there and truly feel that we only scratched the surface of all that is on offer.
It’s an extremely fascinating part of the world and when you look at all that is available, an incredibly diverse piece of our planet.
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9 Reasons to Add San Pedro de Atacama to Your Bucket List
1. Termas de Puritama (3500m/11,500ft)
Here it’s possible to take baths in the warm waters of the Putama Volcano. The eight thermal baths are about 40 minutes from San Pedro de Atacama. It is worth going down and looking at each of the pools until you find the emptiest.
This way, you have more privacy to relax and enjoy. If you have time for a walk, you can venture with Guatin Trekking to get to the thermal baths. This trail takes approximately 3 hours to cover 4 miles of cactus trail.
Simplify transportation logistics between San Pedro de Atacama and the Puritama Hot Springs by booking this guided tour to the popular natural attraction. Hotel pickup and drop-off ensure peace of mind as you travel between destinations, letting you relax and fully enjoy the hot springs experience.
2. Lagunas Altiplanicas (4200m/13,800ft)
This is a tour that starts very early. The first tip for tours that start early is to dress in layers because the desert gets very cold in the mornings. As the sun goes up the temperature will rise, ranging from 5°C to 30°C (41F to 86F).
The Lagunas Altiplanicas is 2 hours from San Pedro de Atacama and the scenery is simply fantastic. The lagoons reflect the design of the numerous volcanoes that surround them.
In this tour, only some lagoons are visited. Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques are connected and receive water from the underground infiltration of rains and hot springs. Some tours also include visits to the Laguna Tuyajto and Laguna Aguas Calientes.
The latter is where the Piedras Rojas is located. These stones have a unique color because of the mineral iron in its composition, which in sunlight, turns red.
From San Pedro de Atacama, it is also possible to visit the less crowded Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache. The experience is extremely fun since you are allowed to swim in some of the lagoons and it’s impossible to sink due to the high levels of salt in the water.
Book this trip to the heart of the Salar de Atacama, where you’ll see different types of flamingos and Andean birds, in a small guided trekking trip. You will be at the tropic of Capricorn, and two majestic lagoons called Miscanti and Minhique that are nested in the foothills of the volcanoes that bear the same names.
3. Salar de Tara (4,500m/14,700ft)
The Salar de Tara is located 2 hours from San Pedro de Atacama. The region is surrounded by large volcanoes, as well as Laguna Tara and Laguna Negra, covering an eroded area, rolling terrain, and unique vegetation that characterizes the Atacama.
The scenery is beautiful and shows an immensity of the endless desert of Salar de Tara. On the way there, you can observe the stunning landscape and colors. What is most impressive are the monks of La Pacana de Salar, which are high scattered rock formations.
4. Cerro Toco Volcano (5,600m/18,300ft)
Lascar Volcano is considered the most active volcano in northern Chile and can be seen from several points of the Atacama, including San Pedro de Atacama. The climb to the Lascar Volcano is considered an easy level but demands good acclimatization.
At the beginning of the walk, there is an exciting surprise that lights up with the sunrise, Laguna Lejia. The path to the top takes an average of 3 hours and changes as the trail progresses. There are even areas covered in ice depending on the time of year. The reward is an indescribable view of the immense crater beneath you.
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Day Trips around San Pedro de Atacama
5. Salar de Atacama (2500m/8,200ft)
Salar de Atacama is the 3rd largest salt flat in the world (behind Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina). Within this Salar, there are several attractions, among them is the Laguna Chaxa, the perfect place to see flamingos (it is part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve).
It is also possible to take walks along the open paths in the middle of an immense salt flat. One tip is to be there in time to watch the sunset at the Salar de Atacama. Another amazing attraction is the Laguna Cejar, which is said to have a salt concentration higher than that of the Dead Sea.
6. Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte (2500m/8,200ft)
This is one of the most well-known tours of the Atacama. Valle de la Luna is a reference to the rugged lunar surface, because of its immense salt walls and giant dunes. This dry landscape, which changes day after day, was unbelievably covered by glaciers in the past.
During this tour, you will witness some amazing geological formations, such as Cordillera de Sal, Duna Grande, Anfiteatro, Tres Marías, Cueva de Sal, and the iconic Piedra del Coyote.
This walk definitely reveals the immensity of the valley. The tour ends at Valle de la Muerte, formerly known as Valle de Marte. Its surface resembles Mars, especially at sunset, when it shows reddish colors and super interesting contours.
Marvel over the startling topography of Chile’s Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) on this 4-hour afternoon tour from San Pedro de Atacama. Keep your camera close to hand as you journey through the desert, past unique rock formations and mesmerizing multi-hued cliffs.
7. Geysers El Tatio (4500m/14,700ft)
Two hours away from San Pedro de Atacama, there are more than 40 geysers and 70 smoke sources. The site is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes making the smell of sulfur very strong.
Discover the unearthly geysers of the world’s driest desert on an early morning tour to El Tatio geyser field from San Pedro de Atacama. Gaze in wonder at over 80 spouting shoots of steam as you watch an enchanting sunrise in the desert. Enjoy a traditional breakfast before soothing your bones in the warm waters of natural hot spring.
The tour starts bright and early in the morning since the phenomenon can only be appreciated between 6 and 8 o’clock.
To get there, you will pass Vilarejo de Machuca and Laguna Putana, both are worth a pit stop for photos.
8. Astronomic Tour
The Atacama has the cleanest sky on Earth, for three reasons: altitude, the absence of light pollution, and the absence of clouds. So, it is the best place in the world to observe the stars, the moon, and other planets.
There are several telescopes in the Atacama and they allow visitors to learn more about the mysteries of the sky. A great tip is to go on a full moon night to get even more incredible visibility.
9. There Are Amazing Things to Do in San Pedro de Atacama
It is not difficult to understand why the Atacama Desert became so famous among tourists from all over the world. The amazing photos you have seen on Instagram, magazines or travel blogs do not represent half of what there is to see here.
Some of the special landscapes you might witness include salt flats, valleys, mountains, snow, dunes, volcanoes, geysers, stars and flamingo populated lakes. All of which, make you feel as if you are on Mars or the Moon.
Other than the traditional day trips and hikes around the Atacama Desert, there a few other activities available in San Pedro de Atacama. Such as wine tours, bike tours, horse tours, and balloon rides!
San Pedro de Atacama Travel Planning Tips
Best Time to Visit San Pedro de Atacama
The Atacama Desert is considered the highest desert in the world and also the aridest (dry), as there are some areas where it has not rained for hundreds of years. This super arid region lies further south.
However, the environment of San Pedro de Atacama is considered an oasis and receives heavy rainfall mainly in the summer.
The rainy season is from December to March and for those who do not like cold weather, this is the best time because it gets quite warm. From April to May, as the rainfall rises, the salt on the ground becomes completely white! The low season is during the middle of the year.
In conclusion, the best months to go to San Pedro de Atacama are those of transitional seasons: autumn (March to June) and spring (September to November).
How to Get There
The easiest route is to fly to Santiago and then go to Calama, the city with the closest airport to San Pedro. The Santiago-Calama flight lasts about 2 hours and you will arrive at El Loa Airport. Once in Calama, you need to cross a stretch of road by car to San Pedro de Atacama.
The route lasts around 1:30 hours and you have three main options of how to get there.
The cheapest option to travel between San Pedro de Atacama and Calama is to take a taxi from the airport to the city center of Calama, specifically to the Calama bus station.
From there take a bus straight to the San Pedro bus station. The bus companies that offer this service are Tur Bus, Buses Frontera and Buses Atacama.
Several companies operate the stretch between Calama and San Pedro de Atacama, such as Licancabur and Transandino. It is worth booking in advance as well as your accommodation. Many hotels also provide the option of picking up their guests at the Camala airport, but generally, they charge much more.
The third option is to rent a car in Calama. The road between the two cities is extremely safe and simple to navigate. Just follow Route 23 in the direction of San Pedro de Atacama and you should arrive safely.
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Dealing with Altitude Sickness
Soroche, also known as altitude sickness, is the main consequence of altitude changes in our bodies. It is a result of low air pressure and rarefied air. Possible symptoms include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty breathing, cardiac acceleration, among others.
Therefore, it is recommended to drink a lot of water while visiting the Atacama Desert.
One very important item that must be taken into account when choosing the day trips (and their order) is acclimatization. Because this area is a zone of high altitude, the body has to adapt. You achieve this by starting with activities that are at lower altitudes and leave the higher altitudes until the end.
If you’re open to exploring local traditions and culture, you will quickly find that chewing dried coca leaves or brewing them into a tea while at altitude will significantly reduce the side effects you get from the thin air.
We’ve spent a lot of time traveling in high parts of the mountains in South America, across various countries, and never turn down coca leaves when they are offered to us. They really do help.
Best Places to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
When we visited San Pedro de Atacama, we stayed with Explora for three days on part of our 9-day overland trip from Salta, Argentina to San Pedro. Explora runs one of the top luxury properties in San Pedro de Atacama. Their property is unlike others in the area.
Located in the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama their 17- hectare property offers a true feel of the Atacama desert, the Andes highlands, and its surroundings.
Click to read about our experience: Adventure Meets Luxury on the Explora Travesia
By day enjoy epic adventures of the Atacama and by night come back to luxury. Their adventures are as amazing as their property. There are personal experiences, where you will go where no other tourist go. That’s the magic of Explora, they go above and beyond.
All programs are included with accommodation so there’s no need to hold back on exploring the Atacama and its surrounding areas. Once back on the property enjoy a bit of luxury with a glass of wine, soaking in one of the two hot tubs, or take a dip in one of the four heated pools. Maybe after a long day of hiking enjoy a message? I know we did.
You will truly have a magical experience with Explora. However, we understand if Explora is not in your budget or how you like to travel. Below we have listed out what we recommend for top luxury hotels, mid-range hotels- Lodge Andino Terrantai, budget hotels- Takha Takha Hotel, and hostels- Hostal Lackuntur in San Pedro de Atacama.
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