Far from being a desolate, arid wilderness, the Atacama desert is overflowing with life. Its ancient cultures offer a warm welcome to modern travellers, and fertile oases sustain an astonishing diversity of life here in the world’s driest desert.
On the high Andean plateau, you’ll find small villages at up to 4,000 meters above sea level where timeless traditions linger in extreme and wonderfully photogenic settings.
Visit San Pedro de Atacama and explore its singular landscapes, quite unlike anywhere else on earth. Vast salt flats, active geysers and intense blue lagoons are just a few of the extraordinary features of this region. Journey to the stars and learn more about the constellations in one of the many famed astronomical observatories in the northern half of Chile.
San Pedro de Atacama Ancient cultures and travelers from around the world meet and meld in this historic unpaved desert town. An unassuming spot, it nestles at the heart of some of the most photogenic landscapes in the world. Visit San Pedro de Atacama, land of the ancients …!
The old town square is the best place to start discovering the local ethnic traditions. Visit its beautiful antique church and the Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, which houses exceptionally well-preserved mummies and ancient artifacts testifying to the richness of the local cultures. The town also has a multitude of craft shops and markets where you can browse gorgeous textiles, jewelry, home accessories and artwork.
Choose from a wide range of fascinating tours to see the area’s many attractions: active geysers, intense, jewel-bright lagoons and vast, dazzling salt flats. If you are the adventurous type, explore the desert on an off-road bike or go sandboarding down the dunes.
To round off a sensational day, there is a excellent local and international food available in San Pedro de Atacama’s many bars and restaurants. And after nightfall, gaze in wonder at the myriad of stars twinkling in the desert night!
To reach San Pedro de Atacama by air, fly to the mining city of Calama. There are good hotels here, but San Pedro is just an hour and a half by road from Calama and multiple bus and van transfer services are available.
Discover the attractions of San Pedro de Atacama
Moon and Death Valley
The peculiar rocky formations and dunes of Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) and the changing colors of Death Valley (Valle de la Muerte) and the Salt Mountains are an attraction that you can’t miss while visiting the Atacama Desert. At night, both places become the most romantic spot for stargazing. Found just a few minutes from San Pedro de Atacama, you can get to these mystical settings on bike, trek around them and enjoy sandboarding on the dunes. Visit them and appreciate the overwhelming shadows that the desert displays.
Los Flamencos National Reserve
In the enormity of the desert you’ll find lagoons, salt flats and mountains that are intertwined with the landscape. Together they create magical sights! The Los Flamencos National Reserve invites you to enjoy the beauty of the landscape around it. The diverse climatic conditions of its seven areas will surprise you as you become one with your surroundings. You can see its variety of flora and fauna where flamingos take center stage. Walk along the trails around the spectacular altiplanic lagoons, discover the Chaxa Lagoon and see how the sun sets behind Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna).
Atacama Salt Flats
Center-stage of many surprises, the 3,000 square kilometer salt lake is an unbeatable sight. Home to Andean birds and a large lithium reserve, its thick crust forms heaps that crackle at sundown, when temperatures drop quickly. The Atacama Salt Flat is one of the main attractions of the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Be amazed by the large number of long-legged birds that nest and feed in its “watery eyes”, like those of the Chaxa Lagoon. Keep your eyes wide open to try to spot the differences between the Andean, Chilean and James flamingos.
El Tatio Geiser
Get up before dawn to enjoy the show just as the sun rises, with the craters of El Tatio as the main attraction. Located 4,200 meters above sea level, its fumaroles (smoke from the geysers) create amazing white steam columns which are at their best between 6 and 7 in the morning. On your morning outing see how the local endemic wildlife (viscachas, vicunas, nandues) and other birds leave their hiding spots, looking for their breakfast among the yaretas (fern like plants) and giant cacti. Tired? Finish your day in the healing hot springs that the destination offers.
A must-see for tourists following the “Inca trail”; this is an oasis of shade in the middle of the desert. Inhabited by communities from Atacama, its easy-going pace is only interrupted by religious festivities which, depending on the patron saint, include confetti, flour or algarrobo drinks (fermented drink made from the pods and seeds of the algarrobo tree). Try the typical food of the north and don’t forget to visit the San Francisco Church, built in the 1600s. It is the oldest church in Chile and was built using millennial indigenous techniques. Go in and marvel: it is made out of mud and cactus wood.
Enjoy the world’s clearest skies, which open before your eyes like a window to the universe, offering you the chance to live a unique experience. These are places that will captivate the visitors with their own kind of magic, allowing them to come closer to space and closely observe the stars and planets that move around the galaxy. Near Antofagasta and San Pedro de Atacama, the sky offers ideal observation conditions in the world’s driest desert. Meanwhile, the vast valleys of the central area, like Elqui Valley and Cajón del Maipo, have the advantage of scarce light pollution to better observe the universe in all its majesty. Visit some of the many observatories that hold night tours to admire the universe through sophisticated instruments only found there and start getting deeper into the culture of the heavens. Discover firsthand the secrets of the universe that can only be seen at night!
When to go The forecast is very dry and sunny for the next century, but the best time to go is probably early autumn (October and November) and late summer (March-April) when there are fewer tourists. For stargazers, these are good times for clear skies; avoid full moons.
What to pack: Sun hat, Sunblock, a fleece for early mornings, binoculars or telescope, a camera with a B (open shutter) setting to capture star trails anda a stargazing guide
Expert tips Take lots of water on all your trips. Keep an eye on the astronomical calendar for major events in the southern hemisphere: basicastro.com/astronomical-calendar-2016-astronomy-events.html.
Don’t forget Atacama’s human stories – see the pre-Columbian exhibits at San Pedro’s Gustavo Le Paige museum (sanpedroatacama.com/ingles/museo.htm).
Language Spanish is our official language and although spoken by all Chileans, there are other languages or dialects still used by the different indigenous communities of the country.
With Spanish inherited from the Spanish Conquistadores and the inclusion, over the years, of local and foreign expressions, our language developed its own particular nature. In this way, phonetic, syntactic and lexical traits helped to create our own words or “Chilenisms”.
Visa Citizens from South America, the European Union, the USA, Canada and Australia do not need tourist visas. However, some countries must pay a tax in cash (reciprocity tax) upon arriving at the airport in Chile. For more information about entering the country, visit visados.com/en/visa-for-Chile
Currency Since 1975, the Chilean currency has been the Peso, with coins equal to 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 pesos and bills of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 pesos. Although some shops in Chile accept Dollars and Euros, it’s better to get Chilean Pesos always in official currency exchange offices as the exchange rate will be better.
Electricity Voltage 220-240
For more info on San Pedro de Atacama, visit www.sanpedroatacama.com