What to do in San Pedro de Atacama

My guide book says that there are rumours that the Atacama desert is so full of minerals it makes visitors happy and gives them a positive energy. I am going to be honest, I kinda believe it! This region has such a great atmosphere…maybe it’s the sun or the beautiful landscapes but there is something about this place that has such a pull. Here is all you need to know about what to do in San Pedro de Atacama.

Me at Laguna Baltinache

I visited San Pedro de Atacama in June 2022, it was cool enough in the day to be able to enjoy the desert fully but it got chilly in the night. I even bought a hot water bottle to combat the cold. (No joke this is one of my best buys on my trip to South America, lots of hostels don’t have heating and this meant I always slept like a baby).

San Pedro de Atacama wasn’t on my list when I started planning my south America trip. However, I met so many people that had an amazing time there I decided to add it on after my trip to Uyuni in Bolivia. It also perfectly coincided with Chile reducing their requirements for Covid to enter the country. I planned to stay 5 days here and ended up staying 8 because I loved it so much, woops.

Golden hour doing me a solid at Valley of the moon!

San Pedro de Atacama Town

San Pedro de Atacama town is a lovely very chilled out town. Filled with tour companies, cute cafes and gift shops, this is a tourist hot spot. San Pedro de Atacama itself is the town in the middle of the Atacama desert. The best way to visit this region is to find a base in the town itself and explore the surrounding area on day trips.

Street art in San Pedro de Atacama Town

The town is also small enough that you bump into people you may have met on a tour or in the hostel making it a perfect place to meet people. I ended up meeting lots of great people that I ended up continuing to travel with after leaving San Pedro de Atacama.

How to get to San Pedro de Atacama

By Air

There is no airport in San Pedro de Atacama although there is an airport a 2.5 drive away in Calama. There are multiple daily flights to Santiago that takes approximately 2 hours. Most tour companies as well as hotels offer transfers to the airport.

From Bolivia by Land

The easiest way to cross into Bolivia is to include the border crossing with a tour to the Uyuni salt flats. This tour is 4 days and 3 nights. I personally did the Uyuni transfer through the national park of Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and crossed at border crossing Hito Cajon. There are no buses that do this route although you might be able to hitch a ride with a 4×4 doing a return from a tour. Ask around in agencies for this option. I asked for help from the tour guide I did the Uyuni Salt flat multiday trip with for this.

Volcano backdrops are a given in San Pedro de Atacama

Border to Argentina or Bolivia crossing in winter

The road to Uyuni in Bolivia and also to Salta in Argentina (route 27) goes to over 4500m in altitude and in the winter the weather often closes the road on the Chilean side. When I crossed from Bolivia to Chile we ended up getting caught in a snow storm. The road was closed for 5 hours and we were stuck in a hut with no heating. I later found out that the reason the road was closed was that a lorry had overturned in the wind. This road can get very treacherous in the winter months so expect delays and possibilities that the road closes for days at a time.

Where to eat and drink in San Pedro

It sounds slightly counter intuitive but there is a brilliant French bakery called Franchuteria in San Pedro de Atacama. I became mildly obsessed with it and went almost every day I was there. They do a range of croissants and baguettes (including fig and Roquefort – yum!) and there a is a lovely terrace with among the trees to enjoy them in.

French Bread of Deams

There are some great places to get fab Empanadas in San Pedro de Atacama. My favourite was Emporio Andino on the main pedestrian street, Caracoles. They have a range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options no to be missed.

Although San Pedro de Atacama is not known as a party town, there are some small spots to dance and have loads of fun. My favourite is Lola. Lola is a restaurant that also has Karaoke and a reggaeton dance area. There is a set menu for 12,000 pesos which is great value. The bar closes at 1am and there are no places that are open after this. Although San Pedro is somewhat known for after parties in the middle of the desert, make sure to befriend people who live there to get an invite!

Cocktail with a view on the Valley of the Moon tour

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

With the amount of tourists that visit San Pedro de Atacama, there is no shortage of options for places to stay. I personally chose to stay in Casa Voyage and loved it there. Not only is it really good value for money (they did not raise their prices disproportionately post covid) it has a really good atmosphere with plenty of hammocks to relax in. The staff are lovely and put on social events for everyone in the hostel so I ended up meeting lots of really nice people there.

View from the Mirador on the cycle from Catarpe

Cash Monies

Cards are widely accepted in San Pedro de Atacama. Saying that, my hostel was cash only. There is an ATM in Cruz Verde pharmacy that has no fees. There are also many bureaus de change if you have left over cash after crossing a border.

What to do in San Pedro de Atacama

While San Pedro de Atacama is a lovely town in itself, the main reason to visit is outside of the town in the nature of the Atacama Desert.

To drive or to take a Tour in San Pedro de Atacama

There are many tour companies that offer trips to the surrounding sights of San Pedro. These are very easy to organise at the last minute and make visiting the area very simple. However, they are not cheap. Because of the tourist attractions the tour companies do charge a premium for their activities. I visited in June 2022 and since the C-word the tour companies had significantly increased their prices to make up for lost revenue.

Perks of a tour – snacks!

If you are on a budget the best and easiest way is to rent a car. As many people choose this option, the cars sometimes to all get booked up. If you are definitely sure about this book in advance to avoid disappointment. I travelled to San Pedro de Atacama solo so it wasn’t cost effective for me on my own to rent a car. However, I rented a bike for a couple of days which was a really cheap way to explore the area.

Cycle to Catarpe

Cycling to Catarpe was my favourite activity in San Pedro de Atacama! I had an absolute great time. There are many places in the centre of town that provide bile rentals. I paid 5000 pesos for 6 hours for a mountain bike. A mountain bike with good suspension is definitely needed for this route.

Cycling in Devils throat

The Devil’s Throat

From the centre of San Pedro de Atacama, take the Camino a Quitor and follow this to the entrance of the Catarpe park. The entrance is 3000pesos and the road ride takes you on a bumpy ride to the first main attraction the Garganta Del Diablo (the Devil’s throat), this is a right turn off the main track.

You can choose to leave your bikes here and walk or you can choose to cycle. If you choose to cycle there are 2 points that you will need to lift your bike up a step but it is not that hard between 2 people. I cycled this and loved it, it is amazing cycling through incredible rock formations.

What a great cycle path in Catarpe

Mirador in Catarpe

This path takes you to a view point which you can only walk up. It is a steep walk but the view at the top across many volcanoes is definitely worth it.

After the view point, the only option is to double back to the main track. The pleasant part of this is that there is a slight down hill which makes the return even more fun. From here, you can continue cycling to see a tiny church with a cactus wood door. When I visited the church was locked which was a shame but the scenery to get there was beautiful.

View from the road during the cycle of Catarpe

The ride overall was 26km and took me 4hours15mins from start to finish including walking up to the mirador. I didn’t rush to do this ride and took it at a leisurely pace. For me, this was my favourite as well as the best value for money.

Take in the Sunset in Valle de la Luna

Valle de la Luna or ‘Valley of the Moon’ is not one to miss on your visit to San Pedro de Atacama. This I did on a tour that I organised through the hostel I was staying in. I paid 41000 pesos for the tour including entry fee to the park.

The tour started at the salt mountain range where we walked up the sand dune Duna Mayor. This was a stunning look out point. We then made a quick stop to see the 3 Maria’s rock formation.

The guide made me laugh a lot with his full photo shoot on the Duna Mayor

From here, we drove up to the view point over all of the moon valley to watch sunset. On the drive up, we stopped at a view point on the side of the road for a pre sunset cocktail and snack which was lovely.

Valley of the moon at sunset is amazing!

I really enjoyed this tour and it was really beautiful. However, some members of the group were late turning up to the tour so we were running late and the guides were rushing us to make sure we finished on time. This is a negative of taking a tour….

See the stars on an Astronomic tour

Astronomic tours are a must do in San Pedro de Atacama. There are many tour companies that offer stargazing in the desert with telescopes and even with photo sessions. The tours leave at approximately 8pm from San Pedro de Atacama town and come back at about 11pm. The best time to do these tours is at the new moon or a very small moon. The moon becomes so bright at full moon that it limits the number of stars you can see.

Moon (through the telescope of course) during the astronomic tour

Our tour was great and we were able see many constellations and even clusters not in our galaxy! We were even given a cocktail to watch the stars with. I chose to do the tour with Astrotour Atacama and I would really recommend it. We were only 4 people in the group meaning we could spend a good amount of time each looking at the telescope.

Telescope in the astronomic tour

Swim in Laguna Baltinache

I took a tour to laguna Baltinache that included a cheeky sunset drink overlooking the valle de la Luna. It was a 45 minute drive over a dirt track (or a ‘rally’ as my guide described it) to get there.

There are actually 7 lagunas at Baltinache but only 4 are big enough to see. They are saltwater Lagunas with beautiful crystal clear water. Only one of the lagunas is swimmable but definitely worth it! It has an extremely high salt content (higher than the dead sea!). Because of this you really float and it is such a fun sensation trying to swim. The tour cost me 45,000pesos in total (including 10,000 entrance fee).

Happy swimming in Laguna Baltinache

My guide said the water as approximately 7 degrees so it was not a warm swim. Because the water is so salty it is not a good idea to use a towel as it will get it so salty. The best way is to ‘inca dry’ aka stand in the sun. Once you have done this, rinse off with fresh water in the showers that are at the entrance point.

See the sunrise at the Geysers of Tatio

The Geysers of Tatio are one of the most impressive and original things to see in in San Pedro de Atacama. At an altitude of 4300m, if you are not used to altitude this can be quite a shock. I took a tour to do this one too. The drawback for me of this tour (as someone who loves her sleep), is that the tour pick up is at 4.30am. But then I did appreciate this as I was able to take in the sun rise which was really special.

Sunrise at the geysers

If, like me, you are bit confused as to what a geyser is, here is a definition: A geyser is a rare kind of hot spring that is under pressure and erupts, sending jets of water and steam into the air. (Thanks National Geographic!)

Getting to the Geysers

The trip to the geysers involves a 2 hour drive up to the geyser field. The road is windy and bumpy but the views are insane (mostly on the way down cause the way up is in the dark). The initial part of the tour features a walk around the geyser field perfectly timed with sunrise. After visiting the geysers, our van pulled up in a perfect spot in the snow for breakfast of bread cheese and avocado, perfection. On the way down, we stopped off at a couple of view points to see flamingos as well as an active volcano.

Geyser field

I visited San Pedro de Atacama in June (winter season) and when we arrived at the car park the car temp guage said -17C. I am not sure if this 100% accurate but either way it was cold!! Make sure to wrap up warm. One advantage of the geysers formation is that the ground is very warm in some areas. There was a section of the tour when our guide was explaining something and I sat down to warm up, it was great!

It felt like the ground was on fire – amazing sight!

In the winter, the road can sometimes be closed because of snow. It was closed for 5 days while I was there and I visited the first day it was open, great luck. Tour companies will let you know the day before so you don’t set an alarm for nothing at least.

What I would’ve like to have done in San Pedro de Atacama

If I had the time (and unlimited budget!), I would’ve liked to do the rainbow valley and hot springs. I chose to skip it because I was going onto northern Argentina so I knew I was going to see lots of beautifully coloured rock formations. I also had been to many hot springs on my south America trip so I couldn’t really justify the cash monies.

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