Around a quarter of a million visitors head to the tiny village of San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile. This oasis in the Atacama Desert is a charming cluster of adobe buildings and dusty streets. Centred on a pretty plaza where dogs snooze in the shade of trees and cafe umbrellas, this place is as languid as it gets. But charming though San Pedro undoubtedly is, it’s the surroundings that are the draw. The village is perfectly placed to see some of Chile’s finest scenery – no small accolade in a country that does nature like no other country on the planet.
San Pedro de Atacama Attractions
One of the most popular San Pedro de Atacama attractions is the Lagunas Altiplanicas tour. It’s a full day, much at altitudes exceeding 4000 metres above sea level, but it will be a day that sticks in your memory for years. If you’re lucky, the air will be still for you to see the mountains perfectly reflected in the twin lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques and luckier still if a family of vicuñas happen to wander down to the lake shore for a drink. In contrast, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see the flocks of pink flamingos at Laguna Chaxa who shovel for nutrients eighteen hours a day against a backdrop of crusty salt flats and snow-capped volcanic peaks. Stay longer and try to join the longer version of the tour as it takes in Piedra Roja as well; these red rocks are located at the gorgeous Salar Aguas Calientes, where Caribbean-blue waters lap a pristine white sand beach.
Most tourists drive to the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, for an unforgettable sunset. Its name is derived from the lunar-like landscape of the area. Mineral deposits dust the rocky valley floors like snowfall. Occasional rain storms and wind sculpt the rocks, hollowing out caves and creating tall terracotta sand dunes. If you can cope with the desert heat and aridity, it’s a great place to explore on a mountain bike or on horseback, both easy to arrange back in town. At night, the southern skies come alive with more stars than you ever realised existed; this dark environment is the perfect place to view the Milky Way and other planets. They’re visible to the naked eye but stargazing tours offering the use of fixed telescopes are available if you’re keen to take a closer look.
The world’s highest geyser field and its third largest (after Yellowstone in the USA and the Valley of Geysers in Russia), the atmosphere at El Tatio is unrivalled anywhere on the planet. It’s an early start from San Pedro to get to the geyser field by sunrise and the altitude means temperatures are well below zero even in summer. But your numb fingers and frozen nose will be forgotten as you marvel at the sight of steam rising from the geysers and fumaroles as the sun sneaks up. After breakfast, head to the nearby natural hot springs, where you can sink into the warm water as the sky deepens into a vivid ultramarine blue.