Have you ever heard of the Atacama Desert? Well, I hadn’t – until I started researching a South America roundtrip last year. Located in the Andes, the Atacama Desert is often referred to as the driest desert on earth. I don’t know if that’s true – but it definitely is an amazing place! Here are my reasons why you should visit this small town in the middle of nowhere.
End of the world feeling – but still easy to reach!
A lot of people have told me over the years:
The harder a place is to reach, the more beautiful it is.
And of course they’re right – especially when it comes to beaches.
Surprisingly that’s not true for San Pedro de Atacama. The town is located about 1600 km from Santiago at an altitude level of 2400 m in the Andes. Still, it is relatively easy to get there without hiring a local guide or renting a car.
Andesmar operates a regular bus service from Salta in Argentina. The bus ride takes about 10 hours and can be booked on the internet with credit card payment.
Another option is flying from Santiago to Calama and taking a bus to San Pedro. Finding a suitable flight is easy, as LATAM and Sky Airlines connect Santiago with Calama several times a day.
I should warn you though, in case you’re suffering from fear of flying: With the altitude and the high temperatures, take-off and landing may get a bit rough!
As an alternative you could also take a bus from Santiago, which of course takes much longer than a plane.
Amazing and surreal landscapes
Once you arrive at San Pedro, the landscape is going to take your breath away. The town is surrounded by hundreds of square Kilometres of desert, that comes with the most unnatural and amazing formations I’ve ever seen.
One of the most famous tour destinations is the “Moon Valley” (La Valle de La Luna). You can easily get there booking a half day tour. I recommend going there in the late afternoon and stay for sunset.
The area around San Pedro de Atacama is also known for its salt flats, which are the third largest in the world. Tour operators offer several daytrips to different salt flats.
Interesting fact: Salar de Atacama is the world’s largest and purest active source of lithium!
San Pedro’s location at the foot of the 6000 m high Licancabur Volcano creates a special atmosphere.
Due to its height you can see the volcano from almost everywhere in and around town. It also marks the border between Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.
Swimming in the desert
Although the Atacama Desert is such a dry place, there are several natural water resources around San Pedro that are perfect for a swim.
Our favourite were Las Termas de Puritama – a series of natural thermal swimming pools about half an hour drive from San Pedro. During our visit in the morning, it wasn’t crowded at all, so that we had some of the pools all to ourselves.
Another place to go for a swim is Laguna Cejar, where, due to its high percentage of salt water you will float on the surface, similar to the Death Sea.
Watching the stars at night
When you’re done for the day, watching the stars at night is simply beautiful. Usually it takes a lot of effort to get to see the stars in a desert. You either have to drive around late at night or book a night in a desert camp somewhere. In San Pedro de Atacama you don’t have to worry about things like that. The stars look amazing at night even if you don’t venture out into the desert.
Our accommodation came with a rooftop that gave us to have an amazing view on the stars at night.
Ok, I guess I’ll have to be honest here: San Pedro de Atacama is a typical backpacker destination and very touristic. You won’t find a lot authentic Chilean lifestyle in this town and most restaurants serve Pizza or Hamburgers.
That being said, a tourist hotspot also has its benefits – in form of a fantastic infrastructure.
From well-stocked shops, selling sun cream and caps, to lots of tour agencies and quick laundry service: There’s really nothing to worry about when staying in this small desert town.
Recommendation: We did all our tours with Layana Tours that offered great value for money. The vehicles were in good shape with Air conditioning and the tour guides gave a lot of background information in Spanish and English.
San Pedro de Atacama is one of those places that stay with you long after you have returned home from your journey. From the awesome landscape to the easy to arrange tours – we simply liked everything about it!