About San Pedro de Atacama – Chile
One of the most widely visited places in Chile, this tiny oasis village of about 3,000 is situated in the middle of the Atacama Desert, and as a result has become a very popular starting point for many of the attractions this natural wonder has to offer.
Like their ancestors, most of the inhabitants still raise crops to sell in the market and in Calama. With narrow streets of adobe buildings and native carob, chañar and pepper trees, San Pedro de Atacama still retains much small town charm.
Despite being mainly an embarkation point for adventurers and nature-lovers alike, the town of San Pedro de Atacama is certainly worth exploring. The plaza in the center of the tiny town is quaint and relaxing, and a look at the Church of San Pedro is also interesting.
Dating back to 1641, the church has suffered from a string of earthquakes over the years, but because the rain is so scarce here, its adobe construction has been preserved quite well. It is also interesting to note that the builders of the church also employed wood of the cardón cactus and leather straps instead of nails.
An absolute must see in this region are the geysers of El Tatio. Situated 50 miles outside of San Pedro, they are best seen at dawn, when they spout as high as 30 ft. into the air and explode into a variety of gorgeous colors. The 20,000 ft. mountains in the background provide for a beautiful backdrop.
18 miles north of San Pedro, one finds the Spas of Puritama. The water here is about 91 degrees, and rises from underground to feed several swimming pools perfect for swimming and relaxing after a viewing of El Tatio. Another incredible aquatic experience is the Green Lagoon, a magnesium rich, 10-square mile-lake situated across the border in Bolivia.
The glassy green surface is like a mirror, producing a clear reflection of the nearby 19,000 foot Licancabur volcano. Due to its mysterious and enchanting setting, this area was considered extremely sacred by pre-Columbian inhabitants.
One must be sure to pay a visit to the largest salt flat in Chile, the Salar de Atacama. With its top encrusted with a layer of salt, the Salar is home to all types of flamingos, which dot the lake during the day. Situated on the west side of the Salar de Atacama is the Valley of the Moon. Perhaps one of the most other-worldly areas on earth, it has been deemed the same as one of the most inhospitable due to its lack of humidity, plant and animal life.
Wind-swept for thousands of years, this area is home to bizarre, beautiful, and desolate shapes which are a sharp contrast to the clear blue sky overhead. Because of its barren landscape and lack of life, it is no surprise that NASA has used this area for years to train its astronauts.
Also worth visiting are the pre-Columbian villages of Tulor and Toconao. Both situated very close to San Pedro, one can get a glimpse of the harsh and desolate life in the desert thousands of years ago. Tulor is thought to be almost 3000 years old, and Toconao is famous for its buildings made from volcanic rock.
San Pedro de Atacama is great for visiting all year round, although it can be somewhat cloudy and a bit colder from September to February.
Here, in the middle of one of the driest spots on earth, local color mixes freely with tourists from all over the world to produce a charming blend of rustic rural friendliness and urbane sophistication. Past and present seem to mingle fluidly in this desert oasis, which lies in the shadow of majestic Licancabur (loosely translated as “the peoples volcano”, or “the pueblo volcano”). During the daily siesta, this tiny village seems like little more than a dusty old west outpost. Truth be told, there is very little to see within the city itself, aside from the wonderful city market that is nearly hidden in a passage just beyond the lovely white church and city square. However, the true lure of San Pedro is the relaxed atmosphere and the brilliant scenery surrounding the city, which is the preferred base for an endless variety of excursions to all parts of the Atacama Desert and beyond. Tucked neatly away in a picturesque valley surrounded by majestic mountains, San Pedro blends neatly into the Atacama Desert moonscape that is dotted by volcanoes that rise like islands above an endless sea of brilliant desert sandstone formations. There are a few dozen tour companies located along San Pedros main street. Most offer similar tours and packages, but check carefully, since tour routes, itineraries, and customer service vary from company to company. The more adventurously inclined should check out “Volcano Tours”, which offers more strenuous outings to the high peaks (including several active volcanoes!!) and more remote valleys of the region. Visitors will need to prepare for all weather conditions, since the village and the desert surroundings are very hot during the day and very cold at night. San Pedro is also a great base for excursions into Bolivia to see the famous Salar de Uyuni. The high altitude and the crystal-clear dry desert sky are perfect for stargazing, and several agencies offer nighttime astrological presentations (“star tours”).
Probably the most popular excursion from San Pedro is a visit to the Tatio Geyers, the worlds highest geyser field, situated at an altitude of 4300 meters (14190 feet). Nearly all of the city’s tour companies make the trip, and all tours usually include some form of breakfast and a guide, but individual companies offer various levels of service, so check around before signing on. The journey to the geysers begins well before dawn, and involves a bumpy 2.5-hour ride along an old Inca routes marked with small stone pyramids. Tours usually arrive at the geysers just before daybreak. Be warned that this is also one of the coldest places in South America at this time of day, and temperatures will normally be well below freezing in the first hours of sunlight. After a brief introduction to the geysers, guides will serve a hot and hearty breakfast, complete with bread, ham, cheese, coffee/hot chocolate, and eggs that are hard-boiled in the geysers. A guided tour of the different geysers usually follows, and ends with a dip in one of the warm-hot pools when the sun has finally brought the air temperature to above freezing. Take care to stay behind the demarcated limits for viewing the geysers, as tourists have been killed in the past by suddenly erupting geysers or by falling through the thin mineral crust above the scalding hot pools. After exploring the geysers, the tours make there way back to San Pedro through picturesque high-desert badlands, stopping in route to visit old pueblos, salt flats and high altitude lakes, where you will see flamingos, guanacos and vicuñas.
Two other popular activities are afternoon excursions to Death Valley and the Valley of the Moon, followed by late afternoon hikes to the tops of enormous sand dunes to view the multicolored desert sunset. Both sites are close to San Pedro, and almost all of the tour companies in San Pedro offer daily visits, although adventurous visitors may opt see the valleys on bicycle. However, tour itineraries vary, so check carefully to compare sites visited, etc.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for visitors to San Pedro is the transformation that occurs after siesta, when this sleepy town comes alive in the evenings, and the main street is transformed into a crowded cosmopolitan melting pot of colorful locals, chic city dwellers, Bohemian backpackers, and other assorted world-travelers. Visitors will be pleased to find a delicious assortment of cozy candlelit restaurants and cafes offering excellent food selection for carnivores and vegetarians alike. Although it may be hard to believe that a town the size of San Pedro could have so many excellent dining options, this is no desert mirage – tourism is the city’s lifeblood, and its residents are dedicated to providing a pleasant and comfortable experience. Many of the restaurants have fireplaces and comfortable lounges, and come complete with traditional flair and entertainment such as pan flute bands and folklorica groups, the perfect setting for winding down and relaxing after a long day of desert adventure. As always, great wine is readily available. However, be advised that the village infrastructure is very basic: electricity is supplied primarily by generator, and water is also controlled very carefully in all restaurants and lodging.
A large portion of this text was written by Traveler – Writer Craig Milroy.