San Pedro de Atacama itself really hasn’t all that much to offer. The reason why everyone is going there regardless is that it’s the gateway to Chile’s Atacama desert, one of the country’s most popular destinations. No question that I took the first chance to go there myself!
From hitting all the outstanding nature spots to more active stuff like sand boarding, horse riding or renting bikes, to stargazing tours under the incredibly clear desert sky – the Atacama has something for everyone. If you have a car you can do a lot on your own, but as I didn’t, I took several day tours to the different destinations instead. Obviously, I couldn’t do everything, but here are the activities I picked.
First, some words on San Pedro de Atacama itself
Situated on an altitude of about 2400 metres, San Pedro is located in an oasis in the Atacama desert. Unsurprisingly, the climate is very hot and dry. And very dirty. Expect to be covered in sand and dust pretty much the whole time. Honestly, after a week there, I felt like all my clothes were dusty, even the ones I hadn’t worn.
I said there’s nothing to do in San Pedro itself, but that’s actually not entirely true. Tours4Tips does offer a walking tour of the town. There are even two different ones, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I ended up doing both of them on different days, and they were lots of fun. There aren’t that many places you visit, but we were told a lot of stories about San Pedro and its history, as well as some native origin stories of the place. I had the same guide on both tours, Rene, and he was simply hilarious. He also showed us all his favourite restaurants, bars and cafes, even if that was not included in the official tour itinerary.
San Pedro is mostly a tourist place, which becomes obvious when you walk through its town center. About 90% of it is tour agencies that all sell pretty much the same day tours and activities. The rest is restaurants. Because it’s so touristy, eating out is pretty expensive here. If you’re on a budget, I strongly recommend you do your own cooking to avoid blowing it. That’s what I did for the most part.
Only on my second to last night, I treated myself to a dinner out at Restaurante Jallalla, an Italian place that Rene had recommended. It was the most expensive dinner I’ve had in Chile so far, but absolutely delicious! I had cannelloni with ossobuco, a Rica Rica Sour (the Atacama version of a Pisco Sour) and home-made ice-cream for dessert. Yum! During the evening I got to chat with the owner of the restaurant. He even gave me a Mojito on the house – also made with Rica Rica, of course. Although, that did mean I ended up being a bit tipsy on my stargazing tour that evening… but more on that tour later!
Valle de la Luna
The Moon Valley was the first tour I took from San Pedro. It’s probably one of the most visited places there, in parts because it’s so close to town. Which means that you can even go there by bike if you’re so inclined. I preferred taking a tour bus rather than cycling on sand roads in the desert heat. I’m lazy that way. Having a guide also had the advantage that we were shown a lot of little details that other people might miss, for example, fossilized insects hidden in the rocks.
Because the Moon Valley is so popular, it can naturally get a bit crowded. I met some people who disliked it because of that. Personally, I still loved it. Maybe because it was my first real outing into the Atacama, but the landscape just blew me away. We visited lots of different spots in the National Park. Including a hike through a cave where we had to crawl through some tight spaces using the light from our phones because naturally, no one had a flashlight.
After a few hours, we went to a lookout point outside the actual National Park to watch the sunset over the Moon Valley. A great ending to a great first Atacama day.
Lagunas Baltinaches or Secret Lagoons of the Atacama
There’s one very famous salt lake that most tourists go to in the Atacama to experience the floating effect of the salty water, called Laguna Cejar. However, I decided to go to the Lagunas Baltinaches instead. First, they were much cheaper, and second, I hoped they might be less crowded than their famous cousin. Of course, they weren’t entirely empty, but I do imagine that at the Laguna Cejar there might have been more people.
The Lagunas Baltinaches are a chain of seven lagoons of different sizes in the salt plane. We walked along them first until we got to the last one, and then, were given free time to walk back slowly, take pictures, and of course, go swimming!
Only two of the lagoons are open for swimming, the first and the last. As the last one is bigger and a bit more picturesque, most people go swimming there. For that very reason, our guide gave us the tip to head back to the first lagoon instead. After seeing the many people crowded into the final lagoon, I decided to follow that advice. I took my time walking back along the lagoons, shooting plenty of pictures along the way. When I got back to the first, there were indeed only a few other people swimming there. Right decision!
I’ve never been to the dead sea or any other salt lake, so for me, the experience of floating on the water was new. It felt a bit weird at first. I guess your body just doesn’t expect to be floating like that. But it was fun, too!
When you get out, you’re naturally all covered in salt. It’s not a problem while in the water, but afterward, it can actually get a bit itchy. Which brings me to the other advantage of going swimming in the first lagoon rather than the last: it’s much closer to the showers!
After everyone had washed off the salt and got back on the bus, we made our way to watch the sunset over the desert. With that, we got some Pisco Sour and Chips from our guides. I could get used to spending my evenings like this…
This tour came a bit unexpected. Originally, I had wanted to do the Piedras Rojas, which would have included going to the Altiplanic Lagoons as well. However, when I was at the agency to pay for my pre-booked tours, they told me that the Piedras Rojas had been closed for quite a while because some idiot tourist had painted a graffiti on them (I mean, seriously?!). They just opened them again, but only in parts. You could go to the lookouts but not enter the place itself. As the Piedras Rojas tour would have been by far the most expensive of all those that I did, I decided it’s not worth spending so much when I can’t even get inside. Instead, I downscaled my tour to only do the Altiplanic Lagoons.
The tour started at 7 am. However, the Altiplanic Lagoons didn’t open until Midday, so we had several other stops on the way. The first was Toconao village where we visited the main square and the churchyard. Then we headed to the Laguna Chaxa and its many flamingoes. You get quite close to them, too! After exploring the lagoon we got breakfast near the bus, and thus strengthened we made our way to the next stop, the Tropic of Capricorn, which we had to cross to get to the Altiplanic Lagoons. We also spotted some wild donkeys on the way and naturally stopped to take some photos. They seemed just as interested in us as we were in them.
Finally, at midday, we reached the Altiplanic Lagoons. We were now at an altitude of over 4000 metres, so activity was limited to leisurely walk from the one lagoon to the other. We also spotted some Vicuñas on the way, the wild cousins of the alpaca!
Geysers El Tatio
This was hands-down my favourite tour! It started at 5 am, which was gruesome, but at least you could sneak in a bit more sleep on the 1.5-hour drive to the geysers. And as soon as we got there, I knew it had been so worth it to crawl out of bed early.
It was still before sunrise when we arrived and seeing that steam come out of the earth in the dark was something I couldn’t even begin to describe. It looked like it was from another world.
When we got out of the bus it was freezing cold – minus 7 degrees! The geysers are at 4400 metres altitude, after all. That’s the reason why the steam from the hot water is visible in the first place. And why you have to come so early. A few hours later, when the sun has warmed the area, there won’t be much to see anymore. So I bundled up in my warmest clothes and soaked up the view.
We walked around between the geysers while it slowly became lighter, watching steam and water bubble out of the earth. Once the sun was up, we drove to a different corner of the park, where they have a hot pool. First, though, we got breakfast. While warming up with hot coffee and food I also spotted some Vicuñas again, wandering around between the geysers. What to view for breakfast!
Afterward, we had a bit of time to take a short dip in the pool, if we wanted. And of course, I wanted! The water is really warm and I was a bit sad I had to get out again after a very short time. That’s the disadvantage of an organized tour, of course. You can’t always stay as long as you would like.
Still, we had a few more interesting stops on the way back to San Pedro de Atacama. The first one was Machuca, a former Llama breeding town that now only has about 10 people left living there. They do still breed llamas today. And sell llama meat and other snacks to all the tourists coming through.
We also stopped at a swamp area called Vado Putana that is home to lots of different native birds.
Horse riding in the Valle de la Muerte
Spontaneously, I booked a horse ride in the Death Valley. The most beautiful thing about it turned out to be that there were only three of us: the guide, a girl from the Netherlands, and I. And the horses, of course. Mine was called Tormenta, Storm, and he was an absolute sweetie. The guide also made sure that we handled the horses correctly and I generally got the impression that the horses’ well-being is an absolute priority for the company, which was important to me.
We rode out into the Death Valley and then spend some time watching this amazing landscape from horseback. The Death Valley looks similar to the Moon Valley, but it’s a lot emptier of tourists. We did meet the occasional hiker and once a group of sand-boarders, but a lot of the time there was no one else in sight. It was almost like we were all alone in the desert! A great feeling, after being around so many tourists for so long.
We stopped occasionally to let the horses rest, have some water and take pictures. But mostly, we just enjoyed being out in this incredible landscape without worrying too much about getting the perfect picture.
The stargazing tour
The Atacama desert is supposed to have one of the clearest views of the night sky in the whole world, due to its lack of light pollution. That’s why you find so many observatories here. I just knew I had to do a stargazing tour to really get to appreciate this!
The tours usually last about two hours. They take you out of town, to make sure you get the best possible view. Then there are basically three parts. First, we looked at the sky with the naked eye. The guide pointed out all the different constellations that were visible at that point. I’ve never been any good at those – pretty much the only thing I recognize is the Southern Cross after people repeatedly pointed that out to me in Australia – so I found that really interesting. He also showed us some constellations of the native Chileans. Did you know there’s a giant llama in the sky? Well, now you do.
After that, we went back inside the house for a short presentation on the universe, planets and such in general. This was also the opportunity to warm yourself with some coffee or hot chocolate, or alternatively with wine. But after already having had quite enough to drink at dinner earlier, I stuck to the former.
Finally, we got to look at different parts of the night sky with a telescope. It included a close-up view of Jupiter, which I found to be the most impressive. It’s not every day you get to see something like that!
Tours in the Atacama desert – an overview
Many of the tours offered in San Pedro de Atacama were only half-day tours, so if you’re pressed for time you could do two in one day. They are generally held in both English and Spanish, with a guide who speaks both and alternates between the two. I once had a guide who seemed to go on forever in Spanish and then only said two sentences in English, but most of the time I felt like they translated pretty accurately.
I had booked most of my tours beforehand because I heard that’s better, but after having been at San Pedro I’m quite positive you can also do it there, especially if you’re a bit flexible with your timing. The whole place is basically just tour agencies, after all. Often you can also book them through your accommodation. The companies I went with were Whipala Expeditions (Moon Valley, Altiplanic Lagoons and El Tatio Geysers), Denomades (although it turned out thee cooperate with local companies, Turismo Layana for the Lagunas Baltinaches and Una Noche con las Estrellas for the stargazing tour) and Atacama Horse Adventure for the horse riding trip. As I enjoyed all of them, I can fully recommend those companies.
Prices vary depending on the tour of course, but most are probably somewhere between 20 € and 35 €. For me the cheapest was Moon Valley with 16 € and the most expensive was the horse riding with 45 €. With Whipala, I got 20% off all tours for paying cash. These prices don’t include entry fees to the National Parks themselves, so you need to add that. In most cases, it’s somewhere around 4 €, but the Geysers, for instance, were about 13 €.
I was advised to start with tours at roughly the same altitude as San Pedro de Atacama, such as the Moon Valley, and keep destinations like the Geysers or Altiplanic Lagoons for last. That way your body has some time to adjust and the risk of altitude sickness is kept to a minimum. Personally, I didn’t have any problems, but if you do experience symptoms make sure to let your guide now. They’ll know what to do.
Have you been to the Atacama? What places did you visit? Which was your favourite? Share in the comments!