3 Days* in SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
“I will always care for you, even if we are not together and even if we are far, far away from each other” - Unknown. Oh San Pedro de Atacama, it is true. I fell in love with you in just 3 Days* and since then have been longing to return to your otherworldly beauty. Diego also didn’t hurt, the stinkingly handsome Chilean tour guide, but I digress…
Day 1* in San Pedro
Sprouting out of nowhere in the world’s driest desert, this dusty town is all about tourism. Life runs a little slower here where narrow dirt roads pass between adobe buildings, stray dogs slouch in the afternoon sun and laid-back hostels cater to the never-ending stream of adventure seekers.
But the real draw of San Pedro lies beyond the city limits where some of the world’s most magnificent geological diversity will take your breath away. Its variety includes snow-covered volcanoes, high altitude lagoons, Martian-like red sand desert, vast salt flats and spouting geysers.
Ideally, the inhospitable Atacama Desert should be explored in a 4-wheel drive vehicle (to be rented at the nearest airport in Calama) and in your own time. Traveling solo, I was strongly advised to instead join tours for safety reasons. A piece of advice that I obeyed, for the most part. Expediciones Latchir and Grado 10 are both solid choices (smaller groups, knowledgeable guides) that personalize your itinerary based on your specific interests. I highly recommend including the following highlights in your customized tour:
- The Alitplanic Lagoons (Laguna Miñiques, Miscanti and Chaxa)
- Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte
- El Tatio Geysers (3rd largest geyser field in the world)
- Salar de Atacama (salt flats as far as the eye can see) unless you just arrived from Uyuni, Bolivia and visited the most spectacular salt flats South America has to offer.
- Laguna Cejar, especially if you haven’t floated in the Dead Sea before
- Stargazing – with zero light pollution, this is a perfect spot to scan the heavens
The altitude and extreme fluctuating temperatures affect your body, so make sure to take it easy on your first few dates with the desert. The Valley of the Moon, Valley of the Dead and Laguna Cejar are fairly close to town and even reachable by bike for eager explorers.
A personal favorite was the horseback riding and sand boarding tour to Valle de la Muerte, an adventure that will leave your bum sore, your ears sandy and your Instagram account more popular than ever. Especially during sunset, the arid beauty of the Valley contrasted by snowcapped volcanoes will burn itself onto your memory for a long time to come.
Day 2* in San Pedro
After popping a few altitude pills, consider embarking on the Altiplanic Lagoon or the El Tatio Geyser tour that’ll bring you up to 14k feet (~4300m) where the air is thin and nature’s serene beauty formidable. Vicuñas, the second cousin of the llama, Chilean flamingos and other Andean critters might show up for a rendezvous.
Sip your morning coffee while breathing in the wonderfully crisp, clean air. The peaceful allure, the landscape’s imposing grandeur and the starkly contrasting vistas might satiate your senses but leave your belly hungry.
Luckily San Pedro isn’t short on culinary options worth exploring. While seafood in the desert might seem like an audacious choice, La Estaka’s ceviche and salmon dishes are delightful, especially when accompanied by a few Pisco Sours, a deliciously frothy South American cocktail with a citrusy tang. Cozy ambience and live music sweeten the deal at Adobe and their wine selection is pretty decent, too.
Day 3* in San Pedro
At some point give yourself a break from organized tours and the selfie-stick carrying mob and take a bike ride past the indigenous stone fortress Pukará de Quitor and along the Rio Grande into the canyon. Few travelers explore the mountain range on this end of town, giving you space and time to build your San Pedro infatuation.
Make time to stroll through San Pedro’s town center and browse the artesian market off the main square Plaza des Armas (the local blankets are a great item to bring home). Fall in love with the small adobe church Igelsia San Pedro and venture into the local neighborhood to get an idea of how the Atacameños live. And if you aren’t utterly smitten with Atacama by the end of your stay I owe you a Pisco!
- Babalu Heladeria (Calle Caracoles 160) for a refreshing scoop of rica-rica ice cream
- Roots (Toconao 459-B) where hippie meets hipster and drinks fresh Marley Coffee
- Pizzeria El Charrua (Tocopilla 442) for those times when all you want is a delicious thin crust
- Layers – hot days and cold nights
- A flashlight
- A good camera
- Chap stick and sunscreen
- Altitude Pills (otherwise buy some coca leaves to chew on, they help with the altitude as well).
- Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light documentary about astronomy and archaeology in the Atacama desert
- The 33, 20th Century Fox production about the rescue mission to free the 33 Chilean miners who were buried underground for 69 days
- The Secret in Their Eyes, the Chilean original film from 2009
- Local fabrics like their colorful (slightly scratchy) blankets to spice up your home
- Rica Rica, a tasty indigenous herb that’s used for cooking and as natural remedy for an upset stomach
- Shop for memories and spend your money on your tours