With spectacular landscapes out of this world, Chile’s Atacama Desert is a must-see location. The desert includes some truly stunning sites like Valle de la Luna, Piedras Rojas and Laguna Cejar. And that’s before I even mention the flamingos!
On the edge of the desert is the small town of San Pedro de Atacama. I was recommended to visit San Pedro de Atacama by a Chilean friend from home. Situated in the north of Chile close to the Bolivian border, the small town is surrounded by the vast expanses of the Atacama Desert and some incredible scenery.
No doubt you’ll already have several questions such as is there a San Pedro de Atacama airport? What are the best Atacama Desert tours? And where can I see those flamingos? So here is all the information you’ll need in your San Pedro de Atacama itinerary.
How to get to San Pedro de Atacama
The first thing you’ll want to know is how to get there. Whilst there is no airport in San Pedro de Atacama itself, there are several options available to you depending on where you’re coming from. The following are the most popular routes.
Calama to San Pedro de Atacama
The closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is in the town of Calama. There are regular flights throughout the day from Chile’s capital, Santiago, to Calama, which takes two hours. From there it’s just over an hour to San Pedro de Atacama with buses leaving frequently. Flights start at around £30 if booked well in advance plus an extra £12 for the bus from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama.
For those of you with a little more stamina who prefer to take the scenic route, a direct bus runs from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus takes between 22 to 24 hours with tickets starting at similar prices to the flight. If booked closer to the departure date however, the bus will be comparatively much cheaper. Meals are provided on most of the overnight bus routes in South America, but bring snacks just in case. I found the buses here to be easy to travel on. As well as providing meals the seats are wide and recline back far enough to sleep comfortably in.
Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama
The salt flats just over the border in Bolivia are a popular stop for many travellers and you’ll find plenty of tours to Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama and vice versa. The tours are generally multi-day trips taking three or four days to travel between the two towns. Alternatively, you can catch a bus from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama which costs between £20-30 and usually lasts around 10 hours (although this will depend on the border crossing).
Salta to San Pedro de Atacama
If you’re coming from Argentina then buses run from Salta taking at least 10 and a half hours to reach the desert with tickets similarly priced to those between Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama, again starting at £20. The border crossing could also add time to the journey depending on the day.
The town of San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama itself is very small with narrow, dusty streets and limited infrastructure. However, you’ll find plenty of restaurants and supermarkets, giving you the choice to either eat out or cook for yourself. The bus station is just over 1km from the town centre which takes around 15 minutes to walk. Just be aware that the main street isn’t paved so the walk may take longer if you have wheeled suitcases. All of the tour agencies and restaurants are in the centre, so if you plan on staying further out bear that in mind.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
Despite being a small town there is no shortage of options when it comes to accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama Hotels
You’ll find the majority of hotels closer to the town centre. Prices generally range around £50 to £100 for a double room, whilst hotels further out start at £30 to £40. Room prices are always liable to change depending on availability and season (see ‘San Pedro de Atacama weather’ below). Most hotels are equipped with basic kitchen facilities to prepare snacks for your excursions to the Atacama Desert and elsewhere. Only a handful of properties have a restaurant on site, but the majority of eating establishments are on the main street, so you’ll easily find somewhere to eat. As with the hostels (see below) most of the hotels have tour booking facilities available, which takes some stress out of trying to find the best excursions from San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama Hostels
Most of the hostels are congregated around the bus station, just a five minute walk away. I stayed at Hostal Mamatierra, which I found was reasonably priced and in a great location. The walk to the centre of San Pero de Atacama takes a little over ten minutes. Better yet, next door is a small supermarket allowing you to take advantage of the large, well equipped kitchen when you want to cook.
Whilst Mamatierra is small (as a lot of the accommodation is in San Pedro de Atacama) it has everything you need, including free breakfast and WiFi. They have both private and dorm rooms with the largest shared room occupying up to five people. It’s also possible to book excursions through Mamatierra and all the information for the various excursions, including prices, is available in reception. Saving you the laborious task of trudging up and down the main street searching for the best Atacama Desert tours.
San Pedro de Atacama weather
Due to its high altitude, San Pedro de Atacama doesn’t see a great deal of change in temperature throughout the year. Temperatures tend to stay between 20°C to 30°C, with the summer months (December to February) seeing the majority of the warmer weather. During the evening however the temperatures can drop severely, especially in winter (June to August). It’s not unusual for it to drop below 0°C once the sun goes down, so make sure you’re prepared for cooler temperatures when out at night. Summer is the most popular time of year, so accommodation typically has less availability at this time. The shoulder seasons of Spring and Autumn see little change in temperature and less crowds, making it the ideal time to visit San Pedro de Atacama.
Atacama Desert weather
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth. The average annual rainfall is 15mm and some places haven’t seen rain in 400 years! However, there have been instances of flooding in the last ten years caused by sudden downpours and the extreme aridity of the ground. The Atacama Desert has an altitude of around 4,000m. Yet despite this, temperatures are not as cool as you might think. Throughout the day temperatures will be relatively high and only dropping as the sun goes down. However, it’s always wise to take a jacket and warm clothes with you on any excursion to the Atacama Desert.
San Pedro de Atacama Altitude
San Pedro de Atacama is located at 2,400m with some sites in the surrounding area reaching up to 5,000m. This can lead to problems for some travellers who aren’t used to the extreme altitude. The majority of guides for Atacama Desert tours carry oxygen tanks as a precaution for anyone who needs it. However, there are a few things you can do to avoid suffering from altitude sickness and ruining your trip. (the last thing anyone wants is…)
How to deal with altitude sickness
- Take your time. Try as best you can to take your time to acclimatise. If there are several tours you want to do, take the excursions that don’t go as high the first day or two and build up gradually. The salt flat tours to Uyuni are run over several days for that reason.
- Rest. If you’re on a tour tell your guide and ask if you can take a breather. The chances are they will be used to people suffering from altitude sickness and most will offer advice to help you. If the rest of your tour group are heading off to look at something just hang back until you feel better. Make sure to tell the guide what you’re doing and ask a friend to wait with you.
- Drink. Always take a bottle of water with you for any excursions. If the tour includes meals it’s likely the guides will have plenty of water for you to take.
- Breathe. This should be something you’re doing anyway really, but taking slow, deep breaths can help to slow your heart and relax you. The oxygen provided by the tour guides in case of any emergency will help get more air into your lungs and reduce any symptoms of altitude sickness.
What to do in San Pedro de Atacama
So, now you know where San Pedro de Atacama is, how to get there and what to do if you get altitude sickness. But what is there to do in San Pedro de Atacama? Fortunately there are no shortage of options and the desert is packed with tons of things to see.
So, what are the best options? Here’s a list of what you can expect to find in the Atacama Desert.
Excursions from San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Luna
The scenery around the Atacama Desert is very reminiscent of Mars or some other alien planet. The red, dusty rocks and vast expansive desert stretching into the distance creates incredible images. Valle de la Luna (or Valley of the Moon) has some very cool scenery with a truly out of this world feel to it, as you might expect from the name.
It was here that I saw the sunset on my first night in the northern Chilean desert. The light fading in a beautiful mix of colours stretching out over the landscape as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. The range of colour across much of the Atacama Desert is so impressive. Especially given you are surrounded by little more than dust and rocks.
Speaking of rocks, one of the highlights of the Atacama Desert, especially for me personally, is Piedras Rojas; the Red Rocks. The contrast between the red stone and the nearby blue salt lakes is startling. However, it can be pretty cold due to the altitude, as is the case for many of the locations in and around San Pedro de Atacama. The area is also home to lots of local wildlife such as guanaco (a member of the llama family), birds of prey and others.
El Tatio Geysers Tour
Not only does the Atacama Desert have salt flats, stargazing and flamingos (it’s coming, I promise), but there is also a large geyser field. Around 90 minutes from San Pedro de Atacama, El Tatio geyser field is the third largest in the world. There you’ll find 80 geysers shooting spouts of hot steam from the ground in a spectacular display of natural power. Located in the Andes Mountains at an altitude of over 4,200m, it’s a good idea to be a little acclimatised before you venture out on this excursion.
Salar de Tara
If you don’t have the budget or time to reach Uyuni in Bolivia, then the Atacama Salt Flats are a good alternative. Not quite as large or unending, but they still give you a sense of the vastness these areas generate. Large open expanses going on for miles until they disappear into the distance. It’s also incredibly cold and even the summer months will see a covering of snow, so prepare to wrap up warm.
Excursions to Salar de Tara will typically see you moving between 4,000m to 5,000m throughout the day. I saw a few people on my tour having problems acclimatising to the altitude and needing to use the oxygen tanks. Something to bear in mind if you’ve experienced altitude sickness in the past.
You’ll find many lagunas in the area, which may be surprising for such a dry environment. Laguna Cejar, part of the Salar de Atacama Salt Flats, is the most popular of these. Located 18km from San Pedro de Atacama, the large lake is heavy in salt concentration, reaching as much as 28% in some places. This means you can happily float along as you gaze up at the wide blue sky above you, like a little Dead Sea in the middle of the Atacama Desert. So make sure to pack your swimsuit.
Entrance to Laguna Cejar is CLP$15,000 (a little under £15), which is usually not included in the tour prices.
Whilst not every tour visits Laguna Cejar, there are many other lakes throughout the area. One of my tours stopped at Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques. Two large lakes located close to one another with plenty in the way of wildlife and amazing scenery. The deep blue shade of the lake is contrasted brightly to the yellow of the plant life and red rocks surrounding it.
With such wide-open expanses of sky and little in the way of light pollution, the Atacama Desert is the perfect place to go stargazing. With the days occupied by hiking, floating in salt lakes and generally enjoying the stunning scenery, why not spend the evenings doing something different. Excursions last from two and a half to four hours depending on the company and experience offered. You’ll be provided with specialist equipment to use and given a full explanation of what you’re looking at. You don’t need to be an astronomy expert to enjoy a night sky filled with millions of bright stars.
As with many other excursions you’ll find several companies offering the stargazing tour, each with their own advantages relating to price, availability, etc.
You may think there’s very little colour variation in the Atacama Desert, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The change in colours contrast with each other so vividly that it makes for some incredible landscapes. The bright blue sky, the icy white salt flats, the yellows and greens of the vegetation and the reddish brown of the rocky land. One area in particular is so beautiful in its colour variation that it’s known as Rainbow Valley.
It’s also where you find Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs and Valle Arcoiris. Two sites of archaeological importance due to the ancient rock art found in the area.
Not only is the Atacama Desert filled with wonderfully vibrant colours, but it’s also a great place to see the local wildlife. Guanaco, lizards, foxes, and several types of bird among others. One of the most popular species to live in this part of the world are the bright pink flamingos. You’ll see the birds in large groups in many of the places you visit as you explore the Atacama Desert. 740km² of which forms a reserve called Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos.
The reserve is divided into seven different sections and you have to pay an admission fee for each one you decide to enter. You can still see plenty of the flamingos, as well as other birds, without paying any extra throughout the region. However, entering one of the reserves (prices range from £2.50 to £5 per person) allows you to gain a close-up experience of the flamingos in their natural environment. You can learn so much by watching them as they eat, sleep and interact in groups reaching numbers of 200 or more. For example, I learnt that flamingos can actually fly!
San Pedro de Atacama Itinerary
You need at least two days to get the most out of San Pedro de Atacama but three is ideal. If you prefer to stay longer and take your time enjoying everything the Atacama Desert has to offer then you’ll find plenty of ideas in the list above. I’d also recommend an extra day to acclimatise before you start exploring if you might be susceptible to altitude sickness. Especially if you spent the previous 24 hours on the bus from Santiago (as I did because the airline didn’t like my bank card!).
Tours are typically half-day to full-day excursions, so doing one each day is the best way to make the most of your time in the Atacama Desert without feeling rushed. I stayed for three days in San Pedro de Atacama with a different organised tour each day. Some tours visit several sites in the same excursion, which could save you time and money. It may be easier to book everything with the same company and pay for all your excursions in one go. You can also rent a car and visit each site at your own pace. Just make sure you have all the emergency equipment needed in the event of a breakdown and the vehicle is suitable for the desert terrain.
The following is a suggested itinerary to allow you to see the best of the Atacama Desert in 3 days.
- Morning – explore the town of San Pedro de Atacama and check out the local area. Make sure not to miss Iglesia San Pedro, the second oldest church in Chile. Remember to stop at a supermarket to stock up on snacks for your excursions.
- Afternoon – visit to Valle de la Luna. Your first excursion into the desert to marvel at the natural wonders all around you. Finish by watching the sunset in the Moon Valley for an out-of-this-world experience.
- Evening – enjoy a relaxing evening in many of the local restaurants with options ranging from pizza, Arabic or Peruvian dishes, or sample some local Chilean food at Baltinache or Charkikan.
- Full-day excursion – any tour that incorporates as many of the sites mentioned above without being too rushed. Ideally something involving stops at Piedras Rojas, the lagunas and Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. It’s a nice combination of the wide range of scenery on offer in the Atacama Desert with plenty of opportunity to see the local wildlife. You may also cross the Tropic of Capricorn (something I did again in Africa).
- Half-day excursion – visit to Salar de Tara. A suitable alternative for anyone who doesn’t have the time to get to the Bolivian salt flats. If you’re already heading to/from Bolivia then instead spend the day at El Tatio geyser field.
- Evening – Stargazing tour. Finish your stay in San Pedro de Atacama enjoying the night sky with an uninterrupted view of countless stars.
Where to go after San Pedro de Atacama
- Santiago – Chile’s capital and biggest city. Two hours by plane from nearby Calama airport or 24 hours by bus.
- Uyuni – the best town to see Bolivia’s salt flats from. Three-day tours travel between Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama daily, with many companies to choose from.
- Arica – further north on Chile’s coast. The port city is well-known for its surfing beaches.
- Salta – across the border in Argentina, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for trekking through the mountains.
- Lima – the capital city of Peru, flights take around two and a half hours starting at £120.
- La Serena – a coastal city to the South of San Pedro de Atacama where you’ll find long beaches and lots of colonial style buildings. It’s just a couple of hours away from a Humboldt penguin reserve.
- Torres del Paine – for an extreme difference from the dry Atacama Desert, head to the breath-taking mountains and forests of this national park. One of the most popular areas in Patagonia.