Exploring the Best of San Pedro De Atacama, Chile
Where is the Atacama Desert?
Atacama Desert was our last stop in Chile and was a recommendation from one of my nieces. San Pedro de Atacama is a small town set on an arid high plateau in the Andes mountains of northeastern Chile.
It’s dramatic surrounding desertscape includes salt flats, volcanoes, geysers and hot springs. It’s the complete opposite to the Lake District we’d just come from. Chile is such a long, narrow country, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other which makes for a really diverse landscape.
I think my expectations were too high for the Atacama Desert and we’ve also been spoilt by Dubai, the Grand Canyon and living in Vegas (Red Rock and the spectacular sunsets). I was expecting beautiful and colorful rock formations, lots of flamingoes, a calm breeze, few people and basic accommodations.
In reality (think Instagram versus reality) there were lots of people everywhere. You’ll get seriously sandblasted even just walking down the road but at the top of the sand dunes it’s full on microdermabrasion and slaps in the face. On the plus side, the town was very unique and fun to explore and the hotel and food was much better than we were expecting.
Is it worth visiting the Atacama Desert?
I’m still glad we went to the Atacama Desert as it gave us a more complete experience of Chili and we’d always have been wondering if we’d skipped it. However, we definitely preferred the Lake District which was so beautiful. There was so much to see and do both there and in Colchagua Valley learning all about Chilean wines.
The only thing we would have done differently with the Atacama Desert would have been to spend a day less there. For nature-loving travelers to South America or if you haven’t ever been to a desert, I think you’ll enjoy the San Pedro de Atacama area and exploring it’s lagoons, rock formations and starry skies.
We do most of our research on where to stay and what to do via Tripadvisor, booking.com and hotels.com. As well as asking friends and family who’ve already been. The stargazing was a recommendation from my niece who still says it’s one of the clearest skies she’s seen at night. My Mum also had a Chile Travel Guide book I’d waded through when back in England over the Summer.
How to get to Atacama Desert?
We came from the Lake District (9:07 am LATAM flight Puerto Montt to Santiago, approx $54) which meant getting a connecting flight from Santiago (11:44am Santiago to Calama on LATAM approx $58) which took another 1h 56 minutes. We’d booked a rental car at Calama airport with Budget/Avis and from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama is about an hour drive. The lines were long and the service painfully slow at Budget so go with another rental car company if possible.
Lunch en route from Calama to San Pedro De Atacama
If you want to grab lunch before you drive, the options are limited especially at that time of day. We went to Braseros Del Castillo (which serves lunch until 16:45/4.45pm) which was clean and new but don’t order the ceviche! We should’ve known better than to order raw fish in the desert to be fair. It’s down a dirt road, don’t worry, your sat nav is right, unless you’re using Waze which was the worst map to try and use in Chile. Stick to Google or Apple maps instead.
Where to stay in San Pedro De Atacama Desert?
We decided to stay at Hotel Altiplanico Atacama (from $204pn) in San Pedro de Atacama (Domingo Atienza 282, San Pedro de Atacama) as it looked one of the nicer ones in San Pedro de Atacama. Many hotels can be very basic here as its hugely popular with backpackers.
Altiplanico Atacama is minimalistic modern meets rustic desert design using natural fabrics (see the video for a better idea). There’s free gated private parking, an outdoor swimming pool, and free WiFi. The wifi is weak in your hotel room but better in public areas. Still, don’t expect to be able to stream.
The hotel is clean, quiet and safe, with gates and cameras. We didn’t want to be right by the main street to avoid any late night party noise. Bah humbug, I’m like a granny that needs her sleep and tours often start early before it gets too hot. The hotel’s well situated and it’s only a 10-15 minute walk to the main street.
The breakfast is basic and features regional products including oat cookies/biscuits my Mum liked so much so got the recipe from the chef. T
hey also serve Mate de Coca tea, both the tea bags and loose leaves (which you can chew)! Now, here’s an interesting tea! No wonder my niece liked South America so much. Don’t try bringing this tea home, it might not work out so well at customs for you. However, if you have any digestive issues or altitude sickness (San Pedro de Atacama is at 7,900 feet) it’s supposed to be a cure.
How to Get Back to Calama Airport from San Pedro De Atacama
You’ll want to leave about an hour to get back to Calama Airport which is 62 miles from the hotel. The airport’s really small so it doesn’t take long to clear customs, it just takes a while to return the car if you used Budget/Avis.
If Hotel Altiplanico Atacama is fully booked, these are the other hotels we’d narrowed it down to. Prices may vary depending on when you go.
Hotel Pascual Andino, San Pedro de Atacama $210 per night. The closest to the main street.
Hotel La Casa de Don Tomas, San Pedro de Atacama $188
Hotel Explore Atacama All-Inclusive $1568. The only 5* hotel in San Pedro de Atacama. This offers so much more than just all-inclusive food! The price includes a choice of over 40 exclusive expedition options on horseback, bicycle or foot. They also have an in-house stable with specially trained horses, in-house observatory for stargazing, spa area, 4 swimming pools, 4 open-air hot tubs, saunas and transports even included.
What to see in the Atacama Desert?Highlights
After going to the Atacama Desert, there were definitely some things we felt we could’ve skipped and others we’re glad we did. 2 days and nights is plenty, we didn’t need the 3rd day but if you wanted to do sand boarding or additional tours you could still do everything in 3 days.
Try and book tours when you arrive with one of the many tour operators on the main street in San Pedro de Atacama or via your concierge. We had issues trying to contact and confirm with the tour companies we’d booked with as the numbers and addresses they had listed were all incorrect! They did both show up but both were running late and you can do without the stress of wondering whether or not they’re going to show.
These are the Atacama Desert tours we did but I wouldn’t recommend the Valley of the Moon tour we did as it took too long to do very little. The stargazing tour was worthwhile and you learned and saw a lot in the 2 hours.
Top things to do from or in San Pedro de Atacama
A couple of tips when out for the day in the desert
Remember to wear and take SPF
Take water around with you (pick up from a local grocery store). Pack a Hydroflask or something to keep water cold.
Take a hat (a lot of the time it’s too windy to wear but will give you some sun protection when it’s not. Plus it hides wind swept hair and a sandblasted face).
Tours do not include entrance fee’s to the national parks (between 3-15 USD).
Valley of the Moon/Valle De La Luna, Atacama
We were underwhelmed with the desert landscape and weren’t expecting the crowds. Nevada/Arizona’s desert and national parks are more colorful and diverse and Dubai has better sand dunes that you can go on, but it was still interesting to do. You could easily do the park by yourselves in a SUV if you’re not a tour person. We didn’t learn much more by doing the tour.
Valle de La Luna Tour through Viator ($55 per person)
The tour descriptions a little confusing as it says 4-12 hours! It ended up being more like 6 hours with a group of 13 of us. The number and address is incorrect on the listing which is why I’d say book something when you get there rather than doing it in advance like we did as it ended up being stressful worrying they weren’t going to pick us up and not being able to contact them. We’ve never had any issues with Viator before.
The tour started at the National Reserve “Los Flamencos” sector of Valle De La Luna/Moon Valley and stopped in the central crater for a photo op, Tres Marias (rock formations) and then the option to climb the Dune Maggiore.
It’s incredibly windy (to the point the guys were complaining the sand hurt) but the views from the top are far reaching and beautiful. You can’t walk on the top of the dune but that’s what keeps it looking so untouched and pristine. From here we were supposed to visit the salt caves but they were closed to we went straight to the Ckari Mirador to see the beautiful desert sunset (along with hundreds of other tourists who’d also come on tours to this point).
TIP: Wear sunscreen and sneakers. Don’t wear a skirt/dress and hold onto your hat!
Salar de Atacama/Atacama Desert
You don’t need to take a tour to see the salt plains in Atacama (but that’s an option) but you can drive yourself there on the way to Laguna Chaxa. Or you can take a tour from San Pedro de Atacama Desert to the Salt flats in Bolivia which are bigger than Chiles. We were all disappointed in the salt flats, they’re not as salty/white as we’d expected and there’s really not much to see even though there’s 3000 sq meters of them. Luckily we hadn’t made a journey specifically to see them but saw them when we went to see the flamingoes at Lake Chaxa/Laguna Chaxa
Sunset in the Atacama Desert
Unless you get really unlucky with the weather, most evenings you’ll be able to see the Earth’s driest non-polar desert erupt into 1 of its most colorful expanses. The best place to watch sunset in Atacama is at Ckari Mirador/Mirador de Kari – Piedra del Coyote. Get here before 7:30pm as the park closes at that time so you need to enter before then and to beat the crowds that come here to watch sunset. Wrap up warm as the temperature plummets at night at it’s really windy up on the mountain top.
Visiting the Flamingoes at Laguna Chaxa
The national reserve of flamingoes is NOT where you go to see Flamingoes, it’s just a name. To see the flamingoes you can either take a tour or drive to Laguna Chaxa. Either go early in the morning or at sunset when the flamingoes are closer to the shore. The tour buses were here by 9am and people tend to cause the flamingoes move further from shore, so if you want a closer glimpse get there before 9 am.
It’s about a 45 minute drive to Laguna Chaxa from San Pedro de Atacama. January is supposed to be the best time to see the resident Andean flamingos take flight during sunset. You probably won’t need or want to spend more than 45 minutes to see all 3 types of flamingoes here and walk around the short path. I’d recommend either doing this to start or end your day and see the Valley of the Moon/Valle De La Luna on the same day.
PS it always smells here due to the sulphur gases that are continuously emitted from the Lascar volcano but you don’t notice it after a while.
San Pedro De Atacama Main Street
This is a cute little hippy town that looks like the land time forgot. The streets are sandy and unpaved and red washed stone buildings front the main street. Behind those walls, they open up to a variety of restaurants and cafes from the authentic to the more modern to some that are actually quite elegant, tour operators, and shops.
Finding good coffee isn’t the easiest in Atacama but we found great coffee and lunch at Roots which has a more modern vibe than most of San Pedro. The best dinner we had was at La Casona which had live music, traditional food and beautifully presented salads. Either go early or make a reservation as this spot’s really popular and for good reason.
Like many areas of Chile, the area has a lot of poverty so dress super casual. Leave your heels and wedges at home and be prepared to get very sandy and wind swept.
San Pedro De Atacama Stargazing
There’s 2 trains of thought as to when the best time to go stargazing in the Atacama Desert is. If you go when it’s a new moon and the skies the darkest you’re going to be able to get the best view of the stars. However, if you want to see the moon and the stars through the telescope, going midway through the moon cycle like we did is a great time to go stargazing. This is the stargazing tour we booked via Viator:
This tour picked us up from the hotel (about 30 minutes late, so don’t stress, they will show up) and drove us about 10 minutes outside of town to their location. At different times of the year you’ll be able to see different things: planets, open and closed clusters, galaxies and stars via their high-end, computerized and manual telescopes and their laser pointer.
There was only 5 of us in our group which meant lots of time to ask questions and look through the telescope. The highlight for me was seeing the moon through the telescope and being able to take a photo of it with my iPhone.
TIP: Wrap up warm for this tour, even though we went in their Summer, it gets cold and windy at night.
El Tatio Geysers
We didn’t go here as it meant a really early start (after late stargazing) and was a full day tour but it’s worth looking into if you’re here for a couple of days. My niece said it was worth the drive out to. You can read more about it on Tripadvisor.
Sandboarding in San Pedro de Atacama
This looked really fun but I’m too much of a chicken and we ran out of time as the last day was a write-off as I was sick in bed. I wasn’t hungover, I picked up a cold somewhere along the way. I’d recommend finding a tour through a tour operator on the Caracoles (main street) rather than online.
Kimal Relax: This isn’t a tour but worth mentioning as the massages were really good. The spa is basic but the massages were really relaxing and they have a good juice bar to detox from all of the Chilean wine we’d been drinking.
Where to eat in San Pedro De Atacama
We ate a couple of nights at the hotel (Altiplanico Atacama) for convenience before evening tours and once in town on the main street. Finding good coffee isn’t the easiest in Atacama but we found great coffee and lunch at Roots which has a more modern vibe than most of San Pedro. Dinner at La Casona was an unexpected gem of a find with live piano music, traditional food and beautifully presented salads. Either go early or make a reservation as this spot’s really popular and for good reason.
What to wear in the Atacama Desert?
We visited the Atacama Desert in early January (Summer) but it was still cold in the wind and at night so you can’t beat layers and a windbreaker. At night I wore a tank top, full zip sweatshirt, windbreaker, Barbour jacket and scarf! It’s windy pretty much all of the time so go for shorts instead of skirts or dresses. We pretty much lived in sneakers as it was too dusty for flip flops and too casual for heels, etc. Pack a bag to out your dirty sneakers in so you can pack them without covering everything else in sand.
How many days do you need in the Atacama Desert?
We spent 3 days there but 2 is really enough to do everything.
- Day 1 you could go to see the flamingoes at Laguna Chaxa and then drive to explore Valle de la Luna.
- Day 2 you could do the geysers and explore San Pedro De Atacama (it’s a small town of a couple of streets so it doesn’t take much time to explore).
How to explore Atacama
Do you need a hire car? If there’s only 2 of you, the hotel you’re staying at offers an airport transfer, you’re walking distance from the main street and planning on doing tours then probably not. If there’s more than 2 of you, your hotel doesn’t offer airport transfers or you prefer to be able to go and explore on your own as well as doing tours hiring a cars probably a good option.
Do you need cash in Atacama?
Yes. You can use your credit card in most places but Chilean peso Is useful for tipping, the grocery store, small purchases, snacks, coffee, etc. Exchange your money before you go for the best rates.
Where else should I visit in Chile?
We loved the Lake District and exploring Patagonia: seeing the penguins on Chiloe Island, going to Osorno Volcano and Petrohue Falls. As well as visiting the different wineries in Colchagua Valley. Everywhere we went the people were so friendly and the food was so fresh. You can read all about our experience of those area and the tours we took:
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Eve Dawes is a Blogger, Podcaster, Mrs. England World 2020, a WBFF Pro Diva, SAG-AFTRA actress, NASM certified Personal Trainer, Founder of Dawes Custom Cosmetics and GlamourandGains.com. Eve's also the host of BFF (beauty, fitness & fashion) segment on Spill The Tea Live! The show for British Expats. Eve has over 15 years experience in the fashion world, is an avid traveller and cruelty-free beauty advocate.