San Pedro de Atacama, also known as "The archaeological capital of Chile" is a small town full of history and color that is located in one of the oasis' of the Chilean Highlands in the 2nd Region.
It is famous for its attractive landscapes, among which we find some of the highest summits of the Andes Mountains, like the Licancàbur volcano (5290 meters high), Làscar volcano (5592 meters high) and Cerro Quimal (4270 meters high), as well as the famous Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), surrounded by high dunes and rock formations shaped from the desert winds.
Apart from its amazing views, San Pedro de Atacama is the birthplace of the civilization of Atacama, which established its settlement in the highland regions and desert cliffs. You can find traces of this town in (pukarás) and villages that surround the area.
It has all the necessary services and it is one of the most preferred places for foreign tourists, who provide an international and cosmopolitan feeling to the streets of San Pedro.
San Pedro de Atacama was the birthplace of the Atacama people, creators of the Culture of San Pedro which was developed in the area over 11,000 years ago. This village is spread across the Highlands and Atacama Desert, establishing itself especially in the oasis like San Pedro.
In this territory the agriculture was developed, making crops with a terrace system on the slopes of the mountains, fertilizing the soil with Llama guano. They harvested quinoa, figs, pumpkins, corn, cotton, beans and potatoes, among other vegetables. They also devoted themselves to livestock, domesticating alpacas and llamas, from which they obtained milk and meat, as well as means of transportation.
Another particular feature was the development of painted pottery, basketry, weaving, wood carving and works with bronze and copper.
When the Inca Empire came to their land, they adopted their customs and pukaras were constructed, which are great walls around the city, as a form of protection, as well as sun worshipping.
In 1963 The Archaeological Museum of San Pedro de Atacama was inaugurated, with a collection of objects that they managed to collect from the Atacama people, including ceramics, textiles, metals, and even mummies.
Where to go
San Pedro de Atacama is famous for a great number of places that you can visit to see the surroundings, culture or enjoy the landscapes of this oasis in the desert.
Valle de la Luna: (Valley of the Sun)
This Sanctuary of Nature is located 13 kilometers west of San Pedro de Atacama and is part of the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos (National Flamingo Reserve).
It forms in a depression surrounding the Orbate sierra, which is part of the Cordillera de la Sal. It was produced by erosion from wind and water that over thousands of years has molded its soils and forests with interesting shapes like spikes, craters, mounds and hollows, which gives it the resemblence of a lunar landscape.
Some of the most famous formations of the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) are the Tres Marias, the Amphitheatre, the Gran Duna (Great Dune) and the Cavernas de Sal (Salt Caverns), among others.
It is located at 2500 meters above sea level, it has a desert climate with great temperature difference between day and night, and so, warm clothing is recommended if the tour extends beyond the sunset.
In the geography of these unique landscapes, activities such as hiking, horse riding and cycling are performed, among others.
Valle de la Muerte: (Death Valley)
It is located in the Cordillera de la Sal and has huge sand mountains, where sand boarding and trekking are practiced.
Besides this, it allows you to observe strange stone shapes, shaped by the desert wind erosion over thousands of years.
Salar de Atacama: (Salt Flats of Atacama)
It is located at 2305 meters above sea level, 55 kilometers north of San Pedro de Atacama. It is the third largest salt flat in the world, with more than 3000 km2.
Inside you will find the Chaxa lagoon, habitat of various species of water birds like flamingos, Andean seagulls, harriers and (parinas), among others. In its surroundings you can also find animals like the red fox, the tuco tuco rat and other species of reptiles of the area.
Géiseres del Tatio: (Tatio Geysers)
It corresponds to the highest geomagnetic field in the world, located at an altitude of 4200 meters, with 80 geysers where water boils at a temperature of 86° C and lets off fumeroles of over 70 centimeters.
The ideal time to observe them is during the morning between 6 A.M. and 7 A.M. which is the time that the highest number of fumarolic activity occurs. Also, it allows you to observe the large quantity of wildlife inhabiting this territory such as rheas, (vicuñas) and (vizcachas), among others.
Together with the Tatio Geysers, you can enjoy hot springs directly in nature, allowing you to submerge into the pleasant pools and recover from the cold environment. It is therefore recommended to do this tour with proper warm clothing, good hydration and to not eat too much in order to avoid the symptoms of altitude.
Termas de Puritama: (Puritama Springs)
These hot spring pools are found surrounded by mountains with beautiful natural scenery. They are located just 28 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama and the water temperature does not exceed 33° C.
They feature comfortable wooden walkways to travel and observe the surrounding vegetation.
This small town is located northeast of the Salar de Atacama (Salt Flat of Atacama) and it's an oasis that provides pure water and all kinds of fruit crops, which stand out for their high content of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), because of the close presence of minerals of the flats.
Among its attractions we find the national monuments Iglesia y Campanario de San Lucas (the Church and Bell Tower of St. Lucas), which were built in the eighteenth century.
Its buildings are all of stone liparite, which maintains its buildings at good inside temperature and as well as the making of crafts carved from volcanic stones.
Ruinas de Tulor: (Tulor Ruins)
These correspond to the concentric ruins of an ancient town of Atacama of over 3000 years that was found buried in the desert sands.
Pukará de Quitor:
It is found 3 kilometers away from San Pedro de Atacama, on the Cerro de Quitor (Quitor Hill). It is a fort built by the ancient inhabitants in the twelfth century, and reused by the Incas following their occupancy. It was used as a fortress to defend themselves from other towns.
Lagunas Altiplánicas: (Highland Lagoons)
The altiplanic lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques are located more than 4000 meters above sea level. They provide wonderful colors reflecting the sky of the highlands. They are located on the edge of the Salar de Atacama (Salt Flats of Atacama), about 6 hours away from San Pedro de Atacama.
Museo Arqueológico Padre Gustavo Le Paige: (Archeological Museum Padre Gustavo Le Paige)
This museum contains the collection of the Jesuit Belgian priest who after years of studies managed to get a sample of objects showing the evolution and development of the life of the Atacama towns during its 11 thousand years of development.
In San Pedro de Atacama the first thing you should do is take a walk around town, where you can see some landmarks such as the Archaeological Museum Padre Le Paige, the Church of San Pedro, the Municipality and Caracoles street, areas in which you can find the highest commerce and craft fair, with products made from local materials such as llama wool, stone carvings, cactus, leather, among others.
After, you can tour around the area by foot or by renting a bicycle. Some nearby places are Pukará Quitor (3 kilometers north) where in addition to appreciating the ancient ruins you can see the Lincancabur volcano and some caverns.
Also, another part of the tourist circuit of San Pedro de Atacama is the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), which can be travelled by trekking, biking or horseback riding. To enjoy the beauty of the desert landscape, especially when the moon comes out, we recommend visiting both places near dusk and take beautiful pictures of the sunset from the dunes.
Another unforgettable trip is to see the Salar de Atacama (Salt Flats of Atacama), part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Inside you will find the Chaxa lagoon, an ecosystem of Andean birds, such as flamingos and various kinds of flamingos (parinas), among others.
Within the Salar de Atacama (Salt Flat Atacama), we find the Cejar lagoon, of emerald waters and high salt concentration, allowing a pleasant floating sensation when you submerge in it. You should always wear sandals when entering these waters because of the rocky terrain in the bottom of the lagoon and never open your eyes under water.
After going in the Cejar lagoon, it is possible to remove excess salt by bathing in the Ojos del Salar, two freshwater springs that are found near the lagoon, known as Tebinquinche.
In the northern zone of the Salar de Atacama (Salt Flats of Atacama), we also find la Aldea deTulor, an ancient village built in the years 100 and 300 AD, formed by circular houses that were buried under the desert sand and are now administered by the Atacama community of Ayllu de Coyo, featuring exhibition rooms and interpretation to learn about the flora, fauna and history of the place.
You can also visit the Salar de Tara (Salt Flat of Tara), located towards the border with Argentina, taking the road “Paso Internacional Jama”, within Los Flamencos National Reserve. It provides an impressive spectacle of salt flats, rock formations called "cathedrals", lagoons and rivers, along with a vast diversity of native fauna, migratory birds, llamas and (vicuñas).
One of the most important attractions of San Pedro de Atacama, is to see the Géiseres del Tatio (Tatio Geysers), located more than 4300 meters above sea level, making it the highest geothermal field in the world.
Here you can see the impressive hot water fumaroles and hot steams that can reach 7 meters high and are released by geysers especially in the morning. That is why for this tour you must start at 4 in the morning from the village, where they begin the 90 km climb to the geothermal field. During the trip you can see all kinds of native fauna such as llamas, foxes, rheas and local flora.
The Geysers complex, known as Tatio Mallku, is administered by the indigenous communities of Toconce and Caspana and an entrance fee must be paid. While in this place, it is recommended to bring plenty of warm clothing, walking only on the marked trails and at a slow pace in order to avoid discomfort caused by the altitude.
Another recommendation is to eat light, drink lots of water, get proper rest and take chachacoma infusions (teas), a medicinal herb that is obtained in San Pedro de Atacama, which is drunk to help you get accustomed to the cold and altitude.
Here also you can find thermal pool of Tatio, where visitors who dare to challenge the cold environment will be able to experience a nice bath.
Upon returning from a visit to the geysers, you can visit the village of Machuca, where ancient traditions of the Atacama people such as grazing and agriculture are still conserved. In the surrounding area you can see a swamp (wetland), which is characterized by its huge giant cactus and a habitat for water birds such as Andean seagulls, flamingos, and ducks, among others.
In addition to Machuca, some walking tours allow people to explore the towns of Lasana Chiuchiu and Caspana, which include museums, old buildings, churches and traditions of the people of Atacama.
At the end of the trip, nearly 50 kilometers from San Pedro, we find the Termas de Puritama (Puritama Springs), a nice place to relax in the warm healing waters of its eight natural pools that are connected by wooden walkways to facilitate movement. The water temperature does not exceed 33° C and both have healing and rejuvenation properties.
There are plenty of exchange offices in San Pedro de Atacama where you can exchange dollars and euros into Chilean pesos.
It is recommended to review the indicators for exchange rates and then choose the place where the exchange is most convenient.
To get to San Pedro de Atacama, you have to take a flight to El Loa de Calama airport and from there travel the 100 kilometers (90 minute drive) that separate the town by bus, public or private transportation.
You can also get to San Pedro de Atacama by bus from Santiago. The trip lasts 20 hours and covers more than 1600 kilometers.
In San Pedro de Atacama it is possible to rent a car to tour the area and also use public transportation, rent bicycles and walking.
Chile's international code is 56 and the code of San Pedro de Atacama is 55. To call from abroad you must dial the country code, city code, plus55, and the telephone number.
Where and what to eat
In San Pedro de Atacama the ancient traditions of the Atacama food are used, corn and wheat being the base of the kitchen, which were grown in different varieties in the area, as well as llama meat. The typical dishes are plentiful, spicy and high in protein.
Some of the most famous are the patasca, el locro de trigo (wheat soup), frangollo, carbonada and humitas, most of them made with corn and wheat. Bread is also prepared with flour, wheat or corn and cheese from sheep and cows (vacuno).
Among the most traditional drinks is the corn chicha and (aloja), and chicha of algarrobo.
In addition to these traditional foods, there are several restaurants that have joined the old recipes with new flavors, with preparations as chorrillana, a popular Chilean dish prepared with potatoes, eggs, fried onions and meat in San Pedro de Atacama.
There are also "picadas" or lower-priced restaurants where you can enjoy home cooking and taste the native flavors of the area.