So this is it, our final stop in the north of Chile, in the dusty desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. This is a high altitude (2400 m / 7900 feet) 21st century tourist town. It’s dripping with accomodation, a good variety of local and international eateries, shops and numerous tour companies, and its signature thatched adobe houses add to its character and charmingly relaxed atmosphere.
It isn’t all about the tourist dollar in San Pedro, however, as you’re bound to spot the Atacameños doing what they have been for centuries – farming and breeding goats, llama and sheep. Walking down the street and having to jump out of the way of a drove of goats sure reminds you of this.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama.
At the centre of town is Plaza de Armas, a small, block-sized public meeting place that’s shaded by mature pink peppercorn trees, which are native to these parts. It’s a tranquil place bordered by a couple of cafes and the town’s picture postcard 17th century adobe church.
Step past the churches door and check out its simple, yet beautiful interior, its beamed cactus wood ceiling and door, all bound with llama leather.
Over the road from the entrance of the church is San Pedro’s fería, a narrow covered passage lined with local handicrafts as well as some from Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and even China. Can’t escape that made in China tat, even in the desert in Chile.
Haggle your way to purchase hats, ponchos, colourful textiles, crystals, fossils and anything you’d imagine to find in a place like this.
Fería Artesanal in San Pedro de Atacama, Gustavo Le Paige (opposite the church)
See that guy above? He’s using the sun’s magnified rays to create small artworks on pieces of wood. Clever man! To think that I only used a magnifying glass to zap ants and grasshoppers when I was a kid.
If watching him gets a little too warm, I’d say head to one of the few heladerías around town and cool down with an ice cream. The guys at Heladería Babalú have many flavours you’ve probably tried before, but it’s the ice cream that’s made with local fruits and grains that got out attention.
Coca leaf, ayrampo (Andean cactus), chañar (a desert tree), algarrobo (another desert tree) are some of the more unusual flavours. Others include pisco sour and one that I tried – quinoa. It’s very much like rice pudding in ice cream form. Delicious!
Heladería Babalú, Caracoles 140
Breakfast places are plentiful in this gringo town, and you don’t have to walk too far to get your fill on a gringo breakfast. At Cafe Pelegrino you can take a seat just metres from Plaza de Armas and tuck into excellent pancakes with fruit (3500) or their breakfast (4599) of toast, fruit and granola and coffee.
Nice way to start the day, don’t you think?
Cafe Peregrino, Gustavo Le Paige 348
If you have a penchant for empanadas, especially the giant ones they make in Chile, then look no further than Cafe Esquina. Aside from being tortured by listening to Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers six times back-to-back – I’m not kidding! – we forked into a carne empanada (3800) that so happened to be 30 cm long.
That’s my iPhone 6 next to it just to show the scale of this thing. Meat empanadas in Chile tend to have the same ingredients wherever you go – minced meat, a wedge or two of boiled egg and black olives. For some reason they don’t season the filling, ever, so you need to rely on the provided salsa or sauce and those olives for flavour.
Cafe Esquina, Caracoles 140
We tried our hardest to seek out San Pedro’s best coffee, but sadly we came out empty handed. Plenty of the filtered Americano stuff, but when it comes to espresso machines, or people that know how to use them – not a great deal.
Finding Roots open on Christmas Day was like a breath of fresh desert air, and somehow the fit-out told us that we were in for a really good espresso. Wrong.
Sadly the young girl that made it extracted the espresso into a jug, then poured some of it into an espresso cup. What does this do? The long extraction she did diluted the coffee, and then pouring that into the cup lost all of that strong, golden crema. We may as well have been drinking weak Americanos.
Loved the little cookie on the side, though.
Roots, Toconao 459
Alcohol laws in San Pedro can be a little traditional, meaning that it’s not uncommon to walk into a place that serves drinks, but will only let you have a drink if you order food. We u-turned out of a couple of places which did exactly that, but the good thing is you can easily find a venue that’s not as rigid.
Chela Cabur would have to be the busiest bar in town, with the occasional local swilling a coldie, and loads of gringoes making up the rest.
It’s rowdy, it’s often packed and it always plays some kind of sport on the flatscreen tv’s. Beer is the drink of choice, from a wide variety of Chilean brews, a schop (tap beer) and a few imports. If beer’s not your thing, then the only other options are coffee and tea. Nobody goes to a pub for those, do they?
Chela Cabur, Caracoles 212
Afternoon happy hour was the draw at this cosy cafe – two cocktails for 5000 pesos. Mojitos, here we come! And you don’t need to order food as they bring out complimentary bread and salsa with the drinks.
Unlike Chela Cabur, the local-to-gringo ratio is the other way around, and when the live band starts playing, even more locals squeeze into the tight space. If it’s food that you’re after, then expect to see no-frills Chilean fare. Unless, of course, it’s Christmas and you’re there for the fab meal they put on. A bit of a bargain, too.
Tahira, Tocopilla 372
Head over the road to Ckunna for a similar happy hour experience, although here there’s plenty of space to settle in. There’s the lovely wine cellar front room bathed in afternoon sunlight, the larger back room or the outdoor courtyard complete with shady trees and an open fire. It’s hard to imagine this adobe building was once the town’s first schoolhouse.
The food menu is a merge of Mediterranean and dishes from the Altiplano, and the wine list looks like one you wouldn’t turn your nose up at.
Ckunna Restaurant, Tocopilla 359
Eat some more.
If local unfussy food is the preference, then head to the south side of the stadium and take your pick from a string of 14 tiny restaurants. These pokey plywood and metal sheds all put on similar food, with similar prices – things like sandwiches, chicken, steak, spaghetti and juices.
Our dinner that evening – grilled steak and chicken with roast potatoes.
El Paso Turistíco, Calle Licancabur
When you see a line of gringoes waiting to get into a restaurant, you tend to go in and see what all the fuss is about. This is the case virtually every night at La Picá del Indio, namely because of the 5000 peso set dinner menu they put on.
Expect to see the likes of crema de espinacas, filete saltado or pollo naranja served with either rice, potatoes or salad.
As for the regular menu, it’s a mix of pizza, parrilla and a few other local mainstays. Everything is priced below 7000 pesos, unless you do the parrilla for two, which is 18,000. If you’re after a real deal chorriana (fries topped with sautéed beef, chicken, onion and sausage, olives and fried eggs), skip the one here. It’s a stripped down version of what I’ve just described.
They also offer happy hour mojito, caipirinha, coca or pisco sour – two for 4000 or 5000 pesos, depending which you choose.
La Picá del Indio, Tocopilla 418
We happened to be in San Pedro de Atacama on Christmas day, and we were a little concerned that nothing would be open. Not the case, considering this is a gringo town, after all. There may have been a lot closed or opening late, but while wandering the streets, we found this fab little restaurant.
There was a chalkboard menu out front offering a handful of dishes, but once we walked through the restaurant and spotted a barbecue laden with deliciously aromatic chicken, our minds were made up.
Pollo asado (3500) with rice and salad, a can of cold beer, all enjoyed in the sprawling shaded garden out back. The most perfect Christmas lunch in an oasis town in the world’s driest desert. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.
El Huerto Cocineria, Gustavo Le Paige 230
Things to do around San Pedro de Atacama.
People don’t come to San Pedro to solely see the town. I mean, there’s actually nothing much to it, and there isn’t a great deal to do other than what I’ve already covered. Eating, drinking and shopping.
There are many day trips to be done that can immerse you in the utter beauty that surrounds it. Yes, it’s all desert, but this is the Atacama Desert, where you can visit salt pools, climb dunes, explore caves, have breakfast on mountains, see some wildlife, geysers and so much more. It pays to get out there.
Walk down the main drag of town – Caracoles – and you can easily lose count of the tour operators that saturate the strip. Go check them out, see what tours they offer and then shop around for the best price and what suits you most. There are plenty of day trips available, so it’s as simple as working out how much time you have, which tours you’d like to do, and they can tailor it all for you.
We went with Sun Travel where we did 4 different day trips for around 35,000 pesos per trip. Here’s what we did.
Lagunas Escondidas Baltinache.
Lagunas Escondidas, or Hidden Lagoons, are located in the Salar de Atacama, a 3,000 km² / 1,864 mi² valley of salt in the middle of the desert. There are seven lagoons in total, but if you’re up for it, you can take a dip in two of them.
The level of salinity in these lagoon is higher than that in the Dead Sea, so you’ll be floating that little bit higher than the folk over in Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
It’s refreshingly cool, fun and your body will be covered in white salt powder once you’ve got out and dried in the desert breeze. There are showers back at the entrance gate to rinse off and there’s an additional 5000 peso entry fee per person when first entering the salt lagoons.
On the same day tour, there are also stops at lookouts on Highway 23 just outside of San Pedro. It’s here that you can sit, grab a provided complimentary drink, some nibbles and watch the sun set over the Valley of the Moon.
Laguna Miscanti, Piedras Rojas & Los Flamencos National Park.
The second day tour we did kicked off with a morning drive southeast of San Pedro de Atacama, with a stop at the pre-Hispanic village of Socaire to visit its tiny adobe church. The village is characterised by its many agricultural terraces filled with many crops, including quinoa.
The drive carries on, increasing to an altitude of 4200 metres as you near Laguna Miscanti. To say the landscape is breathtaking is an understatement. Volcanoes, terrain covered in tufts of golden grass, wild vicuña grazing on mountain slopes and the most perfect lake flanked by pink flamingos.
It’s here that a table is set up with a breakfast spread, along with coffee, tea and drinks. How’s the view?
There’s a short walk after breakfast, a drive to the next lake – Laguna Miñiques – where you spot plenty of birdlife and even more stunning scenery. There’s an additional 3000 peso entrance fee to enter the park.
Some further driving circles one of the volcanoes and descends into a rust-coloured valley shimmering with pale blue water that’s surrounded by salt. The attraction here is Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks), which is a volcanic formation on the shore of the thermal salt lagoon. It pays to get there early before all the tour vans arrive, as it doesn’t take long before the red rocks are crawling with camera-wielding tourists.
There’s a lunch stop (inclusive) back in Socaire, which is a basic soup and main with drinks. Nothing to get too excited over.
On the way back to San Pedro de Atacama there’s a slight diversion to Los Flamencos National Park (entrance fee of 2500 per person), where you have almost an hour to walk the few trails over crusted salt and spot the pink flamingos. Wearing sun glasses and sunscreen here is advisable as the light can get blinding due to how pale the terrain is.
Geysers del Tatio.
One of the more popular tours is to Geysers del Tatio, a very active geyser field about 100 km from San Pedro. In order to be at the field for sunrise – to see the steam at first sunlight – a departure time of 4.30 am is required. Nothing fun about that, but it kind of is worth it.
It’s absolutely freezing that early in the morning, so rugging up is important, especially at an altitude of 4320 m when you arrive at the geyser field. The site contains around 80 active geysers, from tiny fissures to ones that bubble and send steam high overhead.
The smell of sulphur hangs in the cold air, and you quickly understand why tours get you there for sunrise. During the day the steam would look nowhere near as dramatic as it does when the sun emerges over the nearby mountain top. The temperature instantly increases, as well.
Anyone wishing to take a dip in the thermal water can do so in a pool designed just for that.
There’s an additional fee of 10, 000 pesos per person to enter the geyser field. Breakfast is generally included when you do this tour.
Once leaving the geyser field there’s an obligatory stop at the tiny village of Machuca, which is home to a family of llama herders. About 20 adobo, wood and cactus dwellings are clustered together, with a cute adobo church a short walk away.
The village survives on tourism, so there’s a bunch of stalls selling traditional Andean handicrafts along the main street, plus there’s a cafe.
It’s pretty difficult to miss the line of people eagerly awaiting freshly grilled skewers of llama from a barbecue stall. For 3000 pesos you can grab one, or head into the cafe and buy a llama empanada for 2000 pesos. They’re really good!
Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).
A little closer to San Pedro de Atacama, about 13 km out of town, is the Valley of the Moon. Water and wind erosion and tectonic movements have formed the landscape into an incredible natural wonder filled with sculpted, golden and white geology.
It truly is unforgettable.
Caverna de Sal, the Salt Cave, is the first stop. Here you walk through a meandering canyon, where, if you look closely, it’s made up of tiny shards and crystals of clear salt. The trail leads through a tight tunnel and emerges on the side of the hill, providing views over some spectacular salt-rock formations. Definitely not for the claustrophobes.
Further into the valley the landscape becomes more Moon or Mars-like, and you can use your imagination to work out how the above formation – Las Tres Marias (The Three Marias) – got its name.
The final stop is at Duna Mayor, where you’re given time to climb the high sand dune and rocky ridge to find your own little vantage point to watch the sunset over the valley. Watching the colours change and shadows stretch over the surreal landscape truly is out of this world.
How we got from Valparaíso to San Pedro de Atacama.
From Valparaíso’s bus terminal, get Turbus direct to La Serena, which leaves at 11.30pm and arrives at 5.30am. Cost is 21,400 pesos per person.
We spent a night in La Serena to break up the journey, then got another Turbus to San Pedro de Atacama. It leaves 4.30 pm and arrives at 9am. Cost is 52,300 pesos per person.
I haven’t written about our day in La Serena, but we can highly recommend Lighthouse Coffee if you want real deal coffee. It’s excellent, in fact. They also do great breakfasts, bagels and cakes. Find them at Matta 570, or check the map below.