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.
How to get there
There are regular flights throughout the day from Chile’s capital, Santiago, to the town of Calama. From there it’s just over an hour by bus to San Pedro de Atacama. For those of you with a little more stamina or short on budget, there is an overnight bus direct to San Pedro from Santiago which takes about 24 hours. The buses in general in this part of South America I found to be easy to travel on. They provide you with meals and the seats are wide and recline enough to sleep in.
San Pedro itself is very small with dusty narrow streets and limited infrastructure. However, there are plenty of options for accommodation as well as restaurants and enough supermarkets to buy food to cook for yourself.
People often stop there as either their final or initial stop in Chile. A perfect location for a multi-day trek to/from Uyuni and the Bolivian salt flats. For an in-depth guide on travelling to Bolivia have a look here.
What to see
While there are limited options with regards to things to do in the town itself, there is plenty of choice when it comes to seeing the local area. I had three days there and filled my time with different organised tours. Each involving several places of interest.
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 an incredible image. Valle de la Luna (or the Valley of the Moon) has a very cool mix of colours and, as you might expect, a very moon-like feel to it. It was also where I saw the sunset on my first night in the Northern Chilean desert. A beautiful mix of colours stretching out over the landscape as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon.
Earlier in the day I had seen more of the desert and the unique scenery across the region. The range of colour is particularly impressive given you are essentially surrounded by nothing more than dust and rocks.
Speaking of rocks, one of the highlights for me was Piedras Rojas; the Red Rocks. The contrast between the red stone and the blue salt lakes is startling. It’s also pretty cold due to the altitude, as is the case for a lot of the sites in and around San Pedro. Many people have problems with altitude sickness and some excursions carry oxygen tanks as a precaution.
During this tour we saw a lot of wildlife, including several bird species and a lot of guanaco (a member of the llama family). We also crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. Something I did again recently in Africa.
Salar de Tara
If you don’t have time or the budget 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 areas going on for miles until they disappear into the distance. It’s also incredibly cold, so prepare to wrap up warm.
Throughout the day we were moving between 4,000m to 5,000m and some people had problems acclimatising to the altitude. Something to bear in mind if you’ve experienced altitude sickness in the past.
We also stopped by many lakes during the tour, including Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques. The deep blue shade of the lake contrasts brightly to the yellow of the plant life and red rocks surrounding it.
One of the most famous species to live in this part of the world are the bright pink flamingos. There is a reserve called Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos where you can peacefully enjoy your time watching the birds as they eat, sleep and pass their time in large groups. It’s also where I first learnt that flamingos can in fact fly!
Other popular sights around San Pedro de Atacama include geothermal hot springs and geysers. Location wise it’s a little out of the way, but with the unique scenery on offer there’s nothing else like it on the planet.