Extending 4,270 km from north to south and yet only averaging 177 km east to west, Chile is a country with a lot of remote destinations. One such destination is San Pedro de Atacama in the far north of the country. Exceptionally beautiful landscapes draw many tourists to the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world.
We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after crossing the Salar de Uyuni from Bolivia. Having seen many extraordinary Altiplano scenery during the 2,5 day tour, we were wondering if northern Chile would offer something different and equally stunning.
It’s hard to answer this with a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The small town of San Pedro de Atacama was certainly different from what we had gotten used to in Bolivia – much more touristic and because of its much lower elevation (2.438 meters) a lot warmer as well. We didn’t care much for the first, we loved the latter.
Because we’d seen so many great things the days before and San Pedro de Atacama promised much of the same – geysers, hot springs, salt flats, colorful high altitude lagoons, flamingos, volcanos and desert – we tried to choose wisely from the plethora of tours on offer at the many tour agencies in town. We decided on the following tours.
Valle de la Luna
This is the most popular tour in San Pedro de Atacama and visits the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) and the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte). These are close to town and the tour is cheap so almost every visitor books this tour.
We first were taken to the Valle de la Luna first. As soon as we entered the national park It became clear where the name comes from. The lunar landscape was beautiful, most of all when viewed from the top of the giant dunes looming high over the valley. The dunes can be sand boarded but we’d already done that at the Huacachina dunes in Peru, so we skipped that.
Next we were brought to the Valle de la Muerte on the other side of the Cordillera de Sal, for yet some more glorious but completely different views to enjoy and wait for the sun to set. We watched as the red rocks below us slowly changed color from intense reds to brownish hues. The sunset itself however was less spectacular.
El Tatio Geysers
For this one you have to get up early. Our alarm went off at 4.45 AM as we would be picked up around 5.30. With the Tatio Geysers being almost a two hour drive away from San Pedro this seemed a little late to get there by sunrise, and sure enough the sun was already out for some time as we arrived.
At an elevation of 4.300 meters El Tatio is one of the highest geyser fields in the world. Because we got there too late – in our opinion at least – the 80 geysers here left behind less of an otherworldly impression compared to the Sol de Mañana Geysers we’d seen a few days earlier at the other side of the border in Bolivia. But maybe we’d already been spoiled too much by the wonders of nature during this trip.
That geysers are a powerful force of nature was evidenced by an accident with a Belgian tourist two weeks prior to our visit. The woman had fallen into the boiling hot water of the main geyser at El Tatio and didn’t survive her injuries. It was therefore forbidden to get near this particular geyser. A pity, but understandable.
After a picnic breakfast we were taken back to San Pedro de Atacama with a few stops along the way to get a closer look at some wildlife – we could finally see vicuñas a little more up close (they are very shy animals) – and the small desert village of Machuca, that didn’t have much to offer though.
Puritama Hot Springs
For some much needed R&R we booked a visit to the Puritama Hot Springs, a hidden gem tucked away in a small gorge about 30 kilometers north of San Pedro de Atacama. We had a wonderful relaxing afternoon floating in the 33oC warm stream with some small falls and pools. The best way to get there is by taking a tour (more like a shared taxi ride).
Aldea de Tulor and Pukara de Quitor
We rented bicycles for half a day to visit these two archeological sites just outside of San Pedro de Atacama. The humble ruins of Aldea de Tulor are about half an hours cycling away and can be reached on tarred roads. The ruins at Aldea de Tulor are worth a visit only if you’re really (and we do mean really) very (and we do mean very) interested in local history. We could have done without it.
The 12th-century defensive structures at Pukara de Quitor, reached in fifteen minutes on an unpaved road, is only slightly more interesting. You can hike all the way up a the hill behind the ruins. The views are nice but not among the best we’ve seen. It’s questionable if it’s worth the thirty minute firm hike up.
Travel tips San Pedro de Atacama
Sleep – After roughing it a little bit (just a little…) during the 2,5 day Salar de Uyuni tour we decided to choose a little more upmarket lodgings in San Pedro de Atacama. The price we paid for a room at the Takha Takha Hotel was definitely midrange, but the room was not much better than the hostels we’d stayed at in Peru and Bolivia. The room was big enough though, beds slept good and the shower was hot, but not plentiful (Roel ended up with cold water a few times). Very spotty wifi in room, but much better near pool, outside in front of our room and near the reception. The hotel has a small pool, but the water was very cold and many pool beds were broken.
Tour – San Pedro de Atacama has a tour agency literally at every street corner (and as much in between). All more or less offer the same tours. The more high end operators conduct their own tours, while budget agencies tend to combine their guests together in one tour. So if you’re going budget then it’s best to choose the cheaper ones (we experienced there’s always room for negotiation) as in the end you don’t know which tour bus you’ll end up in.
Typical prices for the tours we did are: El Tatio Geysers (15.000-20.000 CLP), Valle de la Luna (8.000-10.000 CLP), Puritama Hot Springs (10.000-12.000 CLP + 15.000 entrance fee to the hot springs).
Bike – Mountain bikes can be hired for around 3.000 CLP for six hours or 6.000 CLP for a full day and are a great way to get around San Pedro de Atacama and see some of the surrounding sights. The town and surroundings are mostly eflat.
If you have the stamina you could even cycle to Valle de la Luna and explore at your own time and leisure. When looking back we would have preferred this as well. San Pedro de Atacama is very touristic so joining a tour means you’re with a lot of people at the same place at the same time.
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