Chile is a country of amazing geographical diversity, but many backpackers only ever see one town: San Pedro de Atacama in the far north. As the drop-off point after Salar de Uyuni tours from Bolivia, many people arrive by circumstance and don’t plan to stay long. Well, they’re missing out. We ended up staying for nearly a week, and found there are actually lots of cool things to do in San Pedro.
We arrived after six intense weeks of travelling through Peru and Bolivia, cramming as many activities into our journey as we could. We needed to slow down and relax, and San Pedro was the perfect place for it. The town has a laid-back, chilled-out vibe, and it felt like heaven to be back at low altitude.
1. Go stargazing
The Atacama Desert is renowned as the best place in the world to see the night sky. It’s no coincidence that the area is used for some of the world’s most important observatories. In the pitch black of the desert, the Milky Way vistas are quite spectacular to behold.
The town centre is filled with agencies that offer stargazing tours, and it’s usually possible to book them in hostels. On a typical tour, you will drive out into the desert late at night, have a drink around a campfire, and learn about the different constellations.
Some tour operators bring a telescope as well so you can look at planets and far-away stars, so you might want to ask if that’s included.
One very important thing to know is that stargazing tours do not run during full moon – the imposing brightness affects visibility of the stars. If possible, time your visit to new moon for the best night sky views you are ever likely to see. Check out Moongiant.com for a moon phases calendar.
2. Visit the Meteorite Museum
Sticking with the astro theme, the town is also host to the Meteorite Museum, an awesome little exhibition of rocks from outer space. In some cases you can see and touch specimens that are billions of years old. Great value for money at 2,500 Chilean pesos entrance fee.
The museum staff are all highly knowledgeable about meteorites and more than happy to show you around. If you really fancy it, you can buy meteorite gemstones in the museum shop. What better gift for your loved one than a shiny object from outer space?
3. Take a tour to the Bolivian salt flats
Many people take tours of Salar de Uyuni from the city of Uyuni in Bolivia, but it’s possible to start from San Pedro de Atacama as well, albeit a bit more expensively.
The standard tours run over two or three days and visit the famous salt flats, Fish Island, an array of colourful lagoons where you can see flamingoes frolicking, and high-altitude hot springs for a refreshing dip.
At over 5,000m above sea level it gets very cold up there, so bring warm clothes. If you do take the tour from San Pedro, change up some money into Bolivian currency before you set off, so you can buy snacks and drinks in the local shops.
4. Hire a bicycle and explore
Although stuck in the middle of the world’s driest desert, there are some stunning areas to explore around San Pedro de Atacama. There’s no better way to do this than by hiring a bicycle from one of the agencies in town, typically 3,000 Chilean pesos for the day.
A short ride from the centre you will find Pukara de Quitor, an archaeological site on a hill, where you can lock your bikes in a rack and walk up to the summit for a glorious panaoramic view. A few kilometres further away you can reach Valle de la Muerte, which involves a but of uphill cycling but is worth it for the scenery.
If you’re feeling active it’s also possible to cycle as far as Valle de la Luna, but we preferred to take an organised tour for that (see number 5).
5. Visit Valle de la Luna at sunset
Valle de la Luna, or “valley of the moon” as it translates, is true to its name. As dusk falls, the sight of the moon hanging in a blood-red sky casting a dim twilight on the mountains is beautiful and serene in equal measure.
Tour agencies run trips out to the valley at sunset, which includes climbing through some caves and seeing Las Tres Marias, a rock formation shaped like biblical characters. We got a discounted deal with our hostel for 8,000 Chilean pesos each.
6. Find a desert party (if you can!)
San Pedro is not renowned as a party place (we went into town at midnight on a Saturday and everything was shut), but there are ways to let your hair down if you can get lucky. We heard rumours of big parties being thrown out in the desert, to which you must be invited to attend.
A group of European girls staying in our hostel were approached in town and invited to one of these parties, so it does seem they are a real thing. It’s not easy to find them, though: try asking staff at your hostel or checking with people around town. We went hunting for one for an hour or so, but eventually gave up and went back to our hostel. It’s one of those things where you need make a lucky local contact.
7. Cook a backpacker’s meal
If you’re staying in a hostel with good kitchen facilities, why not save some cash and cook yourself a meal? On the north-east outskirts of town near the cemetery, there is a local market where you can buy fresh vegetables and spices.
Our standard travel dish is a vegetable pasta bake with cheese, and by throwing in a bit of cash between a few of us, we made a big pot for six people for less than 1,000 pesos per head.
8. Take the bus to Salta, Argentina
If you’re not sure of your next destination after San Pedro, you have a unique opportunity to take one of the world’s most beautiful bus journeys to Salta in northern Argentina. After crossing the border you will pass through Argentinian salt flats before ascending into the Andes Mountains.
If you’re ok with heights, keep your eyes out of the window: the view down from the winding mountain road is awe-inspiring. When you arrive, the region around Salta is brilliant for a roadtrip. Check out my itinerary for that here.
9. Have a pizza at Pizzeria El Charrua
If you would prefer to spend a bit of money and have your dinner cooked for you, we found a great little pizza restaurant in town called Pizzeria El Charrua. We paid 6,000 Chilean pesos each for a small pizza. For a bit extra, try the americana or the siciliana.
10. Chill by a hostel campfire with a beer
We spent our five nights in the town at Backpackers San Pedro, a place we still fondly remember as one of our very favourite hostels in many months of travelling. Every night they light a campfire, which nurtures a really cool social vibe. The bar sells beer and Chilean wine for cheaper prices than you’ll find anywhere in town.
We met some really awesome people on these campfire nights, who we ended up spending a lot more time with as we worked through the activities in this list. Such a simple idea for a hostel, but a great way to create community.
Do you have any memories to share from San Pedro de Atacama? Let me know in the comments below.