Covid-Related Travel Update, July 2022: Chile is open to international tourists. Visit the Chilean government’s official website for travel-related information and regulations. Don’t forget to read the government’s rules to be followed in public spaces here. My guide to Chile visa would be helpful for Indian citizens. All my South America travel guides can be found in the link.
Sleeping on the semi-sleeper first seat in front of the wide glass window on the second floor of the bus, which was driving from Santiago to Calama, I woke up to find ourselves driving next to the Pacific under a star-studded, deep-blue sky which was complemented by a shimmering rotund moon. Even the contour of the immortal rabbit that Ruskin Bond says was dropped on the moon was difficult to trace on the bright moon. It was like a painting.
Having admired the scenery, I dozed off again and kept waking up intermittently until we arrived in Calama. That was when I pulled myself out of hibernation and, an hour later, I was riding on another bus to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. At the end of this blended twenty-five-hour journey, I stumbled out of the bus like a zombie and the glowering February sun focused all its anger on the first-time visitor. Luckily, my hostel was a five-minute walk from the bus terminal. I strapped on my blue backpack and strode as I had loaded the directions to the hostel in Google maps.
I had chosen San Pedro to visit the Atacama desert as this little border town is situated right in the middle of the fathomless Atacama that thousands of tourists flock to every year. You can take abode in this village and wander in the arid desert during the day and return at night, if you like.
Wikipedia calls San Pedro a town though its rusticity reminded me of old Indian villages.
Houses and churches were made of adobe, a material made with mud and other organic material. At the Plaza de Armas or the main square, stood the historical adobe church which was constructed by the conquistadors in the 17th century. The plaza itself was canopied by tall trees that swung with the warm breeze that wafted through the village. The light of the full moon and of many street lights peeked from the gaps between the dancing branches and the rustling leaves.
That light along with the candle lights beaming out of the restaurants at the plaza was sufficient to watch the Latin-American neophyte artists who juggled bamboo sticks or circles lit with fire. They collected some coins from the intrigued tourists who watched them from the restaurants while sipping the rich Chilean vino tinto or red wine and the rest from the plaza while browsing through their Facebook and Instagram as the plaza provided free wifi. Though reading a book, I could not help but notice a young boy who poured kerosene over some sticks and then moved around the fiery-sticks in sinuous patterns. The boy radiated an innocence that made me want to believe in the world. I gave him a couple of coins.
Irrespective of the connectivity, I felt historical and peaceful.
Read More: Why I love to travel
From the plaza, I made my way to the main street that ran parallel to the plaza and was stuffed with restaurants, bars, kiosks, travel agencies, artesian products, jewelry shops, and people, locals and tourists.
While I gorged on an empanada and a gulped down a peach juice at a small corner restaurant, two gigantic dogs watched me with hopeful glossy eyes. Instead of sharing the empanada with them, I saved half of it for the next day. A traveler can only afford so much. And the empanada wouldn’t have been sufficient guessing their appetite from their size.
Then I practiced my Spanish and satisfied my prattling nature by talking to the shop owners on the main street. We indulged in the Chilean history evolving from the Mapuches, talked about the antique photos of Chile that hung in the shop of the copper jewelry maker and made the shop more conspicuous, about the current issues of Chile, about the private water and electricity, and about the hatred of Chileans towards the government.
By the time I wrapped up these conversations, the clock had struck 11. I was hungry again. I searched the streets for something to eat and ended up having a double-flavored ice cream, one was quinoa with leche and canella (a South American grain with milk and cinnamon) and the other one was a nut which I can’t recall. I am not an ice-cream person, but that was one of the best ice creams I have ever had. I walked back to the hostel like a happy five-year-old girl, gleaming with ice cream in her hand while looking up to the starry sky.
Read More: 25 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language that I have collected from my own experience of learning Spanish
I spent the next few days wandering in the desert.
I strolled next to emerald-green lagoons and deep-blue lakes, tried talking with the salmon-pink flamingos that crowded these lagoons, looked upon and rambled through the cavernous moon valley that glittered with salt, gazed upon vast enthralling red rocks, called out to the vicunas and the llamas that gazed in the open pastures, watched the theatrical sunsets at the natural mirror in the desert, sat in the middle of the fumes rising from the heart of the earth as if it was angry with me while I rubbed my sleepy eyes trying to take it all in, and floated in natural hot pools and in a natural salt lake.
Surreal? I know.
Suggestion: Read my Spiti Valley travel blog to see some more surreal places.
Below are the places I visited.
Piedra Rojas — Red Rocks
These humongous red rocks were formed by hot lava and ash that had escaped the volcanoes in the vicinity decades ago. The neighbor of the red rocks was an emerald-green lagoon called the Chaxa lake which was crammed by the insatiable but precious and serene pink flamingos. We also saw the blue lagoons or the lagunas altiplanicas of Miscanti y Minique on the way to the red rocks.
San Pedro de Atacama Day Trips Piedras Rojas, Altiplanico Lagoons & Salar Full-Day GetYourGuide Tour – I didn’t know about GetYourGuide back when I was travelling around South America, but now I find that GetYourGuide has almost all the tours that I did by booking through companies in San Pedro. The tour itinerary is exactly the same as the one I took.
Though I have taken GetYourGuide tours in other parts of the world, I didn’t experience them in San Pedro. But I wouldn’t mind recommending them in the Atacama for my experience has been good with GetYourGuide, and you would need to book a tour to visit many strange landscapes in the desert. If you are driving by yourself, then of course just put the locations on Google maps, or better, ask local people, and go.
But those travelers who want to do some of these activities and want transport and a guided visit, these tours look like good options. Also, remember that San Pedro de Atacama is an expensive place so do compare prices at various tour agencies and also with GetYourGuide to find yourself the best option. Some of the tours though get sold out on days you might want them so booking them prior via GetYourGuide could be a good option.
Have a look at the tour to Piedra Rojas, the altiplanico lagoons, and the flamingo reserve here and see if it suits you.
Geysers del Tatio — The Hot Geysers of Tatio
For the tour of Geysers del Tatio, I was standing outside the hostel at 4:30 am in freezing cold (deserts get really cold at night and in early mornings). So only the brave-hearted can go for this tour.
The hot natural thermal geysers were formed due to an under-earth collision between hot rocks and cold water. At six in the morning, while our teeth crackled with the cold, the earth fumed out. You can dip in a warm thermal pool next to the geysers. But you can only dip for so long else when you come out you would fall sick due to the sudden temperature change.
On our way back, the tour stopped at a small village Machuca, which had been historically inhabited by the Argentinians and now looked desolate. Rejecting the llama anticuchos( grilled llama :(), I bought a goat-cheese empanada which turned out to be delicious.
El Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village from San Pedro de Atacama GetYourGuide Tour- Again, their tour has the same itinerary that I had.
If you would want to have a similar experience, click here to read more about the tour and the precautions you must take. Do keep in mind that as the geysers are at a height of 4,300 m and the village, too, the tour wouldn’t be the best for people with serious health conditions or for children under 7 years old or adults over 70 years. Further specifications are mentioned in the tour itself.
Due to some listing confusion on the geysers tour, I had to exchange my van to go with some other tour company, so that a couple could go together. The company gifted me a free hot pool tour.
These natural hot piscinas or pools were like hidden gems of the driest desert. I floated and chilled with three Chilean girls for almost three hours.
Valle de la Luna — The moon valley
The cavernous valley was encrusted with salt as it was undersea once. The surface resembled the surface of the crater of the moon. Not that I have seen the crater of the moon. But that’s what they say.
A sweet Swiss girl (who I had met on the tour) and I gaped as the golden light of the setting sun performed the most beautiful light show on the sprawling mountains and on the imposing volcanoes that seemed to fringe the moon valley.
To gulp down the mysteries of the landscapes we had witnessed during the day, we shared dinner and drinks at a restaurant at the plaza. While I gulped down a big mug of Kunstman, a delicious local Chilean beer, she sipped through a cup of red wine while worrying about her burnt skin. The sweet-smiled young boy was doing a show at the plaza, and I gave him some coins, again.
As we called off the night, I walked back to the hostel, content, and ready for a long slumber. And this is only one of the beautiful places in Chile.
Valle de La Luna from San Pedro de Atacama Tour – GetYourGuide offers a similar tour with a pick up from San Pedro, a transport to the Moon Valley, exploring the valley, a visit to the Tres Marias statues, exploring the salt caves, and climbing the Great Sand Dunes for the panoramic sunset.
Click here to see more details on the tour and the precautions you must take. Again, these places are at a height so please consider if you would be able to visit the Moon Valley as per your health and other conditions.
This natural lake has so much salt that it can supply the Indian salt demand for a year. But the lake’s distinguishing feature is that you can float in it naturally for the water is dense with salt.
Having floated in the lake for a while and having spent half-an-hour scrubbing off the salt from our bodies, we went to a few other azure lakes including Tebinquinche lagoon. By that time these blue beauties seemed like a normal part of life.
But as I meandered alongside these lakes, I saw that the desert was white. For a few moments, I wasn’t sure if I was walking through snow or through the dry desert.
At the end of this tour, we were served pisco sour, a popular Chilean drink, along with some snacks while watching a majestic sunset over the Tebinquinche lagoon. After having two cups of the pisco, a German Girl on my tour and I discovered that we were not alone in being guilt-tripped for traveling by our families.
A pleasurable end to a long day.
From San Pedro de Atacama: Cejar and Tebinquinche Lagoons GetYourGuide Tour: This tour picks you up from your hotel in San Pedro, drives you to Leguna Sejar where you can float naturally in the saltwater, and then continues to Ojos del Salar and Tebinquinche lagoon for sunset with drinks.
Check the availability of the tour and book it here.
That was my last tour and my last day in San Pedro. Oh, but it hadn’t ended just yet.
As the van dropped us at the plaza at 9 PM, I facepalmed myself as I should have asked the driver to drop me at the hostel so that I didn’t have to run around like a maniac to catch my 9:30 bus to Arica. Let’s say that I wasn’t drunk with two piscos but I took the wrong way to the hostel, twice. As I reached the hostel, I grabbed my backpack and sprinted towards the bus terminal. I plonked in my seat and ate an antique sweet that I discovered in my bag. That was the only food that I had to survive on until morning. I dozed off while watching a movie on the bus TV.
Some things that I would have loved to do but couldn’t:
Star Gazing from the wilderness of the desert
As the Atacama has star-studded nights and those stars are visible from the desert, stargazing is a popular activity in the Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama Astronomical Tour – This GetYourGuide tour looks promising for it offers star gazing while a local guide explains how the indigenous people interpreted the movement of stars to predict the events of their own life and nature. See if you would like to take this tour. Do not forget to wear a thick jacket or bring along enough warm clothes for the night in the desert gets cold.
San Pedro de Atacama is expensive. I realized that when a lady at a supermarket asked for eight thousand Chilean pesos($13) for some bread, cheese, two tomatoes, one big onion, water, pasta, five eggs, and peanuts. A bed in a mixed dorm in a good hostel was $20 each night.
Multiple agencies offer pre-designed tours to the archaeological sites, and usually, all hostels and hotels collaborate with these agencies. So, you can book with your hostel or go to the main street, enquire through the agencies, and book the tours that suit you the best. I liked Vive Atacama. I was alone and new to traveling. So I traveled with tours. But if I go now, I would maybe hire a car to drive around with a friend and then buy tickets at the entrance of those exotic places.
Please carry some food on the tours as you don’t get breakfast early enough. I had bought chocolates and they made me go through the hunger struck one-hour or two-hour morning drives to the historical site. If I don’t eat, my stomach growls and the brain goes dead.
Though San Pedro is at a height of 2100 meters or 7000 feet, I didn’t feel dizzy or nauseated. But when we went to higher altitudes such as 4,300 meters, we were quickly tired and breathed heavy. To deal with the altitude, Latin Americans drink herbs such as Coca; this herb is made from the same leaf from which cocaine is made. You can drink Coca tea or just chew the leaves and it would help you with the dizziness. Get it from your hostel or ask someone on the tour or buy from the market.
The local eateries and the restaurants offer a wide range of food from giant cheese empanadas and casuella de pollo (chicken soup) to beef burgers, wood-fired pizzas, and pesto pasta. The ice cream shops in the village are a must-visit and a favorite flavor to chose could be quinoa. The jewelry and art shops around the plaza are great places to start conversations with the local artisans while browsing through the antique and modern copper jewelry and artwork.
Make sure you don’t go in snow else you wouldn’t be able to see much.
Also Read: How I was Mesmerized by the Atacama, the Driest Desert of the World – And You Would be Too
Sometimes, I still dream about the moonlit plaza, the young boy with his tricks, and a flock of flamingos flying above their reflections while the volcanos watch in the background.
Like the exhaustive article? Please pin it and share it with friends.
Would you like to go to San Pedro, the surrealistic wonder of the world? Let me know if you have any further questions.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links to services I love. If you choose to click through and make a booking or a purchase, I will earn a little bit at no extra cost to you. Thank you.
Want similar inspiration and ideas in your inbox? Subscribe to my free weekly newsletter "Looking Inwards"!
14 thoughts on “San Pedro de Atacama – A Quaint Gateway to the Atacama Desert, Chile”
Just read your post with so much fun. Love the pic captioned “the solitude calls me” most. My husband and I are planning to travel Chile on late Oct or early Nov. for just 10-11 days. Due to the limit time, I would skip the south and go to Atacama only besides of Santiago /Valparaiso. Love the Atacama desert so much but unfortunately I think I’m unable to go to the Geyser Del Tatio because I can’t withstand the high altitude (not just the super early getting up or the cold temp.) as I had a suffering experience at somewhere just 3500 M altitude.
P.S. I am vegan but will probably be forced to be vegetarian when travelling Chile 🙁
Hey Sarah, thank you for stopping by. The Atacama is beautiful, and hope you enjoy it as much (or more) as I did. You can be vegan but you will have a tough time. Let me know how the travel goes. Good luck.
I amazed that you can find such different landscapes kind of together. Moving from basically a desert to the hot springs… WOW. And you are right when you say that San Pedro does look like a native town frozen in time… Lovely! Thank you for sharing!
Thank you so much for reading and for your comment Jenn. San Pedro was definitely like a dream village. And the surrounding Atacama even more surreal. Looking forward to hear more from you 🙂
Love your descriptive writing. Feels like we are there with you! It seems like there are so many unique attractions in the area. I would especially love to visit Piedra Rojas. Great post!
Thank you so much for reading, and your comment is lovely, Maya. I try hard and little appreciation means a lot. you should definitely go to the Atacama. I could never imagine that a desert could be so gorgeous. Looking forward to hear more from you 🙂
This is such a comprehensive guide! Pieces Roasas and the flamingoes look amazing. I would love to shoot that! Adding to my list 😉
Thank you, Natasha. I try to add as much information as I can. Definitely go for the Atacama is too beautiful to be missed. Please keep reading 🙂
Great post and such beautiful photos! I traveled South America for about 1,5 year, but I actually never made it to Chile. I did do Uyuni though, but this really makes me want to go back to see the driest desert in the world:) I’m sure I will though, go back
Thank you for the lovely comment, Julie. I am sure you will go back. And the Uyuni tour must have covered some parts of the Atacama on the Bolivian side. Would love to hear more on your adventures 🙂
What beautiful pictures, there’s something special about such a barren landscape, isn’t there. Great post!
Thank you, Keri. Atacama’s landscape is surreal, to say the least.
That was an interesting read and your photos are great. I love how artistic the colours merge together in them. I am keeping the link for when I visit Chile in the future.
Thank you for reading, Adele, and for the kind comment. The colors were wonderful in the Atacama. I am glad you found the link helpful. Let me know if you need more information.