The Driest Desert in the World

There is one place on Earth where sunsets are pinker and stars are brighter. It is a village in the middle of the Chilean desert that lies a few hours between Bolivia and Peru. Its dusty streets twist between small and simple houses made of adobe. It is dry, extremely dry. So dry that you need to apply moisturizing cream every single time you wash your hands, and so dry that your skin will open up and bleed for nothing. It is a village surrounded by three mountain ranges, where each volcano has its own legend. It’s a village rich in history and culture, an obligatory stop when traveling in Chile.

Receiving only 15 mm of rain per year, San Pedro de Atacama is a highly energetic place, and the power of the town immediately enveloped me. From the busy calle Caracoles, filled with bars, tour agencies and expensive restaurants, to the wild surroundings of the village, San Pedro is every backpacker’s favorite destination. It is a funny place, where dancing is prohibited by local laws, and where only one bar will serve you a beer if you don’t order something to eat.

I soon got to distinguish the three kinds of people that go to San Pedro: wealthy tourists on vacation looking for pristine landscapes, broken backpackers eager to make some money, and national or international travelers looking for party and drug-distorted experiences.

Belonging to the second category, I arrived at the small bus terminal and followed my Couchsurfing host’s directions to the agency where he works. Like me, Pierre, a French backpacker, had arrived in San Pedro looking to make some money to keep traveling. I immediately started the search, and within 24 hours I had got a job in a boutique hotel and a volunteering in a backpacker hostel.

Working 8 AM to 12 AM every day left me little time to wander around, but I did have the chance to explore the surroundings of San Pedro de Atacama, which offered the most diverse and astonishing landscapes.

San Pedro is not cheap, and you need to go there with some money if you really want to explore. You can do some activities or tours on your own, but as it always happen if you stay long enough in one place, you can get to know people and have good deals. In over five weeks I stayed there, I spent barely 100 $.

Moon Valley – Valle de la Luna

Calle Caracoles gets incredibly busy between 2 and 3 PM every day, when dozens of touristic vans leave, heading to the Moon Valley. The Valle de la Luna is located 13 km from San Pedro de Atacama. Wind and water have carved impressive rock and sand formations that turn into different shades of pink and purple at sunset.

To avoid paying the 10,000 CLP (plus entrance ticket) they will charge you on a tour, I suggest you rent a bike and explore the valley at your own pace. Once you pass the first check-point where you pay your ticket, you can keep cycling and find several points of interest on the way. Leave San Pedro de Atacama before lunch if you want to have the time to visit the whole area and watch the sunset on the Duna Mayor or on the Piedra del Coyote. Don’t forget to bring a headlamp, which will be your only source of light on your way back.

Pucará de Quitor

Only 3 km from the center of the town, Pucará de Quitor is a former fortress built by the atacameños and surely worth the half-day trip. From the top, you can appreciate a wonderful view of San Pedro de Atacama. Count around two hours for the tour.

Piedras Rojas

Red volcanic rocks surround the Tuyajto Lagoon, completely frozen at the time of my visit. The Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) tour will take you to the typical villages of Socaire and Toconao, and beautiful lagoons.

4,500 m.a.s.l., the Chaxa Lagoon is the best place around San Pedro de Atacama to see flamingos, one of the oldest species of birds, that owe their pink color to the pigments in the organisms they eat.

Astronomic Tour

Your visit to San Pedro de Atacama cannot be over without an Astronomic Tour, where you will spend about one hour gazing at the hundreds of stars up in the sky. Every agency has their own location, from where your guide will make you dream of galaxies far, far away, and a huge telescope will show you the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn and its rings.

More around San Pedro de Atacama:

Geysers del Tatio – Laguna Cejar – Laguna Tebenquiche – Termas de Puritama – Valle de Marte – Valle del Arcoíris.

USEFUL INFORMATION:

  • Transportation:
    • Iquique to Calama (Turbus): 10,000 CLP
    • Bus Calama to San Pedro de Atacama (Turbus): 3,000 CLP
    • San Pedro de Atacama to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia (Trans Salvador): 40,000 CLP
  • Tickets & Tours:
    • Moon Valley: 3,000 CLP / Tour around 10,000 CLP
    • Pucará de Quitor: 5,000 CLP
    • Laguna Chaxa: 3,000 CLP / Tour Piedras Rojas around 45,000 CLP
    • Astronomic Tour: around 20,000 CLP – suggested agency Atacama Cygnus
  • Food & Accommodation in San Pedro:
    • El Huerto – menus from 2,800 CLP (lunch only)
    • Pueblo de Artesanos – lunch from 2,500 CLP
    • Hostal Ckappin – 6,000 to 10,000 CLP in a dorm (low/high season)
    • Wanna go fancy? Terrantai Lodge is a beautiful boutique hotel in the very city center. Mr. Barrera is engaged in the local community and his eco-friendly hotel reproduces the original ayllus (traditional form of community of the Andes). A room per night will cost you between 250 and 290$.
  • Bike rental: between 3,000 and 4,000 CLP for half a day.

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