"A timeless land hidden in the desert mountains" Top 5 Page for this destination San Pedro de Atacama by Glospi
San Pedro de Atacama Travel Guide: 226 reviews and 636 photos
15 years ago, San Pedro de Atacama (S 22º54’38,7”/ W 68º12’00,3” – alt. 2448 mts./8030 ft.) was almost a secret, only known by some adventurous travellers and trekkers, both Chilean and foreign, who had this tiny Andean village as a main priority in their travel plans.
They had good reasons to head for this place which, in those years, was somewhat hard to reach, as it involved to take a 24-hour bus ride from Santiago, hoping to arrive to Calama in time to catch the only afternoon bus for the village, or else, they would have to spend the night there and catch the early morning bus the next day, or try to hitch a ride...if somebody ever happened to drive a car up to there.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, San Pedro lacked radio and TV stations, daily stands, all-day power (there was a generator that worked 3 hours a day, so after 11 PM, everything turned quiet, and flashlights and candles appeared in the few places where there was people still awake), and there were only 2 private phones, apart from the telephone central. No bakeries, pharmacies or paved roads existed (the 98-kilometre highway from Calama was paved for only 40 kilometres after that city, and then was just a dirt road across the desert), nor banking facilities existed, and there were just two hotels and no campgrounds nor tour agencies at all.
All those “inconveniences” only made for the rustic charm of San Pedro which attracted their visitors: the sheep being herded through the unpaved streets, the pitch-dark alleys fragrant of pepper trees, the feeling of being “away from all”, the original indigenous dwellers walking everywhere or taking care of their shops, the access to natural wonders like El Tatio geysers (portrayed in the main picture above), the sensation of money not being so important, at last.
Add to all that, the amazing surroundings of San Pedro, with an incredible variety of natural attractions on hand –and many of them of free access- and San Pedro was, for many of us, more than a retreat, a kind of wild wonderland.
So, for those who knew San Pedro before it turned into a mainstream tourist destination, it would likely be disappointing: there’s a good paved highway up to the very town entrance –although the streets remain unpaved, after their inhabitants fought for it-, mobile and fixed phone service, internet is all around, and the range of accomodation covers all the spectrum available in Chile: from simple campgrounds to ultra deluxe many-many star hotels. There are not only bakeries, but also posh –and VERY expensive- wine and art shops, a couple of ATM’s, tour agencies sprawling like mushrooms after the rain, and there’s always at least one film crew working in a movie, TV commercial or whatever. In summer, cars of every size crowd the narrow streets, and the noise and hustle is downright unbearable, with thumping loud music everywhere and skyrocketed, abusive prices.
Those who may visit San Pedro these days, will hardly find a native there: almost all of them had emigrated to neighbouring ayllus (kinda satellite villages) either displaced by outsiders (both foreign and Chilean), or after having rented their homes –at high rates- to those outsiders.
All that led to absurdly high prices and to the widespread feel of that “if you knock at a door in San Pedro, somebody will charge you money for whatever reason”: EVERYTHING here costs at least TWICE -or more- than anywhere else in Chile, but in summer, prices go at least 3x or 4x the standard in the rest of the country.
For all that, I didn’t visited San Pedro for 9 years (my last visit, before the one I made this year, was in 1995..and it was already awful), just because it was too sad for me to see what that quiet and very special village had turned into.
But don’t worry: if you’re a first-time visitor (as most are), and if you don’t expect to find what San Pedro was before, you will find it outstanding, and have an unforgettable travel experience.
Regardless of how it is now, San Pedro deserves a visit (although I preferred it as it was before...)
This year (2004) I mustered all my nerve and planned a long (10-day) visit to it; as I feared, it was very changed, and many things simply didn’t existed anymore, although others were still in its place, as lovely as always. San Pedro “developed” (??) into an openly commercial village; out in the desert, ticket booths appeared in a somewhat surreal way, as they “granted” entrance to the nothingness of the desert plains...while others confine the overwhelming wild sights of the Atacama salar to only a few hundred meters’ of paths and human-carved salt ponds, just to mention a couple of those disappointments.
Walking along Caracoles (“snails”), the main street of San Pedro, is very different now: the rustic and dark shops owned by real locals, had been replaced almost completely by expensive shops and tour agencies displaying their offers in multi-lingual signs, and even more expensive restaurants. If 15 years ago, one had to yield way for indian peasants herding their cattle, today one has to avoid the tour trucks and the somewhat insistent calls from the restaurant’ waiters trying to lure you into their places...and always at outrageous prices.
So...yes, I am deeply disappointed and sad about San Pedro’s present condition, but things aren’t that bad either: if you choose a campground or hotel away from the city “centre”, and if you try to do as most things as you can on your own, you’ll feel not so pressured and ripped off by merchants, have a quieter stay under the stars, look at the sunset over Licancabur volcano instead of lamps, walls and signs, and get as well a taste of how it was San Pedro in the good ‘ol days, before greed and bustle.
Once you are installed somewhere, take a walk in the streets: find out the cheaper internet places (connection is 3x the Santiago price), and the place where you will stock up on drinking water (tap water still contains to much arsenic, despite the new filter plant), and walk west on Caracoles street: little after leaving the last deluxe shops and trendy hotels, you’ll be in the countryside, and a couple of hundred meters ahead, you’ll be leaving the oasis and entering the driest desert on Earth, just after a (broken) bridge over the (almost always) dry San Pedro river.
Get back to town, and walk easterly along Padre Le Paige or Licancabur streets, seeing in front of you the perfectly conical Licancabur volcano, sit in the plaza for a while and –if you are not coming from Bolivia- get used to the altitude, which makes slightly difficult for some people to breath on arrival, as the village is at 2448 metres (8030 ft.) above sea level.
Being on the edge of the Salar de Atacama (Atacama salt pan) means also that San Pedro is extremely dry; actually, relative humidity is around 10-15% in winter, and a little less (3%-8%) in summer, so your skin will feel tight, and hair will turn dry and straw-like, but nothing that good hydration, and an humectating lotion and a shower couldn’t handle.
Exploring the back alleys is also interesting and takes you away from the “new San Pedro”: in those, the last native dwellers keep small farms, along with cattle and horses, and silence is as it used to be long ago. If you venture there in the afternoon, take a flashlight with you, as they are completely dark after the night falls.
Also, the orchards and farms on the northern side of the village (as if going to the Quitor ruins), are good places to see the desert’s country life, but also worth to visit are the graveyard (a must see) and the creeks up north the river course.
Picture: Caracoles St. at night. Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., f. 2,8, 1/4 sec. handheld, LB1C filter, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Professional slide film
San Pedro is the operations base for visiting the many things that are around it, and for which there is always a choice of transportation, either independent or on tours, from town.
“Far away” targets are the El Tatio geothermal field and its geysers, Andean villages like Socaire, Machuca, Peine and Talabre, Licancabur volcano, the high-Andean lagoons (such as Miscanti, Lejia and Colorada), and the many 6.000-plus meter peaks in the Andes, all of them 50 kilometres or more from San Pedro, and require a car to get there, or take a bus.
Medium range attractions are the Salar de Atacama, Toconao (and Quebrada de Jerez), the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), Tulor ruins, Puritama hot springs, and the salt cave at the “entrance” of the Moon Valley; all of these, are less than 30 kilometres from San Pedro, and can be easily visited in half a day by private car or bicycle (the salt cave can be reached in a 2-hour walk)
Finally, there are local sights to see, that require just to walk around town a bit –or just peeking out of your camping or hotel...-: Pozo 3 (swimming pool) is the farthest one, 4 kilometres to the E, but the walk is worthwhile; then, the ruins of Quitor (3 kms.), the many ayllus, the local graveyard, the Valle de Marte (“Mars Valley”, also known as Valle de la Muerte, or “Death Valley” after a misspelling), the local Archaeological Museum, and the 400-year old church, located right in front of the plaza.
These closer things can be visited in the day, and several of them can be seen or visited unhurriedly in the same day.
Some of these have their “best hours” to be seen, which are detailed –when possible- in their corresponding chapter in this page, along with their GPS coordinates (all of them, in WGS 84 datum).
Unless otherwise specified, all of the pictures in these San Pedro pages were shot on Kodak Ektachrome Elite EBX 100 Professional slide film.
Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., f.11-16 (set for hyperfocal), 1/45 sec., POL filter
- Pros:Sights and places beyond any description
- Cons:Almost everything's overpriced and extremely expensive
- In a nutshell:Don't miss it...but bring a (huge) bag o'money
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