As soon as you get to San Pedro you immediately realize you are in desert (even if it is strange to be in a desert at almost 2500 meters!), you are greeted by the sand and the sand is something that is better to get used to immediately because it is everywhere and from here on it will become a faithful travel companion. The town has no asphalted roads and the houses are made of sand (here it rains once every 6/7 years), everything is the same yellow ocher color. At the edge of the city you will immediately notice some volcanoes, including the famous one Licancabur (5916 mt) considered sacred by the Incas, which stands out towards the border with Bolivia.
There is a particular energy in San Pedro and you can feel it immediately, the streets of the center are full of hostels, restaurants and agencies that swarm with tourists especially in the afternoon, when everyone comes back from the day's excursions and enjoying a well-deserved pisco sour in the central square.
San Pedro is the most touristic place in the north of Chile and represents the perfect base for exploring the Atacama desert, the altiplanic lagoons, the geisers, and the salar de Uyuni in Bolivia; I've been there 2 times in the last 3 years but I think I could go back another 100 and I would never get tired because there are so many things to see.
Find below the things to see and the tours that I recommend you do starting from San Pedro (the prices you find all refer to shared tours, not private - usually they are groups of 15-20 people). Obviously, unless you stay there at least a week, you will have to choose only a few but… you will always fall on your feet! They are all truly spatial places!
My advice is to start with tours that do not exceed 3500 meters to favor theacclimatamento (eg Valley of the Moon, Lagunas Escondida de Baltinache, Cejar lagoon or astronomical tours ..). Leave the tours that arrive at high altitudes (such as those for the geiser del Tatio or the Salar de Tara) for the following days.
Which agency to choose for the tours: pay attention to sustainability!
A San Pedro de Atacama there are more than 100 tourist agencies. The guides (like Lonely, but also the others) make a decent terrorism on the choice of the agency, especially with regard to the 4-day tour in Bolivia, but also for the other excursions. Apparently the risk of choosing an unreliable agency exists, agencies that use old vehicles, unsafe drivers (who perhaps raise their elbows), and so on and so forth. In my personal experience I have not had any such problems. During my first trip to San Pedro I bought excursions from different agencies or directly from the hostel and I had no problems (as you will see if you go there, all agencies offer more or less the same excursions at practically identical prices so the choice in the end it is done to the skin, based on the skills of the seller and the feeling with him).
The second time I was there, I left more prepared and went to look for me a certified agency of Sustainable Tourism, which took into account local communities and practiced environmental sustainability. I found it, it's called Denomades and allows you to buy all the excursions online through their website with PayPal or by credit card (and the prices are identical to all other agencies). I must admit that they did not disappoint me: all the tours I have done have been up to par, with good means and good guides. I recommend it!
Choose a sustainable agency it is very important because, sometimes, the Chilean parks protection body (il CONAF) decides to close some areas to ensure the repopulation of some species or for other reasons and I have found that some agencies do not care and continue to bring tourists to those areas compromising everything (as happened for the Salar de Tara in 2019 , which was closed for a few months but several agencies were selling it anyway!). If in doubt, consult the CONAF website.
Travel insurance is required
In Chile our health coverage is not valid. My advice is to always take a classic medical-luggage insurance that can cover you during the trip. I am very happy with many insurance companies, a site that compares the policies of different companies and proposes the most convenient policy for that particular trip. To do this you will have to enter the data relating to your trip (country, duration, etc.) and they will send you an email with the best proposal that you can then buy directly online (!!!).
What to see in San Pedro de Atacama (and surroundings)
Valley of the Moon
Probably the most iconic and best known place in San Pedro de Atacama and I was shivering like a child to see her !! What can I say, when I found myself in front of the Valley of the Moon at sunset I almost started to cry, I felt like the first woman to set foot on Mars, or on the Moon. Sitting on a huge sand dune and admiring the landscape slowly turning pink and then purple has something mystical about it. The action of water and wind over millions of years have created unusual rock formations, spiers, ridges and canyons of immeasurable beauty in this place. Here, I left my heart right there on that dune, while admiring one of the most exciting sunsets of my entire life. The excursion usually departs from San Pedro around 15:30 pm and includes several stops / walks in several places until waiting for the sunset. The cost is around 140000 pesos (15 euros) + the entrance ticket that is paid separately (3000 pesos - 3 euros).
Hidden lagoons of Baltinache
These lagoons are a real gem and it was not possible to visit them the first time I was in San Pedro. They were in fact discovered by chance by a hiker in 2015 or so and are only exploited for tourism from 2017-2018. To reach them it takes about 1 hour from San Pedro and when you arrive there it is really hard to believe our eyes! In the middle of a desert of sand and stones you can see turquoise lagoons that look like mirages. There are 9 lagoons and 5 of them are visited, using a path with wooden walkways. You can swim in the first and last and the water is rich in salt so you float like on the Dead Sea. You can stay in the water for 10-15 '(after which it really starts to burn and is not too good), without of course getting your head wet. Retracing your steps along the path you will then come across the visitor center where you can take a freshwater shower to take the salt off your back. The excursion usually leaves San Pedro around 14:30 pm and also includes an aperitif stop at sunset in the middle of the desert. The cost is around 240000 pesos (25 euros) + the entrance ticket that is paid separately (5000 pesos - 5 euros).
Geyser del Tatio
A little more than 2h from San Pedro de Atacama there is the third largest geothermal area in the world and it is that of geyser del Tatio. The geothermal activity is manifested above all during the first hours of the day therefore we leave well before dawn. The pick-up at the hotel is around 4-4: 30 (obviously it depends on the time of dawn) and you will arrive in front of the geisers in a couple of hours. The geisers are located at 4200 meters and it is freezing cold in both summer and winter; in July-August we speak of -15 °, in November-December of -6-7 ° so cover up a lot. Seeing the sunrise in front of the fumaroles is still a sight that leaves you breathless! The tour then continues in the small village of Machuca and for lunch time we return to San Pedro. The cost is around 190000 pesos (20 euros) + the entrance ticket that is paid separately (7000 pesos - 7 euros).
Salar de Tara
The trip to the Salar de Tara lasts a full day and it is one of the most tiring for the body. To reach the beautiful salar (4800 mt) you cross points that far exceed 5000 meters in altitude, such as Diamond Lagoon, so called because it is covered with salt and ice that make it shine like a diamond. The annoyances linked to altitude can be reduced by constantly chewing (even before climbing) the famous coca leaves (which you can find on sale everywhere) and drinking a lot of water; this does not mean that there is still a great individual difference with respect to this problem and it does not depend on age nor on the state of training. The excursion starts from San Pedro in the morning around 8 and lasts 6-8h. At this time (December 2019) the salar is closed until the end of the year to allow the repopulation of the flamingos.
How can we forget the observation of the stars? Like the Elqui Valley, this area is also rich in avant-garde astronomical structures: one above all is theALMA (acronym of Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array), which is the largest radio telescope in the world which is located at 5000 meters above sea level and 50 km from San Pedro. The ALMA is made up of 66 huge antennas belonging to different countries and can be visited for free every Saturday and Sunday (but the visit must be booked from the official website at least a couple of months in advance). Unfortunately I have not been able to visit it, but if you are interested in my opinion it is worth making a stop before 9 at the San Pedro bus station (on Saturday or Sunday) to see if there are any vacancies.
In any case it is possible to do astronomical tours from San Pedro practically every night: the extraordinary clarity of the night sky and the total absence of clouds make it an ideal place for stargazing (if you decide to take this tour, cover up a lot, the night temperatures are extremely cold!) .
Other excursions that are absolutely worth doing are those at Lagune Altiplaniche e Piedras Rojas (4220 mt) and the one at Arcoiris Valley (3500 m),
The trips I have just listed are done by jeep or minibus, but San Pedro is surrounded by majestic volcanoes (some active) that just beg to be climbed. If you are not trained enough (already climbing is tiring .. but doing it at 4-5000 meters is almost prohibitive) you can still reach on foot, by bicycle or on horseback various places of interest in the area (such as the Valle della Luna for example).
Where sleeping in San Pedro de Atacama
Hostal Lackuntur. Very nice and clean hostel with swimming pool, deck chairs for the descanso and common room / kitchen with a crazy view of the desert and the Licancabur volcano. The owner is super nice and you can buy excursions from her at great prices. The only flaw: there is no breakfast. But there is a minimarket just around the corner, 50 meters away. Slightly out of the way from the center, but convenient (in 10 'walk you are in the center or at the bus station).
Where to eat in San Pedro de Atacama
- La Estaka : my favorite restaurant in San Pedro. The environment is very nice, soft lights and a large fireplace to warm the atmosphere. The cuisine is Chilean / Peruvian fusion, there is an extensive wine list and the manager knows how to make you feel at home. The prices are Spanish (around 35-40 euros) but it's worth it.
- La Casona : classic restaurant of the same property as La Estaka and Blanco. Fireplace in the center and dark wood furniture make it perfect for eating excellent parillade for dinner, but it is also open for lunch and you can eat on the outdoor patio.
- Barros Cafe : a tavern that looks like a mountain hut. The tables are very close together and the atmosphere is lively. There is live music almost every night: if you don't like confusion… try to be put away from the stage. Wide menu of typical dishes at an excellent quality / price ratio. You can't book so go early.
- Pilgrim Coffee : this cafe overlooks the main square and is one of the prettiest in San Pedro. It has a few tables on a raised balcony perfect for people watching. Great for breakfast / brunch: plentiful and fixed price.
PS in San Pedro they often organize clandestine parties in locations that are located on the outskirts of the town, in the desert. Make friends with someone locally and you won't have a hard time knowing when and where the holidays are.