In the far north of Chile, close to the Argentine and Bolivian borders, San Pedro de Atacama is the gateway to one of the world’s most extreme environments: the Atacama Desert. This guide will help you plan your trip and find the best that the town has to offer.

Explore San Pedro de Atacama

Almost 1,150 miles (1,850 km) from Santiago, San Pedro de Atacama is the tourist capital of northern Chile. An oasis in one of the driest deserts on earth, the area has long been a place of human settlement.

Set at an altitude of 7,874 feet (2,400 m), it was originally part of the Atacameño culture and functioned as an important stop on the ancient trade routes that linked the Andean highlands with the Pacific coast. The settlement later fell under the influence of the great Tiwanaku (roughly 200-1000 AD) and Inca empires (roughly 1438-1572), before the arrival of the Spanish.

After South America threw off Spanish rule, the region was part of Bolivia. This ended when the whole of Bolivia’s mineral-rich coastline was captured by Chile, something that remains a bone of contention between the two countries. Over the last few decades, this small town has become a major tourist destination and an essential stop on the “gringo trail” around South America. Today, no visit to Chile is complete without a visit to San Pedro.

Planning Your Visit

Dramatic landscape of Valley of the Moon

Aim to spend at least four days in San Pedro: this will allow you do an itinerary like this one, which fits in many of the main highlights from the surrounding area. But if you really want to get under the skin of the Atacama Desert, such as on this ten-day tour, you’ll need to stay significantly longer.

It is easy to include San Pedro in a wider journey around Chile such as this two-week itinerary, which takes in Santiago, Valparaíso, and Chiloé. Given San Pedro’s tour and transport connections with northwest Argentina and southwest Bolivia, you can also include it in a wider, multi-country trip.

There are several ATMs in the town and many places, particularly the smarter hotels and restaurants, accept credit and debit cards. For more practical logistics, see our Chile FAQ.

Weather

Daytime temperatures in San Pedro are warm throughout the year, ranging between 70°F and 77°F (21°C and 25°C); it can be considerably cooler overnight. December, January, February, and March are the warmest months, with May, June, July, and August the coolest. The Atacama Desert receives less rainfall than any place on earth outside of the poles, so the chance of getting wet in San Pedro is very slim. UV levels, however, are high: wearing a hat and plenty of high-factor sunscreen are highly advised.

Getting There & Away

The nearest airport is in the nondescript city of Calama, 62 miles (100km) northwest of San Pedro. It has daily flights to/from Santiago, and several weekly to Iquique, Copiapo, La Serena, and Antofagasta.  From here, you can take a 3-day tour to the Bolivian town of Uyuni, gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth.

San Pedro is easy to navigate on foot, but bikes (widely available to rent) are useful for trips to outlying areas. Cars are also available to rent. Taxis are best arranged through your travel specialist, guide, or hotel.

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Highlights & Activities

Steam rising from the El Tatio geysers

The region around San Pedro de Atacama is home to some of the most remarkable sights in Chile: vast salt flats, powerful geysers, ancient fortresses, shimmering lakes, and otherworldly desert landscapes. Although you can visit some of them independently, taking a tour (ideally one that lasts several days) enables you to really maximize your time. Tour standards vary, so it’s worth visiting a few travel agencies and speaking to other travelers, before booking.

Valley of the Moon

The wind-sculpted rock formations, sand dunes, and muted palette of colors of the Valley of the Moon, a short drive west of San Pedro, ensure this area lives up to its name. One of the region’s most-visited sites, the valley is a wonderful spot to enjoy both the sunrise and the sunset, when it really does feel as if you’ve been transported to another planet.

Salar de Atacama

Spanning 1864 square miles (3000 sq km), this is the biggest salt flat in Chile, a gleaming expanse that crackles like ice when you walk across the surface. There are a number of beautiful lakes here, notably Laguna Chaxa, which is populated by flamingos, and Laguna Cejar, an emerald green body of water with a higher level of salt than the Dead Sea.

Pukará de Quitor

Perched on a hill a short walk north of San Pedro, this ruined stone fortress was built by a pre-Inca culture in the 12th century. Partially restored, the site offers superlative views back across town and its namesake river.

El Tatio geysers

Excursions to El Tatio start before dawn, involve a bumpy three-hour drive, and take you to a breathless 14,100ft (4300m) above sea level. But the ordeal feels more than worth it when you catch sight of these bubbling, billowing geysers in full throw. Many tours to the geysers, the highest geothermal field in the world, include a stop at the Puritama thermal springs, 37 miles (60km) south of El Tatio.

Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques

Part of the Flamencos National Reserve, these are two of the most picturesque high-altitude lakes in the San Pedro region. The heart-shaped Miscanti is the larger of the pair, surrounded by pastel-colored volcanoes and mountains. Miñiques is smaller, but similarly impressive, with deep blue waters.

Stargazing

The skies above San Pedro are remarkably clear, thanks to the lack of artificial light, and several operators offer memorable stargazing sessions. A visit to the town’s small but informative Meteorite Museum is the ideal accompaniment.

Lodging & Dining

Room at the luxe Tierra Atacama (photo courtesy of Tierra Hotels)

Where to Stay

There’s an incredible range of accommodation options in San Pedro, though rates in all price brackets tend to be a bit higher than elsewhere in northern Chile. Mid-range travelers are also well-catered for in San Pedro: Hostal Takha Takha is a peaceful place with a small pool to cool off in; the family-run Casa de Mireya has large, attractive rooms; and Casa de Don Tomás is a charming, characterful guesthouse.

There are several excellent top-end establishments, too. Most are located just outside town, and include full-board and excursions in their rates. Tierra Atacama is the standout choice, with swish rooms, superb service, wonderful spa, and fantastic food. Awasi is a strong alternative, offering an appealing mix of comfort and style.

Where to Eat

Despite it’s small size, San Pedro has a surprisingly diverse dining scene. Las Delicias de Carmen is the place to visit for soothing home cooking, while Blanco is a stylish, modern joint with excellent fish and Asian-inspired options. The tiny Pizzeria El Charrúa is the best place in town for thin-crust pizzas, and Tierra Todo Natural has a selection of vegetarian and health-conscious dishes, plus great juices. For dessert, head to Babalu, which sells delicious ice cream.

Nightlife in San Pedro is decidedly low key. Most of the restaurants serve alcohol, though you generally have to buy something to eat, too. The best of the bars is the Finnish-run Chela Cabur, which has an extensive range of beers from Chile and further afield.