San Pedro de Atacama is a town in Northern Chile. It's a very popular destination among Chilean tourists and international visitors alike. Visitors come in large numbers, to use the town as a stepping stone to the amazing landscapes around it. Most attractions are part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, perhaps Chile's most varied and amazing national park. Prices in any of the laid back bars and restaurants fare well against Santiago's. Still, it's a fairly expensive location, as it's one of Chile's three most popular destinations, along with Torres del Paine and Easter Island.
Buses connect San Pedro with Salta and Jujuy in Argentina, as well as the rest of Chile. Several buses per day connect the town with Calama, operated by TurBus and other carriers (Frontera del Norte, Atacama 2000, and Intertrans). The trip takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes, costs CLP$2,500 (US$5). Other buses from TurBus travel to Antofagasta (4 hours, CLP$6000), Iquique, Arica (12 hours, CLP$22,000), and Santiago. There are also trips from Uyuni, in Bolivia, and Calama. Bus passes are available from Green Toad Bus which allow you to travel to San Pedro from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and the rest of Chile.
No airlines fly direct to San Pedro. The nearest commercial airport is Calama. Two airlines serve Calama: LATAM and Sky Airline. Most flights are direct, and connect Calama with Santiago, but a few also fly to Antofagasta and Iquique.
LATAM flights are horrendously expensive (more than US$500 one way, regardless of when you book), but bookings, cancellations and changes are as straightforward as any other quality oneworld airline. You can use the Hola plugin for chrome, select your country in Hola as Chile, and pay for the flight in Chilean Pesos for about 30% off the price of the flight, which is still expensive.
Sky Airline flights are much cheaper than LATAM, but they do not send a confirmation email when booking unless you ring up their mostly spanish speaking call centre and ask for one. They are also known for having problems accepting international credit cards online. Some people have reported turning up at the airport without having received the booking email and hopping on the flight just fine, while others have had nightmares dealing with them, as their booking was never actually accepted and confirmed. Expect lots of difficulties if you have to contact them, which is possible as their website and systems are not reliable.
In short, you have a choice between a very expensive, reliable, full service carrier which is likely to be stress-free and a much cheaper carrier who probably won't even send a confirmation email when booking.
From Calama to San Pedro is about 90 minutes by bus.
Transvip and Licancabur run minivan transfer to hotels in San Pedro de Atacama for 10,000 – 12,000 pesos. No need to pre-book: You can buy tickets at their airport booth.
Be very careful when you are looking for WiFi at the airport. The restaurant Bakery & Co., located on the main departures level, would scam you by telling you that there is working WiFi in their premises; but once you have purchased your food and beverages, they would tell you that they have just discovered that their WiFi is not working. For reliable connection, go to Costa Tacora Restobar on the balcony (upper floor) of the departures level.
At the Calama airport you may rent a car. Car rentals are fairly expensive, however, for Calama is Chile's largest mining hub, and therefore rentals offer mostly medium pick-up trucks. You will need an international driving permit if you're not Argentinian or Chilean (however a German licence without international licence was ok) Rentals are cheaper in Antofagasta, but the drive to San Pedro is long (about four hours). Most popular destinations are fairly easy to reach with a good map, but driving high in the Andes should not be undertaken by beginners in the area! The roads are often in terrible condition, not signaled at all, there's no cell phone signal, and acute mountain sickness is a real threat. Getting stuck in the less-traveled roads of the "altiplano" can be a death sentence, since some aren't used at all, and see perhaps a car every two months.
Always travel with a full tank, since the only gas station in the area is in San Pedro. You can find illegal fuel vendors in some of the smaller towns, like Toconao, but they charge outrageous prices. Also, remember that fuel consumption increases dramatically with rising altitude. Check the condition of all tires, even the spare; flat tires aren't at all unusual on the many dirt roads that lead to points of interest.
Chile is well-known as a hitchhiker's paradise. Getting to Calama from any other point in the country is simple enough, but reaching San Pedro is a bit trickier. The best chances are to be had at the Topater monolith ("Monolito de Topater"). From there, walk south, beyond the underpass, and hitch a ride to town. You might have to wait for a while, but traffic to and from Calama is fairly consistent. Sometimes, even the vans of tourist agencies might pick you up; it all depends on your luck.
Once in the town, nearly all points of interest, restaurants, services, are within walking distance, with the exception of a few outlying hotels. Downtown comprises twelve small blocks, between the streets Domingo Atienza and Toconao from west to east, and Licancabur and Caracoles north to south. This last street is the main one, a pedestrian zone. It is now to ride a bike in it. If you look gringo enough, chances are the cops will let you slide — but it's advised not to try. They're fond of ticketing cyclists in the evening.
If you can't find what you need in the aforementioned twelve blocks, chances are you won't get it anywhere. Bike rentals are ubiquitous, and prices vary little. It can pay to rent one to visit the Pukará de Quitor, Aldea de Tulor, Valle de la Luna, and even Laguna Cejar. All of these are described below.
There are three essential places to visit, plus a host of other very interesting spots. In order of popularity, these are:
Geysers del Tatio
Located at 4,200 m above sea level, and a 100 km away from town, these are some of the highest geysers in the world. It's also the third-largest geyser site on Earth, with over 80 active ones. Most agencies travel there at 4 AM. The spectacle is hard to forget-even if the geysers themselves are smallish, the backdrop, lighting, and sheer variety are astounding. Usually, you get to see them from the first stages of dawn, an hour before the sun rises, until sunlight bathes them completely. The best time to take pictures is at exact sunrise, but other lightings can also create wonderful pictures. All respectable tour agencies include breakfast for their guests. If you book one that doesn't, then you've been scammed.
On the way back, it's typical to find wild vicuñas, an endangered Andean camelid that's highly protected in Chile. They were rescued from the verge of extinction thirty years ago. Vicuñas in the area are accustomed to human presence, and will tolerate tourists coming to some twenty meters away-any more, and they're likely to flee. Be extremely respectful of the regulations, for many guides and drivers might even react in an aggressive manner if you bother the animals in any way.
A common stop is the fording of the Putana river, a spectacle that for some even surpasses the geysers themselves. Many different bird species inhabit it, and it's perfectly possible to get very close to them-giant coots (fulica gigantea) are especially indolent. Winter has the most birds, with over ten different species cohabiting the place at peak migration, but temperatures are harsh. There's also the possibility of seeing a vizcacha or two (lagidium viscacia), a funny mix between a bunny, a squirrel, and a kangaroo. They're very shy, though, and if you don't get there among the first visitors, they'll have usually disappeared. In the background, to the east, lies the Putana volcano, an active mountain that boasts seven small fumes.
Lastly, there's usually the choice of visiting one of two locations. The first one is Machuca, an abandoned altiplanic village that lived from the mining of sulpher. Most regular tours stop here. Nowadays, you'll find a few locals there, roasting anticuchos made of llama meat. Teas, soft drinks and empanadas are also available. The meat is of questionable origins, with some wild theories as to its origin floating around. Ask your guide for a laugh. It's fairly safe to consume, though, as sanitation's decent. Just after exiting Machuca, it's common to see llamas grazing on a beautiful pasture. After that pasture lies a micro-sized salt pan, where vicuñas and James' flamingos can be seen (the latter only in summer, though). The other location is Puritama.
If you plan on going, please consider the following things:
- Temperatures can be terribly cold: -15ºC is common through June to August, while in summer it rarely dips below -5ºC. It's paramount to wear gloves, a cap, and preferably two layers of socks, along with a very warm jacket. After sunrise, the cold quickly subsides, and it gets bearable. Once you get to Machuca, the heat can be stifling. Prepare accordingly.
- The altitude, coupled to a steep and winding road, can easily cause height-sickness. Almost all agencies claim to carry an oxygen bottle on board; this is false. They do bring a can with air compressed to one atmosphere, but it does little other than acting as a placebo. See the section 'Cope' for advice on preventing and ameliorating the sickness.
- If you're going to rent a car, then, by all means, hire a tour to the geysers. The road's extremely difficult, confusing, poorly signaled, and you'll have virtually no communication with the world at all unless you carry a satellite phone, and even then the signal's sketchy. Every year there are a few lethal accidents on that road, plus a myriad of frustrating ones, always involving visitors in rented or owned vehicles. Do yourself a favor and book an excursion.
Valle de la Luna
Entrance fee: CLP$2000 (the tours won't include it).
Commonly advertised as 'Moon Valley' in English, this part of the Salt Mountain Range offers stunning clinal and anticlinal formations in a perfectly barren landscape. Almost all tours include watching the sunset there-you shouldn't miss it. The large stone walls resemble those of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, sans river. There are also huge halite (rock salt) strata that produce a knocking sound all day long. This can be unsettling at first, but it's actually harmless. Among its prime attractions are the Grand Crater, the Salt Canyon, the Three Maries and salt mines, the Salt Caves, the Cari Viewpoint (also called 'Piedra del Coyote'), and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). All tours visit a number of these, but it's virtually impossible to know which beforehand. Summer tours tend to be longer, though, and therefore have a greater probability of including more destinations.
It's perfectly possible to ride a bike there, but you should take your time. Although only 8 km away from San Pedro, the road's steep and sinuous. When biking, it's advised to travel early (think 7-8 AM) in the morning, for afternoon temperatures can be suffocating year-round. You miss the sunset, but also lessen the possibility of heatstroke and the sights won't be filled with tourists. Also, it's easier to find someone to rescue you if you get in trouble. Most drivers and guides are willing to help stranded cyclists, especially if they're female, or if you travel with one. Just don't expect them to carry a retinue of ten or so tired bikers! You should get a flashlight especially if you want to watch sunset (the road can be dangerous when dark) but also because there's a cave you can visit and it's pitch black in there. Most bike rentals will lend you a headlight if you ask, but make sure the bike also has a tail reflector, and wear a helmet. Ask also an emergency kit for the bikes and a map of the valley. Kilometro 0 has good bikes (Caracoles street). Prices: CLP$3500 for 6 hours, CLP$6000 for the whole day.
If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- It can get cold immediately after sunset, especially in winter. Bring something warm to wear to enjoy the show to its fullest.
- Carry water! This is vital. You probably won't notice you're sweating; moisture evaporates at an alarming rate in the Atacama desert. This means you actually sweat more. Most agencies do not include water in the price.
- This tour usually includes long treks-wear appropriate shoes. There'll be lots of sand, too, which can be excruciatingly hot, and many sharp rocks, so flip-flops are a no-no.
Feel like visiting the Atacama salt pan, a picturesque village, and some Alp-lookalikes in a single day? Plus eating some local food? Then this is your thing. Usually advertised as 'Altiplanic Lagoons', the tour varies very little, if at all, between agencies. You'll be visiting the village of Toconao, renowned for its church and bell-tower; Laguna Chaxa, a national reservation which three species of flamingos inhabit year-round, located at the heart of the Atacama salt pan; Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons, located above 4,000m, and home to a variety of local fauna; and Socaire, a tiny hamlet that lives from selling lunch to tourists-it usually includes home-grown potatoes, big beans, carrots, and quinoa, plus a few other things. There are two differents tours, one from 7 am to 2 pm, with breakfast but no lunch (CLP$20,000-30,000), or another leaving town at 8 am, and returning at 5 pm, including lunch in Socaire (CLP$30,000). If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Be wary of the salt pan, as it reflects sunlight in the way that snow does. Wear pants and long sleeves, carry a hat, and wear sunglasses, unless you enjoy the prospect of developing blindness and skin cancer.
- Miscanti and Miñiques are usually very windy. The wind can easily bring perceived temperature down to 0ºC; bring a good jacket at the very least. Also, follow the guidelines closely, for both park personnel and agency employees are strict about them.
- Again, carry lots of water.
- The meals in Socaire are deceiving, in that they'll usually leave you feeling quite full. The quality's good; most visitors find them remarkable. Don't forget to try the home-baked bread with pebre, a typical Chilean sauce made with tomatoes, onions, coriander, and a bit of chili (ají). It comes included in the meal. It's spicy, but nothing unmanageable.
- Look for the Tropic of Capricorn marker. There's one on both of the roads usually taken by tours. On the main road lies a strange white cross that indicates not only the Tropic, but also the Inca road that used to traverse the area. Most guides ignore this fact (intentionally or not), so you'll have to keep your eyes open.
This is one amazing location in summer! Set in the northern tip of the Atacama salt pan, this location offers a splendid panorama of the Andes, and the possibility to bathe in waters as salty as those of the Dead Sea. The landscape's also remarkable. It usually ends with sunset, along a simple cocktail with pisco sour. The tour sets off at variable times (since Chile follows daylight saving time), but always in the afternoon, around 3-4 PM. Besides the Cejar and Piedra lagoons, excursions usually stop by the 'Ojos del Salar' (Eyes of the Salt Pan), two freshwater eyes very close together, and lake Tebenquinche, a water mirror that offers the absolute best sunsets in the whole area-imagine the mountains slowly changing colors, from yellow to pink, and that same image reflected on the lake's perfect surface!
You can get there by bike, but bear in mind that it's a long ride: 50 km for the round-trip, with the sun burning your scalp without any mercy. There are shorter paths, but the safest is the main road; to get there, just ask where the customs ('aduana') are, and then travel south until you see a sign that reads 'Laguna Cejar'. The road's paved, and drivers are accustomed to see bikers on it. Wear bright clothing (red, blue and yellow work best), just in case. You shouldn't have any trouble locating it, for there are other signs along the way. If you'd like to visit the other lagoons, besides Piedra and Cejar, you can try asking the employee at Cejar's entry. Spanish is required, though. Unfortunately, no maps show the paths between Cejar and the others, but a simple compass can get you there-ride south, following the tracks of the agencies' vehicles. Again, bring a flashlight.
If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Sun protection is a must. Cejar's environs are of a pure, perfect white, which tends to obscenely reflect light.
- The water is cold. From October to March, this will be quite welcome, but not so much in winter. There is an upside to traveling in the latter season-some birds, like flamingos, migrate there (June-August).
- Always ask whether freshwater's included in the fee. Virtually all agencies carry some, but ask the guide and driver again, just in case. It's necessary to remove the coating of salt that will cover your body after taking a plunge. If not removed, it can cause an unpleasant itch. When desperate, you can always try swimming in the Ojos del Salar.
- Even if you can't swim, the water of Piedra lagoon ensures you'll never drown. People float like feathers on it. It might be worth a try.
- Be careful with the pisco sour! Normally, agencies send just enough for two glasses per visitor, but sometimes it can be more. As it's sweet and sour, it can be very misleading: the usual liquor used for this has between 35 and 40 proof alcohol. Unsurprisingly, tourists are quite chatty on the way back to San Pedro.
There are two ways to get here: either by booking a specialty tour, or by taking a different El Tatio Geysers route. They're commonly called 'Hot Springs', but that name couldn't be more of a misnomer. The Puritama (means 'hot water' in Kunza) is actually a warm river, that breaks loose from the stone a few meters away from the actual place. Water temperature usually is around 33ºC. It is amazingly clear and pure, and hosts a budding population of rainbow trout (don't worry, they're tiny and harmless). The "hot springs" are property of Hotel Explora, a five-star brand located in all of Chile's hot spots. The facilities are basic, yet elegant and extremely functional. The entry fee is something to watch out for: CLP$10,000. If you can spare the money, you won't regret it; the landscape's stunning, and the water perfect. Ancient agricultural terraces line the canyon-sides, along with massive stone walls, and even some cacti. The layout of the place is as follows: there are eight artificial pools, cleverly made with volcanic rocks, so that they mesh perfectly with the scenery. Guides and drivers typically recommend the fourth and fifth ones; unless you're there early, forget about them. Go for the seventh. The water's just a little bit colder, but the pool's very large, and has sizable waterfall that doubles as a hydro-massage. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- If you're traveling there from El Tatio, you'll be arriving later than the dedicated tours, meaning the place's going to be crowded. In summer, it's not uncommon for the place to simply close down once there's too many people in. Therefore, be careful when visiting between December and February.
- Also, visitors who take the Geyser route will be forced to follow a stringent schedule; if you want to spend a few hours there, better look for an alternative.
- Guests at Hotel Explora don't need to pay to enter Puritama.
- Useful tip: Get there after 2 PM. They'll only charge half the entrance fee from that time onwards, and you still have three hours to soak in the crystal-clear water. No tours leave at that time, though, but a taxi can get you there, and even be less expensive that a typical excursion! Consider this alternative if you have time, and are traveling with at least another person. Consult with the hotel staff.
In Spanish, it's called 'Tour Arqueologico'. It usually comprises three destinations: Pukará de Quitor, Aldea de Tulor, and the R.P. Gustavo Le Paige archaeological museum. Pukará de Quitor is an ancient fortress, most likely built in the tenth century. It's 4 km from San Pedro. The view from the summit is breathtaking. Aldea de Tulor is the oldest village in the Atacama basin, approx. 3,000 years old, and kept in pristine condition. It's part of the Los Flamencos national reservation, and has small exhibits on archeology (worthless) and local flora and fauna (worth a visit). Last, but not least, is the museum. It holds a decent collection of original atacameño pieces, along with some acquired by the ancient inhabitants of San Pedro through trade-these are most exotic. The main exhibit is only in Spanish, though, but you can hire a guided tour in Spanish, English and French. The schedule for these is published in the museum itself-take a look around. Special, private tours are also available in Italian, German, and Portuguese; you must reserve these at least two days before. The guides are very capable. The museum also sports a small, but well-stocked souvenir store. They carry some of the finest hand-crafted pieces to be had in San Pedro, plus an interesting assortment of specialized books in Spanish and English.
You can visit these places by cycling, or even on foot. The museum's right by the Plaza de Armas, the main square. Most bike rentals will give you a map of the area; it should clearly point out where the Pukará is. Getting to Tulor, however, is a tad tricky. You must look for signs in the most unlikely places: wall graffiti, stuff hung from trees, and street names.
If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- The so-called 'mummies' were removed from the museum years ago, by request of the indigenous community. If you're obsessed with desiccated corpses (you sicko), there's a nice assortment of them in Salta, Argentina, and La Serena (500km north of Santiago). The La Serena museum of natural history even has a collection of 'cabezas de jibaro' on display, which are miniaturized cranial skins (they're reduced to the size of an orange-go figure!).
- The hike to the top of the Pukará de Quitor is strenuous, but well worth it.
- A taxi is a viable alternative to visit these attractions, especially if you're short on time.
Like most deserts, Atacama has its share of dunes and sand-banks. The most popular is located in Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). All sandboarding tours will take you there. The dune is almost 100 m in height; still, the typical track is barely a fraction of that. Some of them offer also to watch sunset in the Moon Valley-but be aware that you won't visit any of its spots, except the Great Dune or the Cari Viewpoint.
If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Many bike rentals also rent sandboards. The way is very taxing, though, so keep that in mind. If the moon is full, or close to, and rising early, it might pay to ride there later-skipping the unforgiving sun can be of great advantage, especially during warmer months (from October through March).
- If you're cycling there with company, the traditional axiom is: one board per three people. Remember that there're no lifts in Valle de la Muerte, which means you've to climb the sands by foot. This will be tiring and frustrating! Three people can share one sandboard with ease; while one toils away, the other two can relax and rest. Of course, this assumes you've lots of time, which might not be the case.
- Many agencies will take you there on a van, and include a board per person in their fare. This leaves you more time and energy to sandboard, plus they'll usually include watching the sunset, and maybe even a photo album of the experience. Depending on your schedule and interests, this could be far better.
- Sandboarding is absolutely forbidden in Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)! Expect to be fined if you even try.
Salar de Tara
It's perhaps San Pedro's best-kept secret. Or not. It really depends on your interests. The road is long, but well-paved, until you reach the entrance to the most remote part of the Los Flamencos national reservation: Monjes de la Pacana (Pacana Monks). The place is well above 4,500 m: Consider it carefully, as it's not uncommon for people to get altitude sickness. After that, it's a visit to some peculiar stone formations, obsidian quarries, more stone towers (called 'Catedrales'), and the huge Tara salt lake. Fauna is abundant, and particular to that environment. The landscape is stunning at all times-it's easy to catch glimpses of Bolivia here and there, as well. Traffic is light, as this destination's not really popular. If that matters to you, then taking this tour is the perfect way of saying 'I was off the beaten track of San Pedro de Atacama'. The schedule's a lot more flexible than in other tours, so harass the driver and guide as much as you like. There are a few optional treks along the way, but they're difficult to attempt.
You'll be feeling shortness of breath almost at once. If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- Altitude! The highest point of the excursion is almost 4,900 m above sea level.
- The same nasty winds of Miscanti can be present here, with a vengeance; take warm clothing along.
- It's not uncommon to get stuck in the sand, particularly when the driver's not really acquainted with the path. It can be fun to push the van out of the mire, though.
Valle del Arcoiris
Or Rainbow Valley. It features three different parts, all of them interesting. The "Hierbas Buenas" petroglyph site is the first, featuring over a thousand ancient stone carvings from the ancient "atacameño" people. They're from all time periods, from the first caravaners to the Incas. Most tours just visit sites 1 and 2, but that should be enough to afford a pretty nifty panorama of these ancient people's history. The other four sites are of difficult access.
Then you've got the village of Matancilla, which is only habited according to season. If you go there in winter, be assured you'll find it deserted. The inhabitants grow a variety of crops, which are easily distinguished all through autumn. Dead wild donkeys are all too common, on the side of the road, while goats and llamas are harder to spot.
Finally, you've got the namesake for the place: the ever-stunning Rainbow Valley, a series of hills that display countless colors, from white to black, from blue to red. Usually, all tours visit two of the four roads available, where the best views are to be had: The "cathedrals" and the great valley. Next to the former, to the left side, are some ever-mysterious buildings, made partially of serpentine, which gives them a light green color. They're well-camouflaged, so you'll have to climb to actually see them. On the way back from these "cathedrals", there's a beautiful hill that displays a wealth of colors; if the guide doesn't offer you to walk down the slope, ask for it! It's certainly worthwhile.
You can watch a similar spectacle in Argentina, on the "Cerro de Siete Colores", but you'll miss the petroglyphs. It might be worth it to rather book a tour in San Pedro, especially since most tourists are completely oblivious of the Rainbow Valley's existence, so you'll most likely be alone when you visit. Most of the advice given for other excursions applies here.
The environs of San Pedro de Atacama sport a large variety of mountains to climb, catering to many levels of difficulty. There's a few specialized agencies that offer this kind of service; be sure that they provide all necessaries, not only asking the clerk, but also the driver and guide! An oxygen tank and climbing rods are the least you should expect.
The easiest mountains to climb are Cerro Toco (5604 m) and Volcán Lascar (5510 m)-they're fairly popular, and take no longer than a day to complete. Higher in difficulty are Cerro Pili (6064 m), and Sairecabur (5971 m). The beautiful Licancabur Volcano, which towers over the town, is a real challenge; although only 5916 m high, it takes at least three days to complete, not counting an exacting preparation period. Another choice is the Kimal mountain (4276 m); even when its altitude is not that impressive, it's surrounded in myth and legend. According to local folklore, the "princess Kimal" is extremely jealous, and enjoys snatching adventurers away. There's even a supposed season for climbing her, when she's more pleasant; of course, no agency will tell ever you this beforehand. Take the chance at your own risk. Should you attempt any mountain climb, in any case, you ought to be well aware of the potential risks.
There's still much more to be found in the San Pedro area. From the secluded national reservation at Aguas de Quelana, to the ghastly surface of the Salar de Ascotán, to the most advanced radio-telescopes in the world at ALMA, there's enough sights for half a lifetime. If you are a returning visitor, or someone who loves to see what almost no one else has seen, and you get offered a visit to somesuch place, then take it! Albeit being a tourist attraction for thirty years, San Pedro de Atacama is still full of mystery and wonder.
Finally, Atacama desert is one of the best place on Earth to see the sky. Space Star Tours offers a unique experience in watching them. It starts with a explanation of the naked eye sky. What is a constellation, how to learn them, how to read a sky map and recognize the main stars. They explain you why are there different coloured skies etc. On the second part, there is the largest park of telescopes of any public observatory in south America. So it is possible to see Saturn, other galaxies and a lot of other phenomenons out there. The tours ends with a warm drink and an explanation about astronomy. The tours last two hours and a half. The schedule varies during the year (later during the summer, i.e. January and February). In March 2011, there was a Spanish tour at 10PM and an English tour at midnight. Bear in mind that you are in the desert and the nights are very cold, so take warm clothes with you, especially warm socks or multiple layers of socks. If you are still cold, they can provide you with warm jackets. Cost US$30.
- Visiting any of the destinations above. There's enough material on the web nowadays to help you decide and discern.
- Cycling around San Pedro. Follow the guidelines above to get an idea of the places you can expect to reach. Other destinations, such as Piedra de la Coca, Catarpe, Garganta del Diablo, and Quebrada de Tambores can be accessed only on a bicycle or rented car, as they're not part of the regular tours. If you're planning to go there, then, by all means, purchase the only thorough map of the area, courtesy of the Techniche Universität Dresden. It can be found at many souvenir shops and currency exchanges. Otherwise, bring a GPS, or hire a local guide who actually knows what he/she's talking about. Turismo Tekara (across from Toconao 500) rents good quality bikes for CLP$4000 for a half day. Pick it up the night before, leave early before it gets hot and return it in the afternoon. Bring lots of water. Biking on the dirt roads here is safe, cars drive slowly past you, and the scenery is stunning. Be prepared to bike hard and get out of the sun before late afternoon.
- Horseriding in the area. There are plenty of agencies that offer this service; La Herradura is one of the best. While riding on horseback is not the fastest way to travel, it can be one of the most fun. One you shouldn't miss is the Moon Valley: The horse track around it will take you to places inaccessible to other kinds of tourism, and has enough thrill to send you home satisfied! If you've done the usual circuit, and are ready for some more, then take it in the morning. Watching the sunrise between salt-ridges is a unique experience.
- Be sure to check out the book of complaints in the tourist office on the plaza before handing over cash to a travel agent. While not perfectly accurate, it is especially helpful to choose an agency to travel to Uyuni, Bolivia. As for the ones in San Pedro, standards can vary widely; the best agency of yesterday might be in tatters today, while the best one of tomorrow could give only mediocre service today. If you'd like to do your own research, completely disregard travel books, and ask at least five locals; unfortunately or not, most of the travel books are completely biased. This applies to hotels as well. Be extremely wary of tourist guides giving advice, especially if you're female: They're much too well-known for trying to convince visitors to pick this-or-that agency, in the knowledge that they'll see the same visitors aboard the van the next day.
- Due to the Major's policy in the village, you'll find virtually no indigenous arts and crafts. Whatever you see at the handicrafts markets, you'll find much cheaper in Peru or Bolivia, even Ecuador! The few really local pieces, namely those of cactus-wood, are actually a crime against nature. The wood comes from a severely endangered species of cactus, the Cardón (Echinopsis atacamensis), which has been subject to extreme predation by locals. While a novelty, and sure to bring curious glances from everyone, it's not worth it: In all likelihood, whatever piece you bring back home will be detained at your customs. Be a conscious tourist, and avoid that trap!
- If you want something really local, visit the museum's store. Even if you don't actually want to visit the exhibit, or have already done so days ago, the people at the entrance will let you go in there freely. They carry plenty of books and woven pieces, plus a few curious souvenirs, that were actually made by the community. Some of the books they have are virtually impossible to acquire anywhere else!
- Be careful with the peddlers of archaeological finds! There are a few of them. You can be assured that whatever they're selling is the real deal; you can also be assured that whatever you buy will get you in jail. Chilean law punishes the theft of archaeological pieces with hefty fines and a stay behind bars. Do yourself a favor, and avoid them. And, if you're still unconvinced, ask a few locals about the curses that befall those who desecrate burial sites.
Most restaurants have a set meal, called Menú. This is, almost always, the cheapest and best alternative, wherever you go. Only lower-end locales do not carry this.
- Chain restaurants can be found on the main street, Caracoles, and are very popular. Café Adobe, Blanco, La Estaka, and La Casona each specialize in a kind of food. While very good, they're not the best, and a bit pricey. Adobe caters especially to younger people; expect it to be chock-full at the evening, as its customers prepare to party later. Blanco has a relaxing, though cold, atmosphere. La Estaka is considered the place to eat; while the food's excellent, it sometimes doesn't live up to its reputation. If you have a large stomach, be prepared for a disappointment. Finally, La Casona carries typical dishes from Chile's center. It's expensive, but will also give you some insight to the best Chilean "parrilladas", the local grill. Expect cow's tongue, blood sausages, and more.
- Todo Natural, also located on Caracoles, is a vegetarian restaurant. The food's excellent, as is the service. They can be a bit sluggish, though, and the whole restaurant's a non-smoking area.
- Ckunna can be completely hit-or-miss; it's either superlative or subpar, depending on the occasion. The atmosphere is superb, in any case, and is normally a lot less crowded than the others. It is located on Tocopilla street, two blocks away from Caracoles, and next to Vilacoyo hostel.
- Paacha and Paacha-Konna are not to be missed if you have a larger budget. The latter is considered, by local gourmets, the best restaurant in all of San Pedro de Atacama; it routinely combines local produce with more exotic ingredients, to create superlative meals. It's set within Kimal Hotel, in a very homely and secluded atmosphere. Paacha-Konna is the lesser sibling of Paacha. It's more affordable, and carries a variety of typical Chilean dishes. Both are by the lower end (to the west) of Caracoles street.
- Pachacutec restaurant. Excellent quality-price. Menu CLP$3500 + 10% service. A place for gourmets, Tocopila street on the left side after Las Cabañas hotel. 150 m from Caracoles street.
- Al Paso is open 'till 2 AM (or later). Al Paso's cheap and quick, and serves a variety of dishes at all times. It can be found at the eastern end of Caracoles.
- The carritos, at the northernmost end of the handicraft market (away from the main square), are your cheapest option. These are decent, though a bit unsanitary.
- Solcor, located on Calama street, close to the main street, is a bit overpriced, but offers a quiet and secluded atmosphere, along excellent food and competitive prices for beer.
- El Sol, located on Tocopilla street, offers the best cazuela in all of San Pedro, and a variety of beers.
- Portal Andino Lodge is another budget option that serves CLP$2000 lunch meals (Toconao 500).
- Inti-Sol (or Sol-Inti) has a mixed clientèle: half of them will be locals, the other half being lucky tourists. This restaurant has the best salads and sandwiches in all of San Pedro. Their spaghetti with mushrooms is also remarkable. If they offer meat on the Menú, expect it to be top-notch. The prices are not the cheapest, but more than justified. The waiters are slow, though, so it may pay to press the cashier into sending someone your way, and paying him/her directly.
- Due to local regulations, no business selling alcohol may open beyond 23:30 on weekdays and Sundays, and until 02:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. This applies to both restaurants and liquor shops. So, if you're planning to drink the night away, then be sure to stock up beforehand! There's a couple of illegal places to buy alcohol later at night, but the prices are outrageous.
- While no discos or actual pubs can be found in San Pedro, the closest to the latter are Café Adobe, Café Export, and 6º Grado. Sometimes, illegal parties (called "clandestinos" or "fiestas clandestinas") are thrown in the houses of locals, empty lots, and even Valle de la Muerte. To find out if and where the action will take place, your best bet is to hang out at any of the aforementioned places. Usually, even the waiters can tell you whatever clandestinos will be open that night. They usually start at the time the restaurants close. Drinks in them are expensive, though! And of course, you're barred from bringing your own booze, as the parties are thrown for profit. If you decide to go, be prepared for hordes of drunk locals, frosty outside air, and unreliable conditions-power almost always comes from a gas-run generator, and drinks are brought beforehand by the organizing people; both are susceptible to running out, which normally kills the party. Also, the cops might rear their ugly heads, which can bring the event to a premature end.
- There are also legal parties, thrown by the City Hall or other organizations, called informally "mambos". These are, however, mostly frequented by the indigenous people ("atacameños") and are to be avoided. The indigenous men are known for drinking in excess, and staging bar fights, which sometimes evolve into riots. Foreigners (and other Chileans) are much disliked by the atacameños; it's not uncommon for them to be assaulted by gangs of drunken Indians and given a sound beating. Of course, not all of them are this way, and it's perfectly possible to visit such parties without harm. If you're absolutely convinced that you must attend a mambo, then the following advice will save you lots of trouble: Get there early, don't bother with the drunken fistfights, stay away from the indigenous women, and leave early. If provoked into a fight, leave! There might be just a lousy drunkard in front of you, but as soon as a fight breaks out, all of his friends will come to the rescue.
- Chelacabur, Caracoles 212 (a few blocks west from Caracoles y Vilama, on the right side), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Beer pub; no other drink is served there. Friendly and warm atmosphere. CLP$2,500 for a liter of Escudo or Cristal.
Be careful of giving your credit card details over the phone to "guarantee" a reservation.
- Hotel Altiplanico (situated at a 10 minute walk from town). This walk at night is usually very dark, but safe; bring flashlights. The hotel has excellent rooms with very good bathrooms, plenty of hot water. There are safes in each rooms but they are small. Good early breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is free Internet available in reception although somewhat slow. The staff was extremely cordial and very helpful. Laundry on the premises within 24 hs. Outdoor swimming pool.
- Hostal Terracota, Tocopilla 517. A good place with affordable prices and friendly owner. All rooms have private bathrooms. Give it a try.
- Hotel Licancabur. Despite short but favorable Lonely Planet writeup, lack of amenities makes it unfavorable. Private rooms, some with private bathrooms. Hot water was rare, even when requested specifically; water altogether was sometimes inexplicably absent.
- Eden Atacameño, Toconao 592 (from Plaza de Armas' southeast corner, walk 300 m south, the hotel is on the right side). Check-out: 11:30AM. Pleasant courtyard with hammocks, free Internet, usable if not fantastic kitchen, shared showers not great, but decent value for San Pedro. Accommodation in matrimonial, twin and triple rooms, with or without bathroom. Bedrooms slightly chilly at night in the winter. The manager could be friendlier, but you cannot really get picky at this price. s/d/matrimonial/tr without, with bathroom: CLP$10,000/16,000/20,000/24,000, 20,000/40,000/40,000/56,000.
- Hospedaje Casa de Guias, Calle Ignacio Carrera Pinto 658. A small, simple, budget, clean and warm-hearted place to stay. Accommodation in matrimonial, twin and triple rooms, with shared bathroom. Kitchen facilities on request. Bilingual staff (Spanish and English).
- Residencial Casa Corvatsch, Calle Gustavo Le Paine. Free, slow Internet in the lobby. Outdoor, basic kitchen. No breakfast. Staff are extremely rude and unhelpful and enforce a number of strict rules including kitchen closing times at 8:30PM and internet shutdown at 7PM making the stay uncomfortable. Despite staying 3 nights they refuse to store luggage which is very unconvienient for those with evening buses. Not recommended if you plan on visiting the geyers and leaving San Pedro on an afternoon or evening bus that same day due to refusal of any services or luggage storage upon arrival from the tour, expect to be promptly sent out into the street, luggage in hand. Television in communal reception only available to the child of the family. Dorm bed CLP$5000.
- Hostel Rural, Calama 257. Check-out: 11:00. A quiet hostel with a large central courtyard, small and nice dorm rooms. Includes hammocks, small kitchen and free internet. Lack of water at night time - common in Atacama - and no possibility to store your luggage after checkout, nor stay in the hostel premises. Kitchen closed before 8AM and after 9PM, no hot water early in the morning. The people working there are polite and helpful. Dorm CLP$8000.
- La Casa del Sol Naciente, Tocopilla 310 (From the bus terminal, located on the main street Licancabur, head towards the west or north entrance of town, turn down the street cross Tocopilla Licancabur, to the north side and go 100 steps to the intersection, here you will find the Hostel.). Super friendly atmosphere. One of the cheapest places in town but helpful staff (not overly fluent in English though). They organize asados (barbecues) from time to time and at most times there are people playing music and having a good time. Kitchen is kind of basic. They have a camping too. Most of the time there's hot water. Wifi speed is decent. CLP$5000 for dorm.
- 1 Backpackers San Pedro, Pasaje Portal del Inca No. 486, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Very friendly backpackers atmosphere. There's music, hammocks, and a picnic table in the common area and usually people to chat with in the evenings. WiFi works well and there are two computers for public use. The employees are very friendly and helpful too.
- Internet access-at least 5 or 6 Internet Cafés (called "cibercafé") can be found around downtown, and charge competitive rates for use. However, the town seems to be rather poorly linked to the national network, and past experience has shown that the connection speeds are often frustrating. One exception is Apacheta, located right by the Plaza de Armas. They have decent equipment, and offer a variety of services, such as transferring pictures to DVD, bike rental, and book exchange.
- Telephone-there's a number of "locutorios", places sporting phone booths, that offer decent prices for calls home and abroad. Ask for the fare beforehand, in any case. Also, there are public pay-phones in the plaza and aduana (customs), but they're often out of order.
- Mail-called "Correos de Chile", and not "Posta" (that's a medical facility), their office is located in Le Paige street, very close to the museum and the plaza. There's also a courier service, Chilexpress, that has an office in Caracoles street, to westernmost end of it. Don't expect any mail to be delivered swiftly, though, since San Pedro is quite isolated from the country's main communications line. Sending a letter or package to Santiago, for instance, takes at least three days.
First of all, always remember that the altitude of San Pedro de Atacama is 2400 m (about 8000 feet) above sea level. Some of the tourist attractions are well above 4000 m (12,000 feet). Therefore, if you have any kind of heart or lung problems, consult with your physician before booking a trip. If you get AMS (acute mountain sickness), expect no cure, except heading to lower ground. The symptoms are fairly easy to recognize: dizziness, nausea, headaches, shortness of breath. The best way to ameliorate the condition is to throw up first (seriously), then take an infusion of chachacoma, a local plant that also works quite well to ease headaches. The drink stinks, but actually has only a mild, bitter taste. A packet of chachacoma leaves costs one dollar, and can be found at the handicrafts market at the plaza. An alternative are coca leaves, but remember that you have to drink tea or chew on them at least four times a day, two days before going up! Also, the way to chew them is to put them inside your cheek, and letting them get wet with saliva, not actually biting them! This will release their juice all at once, which is terribly bitter.
The sun in San Pedro can often emit dangerous levels of UV rays! Especially in summer, using sunblock, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and long sleeves is essential. In winter, the radiation levels are more tolerable, and you can actually sunbathe. In summer, however, don't attempt it at all! Especially if your skin's white. The bare minimum SPF for sunblock lotion is 45, 60 and upwards being much better. Always remember to reapply it after an hour or so.
Other health concerns
San Pedro only has a Posta, a small medical facility with an ER and some assorted doctors. There are no pharmacies in the area, only a tiny shop that sells the essentials: sunblock, aspirin, condoms, anti-allergics, etc. (La Botica, located on Le Paige street, close to the police station) If you become seriously ill, or suffer a major lesion, expect to be transferred to Calama, or even Antofagasta, at great expense! While there are no major hazards in the area (such as lethal diseases, poisonous animals, and so on), take twice the care you normally would when hiking, cycling, and doing any other activity outdoors. This applies even more to the geysers, where burn-related injuries aren't that uncommon; the place is virtually disconnected from the world, so be extremely cautious when visiting!
You can rest assured that there's virtually no violent crime in San Pedro. However, the theft of bicycles and cars happens every once in a while, so take the normal precautions in that regard. Despite being poorly lit at night, the town is safe to walk around at all times-use your common sense if you see something suspicious. You might hear locals say that the only danger in town are stray dogs (leading even to the nickname "San Perro de Atacama"; perro means dog in spanish), and this is true. San Pedro boasts a huge population of them; most are friendly and harmless, but a few will attempt to bite passing cyclists. Cases of rape aren't unheard of, but most of these happen at parties, with heavily intoxicated females as the victims. In any case, they're rare.
Despite rumors to the contrary, exchange rates in town are decent, but watch out for wild price swings in the currency of your interest-the money exchanges in town usually are lagging behind this info, which can play in your favor... or otherwise. The dollar's very appreciated, and you can routinely get better rates there than in banks. Be mindful, though, that one-dollar and damaged bills won't be accepted. The euro rates are terrible, though, while other currencies' can be found somewhere in the middle. Again, they only accept larger euro bills, and only in mint condition. There are four places with ATMs in town: Banco Estado, in front of the museum (only accepts international MasterCards), Banco Bci (Caracoles-Vilama streets intersection, close to the plaza), Atacama Connection (they have two offices; the one with the ATM is on the intersection of Caracoles and Calama streets), and a last one at the western end of Caracoles, which only accepts international Visas. Until a few months ago, the operation of these ATMs was sketchy, due to frequent money shortages; now, with greater variety, this has somewhat improved. A tip: if an ATM refuses to give you money, it could be because its supply of a certain denomination is spent. Try with a different amount. For instance, if you wanted CLP$35,000, round it down to 30,000, or even 20,000, and withdraw money twice (or a higher amount, which actually makes more sense).
This is the most common way of traveling to Argentina. There's three bus lines that go there, Geminis, Andesmar, and Pullman Bus. The prices float around CLP$30,000, and all of them leave from San Pedro three times per week. Other choices can be found in Calama, but it might defeat the point a little, since you'll go through San Pedro again, in any case. Going to Uyuni in this way can be done only from Calama; the fares are cheap, though, sometimes as low as CLP$8,000.
The nearest airport is El Loa (CJC), located in Calama. The usual way to fly there is to take a plane from Santiago, though there are flights from Antofagasta and Iquique as well. Three airlines stop there, and only for national flights: LAN (has the most flights, and the best support, but isn't always the cheapest), Sky Airline (terrible website, better service than LAN), and PAL. To get to the airport, you have two choices: taking a taxi from Calama (about CLP$5,000), and then a bus to San Pedro (CLP$2,500); or taking the transfer, Licancabur, that charges a fare of CLP$10,000 in regular trips, and CLP$12,000 for "special" trips (late at night).
You have to take attention booking with tour operators in Chile, since all the tours in Uyuni (Bolivia) have to be guided by Bolivian tour-guides, Chilean tour guides are not authorized to conduct tours in the Uyuni salt flat.
A handful of agencies offer 3 days/2 nights tours to Uyuni. It does not really matter who you book with, as they mostly join forces (at least in low season) and fill up their Land Cruisers with people from other agencies. The going price (starting at US$140, March 2011) is some 40% higher here than in Uyuni, even though the itinerary is identical, only reversed. There is the advantage of there usually only being a few Land Cruisers at each site since you see things at different times of day to tours originating in Uyuni, where there can easily be a hundred tourists at each stop. There's also the possibility to return to San Pedro a day later, for a surcharge of US$20.
Accommodations are quite basic, with frequent lack of (hot) water and electricity. Meals are filling but hardly gourmet and vegetarians may find themselves a little lacking in protein - bring plenty of snacks as supplies en route are extremely limited. If your tour agency does not provide water, ignore them when they tell you it is easy to buy on the journey-in our experience it was not, and you are better off bringing it all from San Pedro (at least 2 L per person per day, although at that altitude more would be good).
A sleeping bag and plenty of warm clothing are essentials, it gets very cold at night.
The first night is spent at Laguna Colorada, at 4370 m, so it is advisable to spend several nights in San Pedro, to acclimatise before taking the trip. Even then, AMS is a considerable risk-take the usual precautions, and if you have any reason to be particularly worried about altitude consider taking the tour from Bolivia instead, where you will have far more opportunities to acclimatise to high altitude beforehand.
It is essential to get a written itinerary from the agency, specifying all the sights in the order they are to be visited, and also meals and accommodation (whether shared or not). Some costs may not be included: Bolivian immigration, entry fees for national parks and museums. Ask about these at the agency.
Read travellor reviews of different agencies at the tourist information office. Estrella del Sur has had a lot of good traveller feedback with excellent guides (US$140, March 2011). Keep in mind that most guides/drivers do not speak English. Choose your tour company wisely.