San Pedro de Atacama is a town in Northern Chile.
San Pedro is 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.
San Pedro vs. Uyuni
As many people head for San Pedro to continue their travel into Bolivia doing the popular Salar de Uyuni tour, it is important to note that many sights found around San Pedro have similar equivalents on the Bolivian site. Hence, instead of paying twice, it is worth thinking about skipping some tours offered in San Pedro and saving the money. This is also what many travellers that did both countries agree with and recommend to other. In fact, the sights along the Salar de Uyuni tour are equally or even more beautiful and impressive than what can be found around San Pedro, e.g. 1) Geysers del Tatio: 2 hr from the border you will visit a smaller but much more versatile site with mud pools, loud steams and geysers, and shortly after that a nice warm thermal pool with magnificent views which easily tops the semi-warm thermal pool at the Geysers del Tatio. And you do not have to get up at 5, freeze your bottom off, and get hassled along the way due to the limited time. 2) Lagunas Altiplanicas: Already the first stop after the border at the Laguna Verde (or the Lagunas on the second day) and the Laguna Colorado at the end of the first day top this tour, with much more flamingos and more versatile views, not to mention the value of Salar de Uyuni over Laguna Chaxa. 3) Astronomic tour: This can easily be realised in the middle of nowhere on the Salar de Uyuni tour with no lights whatsoever around. 4) Salar Tata: The diversity of the sights along the Salar de Uyuni tour is immense and also covers this tour.
Nevertheless, the Valle de la Luna is a must when in San Pedro and cannot be skipped for anything along the Salar de Uyuni tour. Likewise, the Laguna Cejar, and a bicycle, hiking or sandboarding tour around San Pedro are not substitutable. Furthermore note that the tours in San Pedro are a good way to acclimatise against altitude sickness. The Salar de Uyuni tour almost touches the 5000 m mark. So, the Piedra Rojas tour for instant might actually be a good thing, because at the Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques you will cross the 4200 m mark.
Several buses per day connect the town with Calama, operated by TurBus, KTUR, Frontera del Norte, Atacama 2000, and Intertrans. The trip takes about 1½-2 hr, and costs CLP$3,000-5,000. Other buses like TurBus travel also from/to Antofagasta (4 hr, CLP$9,000), Iquique, Arica (12 hr, CLP$22,000), and Santiago. It is best and cheaper to transfer in Calama, because it is easy to get there with regular national buses (because of the airport and mine), but between Calama and San Pedro more frequent and cheaper regional buses operate—see Calama#Get in.
There are also regular buses from/to Uyuni, in Bolivia (~CLP$30,000). But skipping the Salar de Uyuni Tour between the Chilean border and Uyuni for a simple bus is not recommended—it is one of the most impressive and most inexpensive tours you can do in South America. Nevertheless, cross border 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. Or just ask at the tourist information or one of the booking offices in town.
No airlines fly direct to San Pedro. The nearest commercial airport is Calama. Most flights are direct, and connect Calama with Santiago, but a few also fly to Antofagasta and Iquique. LATAM, Sky Airlines and JetSMART fly to Santiago from US$12 one way. From Calama to San Pedro is about 90 min by bus. Transvip and Licancabur run minivan transfer to hotels in San Pedro de Atacama for CLP$10,000-12,000. No need to reserve: 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 most likely you will have to return the car there. 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! Roads off the popular trails 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. That said, travelling on the frequented roads used by the tour providers in San Pedro is straight forward and can even be done with a car without 4WD.
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.
Outside of town you can even reach Valle de Marte on foot. Also, there are many hiking trails north and northwest of town. For reliable trails in this desert region, consult OpenStreetMap, which is used by many mobile Apps like OsmAnd (complex with many add-ons) and MAPS.ME (easy but limited).
Bicycles can be rented in town: CLP$3,000 for 6 hr, CLP$6,000 full day. The rental usually includes warning vest, helmet, lamp, first aid kit, and pump. Bicycles can be a great and inexpensive way to explore the surroundings of San Pedro, like Valle de la Luna, Valle de Marte, Pukará de Quitor, Aldea de Tulor, and even Laguna Cejar (see below). Reliable tracks can be found with OpenStreetMap (see previous chapter).
It is now illegal to ride a bike in the centre of San Pedro. 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.
This is the most authentic, least stressful and, depending on the amount of people, the cheapest way to do San Pedro and its sights. It is also far easier than you might believe. In 2 days you can cover most of the common and picturesque sights on your own time, even the Tito geysers. Most roads are good in good shape and suitable for regular cars. Also, when you travel along the common routes, there will always be traffic along the way in case you break down. (Neverthess, always carry enough water and very warm cloths for the night. Also, be aware of the altitude issues. Do not think, just because you have a 4WD, you are less prone to the dangers of the road. This attitude can be fatal!) As you will require a reliable map, see the comments in the first chapter above.
Going on you own, visiting times will probably vary from the tour companies, i.e. there will be less people around when you are at the sight and take pictures. To get a good idea what is to see (even little sights) and which are possible schedules, go around in the centre of San Pedro and ask the booking offices what a trip to this and that sight will look like, what is included, and how much the entrance fee will be.
Rental prices per day in San Pedro for a 4WD truck with space for 5 people start at US$106 (~CLP$70,000 as of Apr 2018), if booked online or if you ask for a discount with 1 Europcar on sight. But doing the maths against the tour prices, you will see that this is fair and easily cheaper, especially if you camp and go in a group. You might even consider renting a car in Antofagasta or Calama where rental prices are much cheaper (~CLP$40,000) and you will also get regular cars—the extra distance you will have to do with a bus anyhow and mostly the extra time is easily covered by the much lower rental prices. To find people to rent a car together with, ask around in your hostel or use the various travel groups for Chile [dead link] and South America [dead link] on Facebook.
All important sights around San Pedro can be visited with a tour offered by one of the 150 booking offices in town. However, please see #Cope to get an understanding of the ups and downs of this decision. While tours can be a convenient choice for some people, they can be the horror to others. Basically, if you never had issues with packaged tours, this is the way to go. Otherwise, if you already know what the last point was about, you will probably know that you are not the packaged tour guy/gal—if you always hated tours, you will certainly also let be down by the tours offered in San Pedro.
In the following the essential places to visit around San Pedro. The description takes emphasis on the tours offered from San Pedro, but the sights can also be visited without a tour. For the entrance fees of just the sites, see the table at the end of this chapter.
Geysers del Tatio
1 El Tatio. Located at 4,200 m (13,800 ft) above sea level, and some 100 km (62 mi) away from town, these are one 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 04:00. 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. Some tour companies already have breakfast and leave for the hot springs before the sun even touches the ground, so make sure you pick one that explicitly promises you that you will have sunset in the geyser valley. Entrance fee: CLP$10,000.
Directly after the geysers you will most likely visit the hot springs, which are not that hot and at 0 °C or most likely less, it requires some convincing to strip you cloths and to get into the water. 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.
Afterwards you will visit 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).
If you plan on going, please consider the following things:
- Temperatures can be terribly cold: -15°C is common through June to August, while in summer it rarely dips below -5°C. 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.
- You can also take your own car. Nowadays, the gravel roads to the geyser are of proper state, and it is hard to break down here. Simply follow the convoy of cars that go up north by Guatín village at around 5:30-5:40. Many people use regular cars without 4WD to visit the geysers, and even most tour companies just have regular vans. However, you need a good map (use the OsmAnd or MapsMe apps) and driving skills on gravel. At one point you will pass 4,400 m, take your time if AMS shows up. The geyseys themselves are at 4,100 m. You'll have virtually no communication with the world at all unless you carry a satellite phone, and even then the signal's sketchy. Nevertheless, if you travel along the road that every one takes, even if you break down, it will be easy to find help. Every year there are lethal accidents on that road often with tourists, so beware and be cautious.
Valle de la Luna
2 Valle de la Luna. 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 Marte (Mars 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. Entrance fee is CLP$3,000 (not included in the tours).
It's perfectly possible to ride a bike there and see the many sight, 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 (7-8AM) in the morning, for afternoon temperatures can be suffocating year-round. Thus, you 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. If you rent your bicycle longer than 6 hr (6 hr is CLP$3,000, whole day is CLP$6,000), you can even enjoy the sunset in the evening from the top near the highway to Calama. 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. Mostly bicycle rentals will include a light (or use you smartphone), which you can use for this purpose, but make sure the bike also has a tail reflector, a helmet, an emergency kit and you got a map of the valley.
If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- It can get cold immediately after sunset, especially in winter. Bring something warm to wear and even gloves 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 and there are no shops along the way.
- Tours usually include long treks. So, 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-go.
- Since some people will head out by bicycle early and return in the early afternoon, you can ask for their ticket to head out with the bicycle late to see the sunset from the top viewpoint.
3 Lagunas Altiplanicas. Feel like visiting the Atacama salt pan, a picturesque village, and some Alp-lookalikes in a single day? Plus eating some local food? Then consider this tour, 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 4,000 m (13,000 ft), 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 different tours, one from 07:00 to 14:00 (half-day), with breakfast but no lunch, and another leaving town at 07:00, and returning at 18:00 (full-day), including lunch and the impressing Piedras Rojas.
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.
4 Laguna Cejar. 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, meaning you can float in the without drowning, even if you cannot swim. 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 between 15:00 and 16:00. 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! The entrance for the site (not the tour) is a staggering CLP$17,000.
You can get there by bike: 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 is paved, and drivers are accustomed to see bikers on it. Wear bright clothing (red, blue and yellow work best), just in case. You should not 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. Use OpenStreetMap (used by the OsmAnd and MapsMe app) to find the way south, and 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).
- As with the Dead Sea, swimming in such salty waters is different. Always swim on you back! Swimming on your front can be surprising and people have died due to the unsuspecting behaviour of their body and suddenly panicking.
- 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.
- 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.
- Due to the expensive entrance fee to Cejar, tour companies have started offering an alternative which is similar but just has a CLP$5,000 entrance fee, the Laguna Escondidas.
Salar de Tara
5 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 (14,800 ft): 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
6 Valle del Arcoiris (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.
1 Valle de Marte (Mars Valley). Like most deserts, Atacama has its share of dunes and sand-banks. The most popular is located here. 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.
Like before and especially due to its closeness to San Pedro, this can also be done by bicycle. You can rent a board for sand-boarding in town, you just need a proper backpack to carry the board on the bicycle. The entrance to the valley is just 1.5 km out of town, from where you need to go another 3-4 km. The way is very taxing, though, so keep that in mind.
If you plan on going, please consider the following:
- 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 a tour company, the traditional axiom is: one board per three people. Remember that there are no lifts in Valle de Marte, 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 sand-board, 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.
7 Puritama (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. 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 entry fee is something to watch out for: M-Su CLP$15,000; M-F after 14:00 CLP$9,000 (price updated April 2018).
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 14:00. 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: 8 Pukará de Quitor, 9 Aldea de Tulor, and the 10 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 (500 km 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.
Star Tour / Tour Astronómico
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). There is a Spanish and an English tour, the former starts at 21:00 and the latter at 23:30. Note:
- 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.
- Opinions on the tour vary. And many people would agree that you could just take a blanket, lie in the desert and find out the zodiac signs by yourself.
The environs of San Pedro de Atacama sport a large variety of mountains to climb, catering to many levels of difficulty. Many can be done self-catered, others require the experience of professional guides. Should you attempt any mountain climb, in any case, you ought to be well aware of the potential risks. 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 2 Cerro Toco (5604 m) and 3 Volcán Lascar (5510 m). They're fairly popular, and take no longer than a day to complete. Higher in difficulty are 4 Cerro Acamarachi/Pili (6064 m), and 5 Sairecabur (5971 m). All these have proper trails, which can be followed, visible on Openstreetmap—see above.
The beautiful 6 Volcán Licancabur, 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.
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.
Tours, prices, times and schedule
In the following a summary of what mostly all of the booking offices in San Pedro offer. The price range is the price that can easily be haggled and the price that is officially advertised. Most booking offices will give you a price somewhere at the upper end, but the lower end is actually the maximum you should intend to pay or even less.
|Tour name||Time||Schedule||US$ (w.o. entrance)||CLP$ as of Mar 2018||Extras|
|Geysers del Tatio||04:30/05:30-12:00/13:00||Geysers (campo geotermico), thermal pool, Putana, Machuca village & surrounding (lama meat, vicuñas, flamingos), canyon de Guatin)||US$30-50||CLP$18-30,000 (+ CLP$10,000 entrance)||incl. breakfast|
|Valle de la Luna||16:00-20:30||Tres Marias, salt caves, anfiteatro, great dune, sunset at the Roca/Piedra del Coyote||US$22-30||CLP$13-18,000 (+ CLP$3,000 entrance)|
|Lagunas Altiplanicas||06:30/07:30-14:00||Salar de Atacama (incl. Laguna Chaxa with flamingos), Laguna Miscanti & Menique, Socaire & Toconao villages||US$33-58||CLP$20-35,000 (+ CLP$5,500 entrance)||incl. breakfast|
|Lagunas Altiplanicas incl. Piedras Rojas||7:00/7:30-18:00||Same as Lagunas Altiplanicas plus Piedras Rojas||US$58-90||CLP$35-55,000 (+ CLP$5,500 entrance)||incl. breakfast and lunch|
|Laguna Cejar||16:00-20:30/21:00||Laguna Cejar, Ojos del Salar, sunset at Laguna Tebenquiche||US$22-33||CLP$13-20,000 (+ CLP$17,000 entrance)||incl. snack and Pisco Sour for sunset|
|Baltinache / Laguna Escondidas||14/15:00-20:30||US$30-41||CLP$18-25,000 (+ CLP$5,000 entrance)||incl. snack & Pisco Sour|
|Salar de Tara||07:30/08:30-16:30/17:00||Mirador Licankabur, Laguna Kepiaco, Salar de Pujsa, Monjes de la Pacana (Pacana Monks), natural cathedrals (Vegas de Quepiaco?), Salar Laguna Tara||US$82-100||CLP$50-60,000||incl. breakfast and lunch|
|Valle del Arcoiris||08:00/08:45-13:00||Cordillera de Domeycko, Valle del Arcoisis, Petroglifos de Hierbas Buenas||US$41-50||CLP$25-30,000 (+ CPL$3,000 entrance)||incl. breakfast|
|Thermas de Puritama||08/09:00-13:30 or 13/14:00-18:15||Thermal pools||US$20-25||CLP$12-15,000 (+ CLP$15,000 (CLP$9,000 after 14:00 weekdays) entrance)|
|Tour Astronómico||21:00-23:00/23:30 or 23:00/23:30-01:00/01:30||US$30-41||CLP$18-25,000||incl. snack and glass of wine|
|Sandboarding||09:00-12:30 or 16:00-19:30||Valle de Marte||US$41||CLP$25,000 (+ CPL$3,000 entrance)||incl. instructor and equipment|
|Salar de Uyuni||start 07:00 (3 days 2 nights)||Schedule see description below, two routes available.||US$150-182||CLP$90-110,000 (+ Bs. 250 entrance fees)||incl. meals and drinks|
- Exploring San Pedro by bicycle can be an authentic and less stressful way to travelling. Valle de la Luna (in off season you can visit the 7 western part for free and there are 8 two upper sunset viewpoints, at only one the ticket needs to be shown, use Openstreetmap), Valle de Marte (cycling right at the Cordillera de la Sal sign before entrance is free), Pukará de Quitor, Aldea de Tulor, and even Laguna Cejar can also explored on a bicycle instead with a tour. Other destinations, such as Piedra de la Coca, Catarpe, Garganta del Diablo, and Quebrada de Tambores can even 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 have a proper map—see #Get around. If you do a full day tour, pick up the bicycle 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.
- Hiking north of San Pedro and even into Valle the Marte (which is the closest sight from the town) or Pukará de Quitor can be a great alternative to discover the hills and views of the region. Just check out OpenStreetMap, which has many trails marked.
- Canyon trekking near 1 Guatín along the Cañón de Guatin is an impressive experience with great skies during the night for excellent star gazing. Heading north for about 5 km from Guatín, the canyon gets deeper and deeper. And just 45 min south along the canyon from the village, great places for camping can be found. If the trail is well, you can trek back to San Pedro along the river. Try hitch-hiking to Guatín, there is a lot of local transport going there.
- There is a free walking tour in San Pedro itself on offer. It starts at 10:00 and 15:00 from the centre of town and takes 2 hr.
- Horse riding 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.
San Pedro is an expensive town. So, you will need cash. There are four places with ATMs in town: Banco Estado, in front of the museum, 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. As of Mar 2018, withdrawals of CLP$280,000 were possible at Banco Estado. However, on Sunday evenings money at BancoEstado and BCI can run out, even in off-season. So, make sure you head for the ATM early enough. If an ATM refuses to give you money due to supply shortage, you might 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). However, considering the fee you pay with withdrawals such small amounts should generally be avoided.
Despite rumors to the contrary, exchange rates in town are decent. Try Toconao Road south of Caracoles Road. 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. This is also the best place to get Bolivianos for your Uyuni tour. Ask several office, there rates sometimes vary.
- 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. In the following a selection of recommended restaurants.
- 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 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 02:00 (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, 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, 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 or 02:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. This applies to both restaurants and liquor shops. So, if you're planning to drink the night away, be sure to stock up beforehand! There are 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 Marte. 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.
There is a huge desert around, which is especially convenient if you go around by car or on foot. Just make sure you got really warm cloths and sleeping bag, temperatures can easily be around 0 °C.
Be careful of giving your credit card details over the phone to "guarantee" a reservation.
The hostel situation in San Pedro is vibrant with new places poping up all the time. You are best off checking online reservation websites for best deal and price.
- 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 hr. Outdoor swimming pool.
- Hostal Terracota, Tocopilla 517. A good place with affordable prices and friendly owner. All rooms have private bathrooms.
- Hotel Licancabur. 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: 11:30. 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. Single/double/matrimonial/triple without bathroom: CLP$10,000/16,000/20,000/24,000; with bathroom: 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 20:30 and internet shutdown at 19:00 making the stay uncomfortable. They do not 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. 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 08:00 and after 21:00, 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 are 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.
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.
First of all, always remember that the altitude of San Pedro de Atacama is 2,400 m (7,900 ft) above sea level. Some of the tourist attractions are well above 4,000 m (13,000 ft). 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 is a well equipped pharmacy in central San Pedro. 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!
When to go
It seems that San Pedro is much less crowded during the weekdays. While the plaze is busy during the weekend, you will wonder what happened to all the people on Monday. However, this can give you great discounts on the tours.
Furthermore, to see flamingos there are good and bad seasons during the year, check the information on the Internet. In April for example you can barely see a dozen, while at other times, the lagunas are overloaded. On the Bolivian side this topic does not seem such a big issue.
Tours and companies
If you can identify with the statement under #By tour, please prefer the inexpensive alternatives mentioned in the #Do and #Get around sections of this article instead of the inauthentic and inflexible tours offered by the booking offices in town. Please read the following to understand the situation better:
- Always, demand an English tour. Chilean guides can be quite cold and unbearable, especially if you want to take a picture that is not part of the schedule. So, it is best to have someone with at least a little understanding of your culture or a tourist's needs.
- The booking offices in the centre constantly lie. The only truth they provide is the tour price and main destinations. The rest is gibberish and marketing bullshit to get tours sold, as you can see by reading the following. It is also almost impossible to pick between a good and terrible tour, as you will also notice in the following.
- Most booking offices claim they are a tour provider where actually they are just booking offices. It is easy to recognise that when you book a tour and then end up in a car that states a completely different company. Btw. this can be a way of finding an authentic tour company—ask whether the car and guides documents will state the same name as the one where you do the booking. Often at that point they will back down and tell you the truth, or they come up with something "we work together with this other company".
- It is common practice that booking offices in the centre shuffle around people among the numerous tour companies depending on their amount of people and a companies capacities. Many will claim that they have their own tour company or even work together with geologists. But this can barely be verified and often if you dig deeper ("Will the tour van carry your logo?"), it will turn out that they lied to you. But this is just the way business works here.
- Offered tours by tour companies are mostly the same; same tour times and same destinations. This is also why the just explained system works so well or basically the proof that the shuffling around of travellers is the truth.
- Nevertheless, each tour company differs slightly in their schedule and order of sights. This is also why they will never give you an exact schedule, but say it depends on the weather conditions and guides decision—actually they just have not yet figured out the company you going to travel with. If you demand a fixed schedule with times—they cannot give it to you.
- When you are on the tour, ask the other travellers. You will find out that people booked the tour with different booking offices—4 or so is common considering there are 150 booking offices in town.
- Due to this system, most tours only differ by 10-20% in price and all have similar pick-up and drop-off times. Some booking offices want to make you believe that the extra CLP$2,000 compared to others booking office is due to better quality. But in light of the just mentioned system that can hardly be verified or true for that matter. It is very hard from the tour price to tell the quality. It might be a good tour, or the booking office just makes a bigger cut from you. Even with the cheapest booking office you can end up on a decent tour (speaking from experience). If you are really looking for a different tour, with more flexibility and authenticity, three things must fit: 1) prices will most likely be considerably higher, 2) itinerary will be different and more flexible, and 3) tour times are off the regular ones constantly advertised by booking offices. But it is unknown whether such tours exist.
- Btw. the reason why times are so tight (half-day tours) is because this way you are able to book another tour the same day and thus spend more money, leaving a bigger cut for the booking offices. However, the results are obvious, (often) stress along the way by the tour guide and no time for extra picturesque stops or even the common sights.
- Actually, the quality of these tours often depends on the guide. However, companies have several guides, and guides often work for different companies. Also, tours depend on the dynamic of the group, some people are very forgiving when the guide puts time pressure, and other people take their time and often overspend sights, leaving more time for everyone. Hence, another two reasons why it is nearly impossible to pick the right tour beforehand.
- Online ratings, advise from other travellers or even the complaint book provided by the tourist information in town are pointless because they rate the unknown tour company and not the booking office people booked with. Also people do generally not distinguish between the booking office and the tour company, because they think it is the same. So, even if you find a great rating, you can never be sure whether your consequently chosen tour will be good. And as explained before, expectations of people vary widely and so does the final judgement of the tour.
- The truth: Booking the right tour is a hit and miss game. Accept it or leave it.
This is the most common way of traveling to Argentina. There are 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: LATAM (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).
Mostly all booking offices in San Pedro offer the 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—see #Tours and companies to understand how the system works. You will mostly go with 6 people in the car, even if they say 4-6, because only one car will be with less than 6 people, the one company/car that is filled last with people. The prices (see above) are some 30-40% higher here than in Uyuni, even though the itinerary is identical, only reversed. The advantage though is there there are usually only a few Land Cruisers at each site since you see things at different times of the day to the 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, included or for a surcharge of US$20—bargain hard!
There are two routes on offer, one includes Árbol de Piedra and one Villa Mar. Shop around in San Pedro and you will see the differences in the itinerary. Travellers prefer the western route. It is essential to get a written itinerary from the booking office (mostly they will have a printed leaflet anyhow), specifying all the sights in the order they are to be visited, and also accommodation (whether shared or not) and meals. Mostly, tour companies provide drinks during the meals and some even say, water is available all the time, but the situation is sketchy. Ignore them when they tell you it is easy to buy drinks on the journey, it is not, and you are better off bringing some water either way from San Pedro (at least 2 l per person per day). Also, bring some toilet paper, it is not worth the discussion. All tours will stay in the Ho(s)tel de Sal on the second night, which are actually several different ones that all share the same name. Your booking office might try to sell you a private room for the second night for US$100-150 extra, but actually often the second night will be in private rooms anyhow. So, do not fall for this trick. The first night is a shared accommodation either way.
Accommodations are quite basic, with frequent lack of (hot) water and electricity. Bolivia gets very cold at night, so bring warm cloths or even your own sleeping bag. Meals are filling but vegetarians may find themselves a little lacking in protein. Also, bring bottle(s) of wine, your luggage is carried anyhow and you will certainly have a nice group dynamic. Evenings are quite early, even though so are the mornings, but it is just nice to lay back and remember the day.
Some costs may not be included: Bolivian immigration, entry fees for national parks and museums. E.g. right after entering Bolivia there is a Bs. 150 fee for the national park, then the thermal pools are Bs. 6. WiFi and warm shower fees at the first night are Bs. 15 each. A hot shower on the second night is for free. Otherwise toilet fees generally range from Bs. 2-5. The booking office generally recommends to bring Bs. 250, which can be exchanged in one of the exchange offices in San Pedro. Mostly this will be far more than you need, but the intention is also to leave some tip for the driver, even though he is well paid. However, Bs. 200 seems a more reasonable estimate, if you do not need WiFi or the hot shower at the first night.
The first night is spent at Laguna Colorada, at 4370 m, so it is advisable to spend several nights in San Pedro, to acclimatize 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 acclimatize to high altitude beforehand.
As of April 2018, Luna Dorada (just south east of the plaza in San Pedro) and its Bolivian sister company, Jhoeva Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org), seem to be a reliable pick. But only go with them if they are inexpensive and you will actually end up in a Jhoeva vehicle.