Steaming hot springs, epic salt flats, and magic desert valleys that feel more like Mars than South America. San Pedro de Atacama is like no other place on the planet.
The small town, located in Chile’s north, sits close to the Bolivian border and some of the Andes’ highest points. The Atacama Desert itself is the driest place on earth – besides the north and south poles – but it’s also one of the most magical. Here, you’ll find lakes filled with pink flamingos, a horizon interrupted by volcanoes, and stars brighter than you’d ever imagined possible.
Find Your Way There
If you’re already in Chile, the best way to get to San Pedro is by flying to neighbouring city Calama. From Calama, you can jump on a bus to San Pedro for anywhere between $6 and $18. The journey should take you no more than two hours, and most buses are in pretty decent condition.
Once you’re in the tiny town, you’ll find everything you need is within walking distance – just prepare to get a little dusty.
And A Place To Call Home
If you’re on a budget, as most travellers in South America are, hostels are your best bet in San Pedro. There’s a range of highly-rated hostels in the area, but be warned that some may not be up to the standard you expect in major cities. Think temperamental Wi-Fi and rooms that are freezing in winter and stuffy as hell in summer.
There are a number of luxe accommodation spots in town, including the renowned Tierra Atacama Hotel, if you’re looking to treat yourself.
Spend an hour wandering the streets of San Pedro and you’ll find your bearings pretty quickly. Keep an eye out for restaurants offering a menu del dia – daily lunch and dinner specials that typically include an entrée, main, and dessert or drink for anywhere between $10 and $20 – and happy hours that usually offer two cocktails (pisco sours all the way) for $10 or so.
San Pedro is no party town. When ordering drinks, expect to have to order food as well and don’t even bother going in search of any kind of nightclub.
One of San Pedro’s star attractions, Valle de la Luna, is a 10-minute drive or 12km bike ride from the town centre. The valley is named for its moon-like vibe. Surrounded by rugged mountains, you can follow trails through salt caves and to the top of steep sand dunes to watch a sunset like no other.
Nearby is Valle de la Muetre, also known as the Valley of Death. If sand-boarding down epic 150m-high dunes is your idea of good time, pencil in an afternoon here.
If you’d prefer to seek confirmation that flamingoes are real and not imagined, pay a visit to Laguna Chaxa. Just under an hour away from San Pedro, this lake is home to hundreds of bright pink flamingoes that feed at sunrise.
On your way back to town, stop and admire Salar de Atacama, Chile’s biggest salt flat. While it may not compete with Bolvia’s famous Salar de Uyuni, located 520km away, it’s still a breathtaking sight. Take a walk across the cracked earth, admiring the plants that somehow manage to survive the conditions. In this area you’ll also find Laguna Cejar, which was once open for swimming but is now closed due to high arsenic levels. Look, don’t touch.
If you take one tour on your trip, make it one to El Tatio Geysers. Most tours leave town between 4am and 5am to make it to the geysers in time for sunrise. Visitors are greeted by a series of steaming, bubbling pools surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
Be sure to book a tour that offers breakfast and warm drinks because you’re going to need them, especially if you visit in winter, when temperatures can drop as low as -21 degrees Celcius.
And, for all the geysers’ beauty, they can also cause some major discomfort. Located 4320m above sea level, altitude sickness is a real risk and, sadly, there isn’t much anyone can do to prevent it. Staying hydrated is said to help, as are coca leaves, which you’ll find for sale at local market stalls.
While you can swim at the geysers, head to Puritama springs if you want a hot spring experience without the freezing cold temperatures. The springs are privately run by a hotel, with cheap entry if you arrive after 2pm. There are eight small hot pools, each the temperature of a perfect bath.
Swimming in one of the world’s driest deserts isn’t something you’re likely to forget in a hurry.[qantas_widget code=SCL]Check out Qantas flights to Chile.[/qantas_widget]