Reasons to go to San Pedro de Atacama

  • Streets lined with adobe building give this green oasis town an out-of-time feel
  • The perfect base for exploring the wild diversity of the Atacama Desert
  • A night sky rated as one of the best in the world for star gazing
  • A great range of hotels from boutique guesthouses to 5* luxury

About San Pedro de Atacama

View of the tower of an adobe church in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Traces of San Pedro's Spanish colonial history

The San Pedro de Atacama region has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its heyday was around 1000 years ago when it was part of the Bolivian Tiwanaku culture – aspects of the sophisticated terraced faring developed at this time are still in evidence today. The Incas and Spanish came and went in due course, with San Pedro ending up as part of Bolivia until the late 19th century. Mining was the booming industry then: saltpetre and then copper and lithium throughout the past century.

Nearby Calama still has the flavour of a hard-bitten mining town; the green oasis of San Pedro de Atacama carries a more relaxed air that's made it a favourite with overland travellers and international tourists alike. Known by all as simply 'San Pedro', locals sometimes jokingly refer to it as 'San Perro' due to the large population of stray dogs (perro is the Spanish word for dog). 

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Danny says

San Pedro’s adobe buildings are incredibly beautiful. Culturally and architecturally it’s as if the town itself had been born straight out of the earth.

Danny Middleton Patagonia Specialist

What to see & do in San Pedro de Atacama

The old town

A  colonial era Spanish adobe church in San Pedro de Atacama, with a small bell tower and bunting hanging from the door

Historic adobe church in San Pedro

San Pedro is a delightful place to explore on foot. The town's low walls and buildings are all made of brown or whitewashed adobe, and if you've freshly arrived from Santiago you get a sudden sense of travelling back in time. The main street of Caracoles is for pedestrians only and is lined with a traveller-friendly mix of restaurants, bars, mini-markets and tour operators.

Turning off Caracoles onto either Tocopilla or Toconao, takes you to the Plaza de Armas – the town's main square that is home to the gleaming white church, first established in the 16th Century.

Further from the centre – not far in such a small town – are the even quieter dusty back roads where you'll see the stronger influence of the indigenous Atacameños people. Look up at road junctions as the skyline volcanoes appear and disappear behind the buidings. 

Excursions from San Pedro de Atacama

A tourist standing next to rock formations in the Salt Mountains of Vallecito in Chile's Atacama Desert

The wild rocks of Vallecito near San Pedro

There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing what to do from San Pedro. The majority of excursions into the Atacama Desert are half a day in length, making it easy to put together a tailored itinerary to match the length of your stay.

The closest excursions to San Pedro are to see the otherworldly landscapes of Vallecito and Moon Valley, or you can imagine yourself fully off-planet with a night of star gazing at one of the observatories on the outskirts of town. Many people come here just to watch the skies: San Pedro is a world leader when it comes to astrotourism.

Further afield, there are plenty of opportunities to hike, from soft adventure to longer walks. One of our favourites is the Guatin Canyon hike, where the desert starts to climb up into the mountains and the gorges are lined with almost cartoonish giant cacti. There's also interesting walking to be had among the technicolour rocks of Rainbow Valley to discover millennia-old petroglyphs.

For those with more time to acclimatise to the altitude, there's no better sight than the scaldingly explosive El Tatio Geysers, viewed in the freezing dawn of the altiplano.

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Swoop says

When visiting the Atacama it's essential to pack for a variety of temperatures. While the days can be hot, the nights can be very cold indeed. If you're setting out on the pre-dawn trip to El Tatio geysers, you can expect below freezing temperatures.

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

As the Atacama's tourist hub, San Pedro is the place to stay when visiting the desert. It has some great accommodation options, including some great boutique hotels and smaller guesthouses. For those looking for a tase of luxury, we recommend one of the three lodges – Tierra, Explora or Awasi – who provide a tailor-made experience for guests, with guides on hand to organise excursions, terrific architecture and super dining for when you get back to your room after your day's adventure.

How to get to San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is too small to have its own airport, so visitors arriving by air fly in to El Loa Airport (code CJC) in the nearby mining town of Calama. The one hour transfer is a great bit of scene setting through the pancake flat desert, with Licancabur volcano ever present on the horizon and then through the canyons near Moon Valley as you approach San Pedro. There are daily flights between Calama and Chile's capital Santiago (two hours).

If you want to do the Santiago haul by road, allow a full day: it's about 1550km, or 22 hours by sleeper bus.

It's possible to travel overland to San Pedro from both Argentina and Bolivia. From Argentina there are direct buses from San Pedro to Salta (480km, ten hours). For Bolivia, there are direct buses to Uyuni (450km, ten hours). This is a remote and rugged route, much of it on unmade routes climbing high into the Bolivian altiplano: a adventure best suited for those with a relaxed attitude to comfortable transport. 

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