Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring San Pedro De Atacama

***This post is part 11 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most popular destinations to visit in Chile for international and domestic tourists alike. Located in the far north of the country and sitting in the midst of a green oasis along the edge of the South American Altiplano, it is the perfect jump-off point for touring the incredible landscape of the Atacama Desert.

Streets of San Pedro de Atacama

Main square

The first thing we did after arriving in San Pedro de Atacama was to locate our lodging at Hotel Dunas. The town is quite small, and easily walkable to virtually all points of interest. It is also very bike-friendly, and you can find bike rentals around just about every block. Hotel Dunas is a five to ten-minute walk from the center of town, located on a quiet and safe street.

Hotel Dunas


After traveling through Peru and Bolivia, you may experience sticker shock initially with hotel and food prices in Chile. At around $110 USD for a rather basic room (including a discount if you pay in cash), Hotel Dunas isn't cheap by any means, but the price is fairly comparable to most tourist spots in developed countries around the world. We had booked a triple with a private bathroom, and everything looked perfect when we arrived.

Our room actually had four beds, one full and three twins. There was a small dining table and a full bathroom with all the essentials. Coming from our three-day Salar de Uyuni tour, it was nice to finally have a hot shower with decent water pressure! There was also a very large walk-in closet, although we didn't make use of it at all.

Breakfast was included every day, but portions were very small. Each guest received one piece of bread, some scrambled eggs, and a slice of cheese. Butter and jam were provided, along with a glass of juice and a thermos of hot water. Not terrible for a complimentary meal, but definitely not enough to sustain me through lunch.

Complimentary breakfast

After getting settled in, our first order of business was to book tours for the next two days. There are many things to see and do around San Pedro de Atacama, but with limited time, we wanted to hit up the most important attractions, including Valle de la Luna and the geysers of El Tatio. For those who are a little more adventurous, there are also plenty of sandboarding, hiking, and climbing excursions to choose from. With the entire town inundated with tour companies, it wasn't difficult to reserve our spots. However, prices do vary slightly from agency to agency, so it may be worth your time to shop around.

After visiting a couple of different locations, we ended up paying 7,000 CLP per person for the Valle de la Luna tour, and 17,000 CLP per person for the El Tatio tour. Note that entrance fees to the parks are typically not included. In this case, an extra 2,000 CLP is required for Valle de la Luna, and 5,000 CLP is required for El Tatio.

Since Valle de la Luna is only about eight kilometers away from town, it is also possible to bike there independently. However, be aware that the altitude and daytime heat make it a difficult journey even for those who are rather fit. Tour buses will sometimes pick up stranded bikers, and we saw a few who definitely overestimated their own stamina.

Almost all Valle de la Luna tours start in the afternoon and include sunset viewing from the Cari Viewpoint. Different tours may visit different locations, but most will at least stop at the Salt Canyon, Salt Caves, Valle de la Muerte, and Tres Marias. I wasn't a huge fan of our tour guide, since he spent an unreasonable amount of time talking and going off on tangents that had nothing to do with what we were seeing. In the end, we had to rush through several stops simply because he had wasted so much time in the beginning. Thankfully, we were at least able to see the beautiful sunset.

Valle de la Luna

Sand dunes

Tres Marias


Piedra del Coyote

Sunset against the Lincancabur Volcano

The El Tatio tour, on the other hand, typically departs around 4:00 am. Since the location is approximately 100 kilometers away in the high plains, it is essential to start early. El Tatio features some of the highest-altitude geysers in the world, and the geothermal field itself is the third largest in the world. While I found it to be nowhere near as spectacular as Yellowstone, I think just being there at sunrise made for an unparalleled experience. The lighting, coupled with the landscape of steam rising from the earth, was truly breathtaking.

El Tatio at sunrise

El Tatio geothermal field

Being at 14,000 feet before sunrise can be excruciatingly cold, so be sure to wear plenty of layers. If you are prone to altitude sickness, it may also be wise to take some coca leaves or acetazolamide before departing. After taking in the sunrise and walking through the geyser field, the tour continued at another location a short distance away. There, we bathed in a natural hot spring and saw some more fumaroles and geysers. Along the way, there were plenty of wild vicuñas roaming the desolate land all around us.

Hot spring


The tour then proceeded to the Putana River, where we saw a variety of native bird species. If you're lucky, you may even see the elusive viscacha, a furry creature closely resembling a rabbit and a chinchilla. Finally, before heading back to San Pedro de Atacama, we visited the tiny village of Machuca for a brief rest stop. There, you can climb up to the small adobe church or grab an empanada from one of the local vendors.

Machuca village

Crazy llama

We arrived back in San Pedro de Atacama in the early afternoon, which gave us plenty of time to explore the town some more. A wonderful way to spend a few hours during the day is at the R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum near the center of town. It houses an extensive catalog of local relics and artifacts from pre-Columbian history all the way to more recent times. Be sure to also visit the Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama, possibly the second oldest church in Chile. First constructed in the 17th century, it has gone through several renovations, but has maintained its simple adobe structure and traditional roof construction.

R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum

Ultraviolet ray indicator

Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama


While there are plenty of good eats all around town, expect prices to reflect the typical tourism inflation. One standout that I have to recommend, however, is the aptly named Las Delicias de Carmen. Be sure to try out the hearty cazuela stew and barbequed pork belly. There is usually a decent wait for a table during peak hours, so get there early!

Delicious cazuela

San Pedro de Atacama is easily one of the top three tourist destinations in Chile, along with Easter Island and Torres del Paine. Its desolate location belies the striking landscape and plethora of exciting activities in the region. I would highly recommend stopping here for at least a few days if you are visiting the Altiplano.

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