San Pedro de Atacama: Queen of the Desert

A picturesque town, boasting a unique history, set against the imposing backdrop of the majestic Licancabur Volcano.

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Located 195 miles from the northern port city of Antofagasta, San Pedro de Atacama is a charming oasis village in the rugged Atacama Desert.

Originally settled by the ancient Atacameño civilization, the town is today considered the archaeological capital of Chile, attracting thousands of  international visitors each year. Just off the Plaza de Armas or main square, you can find the impressive RP Gustavo Le Paige SJ Archaeological Research Institute and Museum which contains 300,000 artefacts and ethnographic pieces from the past 11,000 years.

Another must see attraction is the attractive San Pedro Church (Iglesia San Pedro) which is the focal point for many of the town’s festivities. Although it has been subject to a number of upgrades and repairs, the exterior walls date back to 1744 and are still in original condition.

If rest and relaxation is what you’re after, head to Oasis Alberto Terrazas. The water in the naturally heated spa comes from a mineral well and has an average temperature of 73°F, making it perfect for a soothing dip. Built by local businessman, Alberto Terrazas, the pool is open all day, every day.

Local Festivals

Carnaval: Held at the end of February, the Carnaval features lots of dancing and local food.

San Pedro Feast Day: Every year on June 28, dancing troupes from nearby towns gather in San Pedro to celebrate the town’s feast day.

Christmas Day: San Pedro is transformed by religious dances and celebrations in honor of the Boy Jesus.

Local Adventures
Tours of the desert and the altiplano leave regularly from San Pedro. There are a large number of local tourism operators who lead trips to the many major attractions, which include:

Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Just 11 miles (18km) from San Pedro de Atacama in the Cordillera de la Sal mountain range, this popular destination is known for its eerie moon-like landscape featuring odd shaped rock and sand formations, caverns and salt outcrops that resemble intricate sculptures. Every night at sunset, the desert landscape is bathed in colors before the dark, cold night sets in. The valley is particularly beautiful when there is a full moon. Visitors need to pay a small entrance fee on arrival.

El Tatio Geysers
The largest grouping of geysers in the Southern Hemisphere is found 59 miles (95km) form San Pedro and is located 13,123 ft above sea level. To make the most of your visit, it’s best to leave before sunrise but it’s definitely worth the sacrifice. Every morning at daybreak, huge jets of steam burst up from the ground reaching heights of up to 30 ft. The plumes are emissions from an underground river that flows from the nearby Tatio Volcano and they are most intense between 5.00 and 7:00am.

It is important to come prepared with warm clothes and a bathing suit. Pre-dawn temperatures are often below 32º F (0ºC) but during the day, the temperature rises above 70º F (21ºC). It’s a good idea to bring sunblock and sunshades as well. Visitors also need to maintain their distance from the geysers as the crater edges are thin and may collapse.

Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Lake)
Located 34 miles (55km) south of San Pedro, the Salar de Atacama is 62 miles (100km) long and 50 miles (80km) wide, making it the third largest salt lake in the world. Beneath the salt bed lies a hidden lake which occasionally breaks through to the surface forming small lagoons. Viewing conditions are perfect thanks to the dry air. Thousands of exotic birds flock to the lake, including flamingos, Andean sea gulls and highland plovers. The road that passes through the town of Toconao and has stunning views of the Lascar and Licancabur Volcanoes

Toconao
This colonial town, 24 miles (39km) from San Pedro, is famous for its church bell tower and handicrafts, which are both made from volcanic liparite stone. In the town centre, it’s common to see llamas and vicunas mixing with the people and on the edge of the town you can find the Quebrada de Jerez (Sherry Gully), made famous for its peculiar stone carvings.

Puritama Hot Springs
These desert hot springs are located in a mountainous canyon 12,000 ft above sea level and about 18 miles (29km) to the north of San Pedro. The open air pools, which are equipped with bathrooms and changing rooms, are set among waterfalls and are linked by a wooden boardwalk. The temperature of the sulphate hot springs ranges from 77º to 91º F and it is claimed that they have healing properties. To get there, you need a 4WD.

Pre-Columbian Fort of Quitor
Less than two miles (3km) from San Pedro, this pre-Inca construction dates back to the 12th century. Declared a National Monument in 1982, the fort is constructed out of large rocks that are piled on top of each other in a way that seem to defy gravity. The ruins are found at a bend in the canyon above the Rio Grande.

Cordillera de la Sal  (Salt Mountains) and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)
The unusual geological formations in the Salt Mountains appear suddenly along the road connecting San Pedro to Calama. They contain large quantities of calcium sulphate and at first sight, they appear to be sprinkled with salt. Millions of years ago, the mountain range, which was created by a shift in Earth’s tectonic plates, lay at the bottom of a lake. The rain, wind and powerful desert sun have continued to shape the range for centuries.

The road to San Pedro also crosses “el Valle de la Muerte” or Death Valley which has incomparable vistas at sunrise and sunset.