Exploring the ancient culture of Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert

An ethno-tourism circuit run by Tourism Aramaxi takes visitors into the caves of Valle de la Luna and into traditional villages to experience the millennia-old native culture of the most arid place on earth.


Over the years, San Pedro de Atacama has risen to become one of Chile’s most important tourist destinations, alongside internationally-known locations like Torres del Paine National Park and Easter Island.

A picturesque adobe settlement, San Pedro draws backpackers and nature lovers from around the world and hosts about 120,000 visitors annually, with about 75 percent coming from abroad. They are drawn by its famed volcanoes, geysers, rock formations and desert landscapes, as well as its rich ethnic and agricultural history.

Travellers can now take a unique glimpse into the indigenous culture of San Pedro de Atacama with the ethno- and agro- tourism agency Turismo Aramaxi, a family business based in the Collo community about seven kilometers outside San Pedro.

Though it began running only three years ago, Rubén Martinez, one of its operators, says the planning began as many as five years ago. “We’re here for people who want to experience Atacameño culture more profoundly,” Martinez says.

The desert region surrounding San Pedro has been home to native populations for thousands of years. Aramaxi trades on that lineage, offering visitors unique perspectives on the region’s more traditional tourist destinations, or insights into the gastronomy, arts and culture of the region’s indigenous peoples on a cultural circuit.

The caverns and rock formations of Valle de la Luna, one of the Atacama’s biggest draws, are the site for one of Aramaxi’s most fascinating excursions. Groups of no more than ten people are led deep into the caves below the desert surface, formed centuries ago by erosion.

The cultural circuit offered by Aramaxi strays from San Pedro’s typical tourist track, leaving behind the surreal altiplano landscapes that have made the region famous in favor of the gastronomy, arts and agriculture of the native communities that first lived amongst them.

The restaurant run by Turismo Aramaxi at their base just outside San Pedro prepares foods traditional in the region, harvested from the unlikely plants and trees that the native Atacaman indigenous peoples have managed to cultivate for millenia in the world’s most arid desert.

Turismo Aramaxi has helped introduce new layers to the rich texture of tourist experiences available in San Pedro while the city’s more traditional, time-tested tourism infrastructure continues to improve each year. “We’re not trying to change tourism in San Pedro,” Martinez says. “We’re offering an alternative way to see the region.”