San Pedro de Atacama: Ultimate Guide To Exploring The Atacama Dessert

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest and inhospitable places on earth. But with stunning landscapes and these amazing things to do in San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert, a journey here is an experience that you won’t soon forget.

Views over San Pedro de Atacama Chile

The small town of San Pedro de Atacama in the Antofagasta Region of Chile seems like an unlikely place for life-changing experiences. But a trip to this remote and desolate town in the Atacama desert reveals a wealth of hospitality and natural beauty that draws thousands of visitors year after year. In fact, explore the amazing things to do in San Pedro de Atacama was one of my favorite experiences while traveling through Chile.

With nearby experiences including the Valley of the Dead, the Moon Valley, flamingo-filled salt lakes, towering mountains topped with geothermal steam baths, and a local food scene that serves up incredible flavors that, alone, might make the journey to San Pedro de Atacama worth it, this town has a wealth of offerings.

The town is nearby to pre-Columbian ruins and alien landscapes that might make you feel as though you’re walking through a science fiction movie. And the nearby oasis nestled into the sheltered surroundings of a high plateau is something that all visitors must experience.

What To Do In San Pedro de Atacama

Flamingos in a lake in the Atacama Desert
Flamingo-filled lake in the Atacama Desert

There are a LOT of questions when traveling to San Pedro de Atacama, and I promise we’ll get to those. Christina and I had an unforgettable time in the town as a side-trip from our big adventures through Santiago, Valparaiso, and ultimately on to Easter Island.

Back when Christina still had time to write for our little website, she shared her experience of being barefoot and pregnant in the Valley of the Dead. That’s right, when we traveled to San Pedro de Atacama, she was six months into the journey that would bring us our first son. So, does that mean that we traveled to San Pedro de Atacama with kids? Well, not quite, but we still tell C that he made the journey.

It was inspiring to witness Christina tackle the epic hikes and altitudes of the Atacama desert and Altiplano plateau while pregnant. And, while it did affect her ability to enjoy some of the more intense things to do in the Atacama Desert there were some experiences that tuckered her out more than others.

Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)

Sunset over the Valley of the Moon in the Atacama Desert
Sunset over the Valley of the Moon in the Atacama Desert

Not far from San Pedro de Atacama is the accurately-named Valle de la Luna, or “Moon Valley” for us anglophones. Valle de la Luna is one of the most popular places to visit in San Pedro de Atacama. This is not only due to its proximity and easy access but also because it is stunningly beautiful.

Although this is one of the most popular attractions in the Atacama Desert, don’t let that fool you into thinking about crowds. A traffic jam in the Atacama would be three vehicles within a mile of each other.

Some of the most popular tours of Atacama’s Moon Valley include hiking tours, cycling tours, and road trips that take you to various parts of this beautiful place. You can also easily access the park independently by bicycle or by renting a car.

Valle de la Luna is a place where visitors are free to roam and explore. You’ll find dried-up riverbeds, sand dunes, and rock ridges that will take your breath away.

For a real treat, head to the tall dunes just outside of town (any local can point you in the right direction). It’s here that you can catch one of the most beautiful sunsets that you’ll find anywhere in the world.

You can check out the Valle de la Luna tour prices below:

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Pukara de Quitor (Quito Fort)

Woman standing beneath an Indigenous statue near San Pedro de Atacama
Christina at Pukara de Quitor

The ancient fortress of Pukara de Quitor was a site that I didn’t even know existed when I did my travel to San Pedro de Atacama. Christina and I stumbled on it while exploring some of the landscapes just a couple of miles from town. And it wasn’t until talking to some locals that we learned what we had stumbled upon.

Dating back to the 12th Century, Pukara de Quitor is one of the most incredible and ancient man-made attractions in San Pedro de Atacama. These pre-Columbian ruins are the remains of a fortress built of stacked stones and defensive walls and offer up a jaw-dropping view of the Atacama oasis.

At the time of our visit, it wasn’t open to outsiders, but that has now changed. You can reach Pukara de Quitor by heading north along the Rio San Pedro from town.

Salar de Tara

While they don’t have the same vast expanses as the salt flats in Bolivia, the Salar de Tara is still a stunning example of the earth’s changing dynamics.

These massive salt plains spread for miles in every direction. This is a magical spot filled with contrasting colors as the water seeps from the mountains and streams and collects on the plains creating beautiful reflections.

It’s large enough that you can play with the same fun depth-of-field photos that make visiting the Salar de Uyuni so famous. And it takes only a few hours to drive to it from San Pedro de Atacama. So, it’s relatively easy to get to as well.

Don’t be surprised to see hundreds of flamingos skimming the waters for the salt-rich brine that they love to dine on.

Tours of Salar de Tara are often combined with a few other areas of the Atacama Desert. You can check those out below:

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Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)

Man sitting on a rock ledge of the Valle de la Muerta in the Atacama Desert
Taking in the late day views at Valle de la Muerta

Although it shares the same name with a similar desert region in California, the ominously named Valle de la Muerte is a completely different experience. The valley is full of flaming red rocks and raw terrain that makes the story behind its name easy to understand.

Death Valley in the Atacama is located not far from the Moon Valley. And it’s easy to see why it has been the location of many sci-fi movies set on Mars. Similar to other red sand destinations such as Wadi Rum in Jordan, the iron-rich sand and rock has been oxidized turning the landscape into the current gorgeous rusty-red.

The Valle de la Muerte is a popular adventure destination for horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, and more. You can read more about our time in the Valley of the Dead here.

Valley de la Muerta tours are often combined with Valle de la Luna tours. You can check those prices out below:

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El Tatio Geysers

Colorful pools at the El Tatio Geysirs in San Pedro de Atacama
Prismatic pools at the El Tatio Geysirs

Located at a breathless altitude of 14,173 feet (4,320 meters) and requiring a winding drive up steep mountain paths has not stopped the El Tatio Geysers from becoming one of the most popular places to visit in the Atacama Desert.

I know that “alien landscapes” tend to be a trope in this guide to the Atacama Desert, but honestly, it’s true for the El Tatio geysers as well. It’s just a ridiculously wild place to be.

Most tours to the El Tatio Geysers begin very early for the slow, 55-mile (89 km) journey up the steep mountain passes. The best time to visit El Tatio is first thing in the morning when you can take in the brilliant sunrise over the mountains. This is when the hot water from the geothermal pools steams up magnificently into the air.

You can self-drive to El Tatio. But be warned that the roads up are very steep. Even many of the tour buses struggle along some of the sections. You will be stuck in traffic and you’ll want an engine with a bit of oomph to counteract the lower oxygen levels and steep inclines.

Alternatively, you can book an organized tour to El Tatio from San Pedro de Atacama and rest for the journey. You probably won’t be running on much sleep anyway as most tours begin between 3-4 o’clock in the morning.

Bring a bathing suit and a towel, as some of the geothermal pools are safe to swim in. And you won’t want to miss the experience of having a natural bath at the top of the world. You can read about our time in the El Tatio Geysers here.

Tours to the El Tatio Geysers are usually stand-alone tours. Although ambitious travelers can often add an afternoon tour in as well.

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Laguna Cejar

Throughout our travels, we’ve floated on the salty waters of the Dead Sea in Jordan and lazed about in the salt ponds of the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. But, there is something so extraordinary about floating on mineral-rich salt ponds at the high-altitudes of the Atacama Desert.

The peaceful surroundings and brilliant blue waters of Laguna Cejar make for a destination that is hard to tear yourself away from. You can easily spend a few hours floating effortlessly upon the waters. Although I recommend bringing some jugs of fresh water to rinse yourself off afterward. You’ll thank me when your thighs don’t chafe.

Laguna Cejar tours are normally only offered as part of a larger, multi-day package that includes many of the best sites to see in the Atacama Desert. You can check those out below.

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Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques

A woman stands by Lagunas y Mystiques in the Atacama as a fox strolls by
Christina and the fox at Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques

The brilliant blue waters of Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques belie the desolate surroundings of the arid Atacama landscapes. At a quick glance, everything surrounding the Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques seems dry and dead. But a closer look shows off the brilliant yellows, reds, and browns that make up the flora surrounding the waters.

This is also where Christina was followed for nearly an hour by a curious fox. We think the fox must have smelled that she was pregnant and curiously tailed us along the paths, even sitting a safe distance off while we rested for a while near the parking lot.

It’s worth the drive out to Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques for the brilliant colors and views of the lagoon. And if you see the fox, make sure to say hi for us.

Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques is typically combined with a full-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama that covers many of the Atacama places to visit. You can check the prices out below:

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Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks)

This popular Atacama attraction, about 100 miles (160 km) from San Pedro de Atacama towards the border with Argentina, can be a bit of a confusing drive. But there are plenty of Piedras Rojas tours due to the popularity of the experience. These tours usually include Laguna Chaxa as well as the towns of Socaire and Toconao.

The rocks here are a brilliant shade of red and the surrounding landscapes offer dramatic contrasts of yellows and browns combined with the brilliant blues of the high-altitude skies that make Piedras de Rojas a marvelous sight to behold.

The site sits at 13,123 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level. And the region is ringed with snow-capped volcanoes. If that alone doesn’t make the journey worth it for you, visiting the friendly desert towns along the way sure will.

Piedras Rojas tours are usually combined with a full-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama. You can check out the prices below.

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Termas de Puritama and the Valle de Jere

Geothermal springs at Termas de Puritama and the Valle de Jere
Geothermal springs at Termas de Puritama and the Valle de Jere

The eight connected geothermal pools that make up the Termas de Puritama were one of our favorite parts of exploring the Atacama Desert in San Pedro de Atacama.

The flowing stream that connects the pools and waterfalls is a popular spot on the tours that explore the salt flats and mountain villages. They have been used for centuries by the Atacama people due to their comfort, beauty, and healing properties of the mineral-rich water.

You can easily spend the whole day relaxing in the warm waters and bathing in the beautiful mountain surroundings.

Tours to Termas Puritanas and Valle de Jerre can be combined with full-day Atacama tours or done as a stand-alone tour that includes nearby villages.

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ALMA Observatory

With the perfect combination of high altitude, remote location, and brilliant dark skies, the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world for stargazing.

Because of this amazing combination of factors, astronomists have built one of the world’s leading observatories in the Atacama desert. The ALMA Observatory works in harmony with other observatories such as the ones on Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island and Haleakala on Maui to help scientists paint ever-more accurate pictures of the Universe that surrounds us.

There are few places on Earth where you can see as many stars with the naked eye as you can in the Atacama. The ALMA Observatory is the largest and most powerful observatory that is open to the public.

The guided tours will give you a glimpse into the life and science behind the observatory. And, of course, a glimpse into the universe as well.

Observatory tours are often paired with night sky viewing and astromony tours in San Pedro de Atacama. You can check out the prices below.

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Town of Tocanao

Toconao Bell Tower in the Atacama Desert
Toconao Bell Tower

Located just 24 miles (38 km) south of San Pedro de Atacama is the quaint town of Toconao. This quiet village is a prime example of the mud and brick architecture that has been a staple here for centuries.

In the center of town is a tall church bell tower that dates back to 1750. You’ll also find delicious homemade local food and snack stands alongside rustic washrooms that are a welcome sight after long days in the desert.

A visit to Toconao is often paired with a tour of the Atacama salt flats. You can check those prices below.

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Laguna Chaxa

The salty waters of Laguna Chaxa are one of the best places in the Atacama to see massive flocks of pink flamingos. In fact, there are three different species of flamingo that spend much of the warmer months wading and feeding in the massive salt lake that glitters under the blue skies.

Flat footpaths meander through the rocky salt fields and mirror-like ponds that make up Laguna Chaxa. It’s especially beautiful at sunset when the colors bounce off the clear waters.

Tours of Laguna Chaxa are often combined with a visit to the salt flats and Pedra Rojas. You can check those prices below.

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Explore The Town of San Pedro de Atacama

Views over San Pedro de Atacama Chile
Views of San Pedro de Atacama

You can’t experience the best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama without talking about the town itself. This charming village in the remote desert is a wonderful place to be.

The mud and brick buildings and dusty dirt roads harken back to a simpler time. Walking around San Pedro de Atacama may make you think that you’ve hopped into a Delorean and time traveled a few centuries into the past.

The streets are lined with vendors selling handmade trinkets and clothing. And it’s not rare to see a herd of sheep wander down the road. Modern services such as WiFi and electricity can be scarce in the town. Most of the accommodations have them, but it’s not rare for restaurants and shops to be lit by candles.

In the town, you can rent cars and bicycles to explore. Or just wander the shops and restaurants and enjoy the slow pace of life.

Where To Stay In San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama isn’t a place you’ll want to travel for a day trip. It’s remote and beautiful. And you’ll want to spend at least a few days exploring all the things to do in the Atacama desert.

Luckily, there are some great places to stay in San Pedro de Atacama for all price ranges and comfort levels. You’ll find budget hostels to mid-range guesthouses and even luxury resorts.

San Pedro de Atacama Airbnb and VRBOs

Without a doubt short term (or long-term) rentals are among the best ways to experience life in San Pedro de Atacama. Chances are that you will be spending at least a few days exploring the Atacama Desert, and a rental will give you the flexibility to explore at your leisure.

Here are a couple of gems that we love.

Charming Dome With a Treehouse Feel

Just a 10-minute walk from San Pedro de Atacama town center, this funky two-story dome surrounded by native trees offers a unique stay for those looking for something funky. The kitchen has everything that you need to make yourself at home and you’ll have ample access to hot water and WiFi. You’ll even have shared access to bikes, hammocks, bbq, and a washing machine.

The two-story dome-style accommodation stands out from many of the other places to stay in San Pedro de Atacama due to its unique architectural style.

You can find the latest prices and availability below.

El Otro Huertillo

This new cabin is situated in a charming garden just a 15-minute stroll from town. The cabin can comfortably house 3 people in 1 Queen and 1 Twin bed. It includes a fully-equipped kitchen, hot water, electricity, and WiFi. Please note that there is an additional charge of $25 for a 3rd guest.

You can find the latest prices and availability below.

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Best Hotels in San Pedro de Atacama

This might be a small town, but if you’re looking for some beautiful San Pedro de Atacama hotels, you’re in luck! The remote location hasn’t deterred locals and businesses from setting up shop here to create some true accommodation gems. Here are a few of our favorites.

Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa

If you’re looking for luxury accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama, Tierra Atacama Hotels should make your list.

This gorgeous property has a swimming pool, spa, and on-site restaurant in case you’re too tired from exploring the Atacama all day to make the short trip into town. You’ll also have access to WiFi, hot water, air conditioning, and electricity.

All of the rooms also have private patios and four-poster beds to add additional luxury to your stay. Plus, you’ll have access to a continental breakfast of traditional and Chilean food.

You can check the rates and availability below.

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Hotel Desertica

With free bike rentals, WiFi, electricity, hot water, and a superb central location, Hotel Desertica checks off all of the boxes for great places to stay in San Pedro de Atacama. But these basics are just the start.

Hotel Desertica is located just a quarter-mile (400m) from the San Pedro Church right in town. So you’ll have easy access to restaurants, shops, and car rentals. Each of the unique rooms features private bathrooms, toiletries, and access to an a la carte and buffet-style breakfast.

You’ll also have access to an outdoor pool, garden, and lovely walking paths. It’s no surprise as to why this is one of the most popular San Pedro de Atacama hotels.

You can check out the prices and availability below.

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Tips For Visiting San Pedro De Atacama

Car driving to San Pedro de Atacama beneath mountains
Driving to San Pedro de Atacama

Visiting San Pedro de Atacama with Kids

San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert are lovely places to visit with children. It’s quite remote and raw, so it can often scare off adults who aren’t comfortable with these types of destinations. But those who travel with kids to the Atacama Desert usually love their experience. However, there are a few things to know before you go.

  • Whenever you’re dealing with kids and elevation, be prepared. Kids aren’t always great at understanding the signs of altitude sickness. If they get queasy, lightheaded, or lethargic, head down to lower altitudes immediately.
  • Some tours may not accept children due to safety or insurance issues. Some of these places, such as Valle de la Muerte aren’t dangerous by our standards, but tour companies have to work within their own rules. Consider renting a car and doing a self-drive for these experiences.
  • You will not have cell reception in most areas of the Atacama. And when you do, don’t expect it to be consistent.
  • If you’ll be making your own food at your hotel or accommodation, consider buying groceries in Calama. There are not many options in San Pedro de Atacama itself.

How Do You Get From Santiago To San Pedro de Atacama?

Getting to Santiago from San Pedro de Atacama or vice-versa can be a challenging experience. San Pedro de Atacama is remote and transit can be complicated. But, if you do it right, traveling from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama doesn’t need to be stressful.

Flying to San Pedro de Atacama

The distance between the Santiago and San Pedro de Atacama is 1,000 miles (1,629 km). And the fastest way to travel between Santiago and San Pedro de Atacama is by plane from Santiago to the city of Calama. From there, there is a shuttle bus that can take you to San Pedro de Atacama for a fee. You can also hire a private transfer, get a taxi, or rent a car.

Driving to San Pedro de Atacama

If you choose to drive to San Pedro de Atacama from Santiago, you’re looking at a drive time of about 17-18 hours without breaks. But, driving to San Pedro de Atacama from Santiago allows you to take in popular attractions such as Capiapo, Bahia Inglesa, and Antofagasta.

Route 5, which is what you’ll take for the majority of the trip is a well-maintained road and you won’t have to deal with too many complications until you reach the stretch from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama.

As you’re driving through the desert, remember that the shoulders, especially around the Valle de la Luna, can be VERY soft. I pulled over to take a photo and ended up spending two hours digging my truck out of the sand while my poor, very pregnant wife reminded me that I had been told many times to not pull onto the shoulder (always listen to locals).

Luckily, we were saved by some locals who were able to tow us out at the cost of one tow strap and a little bit of sweat.

Bus to San Pedro de Atacama

Busses in South America are on a level that we just won’t appreciate when coming from North America. We learned this on our 9-hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno, Peru.

They take the same route as most cars, but you’ll have on-board snacks and drinks, access to washrooms, and of course, air-conditioning. For a long drive like this, I recommend spending a few extra pesos for the salon-cama, or lounge bed. These are nearly lay-flat seats that will let you doze away comfortably.

How Many Days Should You Spend in San Pedro de Atacama?

To make the most of your visit to San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama desert, you’ll want to spend at least four days exploring. But, if you can stretch your visit to a week, you’ll be able to experience all of these things to do in the Atacama Desert at a much more relaxed pace.

How do you get around San Pedro de Atacama?

Getting around San Pedro de Atacama is a breeze. Walking, biking and driving are the main ways to explore. The town itself is tiny and walking anywhere in town rarely takes more than 10-15 minutes.

Cycling is one of the most popular ways to get around. You’ll find San Pedro de Atacama bicycle rentals all over town. And having a bike handy will make exploring the Moon Valley and Death Valley much more efficient.

Renting a car allows you to do a DIY San Pedro de Atacama adventure. You won’t need it in town, but getting to the El Tatio Geysers, or Valle de la Muerte will be much more convenient and less expensive than booking a tour.

Can you drink tap water in San Pedro de Atacama?

Unless you have spent a significant amount of time in rural Chile, I’d recommend avoiding tap water. In the north, heavy mining has led to some arsenic and heavy metals leaching into the water. And then there is the fact that sometimes, stomachs just don’t adapt well to water in other countries. It might not be bad, but your stomach might not agree.

But, if you bring one of these filtered water bottles, you can take advantage of the tap water or even fresh stream or lake water (not saltwater though) and have fresh clean water wherever you travel. We never leave home without ours.

What Is The Altitude of San Pedro de Atacama?

San Pedro de Atacama sits at an altitude of 7,900 ft (2,408 m). The Andes Mountains, which winds through the Atacama Desert reach heights of well over 13,000 ft (4,000 m), with some towering heights of 20,000 ft (6,000 m).

What Is The Best Time To Visit the Atacama Desert?

Summer is the high season in the Atacama Desert. From December to February you’ll find the most pleasant temperatures and warm nights that make stargazing and nighttime hikes a popular experience. The temperatures during the summer months can hit highs of 81°F (27°C) during the day and 61°F (16°C) at night.

The low season in the Atacama is during the winter from June-August. You’ll generally find lower-cost accommodations. However, access to some of the more remote experiences might be cut off due to winter storms. Temperatures during this time can reach highs of 72°F (22°C) during the day and lows can reach 28°F (-2°C) at night.

Shoulder season covers the other parts of the calendar. Spring shoulder season is from September to November while Fall shoulder season runs from March till May. These are excellent times to visit as the prices are generally lower and the crowds much less busy, but you’ll still get relatively comfortable temperatures.

Have You Ever Visited San Pedro de Atacama or the Atacama Desert?

If you love wild, natural landscapes and quaint towns like us, you will absolutely be in heaven in San Pedro de Atacama. If you’ve been to this magical place, drop a comment below and tell us about your experience. Or, if you love to travel with kids, head over to our Family Travel Facebook Community and share your tips. We would love to hear your ideas.

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Church in the Atacama Desert
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About the Author

Kevin Wagar is a professional traveler and family travel expert living in the Greater Toronto Area. His beautiful wife Christina impressed on him her love of travel and they have made exploring the world an integral part of their life. With the birth of their two boys, Kevin and Christina have made it their mission to show others that traveling with children isn't as scary as it sounds and that kids can benefit from experiencing the world outside of their front door and beyond.

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