CHILE | San Pedro de Atacama & Atacama Desert

Chaxa Lagoon

I didn’t want to travel all the way to Chile and miss the driest place on earth. What a superlative! I also didn’t want to go home without visiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and I was lucky enough to do both.

First spending a few day in the Atacama, then on to Santiago to a Global Village build in Santiago with Habitat for Humanity, and afterward a trip to the island. They were all super – the desert, a big bustling city and the most remote inhabited island in the world. Chile’s got so much to offer the traveler!

Valle de la Luna

San Pedro de Atacama’s appeal isn’t luxury accommodation, gourmet food and wine or charm and history, although you can find all that. The streets of this small, one-story town are dusty, compacted and parched earth. The architecture is unremarkable. It’s so small you can memorize the map in one outing. The town itself isn’t the draw, although its humble charm will win you over in an afternoon. San Pedro is more of a homebase for the star attraction—outdoor adventure.

San Pedro de Atacama

There are no shortage of tour operators here. Their storefronts line the streets, one after another. You can book tours as far as Bolivia for days, or rent a bike for the afternoon and everything in between. While you don’t need to book in advance, if you don’t, you may not be able to do and see what you came for.

I visited during the Chilean Independence Day holiday and I’m so glad I took the time to make my arrangements prior to my arrival. The added benefit is, you don’t need to take time on your holiday to figure out what you want to do on your holiday!

Things to consider:

Iglesia de San Pedro de Atacama

  • How long will you stay? My friends and I stayed four nights, five days. We flew SKY Airline from Santiago, which takes about two hours, and then booked a transfer (I pre-booked online with Denomades) another one hour drive. Why rush when getting there takes some effort? I recommend at least three full days.
  • When choosing lodging, consider location. There are scads of hostels in town, but not as many hotels. We stayed at the fabulous boutique Hotel Terrantai. Locally owned, incredible ambiance, tea time and happy hour daily, a hearty breakfast and the best staff ever! It’s right in town (Tocopillo 411) so we could walk to store and restaurants. [PRO TIP: Our rooms 10 and 11 had access to their own outdoor courtyard.]
  • Renting a car isn’t necessarily cheaper or as reliable as booking a tour. We met a couple who rented a truck that broke down and a replacement wasn’t available.
  • Get quotes from at least one tour operator in advance. I followed the advice of my hotel and used their preferred operator, Trekana, booked in advance, received a discount and excellent service.
  • The added benefit to booking a tour is learning from a good local guide. We just adored our guide, Anton, and learned so much from him not only about the Atacama, but also about Chilean culture and history; we were engrossed in his stories!
  • Finally, weather. You’ll want to dress in layers, and bring a windbreaker, a warm jacket, long and short sleeve shirts, pants, hats, maybe gloves, sturdy footwear and sunscreen for sure. You’ll feel hot in the sun, which is stronger here, and cool in the shade. Before and after sunrise it can be cold and when the wind blows, really cold!

Hotel Terrantai

Our Itinerary

If you have more time, there’s plenty more to see. The only thing I might do differently is book another tour on Day Four, when we opted to just chill.

Flying over the Andes!

DAY ONE – ARRIVAL

Most likely you’ve been traveling for the better part of the day, or longer, if you transferred from your international arrival to the domestic flight to Calama from Santiago, as I did.

After checking in at your hotel, relax, maybe shower and head to Cafe Adobe for dinner. Think live music, big open fire pit and fabulous food. [PRO TIP: If you are staying at Hotel Terrantai, ask for the discount coupon.]

DAY TWO

Plenty of time to sleep in and enjoy breakfast at the hotel. Late morning we walked to Pukara de Quitor. It’s just under 2 miles to walk there from town, but be prepared that when you arrive at this pre-Columbian archaeological fortress, you’ll pay a small fee and be hiking uphill switchbacks, at nearly 8,000 feet, in intense sun. The views are terrific, but be sure to wear sunscreen, a hat, good shoes and bring water.

The ruins at Pukara de Quitor

We booked the late afternoon tour to Atacama Salt Flat – Chaxa Lagoon (Flamingos), Kezala Canyon (petroglyphs). This was our introduction to the amazing and varied topography. And we met our guide, whom we adored!

Petroglyphs and Salt Flats

We were so tired at the end of our day we simply ordered a pizza from Pizzaria El Charrua and ate it at our hotel!

DAY THREE

Early morning start with our Moon Valley, Ayllus, Atacameñan Tasting tour. Our guide served us breakfast as we watched the sunrise over the mountains. The sky was absolutely electric! After that, we continued to hike in Moon Valley, learn more about the history and Andean culture and sampled foods made by an atacameñan family.

In the afternoon explore the town, see the San Pedro de Atacama Church and happy hour. We enjoyed and early dinner at La Estaka (the Chilean dinner hour doesn’t heat up until after 9pm) so we’d be ready for our evening tour Stars & Fire: Traditional scientific and Andean astronomy tour.

Given the dry air and altitude, this is one of the best, if not THE best, places in the world to stargaze. Take full advantage! Myriad stars and planets are easily seen with the naked eye, and you’ll get to see them through a telescope while hearing stories of the ancient atacameñan astronomers.

[PRO TIP: If open, visit one of the big international observatories, like ALMA. Advance reservations required.]

DAY FOUR

This was the day I hadn’t planned anything definite because of the holiday, Chilean Independence Day. I just wasn’t sure if there would be some cool serendipitous opportunity that we’d have to pass up if we have booked another tour. We ended up finding a spa and booking massages at Kimal Relax. Dare I say not a shabby option, especially since we had plans that evening for a friend’s birthday.

Sitial del Fuego

Upon the recommendation and with the help of the staff at Hotel Terrantai, I booked dinner at Sitial del Fuego. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Atacama. The venue is truly unique, the food and wine outstanding, the fire provides killer ambiance, the music sets the mood and listening to Andean folklore under the stars, feels like it can’t get any better.

Traditional Andean Music at Sitial del Fuego

[PRO TIP: Dress warm and let them know if you have any dietary restrictions ahead of time.]

DAY FIVE – DEPARTURE

Finish up your shopping after breakfast and hop on board your pre-booked shuttle back to the airport in Calama, or head for other parts.

[PRO TIP: Rica rica is all over the Atacama, but not in other parts of Chile, if you want to buy some and take it home, do it in San Pedro.]

Our Favorite Restaurants & Shops

Restaurants

The food in San Pedro de Atacama is very good. The portions we were served were more than ample and the prices fair, sandwiches, empanadas and pizza being the least expensive. Budget for a nice meal out in any city and you’ll be fine. Unless of course you have too many pisco sours (they are so good)!

  • Cafe Adobe [Caracoles 211] – terrific food, live music, firepit
  • La Estaka [Caracoles 259]
  • Pizzaria El Charrua [Tocopillo 442]
  • Roots [Caracoles 195]
  • [PRO TIP: If you want to go for just a drink the only true bar in town, ChelaCabur, is at Caracoles 212. You don’t need to be a biker to get in, but it might help to look like one.]
  • Cafe Peregrino [Gustavo La Paige on Plaza San Pedro de Atacama] – terrific sandwiches with huge portions
  • Francuteria [Gustavo Le Paige 527] – French panaderia and patisserie
  • Emporio Andino [Caracoles at Domingo Atienza] – great empanadas

Franchuteria – Emporio Andino – Cafe Peregrino

Foods NOT to Miss

  • Drink pisco sours (or tea) with rica rica and Austral’s Calafate beer any chance you get!
  • Chile is known for wine made from the carmenere grape, and it’s really terrific. If you see Adobe wines, buy them. We loved all the varieties we tried by that maker.
  • If you have a chance, try the Monkey Tail cocktail, a special treat made traditionally at Christmastime.
  • Try the sweet molasses like syrup make with chañar and algarrobo, hopefully with homemade quinoa bread.
  • You’ll find practically everything made from quinoa in the north. It’s delicious and nutritious (one of the only foods containing all 9 essential amino acids). The quinoa risotto is particularly yummy!

Shops

There a lots of souvenir shops in town selling everything from dolls to statues to masks to kitschy textiles and post cards. Price and quality vary. Of the shops I visited, these have some of best and most unique items. As with the restaurants, many are on Caracoles.

  • Mallku [Caracoles 190] textiles, jewelry, art
  • Petroglifo [Caracoles 190B] original arts and crafts by local artists
  • Manos Andinos [Caracoles 280] as the name says, made by hand
  • Minga [Caracoles 183] scarves, sweaters and jewelry
  • [PRO TIP: For a fabulous hot stone massage, I recommend Kimal Relax spa Caracoles 163]
Storefront on Tocopillo

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