San Pedro de Atacama is a small village near an oasis in the large Atacama Desert, located in northern Chile. This area is known as one of the driest deserts in the world. On average there is only 5 millimetres of rain per year. The town of San Pedro de Atacama, where most roads are still just sandy roads, is very popular with tourists. Young backpackers, older travellers, everyone comes together here in the compact and cosy centre. Because of this interest, prices here are higher than in other parts of Chile. Yet it is definitely worth being here for a few days.
A walk through San Pedro de Atacama
We like to do a “free walking tour” when we arrive somewhere new. You quickly get to know the highlights of a place, get some sense of orientation and often meet other nice travellers. Although the place is very small, it is also possible to do a tour in San Pedro de Atacama. On the central square in the village, a guide often speaks to you before you have had the chance to discover him or her.
For example, you will visit the small and simple, but very beautiful Catholic church. It has to be one of the oldest churches in Chile. The building made of adobe is a historical monument. The Museum of Gustavo Le Paige is also worth a visit. The Belgian priest Le Paige lived part of his life in Chile. In San Pedro de Atacama he studied the archaeology of the region and carried out several excavations. The small museum houses a number of his finds. In addition, you visit a traditional art gallery, with beautifully made art objects from the region. You will find many shops where you can buy nice souvenirs. Finally, you can also visit the regional cemetery.
Discover the region by mountain bike
Almost every tourist rents a mountain bike in San Pedro de Atacama. There are many bike rental companies in the centre. It certainly can’t hurt to compare the quality of the bikes and the prices, because there is definitely a noticeable difference. We did 2 days with the mountain bike on the road. Cycling goes well, the paths are sometimes bumpy and certainly very dusty. It is absolutely no harm to have a cloth for your mouth while cycling. If you wear lenses, good sunglasses that wrap around tightly are recommended. It is important to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
About 16 kilometres from San Pedro de Atacama are two salt lakes. It is actually a mystery how the lakes, two perfect circles, were created. The locals like the idea of meteorites. One of the lakes is mainly a breeding ground for flamingos. For this reason, it is not accessible to visitors. But you can float in the salty water of the other. By the way, you’re a hero if you can stay in for a long time because the water is really very cold! Yet it is a special experience to float so weightlessly. The water is beautiful in colour and the “floating” is a wonderful sensation. In those beautiful surroundings, where you see flamingos in a beautiful landscape, you can almost forget how cold the water is.
At the saltwater lake there are changing rooms, showers and toilets. It is absolutely advisable to rinse off well after the salt bath under the (usually cold) shower and remove the white salt from your body. On the mountain bike all that salt is not good! Fortunately, the sun almost always shines in this area, so if you did get cold, you are quickly warmed up again.
You can also witness a beautiful sunset experience at the end of the day here. The reflection of the sun and the mountains in the salty water is great for pictures. Remember that you still have to cycle back in the dark. So, make sure you have good lighting on your bike or a headlight (you usually get it when renting your bikes). You will also notice that it cools down very quickly when the sun disappears. The evenings can be very cold in this area. Bringing something warm is therefore recommended.
Pukara de Quitor
At about half an hour’s mountain biking on bumpy paths is Pukara de Quitor. This is an old settlement where the so-called “Atacameños” tried to protect themselves against the advancing troops of Spanish rulers. About 500 years ago a bloody battle took place here. The battle was unequal: with their many guns the Spaniards managed to take the fortress. With this, Atacama culture was defeated and also subjected to the Spanish rulers. The stone images at the entrance are a reminder of the local leaders. They were beheaded by the Spaniards after their capture.
From the entrance, where you have to buy a ticket, you can make a nice and not too difficult one-hour walk to the top of the complex. From this point you can understand why the fort was built here at the time. You have a great 360-degree view over the valley, the river, San Pedro and the surrounding volcanoes. Also, it is worth experiencing the sunset here at the end of the day on top of the mountain.
Aldea de Tulor
This is one of the oldest settlements in the region. The first inhabitants would have lived here 300 years before Christ. A small part of the entire area has been restored; there is little money available to restore any more. Although the site is on the list of the 100 most endangered archaeological sites, unfortunately little has changd. With the help of a Spanish-speaking guide you can explore the area. The guide tells a lot about the lives of the indigenous tribes in the past. If you have a lively imagination and can understand Spanish reasonably well, it is definitely worth cycling here. The trip through the area to Aldea de Tulor was really beautiful.
Other tours around San Pedro de Atacama
Besides these sights, you can go on many more tours in the San Pedro area. In the town, almost everyone can offer a tour. Make comparisons, because here too the quality of the offer is not always great. Nice spots to see are, among other things, the following:
- Valle de la Luna
- Lagunas Altiplanico
- El Tatio geysers
- Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia