San Pedro de Atacama: The Coolest Little Desert Town in the World

By Jay Moran — February 21, 2015 —

San Pedro de Atacama feels like an old Western town that you might have stumbled across in Arizona circa 1875.  The main avenue is a dirt road.  On either side are one-story, white, adobe buildings.  The locals wear cowboy boots. At mid-day the intense desert sun and dry air turn the ground into a red clay powder, and at night the temperatures plummet.

Located near the Andean mountains of northern Chile, with a population of only 5,000 inhabitants, this is one of the driest places on the planet.  Average precipitation is 1.67 inches per year.  Some outlying areas haven’t seen rainfall for more than four decades!  The altitude is punishing, too.  At almost 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) above sea level, many visitors suffer from altitude sickness.

Sounds inviting, right?

Well, it is, and much more.  In fact, San Pedro de Atacama might just be the coolest little remote desert town in the world.  It truly is an oasis of adventure and breathtaking natural beauty. 

Welcome to San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is a tourist town.  It is the launching point for treks across the great salt plains of Bolivia, and most people stop here either before or after going to the salt flats and/or with a connection to Argentina.  Despite all of the foreigners, however, San Pedro somehow still retains a special charm.

San Pedro de Atacama somehow manages to simultaneously be a sleepy town and adventure hub in northern Chile

San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile somehow manages to be both a sleepy town and adventure hub

When I was there, I stayed for five days, and I easily could have stayed for five more.  The town is well-equipped with hotels for every budget, nice restaurants, tour operators, even a North Face shop.  The latter is for visitors who are not ready for the severe cold.

During the mornings and afternoons, San Pedro is relatively empty because there are several amazing day excursions available, including:

  • El Tatio Geysers – the third largest geyser field in the world
  • Laguna Miscanti and Miñiques – high altitude lagoons
  • Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flats in the world
  • Moon Valley and Death Valley
  • Laguna Cejar – a lagoon so salty that you can float in it like in the Dead Sea
  • Awesome stargazing at the Milky Way, Saturn and more

The way to visit these sites is by choosing one of several tour operators in town.  Each trip is usually a half-day, and the operators take groups of 8-12 people in large vans (in our case, a converted safari truck), along with a guide.  They provide breakfast or snacks to everyone at a cool resting place, too. 

What follows is a brief description of my experience on these excursions, as well as some photos that I took during my trip.

El Tatio Geyers

This field of over 80 active geysers is pretty amazing.  Located at an altitude of over 14,000 feet (4350 meters) above sea level, El Tatio is about a three hour drive from San Pedro de Atacama.

The goal is to arrive there at sunrise, when the temperature outside is still so cold that the geysers create giant plumes of vapor that rise up in the air.  In order to get us there so early, the van picked me up at my hotel at 3:30 in the morning.  And it was freezing outside!  The staff had told us to be prepared for temperatures as low as -15 degrees Celsius, and I wore just about every piece of clothing that I had.  But it was still painfully cold. 

El Tatio at sunrise

El Tatio at sunrise

Until the sun rises, be prepared for the cold!

Until the sun rises, be prepared for the cold!

The first light coming over the mountains makes it all worth it, though.  El Tatio is a unique natural landscape.  We walked through the field for about an hour as the guide explained to us the hydrogeology of the place.

There is a natural thermal pool there that many people decide to enter after visiting the geysers.  I’m sure it felt amazing to get in, but with the freezing air I wasn’t brave enough to face the prospect of having to get out and try to warm up again.  A few in our group tried it, however.  When I saw their shivering faces, I was happy with my decision.

On the way back from El Tatio, we saw a lot of wildlife in the desert, including vicuñas and birds, and then we stopped in the town of Manchuca.

The Salt Flats of Atacama and Laguna Cejar

The Salar de Atacama is a 1200 square mile salt flat located about 35 miles from San Pedro.  Surrounded on all sides by mountains, the area creates beautiful colors and is home to lots of wildlife, most noticeably flamingos.  Some of the landscape is quite rugged as a result of evaporation.

Beautiful landscapes and wildlife at the Atacama salt flats

Beautiful landscapes and wildlife at the Atacama salt flats

The Laguna Cejar is a sink hole lake in the Salar de Atacama.  The salt concentration is so high that you can float in it much like in the Dead Sea.  No effort is required.  Your body just floats like a buoy.

Floating without effort in the Laguna Cejar.

Floating without effort in the Laguna Cejar.

Our group enjoying a pisco sour at sunset near the Laguna Cejar

Enjoying a pisco sour at sunset near the Laguna Cejar




Miscanti and Miñiques — High Altitude Lakes

These are high altitude salt-water lakes that are fed from water sources deep below the earth’s surface.  They are separated only by a short distance, the result of a lava flow from nearby Miñiques Volcano that split the lake in two.  Due to the salinity, the lakes do not freeze over, despite the cold temperatures, and the surrounding snow, mountains, and deep blue color of the lakes constitute a beautiful scene. 

Laguna Miscanti

Laguna Miscanti

Valley of the Moon (El Valle de la Luna)

The Valley of the Moon is located in the Atacama desert.  We were there at sunset, and the deep purple and red colors of the landscape are beautiful.  The name stems from the fact that the area has various stone and sand formations carved by wind and water, and the colors and textures look somewhat similar to the surface of the moon.  The valley is also one of the driest places on earth.  Some areas have not received a drop of rain for hundreds of years.

Moon Valley

Moon Valley

The colors at sunset are beautiful

The colors at sunset are beautiful

Stargazing at the Milky Way

The Atacama desert has ideal conditions for stargazing: high altitude, few clouds and almost no light pollution or radio interference.  The result is crystal clear views of the Southern Hemisphere sky.

A few different groups offer these tours.  I went with SPACE, owned by the french astronomer Alain Maury.  The site is located about a ten minute drive from San Pedro.  After about thirty minutes of outdoor astronomy lecture, everyone walks to an area that contains a dozen or so high-powered telescopes.  Afterwards, we went inside and enjoyed some hot chocolate as Alain answered questions.

Cover photo by Miguel Vera Leon/Flickr


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