San Pedro de Atacama: the gateway to one of the driest places on Earth

San Pedro de Atacama is a small touristy town very close to the border with Bolivia and is the gateway to exploring the Atacama desert. We arrived in Chile from Bolivia and immediately felt the difference going from one of the poorest countries in South America to one of the richest. Thankfully, San Pedro was much warmer than the Salt Flats but we found the Chilean accent much harder than the Bolivian and the prices much steeper. 

There is not much to do in the town itself but its pretty cobbled streets are lined with tour agents selling a variety of tours in the area. Travellers flock to San Pedro to explore the Atacama desert, to star gaze and do the Bolivian Salt Flats tour (and this way, cross the border over to Bolivia). 

We were a little toured-out but decided that we couldn’t pass on seeing Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), one of the main tourist attractions in this area. Our Airbnb host booked us a tour with Terra Extreme who were very good (although I don’t think there’s much difference between the tours) and overall the tour exceeded our expectations which for some reason were not particularly high. All tours to Valle de la Luna leave in the afternoon so that you can catch the sun setting over the valley and reflecting on the mountains behind. Our tour was quite informative about the area and took us to a few different spots including through a little cave. The landscape and the rock formations are just incredible and as we were walking we could hear the rocks crackling as they were expanding (as we understood, they contract in the cold in the night and expand in the heat of the day). 

Walking through the valley you really get the feeling that you could be on the moon or a different planet. During the tour we got chatting to a friendly Chilean guy from Santiago who mentioned that scientists have done some testing here in preparation for missions to Mars (a fact which I later confirmed).  Overall, we really liked the tour and it was a bonus to meet a local who told us a bit about Chile. (Note: you can hire bikes and visit Valle de La Luna on your own but watching people from my comfy bus seat I was glad we opted for the tour. The ride looked hard as the area is quite hilly and it can also get very dusty.) 

As we enjoyed our tour we contemplated doing another but in the end decided that the tours were too similar to what we have already seen during our Salt Flats tour (plus the tours were quite pricey). Instead we decided to go it solo, hire some bikes and ride to Pukara de Quitor and Quebrada del Diablo (Devils Canyon). 

Pukara de Quitor is an archaeological site located about 3km from town. The site has a mirador to which you walk up for some great views of the area.

Afterwards we pushed on to Quebrada del Diablo which is another 4km away from town. Both sections were a fairly easy ride although the path to the Devil’s Canyon involved a couple of small river crossing (but we didn’t mind getting our feet a little wet). 

There are many restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama including some fancier places. We definitely noticed that restaurant prices in San Pedro were more akin to prices in London or Australia. That is, except for the wine which was cheap and so good! We did find some cheaper meals including at La Pica del Diablo, a busy restaurant in town which had a good value three course dinner menu and a small row of restaurants outside of town with great lunch time specials. We did splurge and go to dinner at the beautiful Baltinache Restaurant serving traditional but creative Chilean cuisine. The food was very good but it was the staff, the beautiful decor and the ambiance which made us really like the place. We also had some delicious Chilean red. 

Accommodation in San Pedro is expensive so we turned to Airbnb and found what we thought to be a good and cheap option. However, what greeted us on arrival (when we were dirty, hungry and a little battered and bruised) was a construction site. Not our best Airbnb choice but the hosts were lovely, there was hot water (after an initial hiccup) and WiFi (which worked most of the time). So it didn’t matter too much that we had no electricity (only solar power which wasn’t even enough to charge our phones) and that we got locked-in one morning (luckily the Internet was working and we could contact the hosts) or that we were literally on a construction site. Overall, the place was perfectly fine and we could even laugh about it after a couple of hours whilst promising ourselves that we would splurge on a nice place at one of our upcoming destinations. 

It felt strange to leave Chile after only three days (although we will be back later in the year) but our itinerary was taking us to Salta, Argentina. There are direct buses between Salta and San Pedro a number of times per week and the route is operated by a number of companies. We chose Geminis which is one of the cheaper companies. They were excellent – we even got snacks and had a a clean toilet on board which is important for a 10 hour or so journey. Although long, the bus ride was mostly very enjoyable as we drove past some stunning landscape and scenery including lagoons, salt flats and coloured mountains.  At one point we were even driving through clouds. The ride took us past the picturesque village of Purmamarca which looked amazing and where we had thought about spending a night (but didn’t). After that the last two hours dragged a bit and the scenery wasn’t as special – I guess that happens in the last two hours of a 10 hour bus ride! We were lucky enough to have the front two seats on the second level which meant that we had the best views. 

Next: Salta, Argentina. 

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