San Pedro de Atacama is a small town in the north of Chile and has become a popular stop along the gringo trail across South America. Due to its incredible landscapes, authentic town and occasional desert rave backpackers and adventure travellers from all over the world are coming in increasing numbers. This guide will cover the best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama so that you can make the most of your time in this beautiful corner of the world. On this trip I went with my partner and her sister and we hired a 4wd in Calama and spent 6 days seeing the best sites in and around San Pedro, read on to see the best ways to explore this part of the Atacama Desert.
- Piedras Rojas
- Wander around the authentic streets of San Pedro
- Get up early to see the Tatio Geysers
- Float in the salt dense Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache
- Visit the two lagoons at Lagunas Antiplanicos
- Watch the sunset over the Cordillera de Sal
If you’re in San Pedro you MUST see some of the sights surrounding it even if you’re short on time. San Pedro is located in a valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, and is home to some of the world’s highest geysers. The area also has a lot of historical and archaeological importance, as it was once part of the Inca Empire.
Before going to San Pedro de Atacama I was mainly focused on the activities to do around San Pedro like the salt lakes, geysers, volcanos etc. But one of the biggest surprises for me was the town itself. Thankfully the local government and indigenous groups have preserved the authentic feel of the town, so you won’t find any overdeveloped hotels or 5 star resorts. Instead, you’ll be able to see traditional architecture with a modern influence on food, events and shops. We flew from Santiago to Calama, picked up our 4wd and drove for an hour to San Pedro.
Getting out of San Pedro
As always I did a lot of research before heading to San Pedro and can share with you how to make the most of your time there. Hiring a 4wd is the first step you should take. Even if you’re travelling solo the price difference between hiring a 4wd and paying for day tours each day will be very similar. If you’re travelling with one or more amigos then it’ll definitely be cheaper to rent a 4wd than pay for the tours. Also, it’s always better to have your own way to get around so you can spend as long or little as you like at each place.
Planning an itinerary whilst in San Pedro is easy as there are four main highways out of town and each direction has its own set of sights to see. Below you’ll find the best things to do and see around San Pedro so you can build your own itinerary based on the number of days you have available and weather you like to travel at a slow or fast pace. Another thing to keep in mind is many of the sights around San Pedro are at high altitude and you could be affected by the altitude even if you’re a young, fit backpacker. To avoid any altitude sickness it’s a good idea to acclimatise to the altitude before heading to the higher attractions.
Valley of the Moon
The Valley of the Moon is a lunar landscape just outside of San Pedro de Atacama. The valley is full of strange rock formations, canyons, and cliffs. You’ll need to pay an admission fee to enter soooo I recommend Vallecito.
Vallecito / Magic Bus
The “Magic Bus” might be the most well-known sight on this off-road trip east of San Pedro but the sights you see along the way were the highlight for us. Driving through the desert to Vallecito you’ll see similar landscapes as you’ll see in the Valley of the Moon.
Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache
These natural turquoise picturesque pools are surrounded by salt and located an hour outside San Pedro along a rocky gravel road. These escondidas (hidden) pools really feel like they’re in the middle of the desert but are definitely worth the trip out from San Pedro. You’ll have to pay an entrance fee but once inside you can walk along a wooden pathway visiting each of the 7 pools. You can only swim in the first and last pools and there’s a picnic area and changing rooms available.
Puritama Hot Springs
Located a short 30-minute drive from San Pedro, these hot springs are set in the Puritama river and entrance is managed by the Explora Hotel which charge CLP25000 (U$28). The pools are a great way to relax and are connected by a wooden walkway and interconnected through a series of small waterfalls.
Lugana Cejar is one of the closest destinations to San Pedro and consists of two lakes; Baltinache and Piedra. This is different to the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache. You can float in the salty water and enjoy the distant view of a volcano before washing off using the good (but cold) public showers. Laguna cejar is one of the most expensive sites to visit around San Pedro.
Ojos de Salar & Laguna Tebenquiche
These two destinations are located close to each and a short drive from Laguna Cejar. The ojos (eyes) are two circular freshwater holes just past the entrance gate where you’ll pay the entrance fee. They look inviting but you can’t swim in either of the ojos to protect their wildlife. Rumour has it a car ended up in one of them after its renter didn’t leave the handbrake on while admiring the ojos by foot. Laguna Tebenquiche is a short drive past the ojos and is a much bigger lake with differing landscapes. There’s three places to park at Tebenquiche or you can complete the long walk down one side of the lake.
The Antiplano Lakes
Another must-do activity in San Pedro de Atacama is visiting the Altiplano lakes. These high-altitude lakes are a spectacular sight and you’ll likely spot some wildlife around the lakes. Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques are next to each other and accessed by a loop road from the entrance gate. You’ll need to pay an entrance fee which provides access to both lakes but must be purchased before you arrive. You cannot pay at the entrance so make sure you buy your entrance tickets in San Pedro or the tourist office in Socaire. .
Piedras Rojas a.k.a Aguas Calientes
This place is incredible. Definitely the most picturesque area around San Pedro in my opinion. Here you’ll see red mountains towering over salt planes and your eyes will think you’re looking at a painting. The drive to Piedras Rojas is almost three hours from San Pedro or one hour from the Antiplanic Lakes. Once you arrive you’ll be welcomed by one of the guides stationed at the entry but there’s no entry fee which is great. The bathrooms there are the best of all the sites around San Pedro. Another great thing about Piedras Rojas is that you’ll walk from the car park on a loop trail viewing the sights from different angles and seeing the volcano on the northern side to the salt lake and red mountain range on the east.
Another highlight of ours was the Tatio Geysers which are group of geysers located about 4 hours away from San Pedro de Atacama. The geysers are active at dawn, so you’ll need to leave San Pedro very early in the morning. These geysers are among the highest in the world and it’s said approximately 8% of all geysers in the world are in Tatio. Due to the altitude and time of day it will likely be the coldest temperature you’ll experience around San Pedro, it reached -13C when we were there so make sure you’re prepared.
Quebrada del Diablo – Devil’s Throat
This feels like a small canyon and is easily reached from San Pedro. Many people hire bikes to visit but we chose to drive. The road leaves San Pedro and arrives quickly at the entrance point. From there you can drive or ride into the area and either park and walk or ride through the valley.
One activity that San Pedro de Atacama is known for is stargazing as it has some of the darkest skies in the world. There are several companies that offer stargazing tours otherwise you can head out on your own to gaze up at the universe.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro is a small town so no matter where you stay it’s not too far to walk into the centre of the town.
Hostel Perita is great value for money, it’s clean and close to the town plus it has parking either inside or just outside of the hotel. Breakfast is included and the caretaker Ricky will make sure you’ve got everything you need.
La Tribu del Indio
Another great budget option close to town is La Tribu del Indio. The hostel has private parking and a restaurant onsite.
A more expensive option in San Pedro but worth the price is CKOI Atacama. Each room is designed differently and maintains an authentic Atacaman theme. All rooms have a private bathroom and they even have llamas onsite.
Best places to Eat in San Pedro
Adobe is a very authentic feeling restaurant with an open firepit and clay walls. Adobe feels like one of the fancier places in San Pedro and prices are higher than average. However, if you can afford it then check it out as you’ll unlikely to find a restaurant like it at home.
Jardin Meraki is a fancy-feeling trendy restaurant that has a live DJ playing over a terrace. The restaurant uses local organically grown products and is worth stopping by for at least a drink one evening.
Las Delicias de Carmen offers three course meals that are great value for money. The food is delicious and you won’t leave hungry. The vegetarian options are better than most places in town.
La Pica Del Indio is another great value for money option and the lines out the front prove it. This well-known eatery is a favourite for locals and tourists.
Emporio Andino has the best empanadas I’ve tried in Chile and certainly the best in San Pedro. There’s lots of choices whether you’re a vegan or meat lover.
Helados Babalu is an ice cream shop offering unique flavours from coca leaf to pisco sour. They also offer tastings so you can try a few flavours before you buy.
Chela Cabur feels like a sports bar with all the football shirts and flags covering the ceiling and parts of the walls.
Lolas is the liveliest bar and restaurant in San Pedro which seemed almost like an open-air nightclub the nights we were there. At Lola’s you’ll find great food, drinks, live music and even karaoke.
Travel Resources for Visiting San Pedro de Atacama
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.