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San Pedro de Atacama | Adventure Destination Guide

Otherworldly landscapes surround the rural Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama

In northern Chile by the border with Bolivia is the driest non-polar desert in the world, the Atacama. Thanks to the towering Andes, the Atacama fault and its altitude of 2,408m there are plenty of mesmerising landscapes to feast your eyes on here. Spurting geysers, arid salt flats and towering volcanoes are just a few of the natural wonders you’ll discover.

How To Get There

Flying is the most viable option as San Pedro de Atacama is so remote. Take a flight to the Chilean capital, Santiago (not to be confused with Santiago de Compostela in Spain where the flights are a lot cheaper!) then onwards to Calama. British Airways have direct flights to Santiago, while Air France or American Airlines tend to be cheaper as they have a connection.

The flight to Calama takes just over two hours with either Sky or LATAM and is often cheaper than the bus, provided you aren’t taking luggage. From the airport, there are a number of airport shuttles that go directly to San Pedro de Atacama and take around an hour and a half. Or most hotels can organise a private transfer too.

“For those with time, a road trip could be just the answer”

The direct bus from Santiago to San Pedro takes approximately 23 hours with Tur Bus. Departing from Terminal Alameda (Metro Estacion Central) in Santiago. Bus companies Pullman, Andimar, Atacama VIP among others also travel to Calama, and if you’re willing to make this long journey, a cama (wider seat that reclines further) is recommended. See bus timetables here.

For those with time, a road trip could be just the answer, stopping en route at La Serena, Pisco Elqui and the Mano del Desierto – an enormous hand in the middle of the desert. Head north from Santiago along the Panamericana 5 North Highway to Baquedano in Antofagasta, then take Highway 25 towards Calama. Peel off onto Highway 23 to San Pedro de Atacama.

Pictured: Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)

Things To Do In San Pedro De Atacama

Geologists, photographers and nature enthusiasts can all agree that the landscapes in the Atacama are both surreal and spectacular. Choose between cycling to Valle de la Luna – named Moon Valley for its spacey aesthetics – horse riding to Devil’s Canyon, bathing in the Termas Puritamasor and photographing the burnt Red Rocks of Piedras Rojas which lie next to a milky turquoise lake.

Lagunas Baltinache – also known as the hidden lagoons – are in the ‘Valley of Patience’ 40km from San Pedro along a road lined with flat tires. Once there, float in the highly salty pools that look like a beautiful blue iris from above.

Pictured: Some blue at Lagunas Baltinache. Photo: Benjamin Gremler

Home to pink Andean flamingoes, the Salar de Atacama is highly ‘grammable as the water paints a perfect reflection of the Andes behind. In the Salar, Laguna Cejar is a lake with saline waters and natural flotation – you could lie here for hours. Just try not to accidentally drink the salty water!

Spurting smoky plumes like a heavy-duty power station, the natural El Tatio geysers are the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere. At an altitude of 4,320m, it’s a wonder how these geysers have so much energy. After exploring the geysers, you can dip into the thermal pool. But be warned, at altitude and in the morning it’s a lot warmer in than out.

Pictured: Salar de Atacama

Thanks to its remoteness, cloud-free days and almost no light pollution, the Atacama is one of the best places in the world to stargaze. Take a tour with a local expert who can point out the constellations with your naked eye, as well as with the help of telescopes. These clear skies also create impressive sunsets, best witnessed over the rusty red Valle de la Luna.

Science geeks will be interested to find out more about the most powerful observatory in the world, ALMA Observatory (open to the public on Saturday and Sunday mornings), and the Meteorite Museum – where you can see meteorites and learn about where they come from.

Pictured: El Tatio geysers. Photo: Kurt Cottage

If you are continuing your journey on through the Altiplano to Uyuni in Bolivia, you will come across some of the world’s most colourful lakes, flamingoes and volcanoes. Both Laguna Verde (Green Lake) and Laguna Colorada, which is bright pink, really are a sight. Continuing to the extensive Bolivian salt flats, your spatial awareness is likely to play tricks with you. The rainy season runs between January and April, during which the salt flats have an ethereal reflection.

Where To Stay

As San Pedro de Atacama is a popular stop for many types of travellers, there is a wide range of hostels, hotels and cabañas. At the top end are the spa hotels Tierra Atacama, Alto Atacama, Awasi and Explora. Mid-range hotels are often in the typical adobe houses with outdoor swimming pools, such as Hotel Kimal, Yakana Hotel and Hotel Casa Algarrobo.

Eating and Drinking

The centre of San Pedro de Atacama is lined with traditional adobe huts. Walk indoors to the smell of freshly baked empanadas– pastries stuffed with a number of delicious fillings – typical Chilean stews and barbecued meats alongside Chile’s renowned wines. If you’re pinching pennies, there are family-run restaurants that offer a three-course menu del díaat lunchtime for a reasonable price. Most of the hostels have kitchen facilities as well.

On the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, Baltinache has a good repertoire. Get yourself a four-course set evening meal, accompanied by a bottle of Chilean wine. The chef is a Mapuche – a native Chilean – and he uses local produce and flavours to create delicious indigenous fusion food. It is popular too, so it’s worth booking in advance for this authentic dining experience.

Check out our other adventure travel destinations for 2020.

This destination guide was brought to you in association with outdoor fashion retailer Blackleaf.

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