San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Featuring awe-inspiring landscapes that seem to belong to a sci-fi movie, a variety of accommodation options that suits all tastes and budgets, great gastronomy and enough quality attractions to keep visitors entertained for several days, it’s no surprise that San Pedro de Atacama has become one of the main touristic destinations not only in Chile, but in all South America. San Pedro is one of the gateways to the driest desert in the world, the Atacama, and is located in a plateau some 2,400m (7,900ft) above the sea level, more than 1,600km (995mi) north of Santiago and near the borders with Bolivia and Argentina.
The city of San Pedro is sufficiently compact as to allow its main areas to be seen during a quick walk, usually done in less than an hour. Its church and the R.P Gustavo Le Paige archeological museum, which illustrates the evolution of the several peoples who inhabited this region over the last ten thousand years, deserve particular attention.
Only 13km (8mi) from downtown, the Moon Valley and the Death Valley are beautiful contemplative outings allowing to marvel over the splendid desert landscape of the area, some including depressions surrounded by 500m (1,600ft) tall walls. They also present some very interesting rock formations like the “Three Maries” and the “Coliseum”. Observing the sunset from the Coyote Rock, in the Moon Valley, is one of the highlights of any visit to San Pedro, as it allows several neighboring volcanoes, such as the Licancabur, to be framed within the mix of dusk colors. The Death Valley is also usually visited at night for star gazing activities, given the absolute inexistence of artificial light in the area. Astronomy lovers and curious people will also be interested in visiting the largest observatory in the world. ALMA (Atacama Large Array Observatory) is a radio telescope formed by 66 antennas located at an altitude above the 5,000m (16,400ft), next to San Pedro. It offers free visits every weekend in the morning for those who have booked it through the website.
Immediately south of San Pedro, Salar de Atacama is the largest salt deposit in Chile, occupying an area of 3,000km2 (1,160mi2). This is a very beautiful nature reserve, home to many flamingoes and a few lakes suitable for bathing, like the Cejar Lake, where the high salinity levels allow the human body to float at ease. Next to the Salar, continuing southwards, Toconao and Socaire deserve a brief visit to explore the local churches and the local handcraft. On the same road, some 110km (70mi) south of San Pedro and 4,200m (13,800ft) above the sea level, lie the so called Lagunas Altiplanicas (High Plateau Lagoons), named Miñiquez and Miscanti.
One of the most popular attractions of northern Chile is located 90km (55mi) north of San Pedro, at an altitude of 4,300m (14,100ft). El Tatio is the third most important geyser field in the world (after Yellowstone, in the US, and Dolina Geizerov, in Rusia). The group is formed by around 80 geysers and, although eruptions are not very high, the scenery at dawn, before the first sunrays appear, when the vapor columns contrast with the mountainous landscape, is amazing.
The closest airport to San Pedro is located some 100km (60mi) away, in Calama – a city developed almost exclusively to serve workers of the mining industry. Several daily flights connect the city to the national capital, Santiago. Although Calama usually don’t get a lot of attention from tourists, it might be interesting to visit the Chiquicamata mine. This had been the largest producer of copper in the world for several years and visitors are able to observe the excavation 1,200m (3,940ft) deep from a close range.
When planning your visit, remember that, despite being part of the Atacama, San Pedro is not located at the driest area of the desert. Rains are actually perfectly possible between December and March, due to a phenomenon known as Bolivian Winter. The desert gets drier further north, especially near Iquique, 485km (300mi) from San Pedro. On the opposite way, 310km (190mi) from San Pedro, Antofagasta is the largest city in northern Chile and an interesting stop in the way to the center of the country, Alternatively, it is possible to continue your trip towards Jujuy, in Argentina, 480km (300mi) away, or Uyuni, in Bolivia, 440km (270mi) away. The Uyuni salt flats are also a very popular side-trip for visitors based in San Pedro and many tour operators offer programs lasting 3 or 4 days taking tourists across the border to Bolivia and returning to Chile.