San Pedro de Atacama is the jumping off point to visit the many, otherworldly sights of the Atacama Desert. It is a small town that sits at 7,900 feet, or 2,400 meters. It is a town surrounded by some of the most beautiful desert sights you will ever see and some unbelievable sunsets. San Pedro has almost everything you will need including restaurants, shops, hostels, and tour agencies. Our feelings about the town itself are a little mixed. We both agree that we would return, and it has its charm, but we would not be doing our readers any favors to only speak of the wonderful sights we visited. So here is the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful!
This town will remind you of old western movies. The buildings are almost all one story adobe; most roads are red dirt. You can see and hear people riding horses through the streets. The main square has a pretty adobe church and several restaurants with outdoor seating. The central area is lined with tour agencies, souvenir shops, places to stay, and restaurants. San Pedro de Atacama comes alive at night once people return from their tours and outdoor adventures.
Riding bikes here is fun and easy. All the locals and many tourists ride bikes. Our hostel loaned us mountain bikes and our first day we had a blast biking around town and some great trails on the outskirts of town. You can get to the middle of nowhere very quickly from town. In fact our hostel was on the outskirts of town bordering the desert and it was only a 10 minute walk to the town center.
San Pedro de Atacama is a cool little town unlike any place we visited in Chile. If you are young, and in your 20’s or early 30’s, this town is perfect. There are so many new adventurous people to meet and amazing stories to hear over a cold beer or pisco sour.
So onto the downside of San Pedro. While it is a very cute old west looking town, there are tourists and kitschy souvenir shops everywhere. The streets are full of tourists. From your young backpackers, to spiritual yogis and partiers, to the families decked out in the newest, most expensive mountaineering gear (without a single scuff on their brand new hiking boots). Every type of traveler imaginable can be seen on the streets of San Pedro de Atacama. We even saw older men wearing socks with their Tevas and a few crazy looking ladies that had been in the desert way too long!
Point being, San Pedro doesn’t offer the most authentic experience of Chilean life. It is what it is – a town devoted to the tourist trade.
San Pedro de Atacama, known to most backpackers, is actually a fairly expensive place to stay. So be prepared. If we had been on a strict budget like in our younger days, we would have gone broke fast here!
San Pedro is kind of a dirty town. Of course, the roads are all red dirt, but there is trash in many of the streets. The high winds from the desert blows garbage all over the place.
A great nickname for San Pedro de Atacama we heard was “San Perro De Atacama”! Perro meaning dog in Spanish. There are stray dogs everywhere. It is very sad that people do not take better care of their pets and just abandon them. Everywhere you go there are dogs and dog poop. You have to be very careful where you walk. And the dogs bark constantly, all day and night.
And finally, between the high altitude, dust, and being the driest place on earth, the conditions are obviously harsh. You will need to take good care of your skin, eyes, and nose here.
Our negative points aside, people do not come to San Pedro de Atacama for the town itself. They come to see the beautiful attractions near the town, and to get outdoors, and experience nature. If you want to know more about some of these sights and activities keep an eye out for our next few posts. We will be going into more specific detail about what we did and saw in the area. Here are some of the sights and activities this area is famous for:
- Valley of the Moon and Valley of Death
- Many different Salt Flats
- Star Gazing
- Hot Springs
- El Tatio Geysers
- High Altitude Lakes and Villages
- Volcano Trekking
- Mountain biking
There are only a few ATM’s in town and a couple of banks. One ATM is on the road heading towards the bus yard. Sometimes it runs out of cash and doesn’t work. The other ATM we found is in the pharmacy. Go early or expect long lines and cash to be out. We also found a bank on the road to the bus yard but it was always closed. There is another bank in town but we did not try it.
Don’t rely on the ATM’s and bring plenty of Chilean pesos with you to get by for a few days. If you have any other currency you can exchange it on the street at a money exchange place however the exchange rates they give are not very good. Be aware that most of the hotels/hostels and tour agencies require their payment in cash. So, it may be worth it to have that money available when you arrive.
If you fly you will fly into Calama. You can take a bus to and from San Pedro De Atacama. When you head back to the airport, give yourself a lot of time at the airport. The bus took a lot longer than we expected picking up passengers. We thought we would arrive at the airport 2 hours early but it turned out to be about 45 minutes early and, because of the long check-in line, we almost missed our flight. (Of course, the plane was held until everyone boarded. I’m pretty sure this is a common occurrence.)
Most of the hotels and hostels have laundry service for an extra fee. There are also some laundromats in the center of town. It was wonderful having clean clothes. Everything gets very dusty and caked in sunscreen and sweat!
Most of all take some time to rest between tours and relax. Don’t push too hard. The environment is harsh, and you are on vacation after all!
Have you visited San Pedro de Atacama? What were your thoughts about this town?