Travel guide to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Tatio geyser

We are driving through the Atacama desert at sunrise: barren, rugged, pockmarked hills, deep grooves etched into them by centuries of wind and the violence of nature. Nothing grows here! Around us the wind-blown tracks of offroad vehicles zigzag, appearing and disappearing again into the distance. The chilled blue sky slowly loses its deep serenity as it surrenders to the wakening day. Whispy trails of clouds whirl above the distant hills. The desert is still and tense, nervously awaiting the full rising of the sun, when the parched landscape will be turned into a cauldron of searing heat.

There are few experiences as moving and awe-inspiring as a trip through the Atacama desert. It is a place on earth that one must visit during one’s lifetime. We stayed in San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny village ringed on one side by a string of volcanoes, one of which boasts of a near perfect cone.


Licancabur volcano

What to do around San Pedro de Atacama

Once in San Pedro you can take a variety of excursions, the weirdest and most fascinating of which is a visit to El Tatio, the third largest geyser field in the world. We signed up for a trip to El Tatio with one of the tour operators whose store fronts dot San Pedro. They picked us up at the ghastly hour of 4:00 in the morning, drove us in a small van filled with vivacious Brazilians who chatted, laughed and sang, despite the -5C temperatures and the darkness around us.

If you are going on one of these early morning trips (to El Tatio or the Lagunas Altiplanicas) you must wear a thick coat, sweater, hat and gloves to keep warm while walking around the geyser field. Temperatures are below freezing, but shortly after sunrise, it gets quite warm so you need to dress in layers. Don’t forget to bring your swimsuit because jumping into the hot springs is one of the rewards of the trip. The trip to El Tatio and back to San Pedro, with breakfast along the way, takes about six hours (from 4:00 am to 12:00 noon).

What exactly does a geyser field look like? I had no idea what to expect but to me it seemed as if a hundred cooks were stirring massive vats of soup under the earth’s crust. Before the sun rises and just after, the geyser field is at its best because plumes of steam rise high into the air. As the sun heats up the air, the plumes get shorter and less impressive. This explains why everyone shows up at dawn, freezing while they walk around and take pictures. One reward for suffering the cold temperatures is a jump into the hot springs, which many people seemed to relish more than the strange and rather unearthly landscape of the geysers.


El Tatio geyser field

Puritama hot springs

Hot springs at El Tatio

Other notable places to visit near San Pedro are the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), the Laguna Cejar (a salty lake or “salar” like the Dead Sea) and the Salar de Tara, another salt lake at a much higher altitude (4900 metres) which is more off the beaten track, and the Valle del Arcoiris which is called Rainbow Valley because of the colorful rock formations along the hillsides. Because of the high altitudes of many places one will visit (including El Tatio), it’s not unusual to feel the effects of oxygen deprivation.

The village of San Pedro de Atacama itself is a delightful place to stay because it is quiet and laid back. I was impressed by the quality and variety of restaurants in the village, two of which I recommend highly.

Recommended restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama

(1) Cafe Restaurant Adobe: this is the place to have dinner in San Pedro for the quality of the cooking and the ambiance, as they light a big fire in the center of an outdoor patio and serve delicious Latin American and European dishes, including pizza. Because people in Chile eat late, it gets busy only after 9 pm. The restaurant is right in the center of town, on the main street. They serve excellent soups, pizza and fresh seafood, but they are also good for meat and vegetarian dishes. Excellent Chilean wines by the bottle at $15-25. Address: Caracoles 211, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

(2) La Estaka: my favorite place for lunch, just a few doors down from Adobe, serving wonderful salads, soups and other main dishes (such as fresh salmon). Good coffee and desserts, too. My favorite dish was the quinoa salad. Funky, artsy interiors, warm and cozy. Address: Caracoles 259-B, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

What’s it like in San Pedro de Atacama

A backpacker paradise, San Pedro feels young and hip with many excellent cafes and restaurants serving pizza, pasta, tapas, Andean and European cuisine. There’s free Wi-Fi everywhere although you have to get an access code from the hotel concierge or the server at a cafe. I was surprised to find Wi-Fi in San Pedro to be quite fast, unless there are many people using the service (i.e. in a hotel when everyone has returned from a day excursion). The village attracts a mix of young backpackers traveling in South America on a budget to wealthy, outdoorsy types who tend to stay in the luxury hotels around San Pedro and go on excursions that are included in their hotel packages (which can run to over $1000 per day).

The views from San Pedro to the volcanoes around it are stunning. When we were there (early March 2011), the volcanoes had snow, which according to residents is unusual. Apparently, they had two weeks of rain in February which is more rain than the region gets in two years, and this accounts for the large amount of snow on the tops of the volcanoes.

The village is tiny; you can walk around it in half an hour. But some people rent bicycles if they want to see the surroundings.

Recommended hotels in San Pedro de Atacama

During our long weekend (Friday to Monday) in San Pedro, we stayed in 2 hotels (because one of them was fully booked for one night by the Atacama Crossing 2011 race organization).

(1) Hotel Poblado Kimal: Conveniently located in the center of town only a few minutes away from the restaurants and cafes of San Pedro, this hotel is divided into two sections, located on opposite sides of the street. The main hotel has rooms with bathrooms, situated around a small swimming pool and cozy restaurant. The Poblado offers larger (and more private accommodations) in small wood and adobe huts.

(2) Hotel Altiplanico: Located outside San Pedro, but within walking distance (5-10 minutes), the Altiplanico Hotel’s cabins are surrounded by beautifully landscaped desert gardens with a large swimming pool. The Altiplanico has a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner, if you don’t feel like walking into town. At night the streets are dark so bring a torch (flashlight) if you will be returning on foot to the hotel after sunset.

*I prefer the Hotel Poblado Kimal because it is in the center of town and I can walk to cafes and restaurants easily. If you don’t care about being in the center, Altiplanico is just as good of a place to stay.

Check out Mapplr’s favorite hotels in San Pedro de Atacama.

How to get to San Pedro de Atacama

We flew from Santiago on LAN Chile to Calama, the largest town near San Pedro. Other airlines that fly to Calama from Santiago are Sky and PAL. From Calama, you take a van to San Pedro (1 hour).

What to pack for San Pedro de Atacama

This is the desert (like Palm Springs) so it gets hot during the day and cold at night. That means shorts, t-shirts, and cotton dresses for day; jackets and sweaters in the evening.

For the excursions, you must wear wool sweaters, heavy jackets, thick trousers, wool hat and gloves, especially if you are going to the El Tatio geyser field where the temps go down to -5C before sunrise. And you must be able to peel off the layers as the day wears on.

Note: you can buy knit sweaters, caps and gloves at the shops in San Pedro. They have lovely native Andean designs.

About Esme Vos

Esme Vos is the founder of Mapplr, a travel site featuring boutique hotels, luxury resorts, travel guides and restaurant reviews. You can find her on and Twitter.