If you’ve ever looked a visiting Bolivia then I suspect that doing some kind of Uyuni Salt Flats tour will be at the top of your itinerary.
San Pedro de Atacama | How long do you need in this desert oasis
If you have done the three day/two nights Uyuni salt flats tour and chosen to cross into Chile this is where you will end up. San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert. It’s a backpackers hot spot. The streets are filled with craft shops, tour operators, bars and restaurants all designed to strip away your hard earned cash. They do that quite quickly if you’re not careful.
The cost of a few nights here can burn a big hole in your budget, but is it worth it. At first glance it doesn’t seem to have all that much to offer but first glances can be deceptive. Let’s dig down into the desert sand and see if we can find out a little about the town .
How to get to San Pedro de Atacama?
As mentioned above most people coming to the town have either just crossed from the Bolivia salt flats or are just coming north to do the opposite trip. For us it was the former so the crossing into San Pedro de Atacama was included in the price of the Bolivian salt flats tour. If you’re going the other way buses from Chile head first into Calama. This is the nearest city from San Pedro and it’s a two hour bus ride from Calama into the bus station on the edge of the town.
Calama also has a domestic airport with daily flights from Santiago, La Serena, and Concepcion. If you’re coming this way check out the flight prices they can be a close match for the bus and will save you a long bus ride. Buses to and from Salta in Argentina also come into the town most days of the week. This makes San Pedro quite transient place with people passing through on a daily basis.
Cash, SIM card & Somewhere to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
If, like us, you’re coming straight off the back of the salt flats tour from Bolivia you will have no cash, no phone signal and nowhere to stay. The mini bus will drop you off near the bus station on the edge of town. Unlike other places we have been there are no touts trying to get your money exchanged so you need to figure things out on your own.
Just at the start of the main dirt road about a five minute walk from the bus station is a cafe with wifi that, like most places, here accepts card Galeria Los Salinas de Vicente is a good place to sit and figure things out. Everything you need is close to here.
Banks & ATM’s
There are two banks in town both charge 8000 CLP per transaction for all our cards. We have a UK Starling bank card, a Revolute card and a Barclays Bank card. We also had some Pounds Sterling in cash and some remaining Bolivianos.
Half way down the Main Street on the left is a small road with about five money exchange shops. We got a very good rate for both our UK cash and our left over Bolivianos. You do need to shop around though don’t except the first shop’s offer as you may get a lot better in another shop. We got a very good deal for our pounds sterling but this was in the second place we tried the first offered a bad rate saying he had no demand for pounds sterling.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama?
As you would expect of a town with a high throughput of tourists, San Pedro de Atacama has a large quantity of accommodations. Although it’s not a cheap place to stay it does have budget as well as higher end choices. Dorms are available as well as private rooms and lodges.
We try and keep within a tight budget as you’ll know if you’ve read any of our other posts. We also though like to stick to private rooms with private bathrooms where we can. We stayed in two different accommodations here in San Pedro both of which we could recommend. The first was Hostal Nuevo Amanecer and the second La Tribu del Indio, both offered private rooms with en suite bathrooms at a comparatively reasonable price.
You will however find prices here and in the rest of Chile high compared to other South American countries such as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. We were shocked a the steep increase in the general cost of living here. If you’re planning on staying in the country for a month or two make sure you bring plenty of cash you’ll need it.
What is there to do in San Pedro de Atacama?
Tours and Tour Agents
Hire a Bike for the day
Pukara de Quitor
Just about a a fifty minute walk, or a shorter bike ride, from the centre of town is this hillside archeological site and view point. The ruins of a twelfth century citadel that are arranged down the side of a steep hill. You will need to pay to get in and you cannot actually explore the ruins themselves as they are protected, but you can see them from the path. There’s a set route that you follow round the outside of the site that leads up to the view point. Here you can be sure to see the Sant Pedro cactus.
Garganta del Diablo
Or the devils throat is a narrow canyon well worth visiting. If you’re hiring a bike and don’t fancy using the main roads this may be for you. You can combine it with at trip to Pukara De Quitor as the entrance to the park is on the other side of the mostly dry river bed. You pay 3000 CPL to get into the park and they also insist you have at least a litre of water per person with you which seems quite sensible given how hot it is and the lack of shelter from the burning sun.
There are other attractions in the park an old tunnel that was to be a short cut to Calama and a small church both of which were closed to the public when we were there. The Canyon though does make it worth the entrance fee and you can do it as a loop on the bike or a long, there and back, walk. Download Maps.me then you won’t lose your way. The trail is quite easy to follow but once in the canyon there are several off shoots to the main path.
Valle de la Luna
The moon valley is also an option for a longer ride on your bike, we didn’t do it as to be honest this entire landscape looks off worldly especially with the large San Pedro Cactus. The route involves some kilometres on the main road so you will need to be careful. We met people who had done the ride and they enjoyed it. Again make sure you can self rescue if things go wrong with the bike and take plenty of water and sunscreen.
Around the town
One of the things we really enjoy doing is wandering round a new town and this one was no exception. San Pedro de Atacama has a beautiful little square with a great mud built church. The roof is constructed using cactus wood it’s well worth a quick look round.
If your religion is more sport than Jesus then they have a great sports bar in the town on the main drag which has a constant stream of live sports and cold beer on tap. You can sit and enjoy a cold Escudo, watch the match, or the F1 and listen to the amazing rock music that they play non stop.
If you’re hungry they will even order you a pizza from the restaurant down the street, Chelacabur Bar will even let you write your name on the wall as you leave. The walls are covered in the names of past visitors some even leave their football shirts, the celling is adorned with them.
Leaving San Pedro de Atacama for Argentina.
Our second visit to the town was a precursor to a border crossing into Argentina. The bus to Salta runs through the day and takes twelve hours 8.30am to 8.30pm. We thought this strange until we saw the scenery, the long distance buses usually run through the night. This journey was an amazing experience and well worth keeping your eyes peeled if you can.
We saw for free most of the attractions you pay for on the tours, including some amazing wild life, flamingos, foxes and vicuñas. Obviously the bus will not stop to take in the views more closely like it would on a tour but if you didn’t take a tour you’ll get a quick look at most of the things you would have seen. The bus Costs 45000 CPL.
In total we spent five nights in San Pedro de Atacama and although there’s not a great deal to do it’s a good place to relax for a few days before you move on to pastures new, and perhaps a little greener. Although this landscape is spectacular we did miss the green fields and verdant landscapes of home. Perhaps we are getting a little homesick we’ve been on the road in South America now for over six months and still have a few countries to visit on this trip.
Booking resources for your visit to San Pedro de Atacama
Tours & Tickets
You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site. Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.
For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.
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