Chile is a country of amazing geographical diversity, but many backpackers only ever see one town: San Pedro de Atacama in the far north. As the drop-off point after tours to Bolivia’s salt flats, many people arrive by circumstance and don’t plan to stay long. Well, they’re missing out. We ended up staying for nearly a week, and fell in love with the place. Here we compile our tips on the best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
This article contains links to products and services we love, from which we may make commission at no extra cost to you.
Like many, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after travelling through Peru and Bolivia. We’d had a few intense weeks, and found this gorgeous little desert town to be the perfect place to slow down and relax a while. The town has a laid-back, chilled-out vibe, and it felt like heaven to be back at a lower altitude after traversing the Bolivian Andes.
So, without further ado, here are some ideas to inspire your San Pedro de Atacama itinerary.
In this article:
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama: getting around
1. Hire a bicycle and explore
Although stuck in the middle of the world’s driest desert, there are some stunning areas to explore around San Pedro de Atacama. There’s no better way to do this than by hiring a bicycle from one of the shops in town, typically 3,000 Chilean pesos (4 US dollars) for the day.
We had a great day out with a group of friends we met in our hostel exploring the sights and landmarks near San Pedro on two wheels. In a few leisurely hours we made it to Pukara de Quitor, Valle de la Muerte and around the backstreets of town. Another guy we met cycled all the way to Valle de la Luna and back, a round trip of about 30 kilometres up and down hills. We cover each of these landmarks and how to see them in more detail below.
2. Rent a car for a desert road trip
If you’re planning to stay in San Pedro for a while and would prefer the freedom to explore on your own, hiring a car is an awesome way to do it. Nothing makes for a beautiful road trip quite like the orange valleys and canyons of the Atacama Desert.
Until recently the nearest place to hire a car was the city of Calama 100 kilometres away, but now there are options in San Pedro. However, if you’re travelling into San Pedro from Calama, it may be more convenient to hire from the airport there.
You can find the cheapest car hire options in both San Pedro and Calama using RentalCars.
3. Take some guided tours
Not every traveller likes to make all their own arrangements. If you prefer to be taken care of in the hands of a local guide, there are plenty of options for exploring the highlights of San Pedro de Atacama.
GetYourGuide collates the best local tours with a lowest price guarantee, and you can benefit from free cancellation up to 24 hours before your activity is due to take place. You can browse the current tours for San Pedro, or read on for our top recommendations below.
4. Take the spectacular bus ride to Salta, Argentina
When your time at San Pedro de Atacama comes to an end, you have a unique opportunity to finish in style by taking one of the world’s most beautiful bus journeys. That’s if your next destination happens to be Salta in northern Argentina.
The bus journey takes about 12 hours and operates during the daytime, typically departing from the San Pedro terminal at 9:30am. After crossing the border, you will pass through Argentinian salt flats before ascending into the Andes Mountains. Keep your eyes out of the window here, as long as you’re ok with heights – the view down from the winding mountain road is awe-inspiring.
You can find the best prices for the bus journey to Salta and book your tickets using Busbud. Once you arrive in Salta, you’re in another great place for a road trip – see our suggested itinerary here.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama: around the town
5. Discover the town’s archaeological history
San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most significant spots in Chile for archaeology, with ruins and remains in the vicinity dating back 12,000 years. The town is home to the Father Le Paige archeological museum, which features nearly 400,000 artifacts from the pre-Columbian Atacameño culture.
The town also stands on the doorsteps of important archaeological sites such as Tulor and Pukará de Quitor. You can combine these with a guided trip to the museum on a San Pedro de Atacama archaeological tour, which also includes a visit to a traditional local farm.
6. Visit the Meteorite Museum
Lovers of astronomy and all things outer space will be at home in San Pedro. Not only is it a world-class location for stargazing (more on that below), the town is also host to the Meteorite Museum, an awesome little exhibition of astronomical rocks. In some cases you can see and touch specimens that are billions of years old. Great value for money at 3,500 Chilean pesos entrance fee (about 4.5 US dollars).
On our visit we were well looked after by the museum staff, who were all highly knowledgeable about meteorites and more than happy to show us around. If you really fancy it, you can buy meteorite gemstones in the museum shop afterwards too. What better gift for your loved one than a shiny object from outer space?
7. Try authentic local food
The dusty, adobe-walled streets of San Pedro de Atacama are brimming with options to try traditional food. Whether it’s an authentic local restaurant or a bakery shop selling fresh empanadas (our favourite!), it’s easy to find your fill of local cuisine.
The local restaurants don’t always have menus; some are self-serve, and others will cater based on seasonality and what’s available. Check out this article on authentic restaurants in the Atacama Desert for some of the town’s best picks.
8. Have a pizza at Pizzeria El Charrua
If you want a break from local cuisine for some comfort food, you can’t go wrong with Pizzeria El Charrua, a great little pizza restaurant in the town centre. We paid 6,000 Chilean pesos (7.5 US dollars) each for a small pizza, a treat on our slender backpacking budget at the time! For a bit extra, try the americana or the siciliana – they’re among the house favourites.
9. Cook a meal with local produce
San Pedro de Atacama isn’t the cheapest place to eat in Chile, but you can save a few dimes by cooking up your own meal. If you’re staying in accommodation with good kitchen facilities, this is a great way to make the most of it.
There is an outdoor local market on the north-east outskirts of town (next to the cemetery and the fire station), where you can buy fresh vegetables and spices very cheaply. Alternatively there are a few supermarkets around town, such as Vicente just north of the centre (cheap) or Eca, a little walk to the south-east (new opening with a wider variety).
We chipped in as a group and made a delicious pasta pot for six of us in our hostel for less than a dollar each. Can’t go wrong with that!
10. Chill by a hostel campfire
We spent five nights in the town at Backpackers San Pedro, a place that’s still lodged in our memories as one of our favourite hostels we’ve visited. Every night they lit a campfire for people to gather round – it had a lovely relaxed social vibe. And the outdoor bar by the fire-pit sells beer and Chilean wine for cheaper prices than you’ll find anywhere in town.
We met some awesome people on these campfire nights, who we ended up spending a lot more time with exploring the town. It’s such a simple idea for a hostel and a great way to create community.
11. Find a desert party (if you can!)
San Pedro is not renowned as a party place – we went into town at midnight on a Saturday and everything was shut – but there are places to let your hair down if you can find them. We heard rumours of big parties being thrown out in the desert. There’s a catch, though: they’re unofficial, and you need to be invited to attend.
A group of European girls staying in our hostel were approached in town and invited to one of these parties, so it does seem they are a real thing. It’s not easy to find them, though. And if you do find one, be aware of safety; don’t go alone, and make sure you let someone you trust know where you are.
Try asking staff at your hostel, in bars or checking with other travellers you meet. We went on a party hunt for a couple of hours, but eventually gave up and went back to our hostel. It’s one of those things where you need to make a lucky local contact.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama: activities nearby
12. Go stargazing
The Atacama Desert is renowned as the best place in the world to see the night sky. It’s no coincidence that the area is used for some of the world’s most important observatories. In the pitch black of the world’s driest desert, the Milky Way vistas are spectacular to behold.
On a typical stargazing tour, you will drive out into the desert late at night, have a drink around a campfire, and learn about the different constellations. Some tour operators bring a telescope as well so you can look at planets and far-away stars.
There are various agencies in the town centre that offer stargazing tours, and it’s sometimes possible to book them in hostels at short notice. Another option is to book an astronomical tour in advance to secure your spot. The guides on this tour will bring a telescope, and it’s a secure booking so you can cancel for free with no worries.
One very important thing to know is that stargazing tours do not run during full moon, as the light pollution affects visibility of the stars. If possible, time your visit to new moon for the best night sky views you are ever likely to see. Check out Moongiant.com for a moon phases calendar.
For an alternative stargazing location in Chile, read our article on the Elqui Valley.
13. Visit Valle de la Luna at sunset
Valle de la Luna, or “valley of the moon” as it translates, is true to its name. As dusk falls, moon hangs over it in a blood-red sky casting a dim twilight on the mountains. It’s a beautifully serene scene, and a must to experience while you’re in San Pedro.
You can get to the valley independently by cycling or car, or alternatively take a sunset tour, which is the option we chose. Tours include a visit to some salt caves, which you can climb through, and the biblical-invoking salt sculptures of the Tres Marias. You can book a tour in advance here.
14. Go sandboarding in Death Valley (or just see the views)
A short jaunt south-west of San Pedro you will find the riddle of rocks and sand dunes that is Valle de la Muerte, or Death Valley. It’s also sometimes known as Mars Valley due to its red otherworldly landscape.
This is a great spot just for a gentle trek or cycle. When you arrive at the first entrance you need to pay a cash fee of 3,000 Chilean pesos (4 US dollars), then continue along the winding sandy road into the valley. You’ll reach some stands where you can lock up bikes if you have them, then a short climb up the dunes gives an awesome vantage point for views across the desert.
Death Valley’s towering sand dunes lend themselves well to adventure sports. It’s a popular spot for sandboarding – check out Sandboard San Pedro if you want to give it a try.
15. Stroll up to Pukará de Quitor
The 12th-century pre-Columbian stone fortress of Pukará de Quitor stands on a hill just a short walk from San Pedro, and is one the town’s most significant archaeological sites. The ruins are also adorned with a picturesque setting on a forlorn hilltop.
You can walk among the crumbling stone walls and arches set against a gorgeous backdrop of desert and canyon. At the foot of the hill there are racks to lock up your bike, and you can also walk further along the dusty road to see stone face carvings in the hillside.
16. Hike the trail of Las Cornisas
Death Valley and Pukará de Quitor both form part of Las Cornisas, a loop hiking trail that incorporates some of the most stunning scenes and rock formations within the vicinity of San Pedro. The route also passes through the Catarpe Valley, a labyrinth of jagged orange rocks.
The trail begins and ends in San Pedro, and can be done in a few hours at a steady pace. Bring plenty of water as it can get hot out there! The difficulty is easy to medium. Find out more details about the trail here (info page in Spanish).
17. Visit the nearby salt lagoons
A couple of dozen kilometres south of San Pedro de Atacama in the middle of the desert, you will find Laguna Cejar and Laguna Tebinquiche. These azure-hued lagoons are so dense with salt you can float in them while appreciating the desert surroundings. And if you don’t fancy getting in the cold water, you can just admire the awesome reflection of volcanoes shimmering on the surface.
You can reach the lagoons by driving, and Cejar is even doable by bike if you set off early. Otherwise, you can visit both Cejar and Tebinquiche lagoons on a half-day guided tour.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama: day trips
18. Take a tour to the salt flats
Many people take tours of Salar de Uyuni from the city of Uyuni in Bolivia (which is what we did), but it’s also possible to start from San Pedro de Atacama. The standard tours run over two or three days and visit the famous salt flats, Fish Island, an array of colourful lagoons where you can see flamingoes frolicking, and high-altitude hot springs for a refreshing dip.
At over 5,000 metres above sea level it gets very cold up there, so bring warm clothes. If you do take the tour from San Pedro, change up some money into Bolivian currency before you set off, so you can buy snacks and drinks in the local shops.
19. Tour through Rainbow Valley
Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley) might not be as renowned as Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, but it is a compelling alternative way to see multi-coloured rock formations. Mineral deposits over thousands of years have left the valley’s hills strewn with stripes of red, white and green.
The route to the valley passes Hierbas Buenas, where you can stop to see petroglyphs dating back over 6,000 years. These stone carvings were created by ancient indigenous tribes that lived in the open desert.
You can reach valley by driving north from San Pedro on Ruta 23 (it takes roughly an hour), or alternatively book a Rainbow Valley tour.
20. Visit Piedras Rojas and the highland lagoons
The red rocks of Piedras Rojas make for one of the most photogenic icons near San Pedro de Atacama. These oddly curve-shaped and deep-coloured stones are perched at high altitude next to a blue saltwater lake, creating an alluring natural contrast to the white flats of Salar de Talar and the dusty volcano peaks on the horizon. It’s an unforgettable scene, and easy to see why it’s one of the most popular things to do in San Pedro de Atacama.
Piedras Rojas is located close to the twin Altiplanic lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques at over 4,300 metres above sea level. On a multi-activity full-day tour you can combine a trip to the lagoons and Piedras Rojas with some flamingo-spotting at Laguna Chaxa lower down.
21. Dip in the thermal pools at El Tatio Geysers
The Atacama Desert is home to many natural wonders. Besides the many intriguing ancient rocks, dazzling canyons, salt flats and lagoons, it is also the location of the largest geothermal field in the southern hemisphere.
At El Tatio Geysers you can see this in action, with steam emanating from fissures in the rocks at over 4,000 metres altitude. There are roughly 80 geysers in close proximity to explore. It’s pretty cold up there, but you can escape to warmth with a dip in a natural thermal pool (temperature 30°C).
It’s best to visit the geysers early in the day, and you can do this on an El Tatio tour with pickup from your accommodation in San Pedro.
How to get to San Pedro de Atacama
Many people – like us – arrive in San Pedro de Atacama after a tour of the Bolivian salt flats from Uyuni. If you’re planning to do this, check with your tour company in Uyuni that the transfer from the Chilean border to San Pedro is included, and that you have a ticket for it. We met people who found they had to pay extra after crossing the border.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small desert town, and isn’t located on a main transport route. The nearest Chilean city is Calama, some 100 kilometres away. To reach San Pedro de Atacama from elsewhere in Chile, the most direct way is to travel to Calama by flight or bus, and transfer on from there. You can book bus tickets in Chile using Busbud.
The bus journey from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama takes about 20 hours. Many people choose to break it up with a stop at La Serena, which is close to the Elqui Valley – another beautiful spot for stargazing. For transport tips, check out our article on how to take overnight buses like a pro.
From Argentina, you can travel from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama by bus (the reverse of the journey listed number 4 above). It’s a truly beautiful route, but note that occasionally it gets closed for bad weather, especially in winter. Make sure to check the local forecast when planning your journey.
Further reading on Chile
For your Chile travel planning, see our two-week Chile itinerary from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago. We’ve also compiled an analysis of what we spent during our own Chile trip.
If you’re heading from San Pedro de Atacama into Bolivia, take a look at our Bolivia itinerary and travel guide, which focuses on the classic two-week route.
Do you have any memories to share from San Pedro de Atacama? Let me know in the comments below.
Love it? Pin it!