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10 awesome things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Did you know that San Pedro de Atacama in Chile is one of the world's top stargazing locations? Here are some ideas to inspire your visit to the peaceful desert town.

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 Salar de Uyuni tours from Bolivia, 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 found there are actually lots of cool things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. This article compiles our favourites.

We arrived after six intense weeks of travelling through Peru and Bolivia, cramming as many activities into our journey as we could. We needed to slow down and relax, and San Pedro was the perfect place for it. 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.

1.  Go stargazing

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the best places in the world for stargazing
The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the best places in the world for 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 desert, the Milky Way vistas are quite spectacular to behold.

The town centre is filled with agencies that offer stargazing tours, and it’s usually possible to book them in hostels. On a typical 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, so you might want to ask if that’s included.

One very important thing to know is that stargazing tours do not run during full moon – the imposing brightness 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 Pisco Elqui and the Elqui Valley.

2.  Visit the Meteorite Museum

The Meteorite Museum in San Pedro de Atacama features specimens that are billions of years old
The Meteorite Museum in San Pedro de Atacama features specimens that are billions of years old

Sticking with the astro theme, the town is also host to the Meteorite Museum, an awesome little exhibition of rocks from outer space. In some cases you can see and touch specimens that are billions of years old. Great value for money at 2,500 Chilean pesos entrance fee.

The museum staff are all highly knowledgeable about meteorites and more than happy to show you around. If you really fancy it, you can buy meteorite gemstones in the museum shop. What better gift for your loved one than a shiny object from outer space?

3.  Take a tour to the Bolivian salt flats

You can take tours to the famous Bolivian salt flats of Salar de Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama
You can take tours to the famous Bolivian salt flats of Salar de Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama

Many people take tours of Salar de Uyuni from the city of Uyuni in Bolivia, but it’s possible to start from San Pedro de Atacama as well, albeit a bit more expensively.

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 5,000m 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. For more information, check out our guide to Salar de Uyuni tours.

4.  Hire a bicycle and explore

We hired bicycles in San Pedro de Atacama to explore the surrounding desert scenery
We hired bicycles in San Pedro de Atacama to explore the surrounding desert scenery

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 agencies in town, typically 3,000 Chilean pesos for the day.

A short ride from the centre you will find Pukara de Quitor, an archaeological site on a hill, where you can lock your bikes in a rack and walk up to the summit for a glorious panaoramic view. A few kilometres further away you can reach Valle de la Muerte, which involves a but of uphill cycling but is worth it for the scenery.

If you’re feeling active it’s also possible to cycle as far as Valle de la Luna, but we preferred to take an organised tour for that (see number 5).

5.  Visit Valle de la Luna at sunset

Visiting Valle de la Luna at sunset is one of the top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama
Visiting Valle de la Luna at sunset is one of the top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

Valle de la Luna, or “valley of the moon” as it translates, is true to its name. As dusk falls, the sight of the moon hanging in a blood-red sky casting a dim twilight on the mountains is beautiful and serene in equal measure.

Tour agencies run trips out to the valley at sunset, which includes climbing through some caves and seeing Las Tres Marias, a rock formation shaped like biblical characters. We got a discounted deal with our hostel for 8,000 Chilean pesos each.

6.  Find a desert party (if you can!)

We met some backpackers who were approached on Calle Caracoles and invited to a secret desert party
We met some backpackers who were approached on Calle Caracoles and invited to a secret desert party

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 ways to let your hair down if you can get lucky. We heard rumours of big parties being thrown out in the desert. There’s a catch, though: 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. Try asking staff at your hostel or checking with people around town. We went hunting for one for an hour or so, 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.

7.  Cook a backpacker’s meal

We stayed at San Pedro Backpackers, which had two large kitchens – great for cooking a group meal
We stayed at San Pedro Backpackers, which had two large kitchens – great for cooking a group meal

If you’re staying in a hostel with good kitchen facilities, why not save some cash and cook yourself a meal? On the north-east outskirts of town near the cemetery, there is a local market where you can buy fresh vegetables and spices.

Our standard travel dish is a vegetable pasta bake with cheese, and by throwing in a bit of cash between a few of us, we made a big pot for six people for less than 1,000 pesos per head.

8.  Take the bus to Salta, Argentina

The bus route from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta is one of the world's most beautiful journeys
The bus route from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta is one of the world’s most beautiful journeys

If you’re not sure of your next destination after San Pedro, you have a unique opportunity to take one of the world’s most beautiful bus journeys to Salta in northern Argentina. After crossing the border you will pass through Argentinian salt flats before ascending into the Andes Mountains.

If you’re ok with heights, keep your eyes out of the window: the view down from the winding mountain road is awe-inspiring. When you arrive, the region around Salta is brilliant for a road trip. Check out my itinerary for that here.

9.  Have a pizza at Pizzeria El Charrua

We had pizzas in Pizzeria El Charrua in San Pedro de Atacama
We had pizzas in Pizzeria El Charrua in San Pedro de Atacama

If you would prefer to spend a bit of money and have your dinner cooked for you, we found a great little pizza restaurant in town called Pizzeria El Charrua. We paid 6,000 Chilean pesos each for a small pizza. For a bit extra, try the americana or the siciliana – they’re among the house favourites and looked awesome.

10.  Chill by a hostel campfire with a beer

San Pedro Backpackers Hostel has a camp fire with an outdoor bar
San Pedro Backpackers Hostel has a camp fire with an outdoor bar

We spent our five nights in the town at Backpackers San Pedro, a place we still fondly remember as one of our very favourite hostels in many months of travelling. Every night they light a campfire, which nurtures a really cool social vibe. The bar sells beer and Chilean wine for cheaper prices than you’ll find anywhere in town.

We met some really awesome people on these campfire nights, who we ended up spending a lot more time with as we worked through the activities in this list. Such a simple idea for a hostel, but a great way to create community.

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, it’s important to 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 on Recorrido.

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 8 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.

Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama: further reading

There are many more sights to see and activities to try within the vicinity of San Pedro de Atacama. For more ideas, check out Chile Travel’s section on San Pedro de Atacama.

Are you heading into Patagonia during your Chile trip? Take a look at our guide to hiking the Torres Del Paine W Trek and Patagonia itinerary and travel guide.

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.

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Looking for some awesome things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile? Here are some ideas just for you, from stargazing to cycling to secret desert parties. Chile travel | Atacama Desert stargazing | Chile itinerary

20 comments

  1. This look SO awesome! I’ve wanted to visit Chile but never really knew where’d be good to start, this sounds like the perfect place! The stargazing and salt flats looks great, I’d love to take a trip here some time! Thanks for sharing, these are great tips 🙂

  2. I am kinda obsessed with space. Watch all SpaceX launches, but never thought about visiting meteorite museum! Never new it exist. Now I wanna go there badly 🙂

    1. I didn’t have any problems with it as I spent a lot of time in Peru beforehand and made time to acclimatise. But the salt flats can be bad for it, as you go over 5000m above sea level. Coming from the Chile side you go straight up from quite a low altitude so if you’ve experienced problems before, it’s definitely an important consideration.

  3. The stargazing there is high on my priority list! Trying to capture the sky at night with a slow shutter speed would be amazing. Did not know about the meteorite museum, thanks for publishing this!!

  4. So the best place for stars, oh! That’s the place where I can try astrophotography. I have all the equipment, what is left… getting to the other side of the globe… 🙂

  5. I would love to see the stars, that must be amazing to see. The Meteorite Museum looks really interesting and the Bolivian salt flats has been on my bucket list for a while now!

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