Wow. Where do I even begin with San Pedro de Atacama? This remote village in the heart of the desert is one of the most incredible destinations that I have ever traveled to. The natural beauty of this region can feel otherworldly at times, and is almost unfathomably beautiful at times. The small town feels like something out of the Wild West, with the dirt roads, adobe buildings, and desert setting thrusting you back into a bygone era.
San Pedro de Atacama has a vibe that is difficult to describe. As I roamed through the streets, you could feel the dusty aura of an oasis for travelers. Whether you were biking, hitchhiking, van-lifing, or backpacking your way through, this village called and the travelers answered.
Getting to San Pedro de Atacama
There are several different ways to get to San Pedro de Atacama. The usual gateway is through the larger city of Calama about an hour away. Buses to and from Calama leave nearly every half hour during the day, and it is easy to catch one from the Calama terminal. If you flew to Calama, you can also catch a shuttle bus from one of the several companies offering them. The standard fare for a one-way ticket from the airport is $10-12,000 Chilean pesos, or about $12-15 U.S. dollars.
For backpackers that had been traveling through Bolivia, a popular way to get to San Pedro de Atacama is to go through Uyuni. Most tours of the Uyuni Salt Flats will offer the option to get dropped off at San Pedro de Atacama instead of back in the small town of Uyuni. For backpackers taking the Gringo Trail and working their way south from Bolivia, I cannot think of a more convenient option. Definitely take advantage of this if you have the opportunity.
For travelers heading in from Argentina, you will have to take a bus from Salta or Jujuy to get to San Pedro. The bus is about 10 hours from Salta or 8 hours from Jujuy. It involves a border crossing about 2 hours before you reach San Pedro, but it is one of the smoothest border crossings I have ever had. A few different bus companies offer this route, and I went with Andesmar. Buses in Argentina and Chile are unfortunately significantly more expensive than elsewhere in South America, and I paid about $45 U.S. (35,000 Chilean pesos) for the 10 hour journey. Hey, at least we got a muffin and instant coffee to keep us alive during the journey.
Where To Stay in San Pedro de Atacama
For backpackers, there are a wide variety of hostel options in the area. You’ll find quite a few closer to the center of town but those tend to be a bit more expensive. Places like Hostel Pangea, Hostal Rural, and ANKA Hostel are great options for people who want to be centrally-located and have all of the amenities. However, these are closer to $20-25 per night for a shared dorm.
I roughed it during my few days in San Pedro de Atacama. The tours were quite expensive so I had to get stingy in other aspects, mainly food and accommodation. If you are in the same boat as me, make sure that you get a hostel with a kitchen. I stayed 3 nights at Backpackers San Pedro and 2 nights at Hostal Ckappin. Both were cheap and a lot better than I expected for their price. Backpackers San Pedro had two kitchens, surprisingly good Wi-Fi (when it worked), and always had a social vibe to it. Hostal Ckappin had a huge outdoor common area, a big kitchen, and spacious rooms with big lockers. However, the Wi-Fi was painfully unreliable. Both of these hostels were about a 10 minute walk outside of town.
In San Pedro de Atacama, I don’t think it is crucial to be in town at all. The village is so small that you can walk anywhere within 15 minutes. For budget travelers, it is definitely worth walking a bit longer into town to pay half the price for a hostel.
The Best Things To Do in San Pedro de Atacama
Ooh boy, where do I even begin. Pictures are worth a thousand words and I took a lot of pictures, so here we go.
Valle de la Luna
This is one of the things that you absolutely cannot miss while in San Pedro de Atacama. Since it is one of the closer attractions to town, it is possible to do this on your own either by car or even by bike. If you choose to go with a tour, make sure that you take the afternoon tour that allows you to climb up Duna Mayor for one of the most incredible sunsets that you will ever see.
Valle de la Muerte
Also close to town is the Valley of Death where you will find surreal Martian landscapes. You can visit this place on your own although it is typically packaged with most Valle de la Luna tours.
Piedras Rojas or Red Rocks is an incredible viewpoint overlooking some ethereal landscapes. Unfortunately, you can’t get the iconic picture on the red rocks anymore but the view is still absolutely stunning.
A giant field of salt in the middle of desert boasting seven vibrantly colored blue lagoons, including two that you can swim in. Just another day in Atacama, I guess.
Oh yeah, and the abandoned bus that some tour operators will take you to afterwards. I mean, it’s a rusty old bus in the middle of the desert, so don’t expect too much. However, it does make for some great photo opportunities, kinda like the train graveyard in Uyuni but to a lesser degree.
Salar de Laro
Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time or money to do nearly everything I wanted to do. I’m definitely going to come back here one day with a bigger budget and a car and just adventure through the desert and altiplano for a few weeks. For now, here are the other things that I would have loved to do, as seen by people who have actually done them.
Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris)
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These little mushrooms are giant radio telescopes at 5000 meters (16,000 ft) high on a large plateau on the Andes, overlooking Atacama Desert in Chile. @alma.observatory is one of the world’s most complexed. At this moment the vivid colors of the dusk were fading to the eye but not to the camera. Stars of Orion and Taurus were setting above the array. The 66 movable dishes, mostly 12 meters wide, work together as a giant single telescope. Massive 28-wheel German vehicles weighing 130 tonnes moves these up to 16 km apart, which will give ALMA a powerful variable “zoom” based on what astronomers are observing. When clusters in a pack like this view, ALMA reveals fainter wider targets. Observing radio wavelength the array works day and night and even in cloudy weather as the signal passes through. On assignment for @esoastronomy I document ALMA and other Atacama observatories every few years. #astrophotography #science #astronomy #twanight
Geysers del Tatio
Nightlife in San Pedro de Atacama
At first glance, this small village seems like the furthest thing from a party town. There are few establishments that seem like they could keep a party going, and there is some fact to that. If you are looking for the party, you don’t look into the town. You look to the desert. What little nightlife there is within the village itself shuts down relatively early.
However, once the stars come out and everything shuts down, the desert is the place to be. It’s hard to tell whether these nightly desert parties happen because the police don’t know about it or because they turn a blind eye, but they are basically the only party that you will find past midnight. And it is a legit party, too. There are multiple music types, from electronic to reggaeton, and there will be people selling alcohol (and more). This rave-like atmosphere can get wild closer to the weekend, but it happens nightly. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be partying beneath the stars in what is renowned as one of the top stargazing destinations in the world?
I can’t reveal too much on my blog but ask your hostel or any of the hippie locals and they’ll give you the down low on this get-down.
Budget Travel Tips For San Pedro de Atacama
Cook Your Own Damn Food
My last day in San Pedro, I decided I would splurge and treat myself to a meal after having cooked every meal for 5 days in a row. After seeing the prices in town, I bought a $2 empanada and went home. Food in San Pedro is expensive, especially if you eat out. Although grocery shopping is significantly cheaper, it is still more expensive than most places I’ve been to in South America. I lived off of bananas, eggs, rice, and yogurt for five days. I spent a grand total of $10 in 5 days on food, which was worth it because I spent over $100 on tours over a 3-day span.
Book A Hostel Outside of Town
Most of the hostels right in the heart of the village will charge you double the price of a hostel outside of town. I really don’t know why, considering that San Pedro is as small of a town as it gets. Some good budget hostel options that I’ve found are Backpackers San Pedro, Hostal Ckappin, and Sol Atacama. Aji Verde is also good but more on the outskirts than the others.
Volunteer At A Hostel
Volunteering at hostels is definitely not for everyone, but in a place like San Pedro de Atacama, it can be a great way to save money. It would be exhausting to try and go on adventures every day, so alternating between shifts and adventures is a good way to stretch your money out and be able to go on more adventures. With free accommodation, you could easily limit your budget to $1-2 a day on food, allowing the rest to go towards tours and excursions while living in a beautiful place like San Pedro for a while.
Book Tours in Packages
It helps to do some research. Know what you want to do and use that to your advantage. I usually show up to a place and go to a tour agency, ask them what’s good, and then book it there. That worked a lot in Peru when tours were $10, and I wouldn’t feel too bad about going on a crappy tour when I barely spent any money. However, when tours can crack close to $100, that’s when you have to start paying a little more attention.
I did a bit of research and picked three things that I thought seemed like the must-do’s of San Pedro. Although the geysers and thermal pools are the ones that agencies try to sell first, I honestly couldn’t care less about hot water and less impressive Old Faithfuls. I chose my three and haggled a good price for booking all of them at once. Valle de la Luna, Piedras Rojas, and Laguna Baltinache would have cost me a painful $89,000 Chilean pesos, and entrance fees would push that over the 100k mark. Thats about $130 U.S., but I managed to get it down to $66,000 pesos, or a more reasonable $95 after entrance fees. It’s still a lot of money, but that $35 could go a long way when all you eat is rice and eggs.
Seriously, when you see how much there is to do in San Pedro, then food and accommodation becomes secondary. You will want to put as much of your money as possible into seeing everything that this incredible region of the world has to offer. There are few places like this out there. Combined with the neighboring Bolivian Altiplano and Uyuni Salt Flats, you might not even believe you are on the same planet anymore.
I loved everything about San Pedro de Atacama, from the nature to the laid-back vibe and abundance of friendly travelers. And of course, desert raves. I’ll be back soon, SPdA.