Sep 4, 7 years ago

Chile’s Atacama Desert

Chile’s Atacama Desert

Travelers who pass over the vast Atacama desert by plane are missing out on a very special place tucked in the north of Chile. Popular with Chilean and international tourists alike, San Pedro de Atacama is the small-scale hub for tourism in the middle of the driest desert in the world. Nearby Antofagasta receives an average of only 1 millimeter of rainfall per year. Rent a room and eat gourmet food in this little oasis or set off on desert adventure and expeditions from San Pedro, as it’s known locally. Having lived in the American West, San Pedro gave me a warm, familiar feeling. It looks like an old West town – revived – and you may think you’re in New Mexico at a quick glance. Classic adobe architecture abounds, adding to the beautiful yet functional feel of the town.

Get In

The closest major town is Calama. Once you get here, it’s just a matter of hopping a bus with Pullman or TurBus for the 90 minutes skip to San Pedro.


You can always book a place in advance, but you can set out on foot in San Pedro and find a hostel or hotel in no time. Rooms are simple and start around 10,000 Chilean pesos, which is slightly above average for Chile. Be a kind guest and a responsible citizen and use tap water sparingly.


Check out one of the largest geyser sites in the world at Geysers del Tatio. They’re 4,200 meters above sea level and about 100 km away from San Pedro, but they’re worth it. Most tours head out there in the early dawn hours to catch the action in the rising sun. Photographers – come prepared. When you return to San Pedro in the late morning, you’re likely to see an expansive array of wildlife from your vehicle, from vicuñas to birds.

See the stars

Due to low moisture and the absence of light pollution, the Atacama desert has some of the best stargazing in the world. Check it out and learn a little astronomy with Space Star Tours. Also remember that the desert gets very, very cold at night, so dress accordingly.


San Pedro is a biking kind of town. Rent a bike and head out to Valle de la Luna, Valley of the Moon, solo or on a guided tour to experience a place unlike any other on earth. Swing by Valle de la MuerteDeath Valley, if your legs still have something left.

If you still have time, sandboard, see the salt flats, and even do a little rock climbing. Enjoy!

Lead Photo: CC Image Courtesy of Phillie Casablanca on Flickr


Ryan is a writer, photographer, and teacher living and volunteering throughout Latin America.

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