I have to admit I knew very little about San Pedro de Atacama when we crossed the border from Bolivia. However, I was very excited to finally be in Chile because when we were researching for our trip I was in charge of scouring the guidebooks for information on Chile and Rapa Nui. Somehow I must have skipped this part but I was definitely not disappointed once I arrived to this remarkable place.
San Pedro de Atacama feels worlds away from Bolivia even though they’re practically neighbors. The first shock you will notice is how strict customs is when crossing into Chile. If you thought you could sneak in a couple of fruits or coca leaves FORGET ABOUT IT. They searched everything including all of our bags and even our bus (with dogs and all). Someone described this need to keep invasive species out perfectly. Chile really is like an island within South America with the arid desert in the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Cordillera/mountain range to the east, and finally Patagonia to the South. Agriculture is big in Chile and they want to keep it that way so eat all your food before crossing over.
Another huge difference especially coming from Bolivia is how expensive everything will seem. Hostels and hotels we searched for in San Pedro ranged from 30 USD to over 200 USD. This definitely blows your backpacker’s budget out of the water. I would highly suggest visitors try to book their accommodation in advance since loads of tour groups arrive in San Pedro at the same time and almost all hostels can be at full capacity pushing prices up.
This was the case for our Uyuni group anyway when teamed up and went around town under the hot sun for a good two hours before we all split up to find something. Manu and I ended up booking two twin beds at Hostal Puritama for 25,000 Chilean Pesos/ 35.26 USD. Although this place had a shared bath the great thing about it was the outdoor space and the ability to use the kitchen and save money on meals. Our friends were able to get a similarly priced hostel nearby that had an outdoor grill and we joined them for brews and a BBQ.
There is no real supermarket in San Pedro so your best bet for finding food are some of the farmer’s markets in town (a really great one is located on the way to the bus station) and shopping around the numerous mini-markets for the best price. When we weren’t cooking at “home” we checked out the menu del dia at Paatcha Restaurant that was more affordable than some of the other restaurants on the main street of Caracoles. For 7,500 CLP/ 10.58 USD we ate a meal complete with soup, bread, mouth-watering salmon, potatoes and even dessert.
San Pedro de Atacama was exceedingly hot during the day (it is a desert after all) but at night we were rewarded with a nice cool breeze. The town is small and easily walkable but I would avoid peak hours during the day when the sun is truly merciless. San Pedro is not only known for its cool nights but also for its cool vibe. People are super laid back, the town exudes a bohemian lifestyle, it is a great hub for artists and fantastic handmade crafts are available for purchase (great one of a kind stuff near the bus station). There’s even a groovy underground party in the middle of the desert on some nights. You’ll most likely hear about it by word of mouth from the locals while you are there. The town is charmingly decorated with adobe structures and the gorgeous central Plaza de Armas is a great place to relax.
To beat the heat there is a municipal pool in San Pedro. We were supposed to be meeting up with our friends at this pool but when we asked the locals where it was they pointed us in a different direction. Manu and I ended up crashing a really nice pool in town by mistake. It was a good time!
There are numerous tour companies around town (we chose Desert Adventure) and plenty of things to see in the vicinity. Between visiting Valle de la Luna, El Tatio Geysers, horseback riding through the desert, doing an astronomy tours or visiting lagunas for a dip there is something for everyone. Since we had limited time in San Pedro and had already spent the past couple of days visiting Uyuni we only did two activities.
We visited the stunning and incredibly relaxing Puritama Hot Springs. They were located about 30 minutes outside of San Pedro and we a paid 15,000 CLP entrance fee. We also did the astronomy tour one evening which was quite interesting. Just being underneath the night sky blanketed with stars was great enough but for those who wanted to be up close and personal there were telescopes available for use. Snacks, wine and pisco were included in the tour along with an astronomer who was quite knowledgeable (all for 10,000 CLP).
San Pedro de Atacama truly was a luxurious oasis after roughing it out for a couple of days in the salt flats. You’ll find a great atmosphere and locals who are friendly and open. The scenery getting to, around and out of San Pedro is magnificent and it is truly a special place that cannot be missed when visiting Chile.