Things to Do in San Pedro de Atacama
With its parched desert plains and wind-sculpted topography, it’s easy to see how Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) earned its name. The sharp sandstone peaks, glittering salt deposits, and crater-like depressions make for some dramatic photographs, and watching the sunset over the valley is an unforgettable experience.
Plumes of steam from more than 60 geysers and hundreds of fumaroles erupt several feet into the air at the geyser field of El Tatio, high in the Andes in northern Chile. El Tatio isn’t the largest geyser field in the world, but with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, it’s perhaps the most picturesque.
As the driest place on earth, you’d expect the Atacama Desert to resemble a barren wasteland. Instead, the vast and arid landscape offers plenty to see and explore, including blue lagoons, salt flats, and active geysers—and also offers some of the world’s best stargazing opportunities.
Atacama Salt Flats (Salar de Atacama), a salt deposit–coated lake, lies amid the Atacama Desert plains, framed by distant Andes peaks. Stretching more than 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers), it’s one of the largest salt flats and the largest lithium reserve in the world.
The high Andean starry nights, combined with the cold Atacama winds, can chill the unprepared tourist to the bone. Happily, however, these mountains are volcanic, and pour forth the planet's heat into a series of steaming pools, the Puritama Hot Springs (Termas Baños de Puritama).
The name "puritama" simply means "hot water" in an ancient, pre-Inca tongue, suggesting that these medicinal springs have been used for millennia. With high concentrations of relaxing lithium and minerals accorded all sorts of health benefits, they are guaranteed to mellow you out. Temperatures hover around 33°C (91°F), so they aren't ridiculously hot, making daytime visits a treat.
Though most pools have been left in a relatively natural state, there are changing rooms, eateries, campsites, trails, handicrafts vendors and other improvements all around.
Located just 20 miles from the town of San Pedro de Atacama, this unusual desert sinkhole attracts many visitors. Filled with water, Cejar Lagoon(Laguna Cejar) is popular for the opportunity it provides to take a dip in the middle of the desert. The water can have salt concentrations up to 30 percent, which makes floating not only easy, but also pretty much impossible to avoid. For this reason, the lake is often compared to the Dead Sea and is sometimes called the “floating lake.” The top few inches of water are often warm from the sun, while there are cold currents down below, making for a mixed swimming experience.
Even if you decide not to swim in this “floating lake,” enjoy the view and how the glassy surface reflects the scenery back to you, including the Domeyko mountain range. Flamingos occasionally fly overhead and the lake is ringed white with residual salt, while the blue of the lake contrasts with the yellow tussock grass that grows all around.
Chaxa Lagoon (Laguna Chaxa) often serves as an introduction to the salt flat for visitors. The ground here is crusted with an inedible salt, and in the morning, a pinkish light comes over the horizon as the sun rises. While the crystalline ground is fascinating and curious, the wild flamingos in the area often turn heads.
And the presence of flamingos should be no surprise, as the Chaxa Lagoon(Laguna Chaxa) is one of the easiest entry points to Chile’s National Flamingo Reserve and a great place for photographers with good reflexes (and zoom, as the birds often keep their distance).
As the pinkish light dissipates and the air warms up, packs of the birds take flight over the lake. Three different species often reside here: the Chilean, Andean and James' flamingos. A variety of other birds can be seen here as well, including the Andean avocet, the puna plover and a type of sandpiper, a small bird with a long beak that feeds on small organisms in the mineral-rich water. The birds are most active at sunrise and sunset.
When you see the stark, bright colors of San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings, you may wonder how much of a standout Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris) could really be. The valley, however, located 50 miles from town, is home to tremendous variety of things to see and views to gaze upon. Mineral deposits have left vibrant reds, browns, purples, greens and yellows on the rocks in this area over the course of thousands of years, and in addition, the wind and very occasional rain have carved interesting shapes, rocky spires and small canyons into the valley. At 11,500 feet above sea level, this area makes for slow but worthwhile exploring.
In addition to the bright photogenic colors, Hierbas Buenas also makes for a popular stopping spot for visitors with its thousands of petroglyphs carved into stone by early Atacama dwellers, some about 11,000 years old.
Part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, the high-altitude Altiplanic Lagoons are nestled between the Andean peaks of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. The Miscanti and Miñique lakes are managed by an indigenous community located in Socaire, a town often visited for its handmade crafts and historic church.
Covering 286 square miles (740 square kilometres), Los Flamencos National Reserve (Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos) is home to some of the most stunning scenery in the Atacama Desert. Between the Andes and Chile’s Pacific coast, the park has glittering salt flats, wind-sculpted moonscapes, and high-altitude lagoons surrounded by wild flamingos.
More Things to Do in San Pedro de Atacama
Visitors to San Pedro de Atacama would be hard-pressed to miss the bright white church that sits on the west side of the Plaza de Armas. The Spanish colonial-style church is one of the oldest buildings in Chile, dating back to 1744 when it was constructed with adobe (dried mud).
The whitewashed exterior provides a stark contrast against the blue skies of San Pedro de Atacama, and the attractive perimeter wall, built in the 1970s, stays true to the building's adobe construct. Perhaps not surprisingly, the church's patron saint is St Peter (San Pedro).
The interior of the church has some interesting features, namely the unique materials used to build it. Aside from adobe, two types of trees were used: algarrobo, a thorned tree with rounded brown pods, and chañar, a local tree that bears a sweet, starchy fruit. The roof slats are made of cardon cactus rather than wood, as wood is very scarce in the desert. The church's door is attached to its entryway with llama leather, in traditional altiplanic style. The church most recently underwent renovations in 2009, and as one of the only shady spots to be found in town, this area makes for a good spot to take a break from the bright sunshine.
This lagoon is often visited on a trip to see Laguna Cejar and Ojos del Salar. One might think that visiting a series of desert lakes would get repetitive, but Tebenquiche erases any thoughts of that kind with its strange, moon-like landscape. It’s a shallow lake, sometimes with as few as five inches of water, and underneath lies a mostly salt lake bed with an otherworldly landscape that is clearly visible from the surface. Since there is so little water and often so little movement, the lake acts as a mirror, reflecting the surrounding mountains and the Lincancabur volcano.
In the bright sun, this area is perfect for taking optical illusion photos in which photo subjects go far from the photographer and pretend to interact with something in the foreground, giving the impression that they are standing on something tiny. Late in the afternoon, the slow desert sunset makes for very long shadows as the reds, yellows and pinks of nature take over the sky. Birds are also most active at this time of day, and you may see some flamingos overhead as the sun sets.
The Pukara de Quitor National Monument overlooks the fertile Río San Pedro valley from atop a strategic bluff. Its serpentine rows of thick, stone walls have defended the verdant oasis's bounty since around 1100 AD. Today, the fortress's impressive architecture and historic significance bring in another sort of wealth, visitors eager to see what are among Chile's most important ruins.
Little is known about theAyllu de Quitor people who originally constructed the fortress, which was used to defend the agricultural town from the Incas and later, Spaniards. Their handiwork is impressive, however, and makes a fine place to contemplate life in the fierce Atacama Altiplano.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, considering the harsh climate of this impossibly dry, high-altitude region, the Atacama Desert has hosted human settlement for thousands of years. Tulor Village, as it is known, is one of the most tantalizing archaeological clues these mysterious early settlers left behind.
Only about 10% of the village, a human-sized honeycomb of square and circular adobe structures, has been excavated. The city was occupied by 800BC, and at its peak had several hundred inhabitants. There are few artifacts on hand at the site, but photographers will find the enigmatic earthworks a tempting subject, particularly in the morning or late afternoon.
Toconao is a small, peaceful village with a name that means “place of stones” in the indigenous Kunza (Atacameño) language. The first settlements are thought to date back 12,000 years, and there is evidence of 10,000-year-old human presence in the area, making it an area of historical, archaeological significance. Its name seems to be related to the fact that homes in Toconao are made of a volcanic rock called liparita (pumice). Structures are of stone and mud, with wooden features installed only with natural elements rather than nails. The most well-known construction of the town is not its church as expected, but the separate nearby 1750 bell tower, located across the plaza.
The town features a few restaurants, small-scale agriculture (mostly fruit) and animal husbandry fed with water from the nearby creek. Most people, however, visit looking for locally made handicrafts such as alpaca wool weavings and reproductions of the town's bell tower. The town administers entrance to the Chaxa Lagoon (Laguna Chaxa) and is often visited as the continuation of an early morning trip to Chaxa.
The R.P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum is a good place to start time in San Pedro de Atacama, as a visit here serves as a low-stress activity while you grow accustomed to the area's altitude and extreme dryness. The museum was founded by a Belgian priest who settled in the area in 1955 and opened the museum eight years later with the help of a local university, the Universidad Católica del Norte, which currently owns and runs the site.
The museum previously housed mummified remains of a young girl, but due to pressure from the local indigenous Lickanantay (Atacameño) community, the remains have been removed and replaced with a replica. This is also the case for all human remains at the museum. The museum shows a short film that explains how the decision to change the exhibits came to be. Other than those replicas, everything else onsite is genuine, including 1,000 samples of region discoveries. Some of the more popular parts of the public collection are in the Treasure Room, which features many gold items. Also on display at the museum are examples of clay pottery, old textiles and stone items, with different rooms dedicated to various epochs of pre-Colombian history up until the arrival of the Spaniards in the area.
To understand the meaning of the words Ojos de Salar, you just need to know that a salar is a salt plain or lake and the ojo is its eye. In this case, the eyes of the salt plain are two small, perfectly round, freshwater lakes that open up seemingly in the middle of nowhere, about 20 miles from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. They are accessed from a sandy road, and these two freshwater lakes are commonly visited as part of a larger trip to two other lakes in the area, the Laguna de Cejar and Laguna Tebenquiche.
On still days, the Ojos del Salar act as perfect mirrors that reflect the desert. Tours to the area usually head out in the afternoon and stop here before moving on to other lakes, including Cejar, in which you can take a dip and enjoy the last bit of sunlight with with a cocktail in hand, if you can put down your camera for that long.