Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

With a landscape that looks a bit like Mars, San Pedro de Atacama in Chile's far north might not sound all that inviting as a travel destination. Not so, says Vanessa O'Hanlon, as she explores this renowned adventure-lover's playground...

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

A long haul flight, twenty-two hours on a bus and an hour taxi ride – despite forty hours of travelling I am buzzing!

Perhaps it’s the rich mineral deposits putting out positive energy, the high altitude or the sheer splendour of the dramatic desert landscape. Whatever it is, I can’t get enough of it. Here’s guide to the top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, Northern Chile.

Arriving by land supposedly dulls the effects of the altitude here in the Altiplano of the Atacama Desert. However at 2,400 metres above sea level, the thinness of the air and the beauty of this wide, desolate landscape still take my breath away.

The small village of San Pedro De Atacama is made up of a network of narrow streets. Despite having a population of just 2,000, the presence of restaurants and plenty of tourist agencies indicates this is a hotspot for travelling gringos like me.

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. Image: Bigstock

What makes the Atacama region so unique and colourful are natural formations of rocks, sand, geysers, salt lakes, canyons and volcanoes. The Atacama Desert is one of the oldest and driest non-polar deserts in the world. In this isolated region of the world numerous weather stations have never recorded a drop of rain due to the basin and range topography.  Surrounding mountain ranges block most of the moisture coming in from the Pacific or Atlantic ranges.

Despite this, during 2011 an extreme Antarctic cold front broke through dumping 80 centimetres of snow and in 2012 the altiplano winter caused rare flooding in San Pedro De Atacama.

Under crystal clear skies, with dry air and a lack of air pollution, San Pedro is well-known amongst budding astronomers as one of the best locations on the planet for stargazing. You will need to rug up in winter. The trade-off for perfect clear skies is a minimum temperature of below zero. The days are warmer and as I canter out into the desert on a horse, it strikes me how powerful the ultraviolet is.

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. Image: Vanessa O’Hanlon

Heading along the dusty barren paths  by the river to about three kilometers out of town we arrive at the old archaeological site of Pukara de Quitor. In the middle of nowhere on the summit of a hill sits a lone piece of architectural history. Built by the Atacameno in the 12th century, the pre-Inca fortress was used as a defence against other towns.

Along the way my tour guide points out the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, it’s completely enveloped by its natural surroundings and like a mirage it’s not until I am up close that I can make out its external design. For a night of complete tranquillity, surrounded by nothing but a sky full of twinkling stars, expect to pay around five to seven hundred US dollars a night.

The surreal landscape takes us through a dark tunnel. My horse Dream is a little hesitant and I guide her with care through the shallow water and up to Devil’s Canyon, or as local’s call it  – Quebrada del Diablo. The narrow ravine weaves through the infinite landscape of the Salt Mountain Range.

For me this is my moment of tranquillity. With just my horse for company I am immersed in the grandeur of nature. I feel so small against the vast terrain of cliffs, strange and colourful rock formations and the stretch of barren land that connects all the way to the mountains.

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. Image: Vanessa O’Hanlon

But the moment ends too quickly. Dream enjoys the freedom of galloping down the enormous sand dunes of Valle De La Muerte or Death Valley – and I’ve got to admit, so do I. The light wind shifts the sand constantly, evolving the land’s surface. Ahead, bodies lay in the soft sand, gearing up for the hard walk up the hill for sand boarding.

This inspires an afternoon of trying something new, or in my case, face planking and a good exfoliation. Sand Boarding! The gruelling task of carrying the board up the sand dunes is enough to bring on a bout of exhaustion, but it’s an exhilarating ride down. My technique could do with some extra work.

After a tiring day of horse riding and sand boarding, it’s time to relax under the almost clear pinkish sunset at Valle De La Luna or Moon Valley – aptly named for its uncanny resemblance to the moon. As the sun goes down our tour guide pours a glass of the famous Chilean drink pisco sour.

‘Salute’ to clear skies, starry eyes and our adventure on the world’s largest salt flats.

Do you have any tips for top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.

Additional images: Bigstock


Vanessa O'Hanlon

About the writer

Vanessa O’Hanlon is an Australian television news presenter with the Nine Network and an avid traveller. Her travels began with a flight to Egypt, a visit to the pyramids and a camel ride and instantly she knew there was no turning back. Since then Vanessa’s backpack has seen a thing or two, from discovering relatively untouched Bhutan to bracing the cold winds on the peaks of Mt Kilimanjaro. Her travel tales span nearly 50 countries. Combining a love of writing, photography and exploring the unknown, Vanessa is pleased to share her adventures with The Big Bus tour and travel guide readers.

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