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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 — but this region is a renowned adventure-lover's playground. Vanessa O'Hanlon checks in with some top tips for things to do...
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.

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

The Atacama region features soaring mountain peaks, deep canyons, sprawling salt lakes and sweeping sand dunes. This is one of the oldest and driest non-polar deserts in the world. In this isolated region, numerous weather stations have never recorded a drop of rain due to the topography. The surrounding mountain ranges block most of the moisture coming in from the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. However, in 2011 an extreme Antarctic cold front broke through and dumped 80 centimetres of snow on the region. Then in 2012, the altiplano winter saw rare flooding.

With its crystal clear skies, dry air and lack of light pollution, San Pedro is well-known amongst astronomers as one of the best locations on the planet for stargazing. You will need to rug up in winter. The trade-off for those clear skies is a minimum temperature of below zero. The days are warmer and as I canter out into the desert on a horse, the glare hits me despite my trusty sunglasses.

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 path by the river, we travel about three kilometres out of town before arriving at the old archaeological site of Pukara de Quitor. It sits on the summit of a hilI in the middle of nowhere. Built by the Atacameno in the 12th century, the pre-Incan-era fortress was used as a defence against invading forces.

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 here, surrounded by nothing but a sky full of twinkling stars, you can expect to pay around five to seven hundred US dollars a night.

The surreal landscape takes us through a dark ravine. My horse Dream is a little hesitant and I guide her with care through some shallow water and up to Devil’s Canyon — or as the locals call it — Quebrada del Diablo. We weave our way silently through the infinite landscape, completely immersed in the grandeur of nature. I feel so small against this vast terrain of escarpments, strange and colourful rock formations, and barren plains that stretch all the way to some distant mountains.

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

Later, Dream enjoys the freedom of galloping down the enormous sand dunes of Valle De La Muerte (Death Valley) — and I’ve got to admit — so do I. The light wind shifts the sand constantly, re-sculpting the land’s surface. Ahead, some bodies lie stretched out on the sand. They are sandboarders resting before the hard walk back to the top of their dune of choice. I take the opportunity to give sandboarding a try. The task of carrying the board up the dune is exhausting, but results in an exhilarating ride down!

After a tiring day of horse riding and sandboarding, it’s time to relax under the almost clear pinkish sunset at Valle De La Luna (Moon Valley) — aptly named for its uncanny resemblance to the moon. As the sun goes down, our tour guide pours us a famous pisco sour (a cocktail, which originated in neighbouring Peru). We offer a salute to clear skies, starry eyes and our adventures in this remote landscape.

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

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 she knew there was no turning back. Since then, Vanessa’s backpack has seen a thing or two — from exploring relatively untouched Bhutan to braving the cold on the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro.


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