There are many fantastic things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The town known as a gateway to the Atacama Desert, is the driest non-polar desert in the world. San Pedro de Atacama is a small town in Northern Chile near the border with Bolivia. The town is situated in the middle of the desert at a high altitude, 3160 m above sea level.
The Atacama Desert is an incredible place that offers breathtaking scenery, a bizarre landscape, a unique ecosystem, and amazing opportunities for adventure enthusiasts to explore some of the desert’s hidden gems in a unique way. Atacama desert and Carretera Austral were our two favorite places in Chile. In this post, we tried to divide things to do in the Atacama desert according to their type and the way they can be done – with a tour (rental car) or independently.
Table of Contents
Top 3 tours in San Pedro de Atacama
- San Pedro de Atacama: Valle de la Luna Sunset Tour
- Piedras Rojas, Altiplanics Lagoons & Salar Full-Day Tour
- Full Day Tour to Geyser del Tatio, Vado Putana and Machuca
How to visit San Pedro de Atacama?
When planning a visit to the Atacama Desert it’s important to decide what you want to see and to do there. Most of the attractions are not accessible by public transport and are too far to walk or cycle there from the town. To get the best out of your visit to San Pedro de Atacama and not spend a lot I’d suggest combining activities that you can do independently and organized tours. All nearby natural attractions can be reached by bike or even walking from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. All lagoons, geysers, and volcanoes are too far to cycle you’ll have to rent a car or join a tour.
Another important thing to keep in mind is where you’re going after San Pedro de Atacama. If you’re heading to Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia you don’t want to see similar attractions, but rather something different that you don’t see in Uyuni. If you’re not going to Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama then try to diversify the activities. Try to visit volcanos, valleys, colorful lagoons, and geysers. Whichever thing to do in San Pedro de Atacama you choose it will be definitely one of the highlights of your South America trip just like Iguazu Falls and Perito Moreno Glacier.
When is the best time to visit San Pedro de Atacama?
There are three distinguished seasons in San Pedro de Atacama; winter, summer, and shoulder season. May to September is winter when the days are nice and pleasant but the nights are cold. Night temperatures sometimes go below 0°C. Summer months, between December and March, are hot and very dry. Day temperatures are around 30°C, and at night it cools down to 20°C.
Most rainfalls occur between January and March and sometimes if it rains a lot it can result in some natural attractions being closed. The end of the rainy season is not the best time to visit the Atacama. In the shoulder season (April, October, and November) the days are not as hot as in the summer and the nights are not as cold as in the winter. You might get some rain but not as much as during the rainy period.
We were in San Pedro de Atacama in December, just before Christmas. December is the high season which means the town gets busy and prices increase. If you decide to visit Atacama at the end of the year it’s better to book accommodation, tours, and transportation beforehand.
Renting a car in Atacama
If you’re a family or a group of friends renting a car and visiting attractions independently might be cheaper than doing tours. There is not much traffic on the roads that lead to the main attractions. Most of the roads except the highways are gravel.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama?
There are plenty of accommodation options in the town from camping and staying in a dormitory to luxury hotels and cabins.
- Budget accommodation | Hostal Alabalti | Rey Lagarto Hostel |
- Middle price | Hostal Montepardo | Hostal Alto Yalí |
- High-end | Hotel Jardin Atacama | Hotel La Casa de Don Tomás |
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Best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama without a tour
Cycling in the desert
It gets very hot out there in the afternoon so the best time for cycling is early morning and evening. Don’t forget to take enough water, put on sunscreen and wear a cap or a hat. Renting a bicycle is the most budget way to do sightseeing around San Pedro de Atacama this way you can get to Moon Valley, Death Valley, Devil’s Throat, etc. Most of the time you cycle on a dirt road sometimes it gets a bit bumpy.
There are several places in the town where you can rent a bicycle just make sure you get a bicycle lock and a light (in case you’ll decide to stay in the Valley for the sunset and will cycle back in the dark).
We loved cycling through the desert and stopping on the way to take photos and enjoy the scenery. Bike rental companies in San Pedro de Atacama charge CLP 5000/US$5 for half a day.
You can do an e-bike tour through the desert as well.
Hiking in the desert sounds crazy, doesn’t it?! It might be obvious but you’ll have to carry plenty of water with you because you’ll get really thirsty. The safest and easiest place to hike is in the Moon Vallely. You can go up to rock formations and sand dunes to get spectacular views of the valley and the Atacama Desert.
As for the hiking route we went through the Death Valley. We combined hiking and camping. We walked for about 3 hours, then found a place to pitch a tent. The next morning on the way back we walked through the Devil’s Throat and got a bit lost in the maze. In general, the hiking experience was great, there were very few people we saw mostly locals from small villages that spread out in the desert. I would strongly recommend using navigation for hiking in the Atacama Desert and sticking to the main routes. You don’t want to get lost there.
Atacama hiking tours
- Purilibre Trekking
- Canyon Swimming Pools Trekking Trip
- San Pedro de Atacama: Desert Tour with Canyoning & Trekking
Camping in the desert
If you decide to experience camping in the driest place on Earth make sure to take enough water that will last you for the way to and back. We walked around in the desert for quite a while before we found a suitable place for pitching our tent. The ground is very rocky and it’s difficult to find a flat sandy spot. For a comfortable sleep, you’ll need a really good camping mat.
The night in the desert was amazing, we brought a camping cooking set, made dinner, and were sitting outside eating and looking at the amazing sky. Remember that it gets quite chilly at night in the desert so bring a sleeping bag and warmer clothes with you. On a different occasion (hiking the Fish River Canyon in Namibia) we got very cold at night in the desert sleeping outside in our thin sleeping bags.
The next morning was wonderful. We woke up early just before sunrise, made coffee, packed our stuff, and started heading back before it got too hot. On the way, we visited the Devil’s Throat Gorge. We arrived in the town before midday.
Explore Moon Valley
Visiting Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) is one of the top free things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. The valley is located about 7km from the town. You can basically walk there but I’d suggest cycling (as we did). The area of Moon Valley is quite big and to get a chance to see it you’ll need some kind of transport. If you’re really on a tight budget and don’t plan to use any tour companies the Moon Valley is definitely a must-visit place for you.
The bizarre landscape of Moon Valley gives you a feeling of being on another planet. If you have time I’d suggest exploring the area and visiting Tres Marias (Three Marys), a group of three rocks that looks like three women standing next to each other.
It’s best to visit the valley in the morning or in the evening because of the heat. Moon Valley is a perfect place to watch the sunset. The sunset from Piedra del Coyote is stunning but prepare to see many people in the valley this time of the day. It’s an amazing spectacle when the setting sun colors the desert into different shades of red. If you want to visit the valley without crowds, the morning is a better time. The entrance fee is CLP 10 000/US$12 per person.
Moon Valley tours
Visit Death Valley
Death Valley (Valle de la Muerte) is also known as Mars Valley (Valle de Marte). It has an even more bizarre landscape than Moon Valley. It has even less sand and more clay formations that have been shaped by the wind and the water for thousands of years. The landscape reminds a labyrinth it’s nice to walk around and explore the area. We visited the place in the morning and there were very few people, plus it was nice and cool. The entrance is only 3 km from San Pedro de Atacama you can basically walk there from the town. The entrance fee is CLP 5000/US$6.
Walk/cycle through Devil’s Throat and The Tunnel
Both places are located about 500 m from each other and 7 km from San Pedro de Atacama. Devil’s Throat is a small canyon or a passage between the rocks. In some places, it’s very narrow in some a bit wider. Walking there is like walking through a maze with reddish rugged walls.
The best way of getting to Devil’s Throat is by bike. It’s possible to reach both places by walking but it’s quite far to walk both ways. You can try to get a ride but there are not many cars on the road and most of them are tour groups. We visited both as a part of our hiking/camping adventure in the Atacama but cycling would be definitely better. The entrance fee is CLP 3000/US$3,5.
After the Devil’s Throat, you can cycle/walk 500 m to get to The Tunnel (El Túnel). It’s a man-made tunnel in the mountain built at the beginning of the 20th century. You can cycle through it.
Visit Pukará de Quitor
Pukará de Quitor is an archaeological site of the Pre-Colombian period located 3 km from San Pedro de Atacama. Here you can see the remains of an ancient fortress built by local tribes in the 12th century. We highly recommend walking to the viewpoint, a 700-meter steep ascent to the top from where you get some of the best views of Death Valley. The ruins are quite impressive, especially the big heads carved out of rocks.
Visiting Pukará de Quitor is a not-to-miss thing to do in San Pedro de Atacama if you’re interested in archeology and the history of the region. The entrance fee is CLP 5000/US$6. You can walk there and back from San Pedro de Atacama or go by bicycle which is faster and gives you a chance to visit more sights located nearby.
If you are on a bike you can visit Tulor, another archaeological site near San Pedro de Atacama. Tulor is located 9 km south of the town following on a gravel road. Tulor is an ancient village that consists of more than 20 constructions from houses and storage facilities to boreholes. You even can see human remains. The origins of the settlement date back 2500 years. Entrance fee CLP 5000/US$6 per person.
You can visit both villages with a tour – Archaeological Experience in Atacama Tulor and Quitor
Walk around the town
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town but there are some interesting things to see there. Some of the highlights of the town include the main Plaza, the Church of San Pedro de Atacama, the meteorite museum, the archeological museum Gustavo Le Paige, and many curiosity shops on the main road. There are many nice coffee shops and restaurants in the town where you can rest in between.
You can join a walkling tour in San Pedro de Atacama to learn more about the town and its history.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama with a tour
Visit colorful desert lagoons
Visiting the famous desert lagoons is one of the main things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. They are the main reason tourists come to the Atacama Desert. If you don’t have much time or your budget is not high enough to do many tours I’d suggest choosing a tour to the lagoons. Some full-day tours combine a visit to the lagoons with volcanoes, and geysers.
There are many spectacular lagoons in the Atacama Desert of different colors, some have flamingos, some are good for swimming, and some are surrounded by geysers and volcanoes. Which ones to choose is up to you but I’d recommend visiting Cejar Lagoon, a blue salty lake where you can float like in the Dead Sea. As an alternative, you can visit the less touristy Laguna Baltinache. Both lakes are stunning. Laguna Cejar is only 18 km away from San Pedro de Atacama which explains its popularity. Laguna Baltinache is 57 km away, it’s smaller and attracts fewer people.
If you want to see many flamingos I’d recommend going to Chaxa Lagoon. In the summer you can see hundreds o birds there. The lake is located in Los Flamencos National Reserve, in the middle of the Salar de Atacama.
Visiting the famous Lagunas Altiplanicas is one of the most popular things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. The Miscanti Lake and Laguna Miñiques are some of the most scenic lakes in Atacama. The lakes look especially impressive in the winter surrounded by snow. Both lakes are located next to each other, and 110 km south of San Pedro de Atacama. To get to the lakes you drive the same road that goes to Laguna Chaxa and the Salar de Atacama. On a day trip, you can visit all these attractions. On the way to the Lagunas Altiplanicas, there is a small salt lake – Lejia Lake.
As for the lake with the most impressive turquoise color, I think Laguna Verde (Green Lake) is the winner here. It looks green at certain times of the day but even without it, the scenery around the lake is breathtaking; surrounded by volcanoes and mountains this lake looks stunning on a nice sunny day.
Admire impressive volcanoes
Chile is famous for its multiple volcanoes and the Atacama area is not an exclusion. Visiting a volcano is a not-to-miss thing to do in San Pedro de Atacama. There you can see some sleeping giants like Licancabur and Láscar Volcanos.
Lincancabur is probably the most iconic volcano in the desert. It’s almost 6000 m high (5916m). Lincancabur Volcano is located 60 km east of San Pedro de Atacama it can be seen from the town. Lincancabur has a perfect cone shape, perfect for taking photos, especially in winter when its peak is covered in snow. For those who like adventure, I’d recommend hiking to the crater of the volcano. We didn’t know about the climb when we were in San Pedro de Atacama otherwise would have definitely done it. It is not often you can in a relatively easy way get to 6000 m above sea level.
Láscar is another massive volcano near San Pedro de Atacama, about 70 km south. It’s a little bit smaller than Lincancabur Volcano, 5592 m, but much more active. In fact, Lascar is the most active volcano in the region. Despite the fact that it’s an active volcano it’s possible to climb it as well which is in a way even more exciting as you climb up to the crater of the active volcano. These two peaks are on our bucket list of things to do, next time we’re in San Pedro de Atacama we’ll definitely do it. There are several tour operators on the main street in San Pedro that offer the climb.
Enjoy geysers & hot springs
The Antofagasta region in Chile (where San Pedro de Atacama is) has one of the highest concentrations of geysers in the world after Yellowstone in the US and the Geysers Valley in Kamchatka, Russia. El Tatio geyser field consists of more than 60 geysers, located at 4320 m elevation. It’s the highest geyser field in the world. For us seeing El Tatio was a must-do activity in San Pedro de Atacama though we did see a couple of geysers in Uyuni as well they were not that big and impressive.
Hot springs in the valley surrounding El Tatio are another reason to visit the volcano. You can soak in hot water enjoying the stunning scenery around you. It’s better to come there in the morning when it’s chilly outside. During the day it’s too hot to sit in hot springs at 35°C outside unless you come there in winter.
If you like more of a tranquil and relaxing hot spring experience, Termas de Puritama is the perfect place. It is a system of pools located in a picturesque canyon. There are eight pools in total. Water temperature in the pools varies between 28°C and 30°C. There are toilets and changing rooms. In order to make the experience relaxing and enjoyable, the number of people allowed in the pools at the same time is restricted.
- El Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village from San Pedro de Atacama
- Tour Tatio Geyser Safari style
- Puritama Hot Springs tour
Explore valleys & salt flats
To be honest we completely skipped this part because we just came from a 3-day tour in Uyuni and it felt like we’d seen enough salt flats, deserts, and bizarre rock formations. It doesn’t mean that those in the Atacama Desert look just like the ones in Uyuni. If we had more time and a higher budget we would like to go and visit all of them but we had to choose and decided to see something different that we hadn’t seen before.
Pedras Rojas and Salar de Tara are the most visited attractions in this category. As you can guess from the name, the valley is covered with huge reddish boulders, the color is the result of the oxidation of iron. The red rocks contrast with the blueish color of the white color of the nearby salt flat and lake. It’s a great spot for photography lovers. Piedras Rojas Valley is located about 150 km away from San Pedro de Atacama.
As for Salar de Tara if you’ve been to Uyuni in Bolivia or Salina Grandes in Argentina you can skip this one. It’s less touristy than the other two but in my opinion less impressive. Here and there you can see white salt patches but it’s not like the whole area is covered in salt. If you have never seen a salt flat then it’s worth visiting.
- Piedras Rojas – Altiplanicas – Chaxa tour
- Full-Day Piedras Rojas, Altiplanics lagoons & Salar de Talar
Another interesting valley is the Rainbow Valley. As you can guess from the name its rock formation are different colors. Not exactly the rainbow colors but pretty impressive for a desert. Rocks and the ground there are colored in reddish, brownish, greenish, and whitish colors. The valley is located 90 km from San Pedro de Atacama, it’s a short 3-hour tour.
See giant cacti
If you want to see the famous Cardones (gigantic cactuses) that grow in the north of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia head to the Cactus Valley. Some of the cacti you can see there are 5-7m high, which means they’re very old. They grow a couple of centimeters per year, and some of them are over 300 years old. Locals use cacti as a building material and make some parts of their houses (windows, doors) using it instead of wood or plastic.
If you’re coming from Uyuni you’ve already seen thousands of these cactus and probably took hundreds of photos as well. It’s possible to do an hour hike (4km) through the valley to enjoy the scenery.
Go on a hot air balloon ride
It might not be the most budget thing to do in San Pedro de Atacama but it’s a very special activity. It’s always an incredible experience to observe a natural wonder like a desert or a lake from the air. The bizarre landscape of the Atacama Desert is a great place for it. This type of landscape always looks amazing from the air. If you have never done a hot-air balloon ride Atacama is a perfect place for a first-timer.
The tours leave from San Pedro de Atacama very early in the morning, 5am-5.30am in order to make it for the sunrise. Just imagine the waste desert of the Atacama with the sun rising over the horizon.
If you like hot air balloon rides over bizarre landscapes add Cappadocia to your bucket list riding on a balloon over the stunning Goreme National Park is one of the highlights of Turkey.
Atacama hot air balloon tours
Climb Cerro Toco
If you like physical challenges and enjoy concurring mountains then climbing Cerro Toco is a not-to-miss thing to do in San Pedro de Atacama. Cerro Toco is a real giant, a 5600-meter mountain dominates the area near the border with Bolivia. Due to its easy accessibility, it’s the most climbed mountain in the Andes Mountains. Unlike many 5000 m peaks where you start the climb from 2000 m or 3000 m and steadily walk up for a couple of days, on Cerro Toco you can get by car to 5000 m and walk the rest 600 m to the top in a couple of hours.
Important to remember that going that high requires good acclimatization, make sure to stay for a couple of days in San Pedro de Atacama before attempting to summit. It takes half a day to get to Cerro Toco from San Pedro de Atacama, climb to the top and get back to the town. Price around 100US$ per person including guide, transportation, breakfast and lunch, and oxygen (for emergency).
Hike Zapaleri Volcano
Zapaleri Vilcano is another giant of the Atacama Desert. It is 50 m higher than Cerro Toco. Its peak stands at 5650 m above sea level. The location of Zapaleri Volcano is very symbolic. It marks the triple border point between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. The climb starts at about 5000 m till there you can get by car but you’ll need a 4×4 vehicle, so if you rent a car make sure you rent the right one because the road is very rocky and bumpy. It’s recommended to do the climb with a guide. It requires proper acclimatization as well.
Sandboarding is a popular thing to do in San Pedro de Atacama. If you have never tried it do it in the Atacama Desert, there are some pretty impressive dunes to slide down. Most of the sandboarding tours take place in Death Valley there are several suitable dunes of different sizes and steepnesses.
Going down standing is not as easy as it looks and it’s not exactly like snowboarding, you basically go down straight. The easiest way is going down a bigger dune laying on the board on your stomach or sitting on the board. Just be prepared, it will be quite a fast and exciting descent. We’ve done sandboarding in different places in South America and in the Namib desert.
Make sure to bring water and sunscreen. I’d suggest as well wearing a long sleeve shirt and long pants in case you fall and for extra sun protection. Some companies offer night sandboarding tours. We have never done one like that but it must be pretty exciting and quiet.
If you prefer surfing over sandboarding Chile has a great spot for that as well, the small town of Pichilemu, which is often called the surf capital of Chile.
Stargazing in the desert
The Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. For us it was another highlight of Atacama or actually any desert, the sky there is just absolutely stunning with no light pollution. I never saw so many stars and constellations in my life (not, actually I did in the Namib Desert). You can clearly see the Milky Way. In fact, the Atacama Desert is one of the best spots in the southern hemisphere to see it. Imagine how much you can see out there with a telescope. The stargazing tour is very interesting and educational. It’s important to remember that close to the full Moon you won’t be able to see many stars as the Moon is just too bright.
ALMA Observatory is situated in the Atacama Desert because it’s one of the best places for astronomic observations.
- San Pedro de Atacama: Etno-Astronomical Tour
- Astronomical Tour with Guide and Pick Up San Pedro de Atacama
Discover Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs
Visiting some of the local villages, towns, and archaeological sites is another popular thing to do in San Pedro de Atacama. Many of them can be visited as a part of a tour and are usually combined with visits to some natural attractions like lagoons and geysers.
Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs are one of the most interesting archeological sites in the Atacama Desert. Yerbas Buenas is located 50 km from San Pedro de Atacama, less than one hour drive. There are hundreds of petroglyphs in the area. The petroglyphs date 10 000 years back and were created by the Atacamaño people who inhabited the region at that time.
To get more out of the visit I’d suggest going there with a guide who will provide some interesting facts about the petroglyphs and the history of the region. The petroglyphs are usually visited as a part of a tour of the Rainbow Valley. Entrance fee CLP 3000/US$4 per person.
Visit Chacabuco village
One of the abandoned nitrate towns in the region, and probably the best-preserved one. The town was founded in 1924 during the nitrate boom in Chile but after the invention of the synthetic analog at the end of the 30th, all the mines were shut down. Unlike the other mine towns, Chacabuco’s history continued in the second half of the 20th century when it was used as a concentration camp for political prisoners of the Pinochet regime.
We love visiting abandoned ghost towns in the desert like this one or Kolmanskop in Namibia. Chacabuco is an interesting place the only problem is the location, it’s quite far from San Pedro, about 200km but like other sites that can be visited as a part of a tour.
Visit Machuca Village
Machuca village is just 44 km away from San Pedro de Atacama. This small village with only 20 houses represents a traditional local village of the region. All houses look the same; one-story stone buildings are very similar to the houses you stay on your tour in Uyuni. Machuca is usually visited on the way to Tatio Geyser. It’s a relatively new tourist destination but in the last few years, locals opened several hotels and restaurants. If you rent a car in San Pedro de Atacama it might be a good place to stay overnight to experience the local culture.
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The pretty half of Stingy Nomads, responsible for all our land adventures (hiking, climbing, walking the Camino) and following them write-ups. Alya loves walking since she was a child, she prefers to walk 1000 km with a backpack rather than to do a 10 000 km road trip (actually any road trip). Alya is a big fan of Latin America, the Spanish language, and dancing. Every time we go away she desperately misses our dog Chile.