San Pedro de Atacama and around

Situated 103 km by paved road southeast of Calama, San Pedro is an oasis town in the valley of the Río San Pedro at 2436 m. While it is now famous among visitors as the base for excursions in this part of the Atacama, it was important as the centre of the Atacameño culture long before the arrival of the Spanish. There is a definite sense of history in the shady streets and the crumbling ancient walls that drift away from the town into the fields and on into the dust. Owing to the clear atmosphere and isolation, there are wonderful views of the night sky from just outside town. Despite being in the desert, it does rain in San Pedro about three or four times a year, usually around March, as a result of the invierno altiplánico. San Pedro is a good base from which to visit Toconao, the Salar de Atacama and the geysers of El Tatio.

Getting there

San Pedro can be reached by over a dozen buses a day to/from Calama and six daily from Antofagasta. There are three companies:
Atacama 2000
,
Frontera
and
TurBus
. If driving, be aware there is no food, water or fuel along the Calama-San Pedro road.
Turismo Licancabur
 run a minibus service from Calama Airport, although the service can be unreliable.

Getting around

San Pedro is small so taxis (from by the football field) are only needed for out-of-town trips.

Climate

Be prepared for the harsh climate and high altitudes of the interior. Gloves, a hat and a warm coat are essential for excursions from San Pedro, especially for the early morning trip to El Tatio. High-factor suncream and a hat are necessary for the burning daytime sun. Take plenty of water, sunglasses and lip balm on any excursion.

Background

The main centre for the Atacameño culture, which flourished in this region before the arrival of the Incas around 1450, San Pedro was defended by a
pukará
(fortress) at Quitor, 3 km north. The cultivable land around was distributed in 15
ayllus
(socio-economic communities based on family networks) and irrigation channels were built. San Pedro was visited by both Diego de Almagro and Pedro de Valdivia and the town became a centre of Spanish colonial control; a mission was established in 1557. After Independence, the town became an important trading centre on the route between Cobija on the coast and Salta in Argentina, but the decline of Cobija and the rise of copper-mining led to San Pedro being superceded as an economic centre by Calama.

In the early 20th century, San Pedro's economy was based around mining, with salt mines in the Valle de la Luna (whose ruins are easily visible today) and sulphur mines in the high mountains. Since the 1970s, tourism has been of increasing importance and the town is now dependent on the annual influx of Chilean and foreign visitors. However, travellers should be aware that tourism is a somewhat divisive issue in San Pedro. In many ways the town has lost much of it's Atacameño feel, and with more tourists than locals you may well feel that on entering San Pedro you are leaving Chile behind. Moreover, the tour companies are often run by outsiders and the glut of travel agencies has led to a tenfold increase in rents in the past ten years. Many of the local people still work in agriculture, having lower incomes than those who work with tourism, and, with over 25 tour companies there are dark (and doubtless somewhat exaggerated) rumours that some of these operations are fronts for money laundering and drug running, especially with Bolivia so close.

The road from Calama

At
Paso Barros Arana
(Km 58) there is an unpaved turning to the left, which leads through interesting desert scenery to the small, mud-brick village of
Río
Grande
. Look out for guanacos on the pass. The main road continues skirts the Cordillera de la Sal about 15 km from San Pedro. There are spectacular views of the sunset over the western
cordilleras
. The old unpaved road to San Pedro turns off the new road at Km 72 and crosses this range through the Valle de La Luna , but should only be attempted by 4WD vehicles. This road is partly paved with salt blocks.

San Pedro de Atacama

The
Iglesia de San Pedro
, dating from the 17th century, is supposedly the second oldest church in the country. It has been heavily restored and the tower was added in 1964. The roof is made of cactus; inside, the statues of Mary and Joseph have fluorescent light halos. Nearby, on the shady Plaza, is the
Casa Incaica
, the oldest building in San Pedro.

Museo Arqueológico
, www.ucn.cl/museo, contains the collection of Padre Gustave Le Paige, a Belgian missionary who lived in San Pedro between 1955 and 1980. It is now under the care of the Universidad Católica del Norte. One of the most important museums in northern Chile, it traces the development of pre-Hispanic Atacameño society. It is well organised, each display having a card with explanations in English. The centrepiece of the collection has always been the Atacameño mummies, fully clothed and perfectly preserved. However these have recently been removed from display at the behest of the local indigenous community and are gathering dust in a storeroom. Nevertheless the museum is well worth a visit.

The
Pukará de Quitor
, 3 km north of San Pedro along the river, US$4, is a pre-Inca fortress that was restored in 1981 and covers 2.5 ha on a hillside on the west bank of the river. It was stormed by the Spanish under Pedro de Valdivia, 1000 defenders being overcome by 30 horsemen who vaulted the walls. The road to Quitor involves fording the river several times, until the
pukará
comes into view on the hill on the left-hand side of the valley. There is a new plaza here, built as a homage to the indigenous people of the region and set amid thorn trees. The road continues along the valley of the Río San Pedro as the canyon climbs further into the Atacama, passing a couple of small farmsteads sheltered by pepper trees where sheep graze in the desert sun. A further 4 km up the river, there are ruins at
Catarpe
, which was the Inca administrative centre for this region. The ruins are on top of a hill on the east side of the valley, and are difficult to find without a guide; horseback tours are offered in San Pedro.

Valle de la Luna

Some 12 km west of San Pedro, this is a valley of fantastic landscapes caused by the erosion of salt mountains. The valley is crossed by the old San Pedro-Calama road. Although buses on the new road will stop to let you off where the old road branches 13 km northwest of San Pedro (signposted to Peine), it is far better to travel from San Pedro on the old road, either on foot (allow three hours each way), by bicycle or high-clearance vehicle. There is a small information centre at the entrance with info in Spanish only, although there is a leaflet in English. The Valle is best seen at sunset. Take water, hat, camera and a torch. Note that camping is prohibited. Agencies in San Pedro offer tours, departing around 1530, returning after sunset, US$15 per person, but make sure the agency departs in time for arrival in the Valle before sunset as they do not always do so. Be aware that most tour groups watch the sunset from the same spot, so do not expect a solitary desert experience. Tours usually include a visit to the
Valle de la Muerte
, a crevice in the Cordillera de la Sal near San Pedro, with red rock walls, contorted into fantastic shapes.

The geysers of El Tatio

At an altitude of 4321 m, the geysers of El Tatio are a popular attraction. From San Pedro, they are reached by a road in variable state of repair that runs northeast, past the
Baños de Puritama
, then on for a further 94 km. The geysers are said to be at their best in the morning between 0600 and 0800, although the spectacle varies; locals say the performance is best when weather conditions are stable. A swimming pool has been built nearby. From here, you can hike to surrounding volcanoes if you are adapted to altitude, although it is advisable to take a guide because of the dangers of minefields.

There is no public transport and hitching is impossible. If going in a hired car, make sure the engine is suitable for very high altitudes and is protected with anti-freeze; a 4WD is advisable. If driving in the dark, it is almost impossible to find your way: the sign for El Tatio is north of the turn-off. Following recent accidents a series of stone walls and wooden walkways has been built around the geysers, which some say has taken away from the spectacle. Wrap up warm as it can be extremely cold.

From San Pedro to Toconao

From San Pedro to Toconao, a 37-km journey south, the paved road runs through occasional groves of acacia and pepper trees. There are many tracks leading to the
pozos
(wells), which supply the intricate irrigation system. Most have thermal water but bathing is not appreciated by the local farmers. The groves of trees are havens for wildlife, especially
ñandu
(rhea) and Atacama owls; there are also some llamas.

Toconao and around

This village, at an altitude of 2600 m, is on the eastern shore of the Salar de Atacama. Unlike San Pedro, Toconao's economy is based on agriculture, not tourism. All houses are built of bricks of white volcanic stone, which gives the village an appearance totally different from San Pedro. The 18th-century church and bell tower are also built of volcanic stone. Food is available and there are small shops selling handicrafts. The local church is cared for by nuns who give liturgies. There are no priests.

East of the village is a beautiful gorge called the
Quebrada de Jere
, which is almost unimaginably verdant and filled with fruit trees and grazing cattle. At the bottom of the gorge a crystal-clear stream cuts down towards Toconao. There are picnic sites but camping is prohibited. Near the head of the valley on the East side is a petroglyph of a llama. Nearby is the quarry where the stone
sillar
is worked; it can be visited. The stones sound like bells when struck. Also worth visiting are the vineyards, which produce a unique sweet wine.

About 4 km before Toconao, vehicle tracks head east across the sand to a hidden valley 2 km from the road where there is a small settlement called
Zapar
. There are some well-preserved pre-Hispanic ruins on the rocky cliffs above the cultivated valley here. The sand is very soft and a 4WD vehicle is essential.

Around the Salar de Atacama

South of Toconao is one of the main entrances to the Salar de Atacama. Formed by deglaciation some 12,000 years ago it encompasses some 300,000 ha, making it the third largest expanse of salt flats in the world; the air is so dry here that you can usually see right across the Salar, 100 km to the north. Rich in minerals, including borax, potassium and an estimated 40% of world lithium reserves, the Salar is home to three of the world's five species of flamingo - the Andean, Chilean and James - as well as other birds including sandpipers, the Andean gull, and the Andean avocet (although these can only be seen when lakes form in winter). The flamingos live by eating algae and tiny shellfish that subsist in the small saline pools in the Salar. Three areas of the Salar are part of the seven-sector
Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos
, totalling 73,986 ha, administered by
CONAF
in conjunction with local communities. There is a walkway over part of the salar with information boards in Spanish. You should not leave the path.

From Toconao, a road runs 67 km along the eastern edge of the Salar de Atacama to the attractive village of
Peine
, where you'll find the offices of the lithium extraction company. It is worth asking if the company's access road can be used to visit the Salar de Atacama's spectacular salt formations. Nearby are some prehistoric cave paintings. Local guides in the village offer tours for around US$7 per person. There is also a thermal pool where you can swim. Woollen goods and knitwear are made here. To the east of the village lies a group of beautifully coloured hills, whose colours are more vibrant at sunset, with good views over the Salar de Atacama. A path leads across these hills to
Socaire
; allow two days. Other villages worth visiting include
Tilomonte
and
Tilopozo
, south and west of Peine.

From Peine, a road (64 km) crosses the Salar de Atacama and joins the road that runs from San Pedro down the west side of the Salar, continuing south to
Pan de Azúcar
, an abandoned railway station. Here it meets the paved road that runs east-west from the Pan-American Highway south of Antofagasta to
Socompa
on the Argentine border, via the vast
La Escondida
copper mine, which has an output of copper higher than any other mine in the world. Ten kilometres east of La Escondida at Imilac, a poor road turns off south to the
Parque Nacional Llullaillaco
. This recently created park covers 263,000 ha and includes
Cerro Llullaillaco
at 6739 m, the second highest peak in Chile, as well as three other peaks over 5000 m:
Cerro de la Pena
at 5260 m,
Guanaqueros
, 5131 m, and
Aguas Calientes
, 5070 m. The park is inhabited by large numbers of guanacos and vicuñas. Visits are by arrangement only with CONAF in Antofagasta, owing to the dangers of minefields in the area. Further along the Pan de Azúcar-Socompa road (poor condition) is
Monturaqui
, the source of the green onyx that is used for carving.

Southeast of Toconao

From Toconao, another road heads south through the villages of
Camar
, where handi- crafts made from cactus may be bought, and
Socaire
, which has llama-wool knitwear for sale and a recently restored church built from volcanic rock. From the top of the church tower you can see agricultural land planted on traditional terraces. There are also a couple of places that serve basic lunches. The road is paved as far as Socaire. About 20 km further south, a rough road leaves the main route to the Paso Sico and climbs a hill to the beautiful
Laguna Miscanti
(4240 m), a lake that is part of the
Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos
. 'Miscanti' means 'toad' in Atacameño, and refers to when the lake was full of toads. In the 1940s and 1950s, trout were introduced for American fishermen working in Chuquicamata, resulting in the decline of the toad population; today there are none left. There is a path around the lake. Allow four hours for the circuit.

Nearby is the
Laguna Miñiques
. The lakes are on the site of ancient Atacameño hunting grounds and arrowheads can still be found on the shores, which are edged with whorls of calcium salt crystals. The rare Hornet coot can often be seen here. There are clear views of the volcanoes behind the lakes, often snow-capped between April and June, as well as fantastic views down to the Salar.

After the turning to the lakes, the road goes on to the mine at Laco, before proceeding to the
Paso de Sico
, which has replaced the higher, more northerly Guaytiquina pass, at 4295 m (also spelt Huaytiquina) to Argentina.

Some 10 km south of Toconao, the old road branches east towards Guaytiquina. In a deep
quebrada
below Volcán Láscar is the now deserted settlement of
Talabre
, with terracing and an ancient threshing floor. Above the
quebrada
is an isolated, stone-built cemetery. Large flocks of llamas graze where the stream crosses the road below the Láscar Volcano at 5154 m. After a steep climb on a very bad road, you reach the
Laguna Lejía
at 4190 m, once full of flamingos. Mysteriously, the colony declined rapidly immediately after the eruption of Volcán Láscar in 1993. You then pass through the high plains of
Guaytiquina
(4275 m), where only a few herdsmen are found. The Guaytiquina crossing to Argentina is not open to road traffic.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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