High up in the Andes mountains of North-Eastern Chile, lies a town like no other. A tiny dot in the middle of the driest desert in the world, San Pedro de Atacama is an other-worldly landscape characterised by magnificent craters, looming volcanos and never-ending sand dunes.
A visit to San Pedro de Atacama is the closest to Mars or The Moon that you’ll probably ever come (unless Elon Musk gets his skates on), so you might want to add this Chilean town to your travel bucket list immediately.
Is a day in San Pedro de Atacama long enough?
In short? Not really. If you can afford to stay longer in San Pedro de Atacama (both in terms of time and money – this little town is SERIOUSLY pricey), then you absolutely should.
There is a never-ending list of things to see and do in this spectacular region; from visiting the world-renowned El Tatio Geysers and Atacama salt flats, to coming face to face with colourful flamingoes in Los Flamencos National Reserve.
But if – like us – you have arrived into Chile after completing the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, then much of the scenery in this region will be very similar to what you have already experienced. A multi-day tour of Bolivia’s altiplano will take you to lakes and geysers, not to mention the biggest salt flats in the world. So a day or two to explore San Pedro de Atacama might just be enough to satisfy your wanderlust after all.
Here’s a quick guide to making the most of your visit to San Pedro de Atacama in just 24 hours.
Start off by exploring the cobblestone streets of San Pedro de Atacama itself. The town is full of charming little shops, galleries and restaurants and you can easily while away a couple of hours just wandering through the dusty, historic streets.
The white-washed walls, blue cloudless skies and volcanoes looming in the distance are a constant reminder that you’re somewhere pretty special in the world.
The town is full of local tour operators, so be sure to pop in and book up an excursion for the afternoon. This is the quickest and easiest way to explore, if you’re short on time.
If you have longer to spend, consider hiring a car, or even bikes, and cycling to some of the Atacama Desert’s main attractions.
As charming as the town of San Pedro de Atacama is, the real showstopper attractions of this region are located a little further out in the Atacama Desert.
There are countless tour options available but if you sign up to just one, make sure it’s Valle de la Luna.
Valle de la Luna literally translates as “Moon Valley” and that is exactly what you can expect. Magnificent craters and the surreal, sprawling landscapes should be enough to convince you that you’ve arrived on another planet.
We booked up a half-day tour with local company Cosmo Andino Expeditions and had an excellent experience. They charge a little more than some of the other companies, but time their excursions perfectly to avoid other tourists. I can honestly say, we didn’t cross paths with a single person for most of the day!
Most Moon Valley tours start at the Cordillera de la Sal – a dramatic formation of salt mountains, dating back millions of years. A short 10 minute drive will take you into the heart of the Atacama Desert, with nothing but rugged scenery as far as the eye can see.
You’ll have the chance to explore this unique landscape, before taking a short hike along the ridge above the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) and descending into endless sand dunes.
If time allows, you can book sand-boarding experiences along the dunes – or simply take your shoes and socks off and RUN! I kid you not, this was one of the most exhilarating things I think I’ve ever done!
As the day dies down, you’ll make your way to the edge of the crater of Moon Valley to watch the sunset. Be sure to stay until after the sun has gone down, as this is when the colours get seriously impressive!
Most tour companies will drop you back into town by 7/8pm, just in time for dinner. There are some good restaurants in town, serving up authentic Chilean cuisine, such as Baltinache. Or try one of the many excellent pizzerias in town for a slice of wood-fired pizza (with a big glass of Chilean red, of course).
If you have enough energy left, then top off your visit with a once-in-a-lifetime stargazing tour. The Atacama Desert has the clearest night skies on Earth, making this one of the best places in the world to “look up”.
More and more night-time tours are popping up from San Pedro de Atacama – you can search for excursions on the main tourist website, or by speaking to local tour agencies while you’re in town.