San Pedro de Atacama – an interesting town in the driest desert of the world
If you are going to Atacama desert, it is more than probable that you will stop at San Pedro de Atacama, a small town, which is the main town of Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama is located at 2,436 m above sea level in the Second region of Chile in Atacama desert which is the most arid desert in the world. San Pedro is the so called archeological capital of Chile located at San Pedro River, the Domeyko Mountain Range to the West and the Andes Mountain Range – Puna de Atacama to the east.
San Pedro de Atacama has a high altitude desert climate with strong winds, big changes of temeprature between the day and the night, intense solar radiation and strong evaporation caused by the Sun nears the Tropic of Capricorn.
The town is named after it saints San Pedro and Atacama comes from the word Accatchca in the Cunza language which means Head of the Country. The word changed over the time until the present pronunciation.
What to see in San Pedro de Atacama:
The town square – plaza – just to relax and let the time pass by under the molle and pepper trees.
San Pedro de Atacama Church – one of the most interesting churches I’ve ever seen. We are not sure about the exact year of its construction but since 1641 it served as a parish and it was declared a National Monument in 1951. The white walls are made of adobe and the ceiling of clay, locust tree, Chañar tree and cactus wood. I really enjoyed this church, it has some magic like from a different world! On the 28th and 29th June the celebration of the patrons of the town, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, take place in the church.
Downtown – we can observe the Spanish Colonial influence. All the buildings are similar, with interior yards, antique adobe houses and roofs made of hay and clay. Just imagine, the whole town is of white or brownish colour, all the buildings have just one floor. The main street is Caracoles which has a lot of restaurants, travel agencies, some bars and mini markets. But it is the most expensive street in the town, even the menu of the day is expensive.
Feria Artesanal – a small market with local handicrafts where you can even get coca leaves, coca sweets or coca tea.
Eat at small restaurants next to the Bomberos – Firemen when you cross Feria Artesanal and then on the right.
Archeological museum Padre Le Paige – named after its founder, a Jesuit who took over the parish in San Pedro in 1955 and who was collecting many indigenous objects that are now the part of the museum. The museum is presenting a complete exposition of the evolution of the Atacameña culture, consisting of 450,000 archeological objects and 100 ethnographic objects (ceramics, clothing, engravings, precious metals). There is an entrance fee of 2,500 pesos (1,000 pesos for students). Outside of the museum there is a solmaforo – measuring the ultraviolet sunbeams.
Visiting San Pedro and not exploring more of its surroundings would be a huge mistake. You can go walking or rent a bicycle (minimum 3,000 pesos for half a day) and go to visit Pukara de Quitor, Atacameña ruins situated just 3 km from San Pedro. You can even go to the Valle de la Muerte – Death Valley or to Valle de la Luna – Moon Valley or other places by bicycle.For biking guided tours, please contact my friend Eduardo Olate from Bicy Adventure Atacama which includes drinks as well.
But I personally took the tour of Moon Valley with a travel agency (as it was too hot for me to go on a bicycle), together with the other trips to The Tatio Geysers, Cejar Lagoon and Altiplanic lagoons because I preferred the comfort of a travel agency.
And it is true that if you are not a good biker or don’t have a rented car in San Pedro, the only way to get all the best tours is with a travel agency as most of the interesting places are located between 15 to 100 km from San Pedro de Atacama. I can recommend you 3 travel agencies in San Pedro that I had my tours with: Terra Extreme, Layana and Andes Expediciones.
- always carry water with you – bottled water without gas. Atacama is one of those places where you can get sick if you drink tap water.
- put on the sunscreen lotion because even if it doesn’t seem hot, as the air is dry, your skin is burning
- everything is more expensive at the main street Caracoles, including food and drinks not only in the restaurants but also in mini markets
- wear a hat or a cap and sunglasses during the day
- wear a jacket at night
I have to say that since the first moment I came to San Pedro de Atacama, I fell in love. It was love at first sight, literally. And after taking all the tours around Atacama, I can say that Atacama desert made it to my number one place in Chile. I would never expect to see so many different, and all breath-taking, places in the driest desert of the world.