San Pedro de Atacama

By  Hostelling International

The Beauty of the Desert

The Atacama Desert is as beautiful as it is foreboding, and using the town of San Pedro de Atacama as a base camp you can explore this spectacular area.

At the end of last year, the attention of the world was transfixed on the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, more specifically, several kilometres below its surface. Thirty-three miners were trapped inside the San José copper and gold mine near Copiapó for more than 60 days. The story had everything: tragedy and triumph, set amid mines in an otherworldly expanse of desert and captured the attention of South America and the world.

The story made the miners celebrities and brought attention to the Atacama Desert, one of South America’s prime travel destinations. Astronomers have also found the desert useful, as it houses several of the world’s largest telescopes. NASA has used the Atacama region to test its lunar vehicles, and has also described the region as the driest place on Earth, receiving only 0.05 centimetres of rain a year. Most parts of the desert go years without any precipitation.

The town of San Pedro de Atacama, located 700 kilometres north of Copiapó is the main jumping-off point for exploring the Atacama.

The most popular attraction in Atacama is the nearby Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), which consists of a wide expanse of red sand dunes and strange land formations. Most tours take place in the afternoon and stay for sundown. Travellers flock to the tops of sand dunes where the sun melts into the desert. After sunset, they slowly traverse down the massive dunes, while the more adventurous prefer to glide down the banks on sandboards.

What to see and do

The Geysers of Tatio, which is the largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere, is a geothermal field of volcanic origin where water and steam shoot up through small holes that dot the ground. Daily tours depart San Pedro de Atacama as early as 4 a.m., when the geysers are most active.

When you arrive after a two-hour drive, you are greeted by pitch-black skies and an ashy, crater-filled landscape. The surface is as fragile as a pie crust; visitors have been known to crack through the thin layer of earth and plunge their feet into boiling water. As the sun rises, the scene of geysers shooting plumes of smoke and steam in the air unfolds. During this spectacular early morning show, travellers often feast on hard-boiled eggs that have been cooked in the small craters filled with boiling water.

San Pedro de Atacama also serves as a gateway to some of the world’s largest salt flats. The Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt reserve, offers amazing 360-degree views of nothing but white terrain and blue skies. E ven larger and more impressive is the Salar de Uyuni, which straddles the border of Chile and Bolivia, and offers excellent opportunities for bird-watching as three species of flamingos and several other varieties of birds nest there.

Those that cross the Salar de Uyuni into Bolivia can check out the mining town of Potosí. In the distant past, Potosí was a land of mythical riches; more than 60,000 metric tonnes of pure silver were mined from nearby Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783, most of which went straight to the Spanish monarchy.

Today, freelance miners extract what little silver that remains in the mines. Working conditions are very poor in the mines, with many of the mining techniques similar or the same as those used over the last century; it is a real eye-opener. As a way to produce extra income, miners provide tours of the mines, taking travellers into the Potosí Silver Mine, located more than 4,000 metres above sea level. During the tour, they give you a glimpse of what their life is like: the suffocating heat and lack of oxygen is enough to make the travellers turn tail gasping for fresh air.

Back in San Pedro de Atacama, the town has moved beyond the mining industry. The sleepy town served as a small outpost for Spanish conquistadors and thrived for decades as a link to Chilean mining towns like Copiapó and the Argentine city of Salta. Today the town fills with travellers who
huddle into restaurants and cafés. Sitting in the town plaza surrounded by history and a perpetually clear sky filled with stars, the town feels a long way from the mines of Copiapó and a vibrant reminder symbol that the Atacama’s real treasures are above ground.

Where to Stay

HI-San Pedro de Atacama is located in a colonial house in the heart of the town. It offers private and shared rooms as well as tours, adventures and sandboard lessons. There’s a network of HI hostels throughout Chile and South America. Go to for more details.

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