San Pedro de Atacama is a small town with a rich local culture that, despite its tourist attractions (it’s filled with 5-star hotels), has been able to maintain the rustic style and Atacameño essence that make it a ‘must’ in Chile and South America. Small and simple as it may seem, San Pedro has a strategic location and a number of archaeological and tourist hot spots in its surroundings. The town is a platform for some of the most amazing scenarios of Atacama Desert, most of which are very close if you consider the vastness of the desert and Chile’s Northern area.
For example, Moon Valley and Death Valley are located 10 (6,2 mi) and 15 kms (9,32 mi)away respectively. Both of them made up an otherworldly landscape, characterized by its geological landmarks and rock formations that have been eroded by the wind and water. 12 kms (7,5 mi) away there is Atacama Salt Flat, with its gigantic salt layer floating on brine, and also the lagoons Chaxa, Cejar, and Teviquinche. 20 kms (12 mi) away you will find Puritama River, on a landscape filled with columnar cacti, next to which you will find the famous Puritama Hot Springs.
Another destination you cannot miss is the Tatio Geysers, located 60 kms (37 mi) away. Walking on this amazing natural phenomenon is a unique experience, for it is a plate containing the steam which is about to erupt. There are also several hills, mountains, and volcanoes belonging to the Cordillera de La Costa (Coastal Range). You can get in your car and reach 4000 mts msl (13.000 ft) easily. Some of the most important massifs are Licancabur and Láscar.
Last but not least, there are the Atacameño towns. There is a variety of nearby villages you that can visit and which are a great opportunity to get in touch with the Atacameño and Aymará cultures. The most popular ones are Toconao and Caspana, famous for their churches, stone houses, terrace crops, and locals. There are others like Aldea Tulor and the Pukarás of Quitor and Lasana, which portray the legacy left by the Incas in this area.
Other destinations are more remote, but if you have time, I cannot recommend them enough. Some of them are: the Altiplanic lagoons Miscanti and Miñique, Tara Salt Flat, and the Pakana ‘Monks’ (huge rock formations famous for their similarity with the Moais in Easter Island). For the more adventurous, I recommend suggest crossing the Bolivian border and visiting Uyuni Salt Flat, the largest in the world.
Lastly, and considering the harsh Bolivian Winter that takes place in January and February, I recommend going to San Pedro de Atacama between July and August. It’s true, the temperature at night is really low (-5°C to -10°C/ 23°F to 14°F), but during the day the weather is nice with an average of 20°C (68°F), and a sun that does not provoke the severe dehydration of the summer. This allows you to enjoy more activities and get around more comfortably.
I guarantee you can visit this town many times and always find new destinations that will surprise you with their natural and cultural richness. The desert in San Pedro is out there, only one step away from you.
The Salar de Atacama is the second largest salt flat in the world, after the much larger Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It is surrounded by mountains and volcanos, and is part of the Los Flamencos Natural reserve. The salt is not flat and white like one would imagine, but instead it's rough, ragged and grey.
Places worth visiting in the Salar are the Laguna Chaxa, Laguna Tebinquiche and Laguna Cejar - they are all surrealistic-looking lanscapes of stark beauty.
The salar contains 27% of the world's lithium reserves, which is slowly being exploited. Lithium is used in batteries, and with the focus slowly shifting to electric cars, great commercial use and lots of money could be made in the near future. I hope it will be managed in such a way as to not to spoil the beauty here or harm the wildlife.
The enormous salt flat is quite a sight especially in the sunset light ! It's the largest in Chile and it's actually a salt lake covered by a thick layer of hardened salt. There are guides sharing their knowledge with the tourists walking on a restricted path. If you look into the water in the pools you can see the microorganisms which are food for the fauna of the salt flat.
But the sweetest thing on this enormous brownish white, rough surface, is the elegant flamingos ..dancing in the shallow waters of the pools. They are moving their legs and beaks rhythmically trying to remove the sand and uncover their food, all at the same pace, participating in the same beautiful dance...!
More photos in the TRAVELOGUE.
The Salar de Atacama is the third largest of salt flats in the world. It is a different kind of salt pan from Salinas Grande in Argentina.
In Salinas Grande, the grounds were flat and white with rough crystals forming hexagon shapes all around.
In Salar de Atacama, the salt-pan ground was uneven, dried up and brown, all the crystals and mixture of minerals were huge, jagged, lumpy rocks. It was impossible to walk on them and a path had been flattened out for us to walk across the salar.
This area is also home to flamingoes. I had come to see them but a pity they were slurping up the acidic lake miles away, tiny little dots in the distance.
The tour begins with a visit to Toconao a small rustic town with native people, there is a nice little church to visit and some craft shops.
Then the trip continue to the Big Chaxa lake which is the biggest saline deposit of Chile which surface, white and rugose, secret to simple sight a great salt lake. The size is of 300.000 has and can be estimated in its entirety due to the fact that the air is completely dry. The view of the Salar is very amazing specially when the sunset come, the variety of colours is fantastic and there is a beautiful view of the Volcanos Licancabur and Lascar.
The tour takes 3-4 hours and is better during the afternoon ( to watch the sunset).
The cost is 17 dollars.
If you want to secure the best spot to see the sunset at Valle de la Luna, you must climb a huge dune. But get there early. Don't let the flocks of tourists prevent your from enjoying this breathtaking view.
The Atacama salt flat is one of the biggest salt lakes on Earth, about 150 kilometres long and over 50 wide, and since San Pedro is just 42 kilometres north from it, visiting from there comes naturally, although it is actually closer to Toconao.
The lanscape is, again, out-of-this-world: an endless white salt extension, which on approaching turns into a strange sea of solid salt waves, stopped in its breaking motion.
Those of us, who were fortunate to see the Salar before venturing into it was banned and restricted, had the chance of seeing the very heart of it, where the salt have hexagonal, “beehive” shapes at ground level: is there where the salt is “born”, but now that’s off-limits and you can usually get only to Laguna Chaxa, where the ranger’s office (this is the Los Flamencos Natural Reserve) and the guides are.
But there’s still a lot allowed to be seen: pink flamingos nest and look for the microorganisms they eat (namely Artemia salina) in the salt ponds, filtering the salt water with a membrane they have inside their beaks, while giant Andean ducks loiter around.
At sunset, flamingos flock to the center of the salar, sometimes flying overhead the people, making it a wonderful sight; the active Lascar volcano lies close to the east, adding to the striking panorama.
It usually gets windy and pretty cold in the afternoon, and one gets thirsty quite easily. Hygrometers at the center of the salar usually read “0”, but spring to life when a human approaches, marking 4 or 5 percent.
An interpretative trail is built along a short span of the early salt ponds, dotted with explanatory totems, and a guide usually accompanies tour groups, giving a lecture on the salar and their inhabitants...it may be educative, but sincerely, I preferred it the wild way.
There’s a shelter at the end of the road, where tickets are sold (US$ 2,50). There are toilets and parking, as well as information on the local wildlife.
A desert of salt !! View of flamingos... Don't forget your binocular !!! Wonderful sunset... 7500 pesos per person by an agency or rent a bike and take the bus from San Pedro to Toconao, and then ride until the desert. This option allows you to stay much longer and watch an unbelievable night sky (agencies take you back at 7.30 PM !). If you choose this option, don't forget to take warm clothes and water !
Un desert de sel ! Des vues sur des flamants... (n'oubliez pas vos jumelles). Superbe coucher de soleil. 7500 pesos par personne, quand on passe par une agence.
On peut egalement y aller seul en louant un velo et en prenant le bus jusqu'a Toconao, puis en pedalant vers le desert. Cette option permet de rester plus tard que 7.30 PM (heure a laquelle les agences vous ramenent a San Pedro) pour apprecier un ciel d'etoiles unique.
Si vous choisissez cette option, n'oubliez pas de prendre de l'eau et des vetements chauds !