A bit less than hour's walk from the city are the ruins on an ancient fortress, Pukará de Quitor, erected by an indigeneous ruler in the Twelfth Century and the scene of an important battle against the Spanish conquerors. The walk to the fortress follows a dusty road and crosses a small river via a foot bridge. It's not a particularly scenic or enjoyable walk, but it is also not especially unpleasant. The distance is not great, so I assume that a cab would not be expensive, though I don't recall seeing many taxis in San Pedro. The fortress itself is well worth the walk. A surprising amount of the foundations and walls is still standing, and you'll be impressed by its size and the complexity of the fortifications. A good number of display boards explain its history in both English and Spanish. The fortress itself is built up a steep hillside, and reaching the top requires some huffing and puffing, but I was rewarded at the top by a nice view. There is a simple snack bar at the base.
It is located 30 kilometers from the north of San Pedro and counts with pools of thermal waters (30 °C) that are produced by the appearance of the hot water river Puritama. Located in a mountainous tube, with a great natural beauty. These baths are a difficult experience to forget for the lovers of thermal waters in the heat of desert .
This is a must-do if you have the time. The Uyuni Salt Flats are one of the highlights of South America, and the surrounding lanscape is sure captivate anyone who ventures there. I think I have to say that the landscapes here are the most beautiful and unique that I have ever seen.
The trip is rough, and there is no luxury way of doing it - all companies get a mixture of reviews and bad experiences are notorious. But it is all worthwhile provided you have a sense of adventure, a good sense of humour and don't mind roughing it up. While many promises are made in the agency's offices, the fact is that the company you book with might not be the same that picks you up, you will spend nights in appallingly cold basic dorms sharing with other people, you will be lucky if you see any water to shower, let alone hot water. Also for most of the time, forget flushing toilets. Most people also get altitude sickness as the first night is spent sleeping at over 4000m. And also the guides do not speak any English.
You can choose to come back to San Pedro, or else drop off in Uyuni and continue travelling through Bolivia.
If you go, be prepared for the cold. You MUST take a sleeping bag with you, as the blankets provided are not enough. Temperatures often go down to -20C and lower and without heating, the rooms are going to be below freezing, with ice collecting inside the windows.
If doing this trip from San Pedro, check the Sernatur Office - they have a book of reviews of the companies offering this trip made by travellers. Drunk driving, car accidents and lack of comfort are the usual compaints. Lack of comfort is expected and is not so bad if you are prepared for it but the driving is an entirely different matter. The driving in Bolivia is notoriously dangerous.
There is no way to do this tour by yourself as no cars are allowed through the border, apart from the fact that there are practically no recognisable roads on the Bolivian side.
We did this tour with cordillera Traveller, which has the best reputation in town (though there are complaints about them too), and are also the most expensive, they also include a night in a salt hotel with double rooms instead of dorms. We had an amazing time, and have no complaints at all apart from the fact that our driver did not take us early enough to the Uyuni Salt flats to see the sunrise.
In the middle of the Salar de Atacama lie the mysterious Ojos del Salar (eyes of the salt pan). They are two perfectly round lagoons sunken in the salar, like a pair of eyes staring out from the bleak landscape. Nobody knows where these came from, and whether they are man-made or not. They are situated close to the Laguna Tebenquiche and Laguna Cejar and any tours going here will probably visit these.
This is another stunning lagoon in the Salar de Atacama area which on a calm day should produce spectacular reflection photographs of the volcanos, but not on this day. Still the raging snowstorm we saw taking place in the background in Andes makes for a dramatic, different view. That was also the same storm we were still in a few hours before. It's a perfect place to enjoy a drink of pisco sour at sundown.
Laguna Cejar is another quirk of the area. It is a lake in the middle of the Salar de Atacama with 40% salt content, so if you attempt to swim in it you will float, just like in the Dead Sea. Laguna Cejar has actually a higher salt content than the Dead sea, which has about 33.7% salt. What is unnerving is that while the water was freezing (it was an especially cold winter day) the bottom warm - due to the very high lithium contents.
Apart from the obvious of bringing a swimming costume and a towel, bring with you 2.5 litres of water per person so that you can wash yourself off after swimming. Otherwise you will end up caked in a white crust of itchy salt.
At a sky-scraping 5920m Licancabur is the highest volcano in the area and it's symmetrical shape make it not only an iconic postcard image, but also the first image to come to your head when you remember about San Pedro after you have visited. Licancabur straddles the border between Chile and Bolivia and can be seen and identified for many miles around.
This volcano can also be climbed, but you need an overnight stay there so you can climb it in 2 days. There is a lake at the top, and also some Inca ruins. At the foot of the volcano on the Bolivian side lies the beautiful Laguna Verde which can be visited as a daytrip from San Pedro or else as part of the Uyuni tour to Bolivia.
Lascar is one of the monster 5000m+ volcanos in the area that you can climb. The special thing about this volcano is that it is still active - you can find some terrifying pictures of it erupting - I would have thought twice of climbing it if I had seen these pics before!. The largest eruption in recorded history occurred in 1993. The eruption was so severe that ash managed to arrive in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The volcano can be climbed in one day (with a very early start of course). The situations are ideal for a mountain of such height as the weather conditions are usually always perfect. USUALLY. It so happens that when we attempted the climb we were caught up in a snowstorm which forced us to backtrack as if we would have climbed there would have been no way to get back to San Pedro due to the huge amount of snow. In fact, it took us 8 hours to get the car out of the snowstorm, involving a lot of getting stuck in precarious positions, towing and digging. The guides told us that the last time there were such conditions was 7 years ago - so I guess that if you are planning to climb it you should not worry about this too much.
Even though we were a bit disappointed, we did get the rare opportunity to see a snowstorm overlooking the sunny desert (and realise, to our dismay that the storm seemed to be just over our heads) So our pictures do not look like everybody else's!
The climb costs about 100 euros per person, and is offered by a few agencies (check the boards on the shopfronts). We went with Vulcano Expeditions as they had an excellent reputation. Make sure to bring with you sturdy boots and something other than jeans to climb with. Layers of fleece as well as a cold weather jacket, beanie and gloves are also a must. Needless to say, considering the altitude you should should be fit and have reasonable stamina, and be as well acclimatized as possible.
Toconao is the village closest to San Pedro. Though they are only 38 km apart, the two villages look entirely different, so it is worth a visit. The reason that the villages are different is that Toconao isn't a booming tourist village like San Pedro is. The other reason is here they do not build their homes with adobe, like in San Pedro, but instead use some sort of white volcanic rock. Of course there is a little church here, the Iglesia de San Lucas but it is the church bell tower, which is separate from the church, which is the icon of this village. There is also a nice square, and couple of souvenier shops and a couple of small places to stay in town.
There are daily bus services from San Pedro to Toconao.
This is a village which is close by to the Miniques and Miscanti lagoons. Like all other villages here, the centerpiece is a church with a cactus ceiling. But here one can also see fine examples of Inkan terraces. Socaire is ideal for a lunch-stop, with some nice traditional food being served to hungry travellers.
This is part of the Lagunas Altiplanicas tour and should not be missed!
At a dizzying height, nestled in the Andes lies another mezmerizing sight looking pretty much like an abstract painting. The two shimmering blue lagoons doted over by volcanos are simply gorgeous, and typical Andean scenery. The lagoons are nesting sites for birds so you are not allowed to walk too close to them. This is also a good place for spotting Vicunas (daintier relatives of the Llamas) as well as Andean foxes.
This is part of the Lagunas Altiplanicas tour and should not be missed!
Laguna Chaxa is situated in the Atacama Salt Flats. Seeing this impossbly blue lagoon in the middle of an arid salt flat and with the backdrop of the massive volcanos in the background is quite awe-inspiring. As an added bonus, this place is home to some flamingos and other birdlife, so it makes for some good photography and wildlife watching opportunities. Though it must be mentioned that the flamingos are particularly skittish.
With it's relaxad atmosphere, spectacular setting and a plethora of activities, tour agencies, hostels and restaurants no wonder San Pedro is the gringo mecca in Chile. There are only a couple of streets, lined with crumbling facades of adobe homes turned restaurants or agencies, and lethargic stray dogs sleeping with their tongues lolling in every street corner. There is lots of character and appeal here. As if by magic, as soon as you step foot in here, the outside world simply fades away, and you are sucked into a cycle waxing and waning between activities and relaxation. Temptation is lurking in every restaurant which conjure up impossibly tasty dishes in the seeming middle of nowhere in the Atacama desert. I would imagine there is no place quite like San Pedro.
There is not much to do in the village itself except wandering around aimlessly, sipping coca tea in the many cafes and eating more food than you should. The postcard picture whitewashed church is at the centre of the little village, and a few metres away is a museum. Other than that you can browse the souvenier & artisian shops, and then the tour agencies for the next adventure.
As regards night entertainment, you can eat and drink as much as you want until a certain hour (I believe it's midnight or 1am), but though the atmosphere is fun, is not a party village - more like a pub/bar culture. But parties are organized at locations a bit further away from the village. Ask around at the bars or ask other travellers if you would like to go to one.
This adventure trip takes 4 days, when we cross 450 km which are separating Chile from the Bolivian city of Uyuni and returns back to San Pedro de Atacama. We will be discovering wide planes of altiplano, geothermal fields, diverse sceneries, high volcanoes, along with a number of hidden lakes and lagoons and surprising wildlife and flora.
One of the highlights is this trip crossing over to Bolivia. You can take it as a 3-day trip from San Pedro to Uyuni or as a 2-day trip from San Pedro and back.
After crossing the borders you come to the vast desert of South Bolivia. The jeeps are traveling on tracks made by previous travelers. First stop at Laguna Verde, with the exquisite turquoise water. Next stop at Laguna Blanca and then you take a relaxing bath in some thermal springs. Finally you arrive at Laguna Colorada! The beauty of the Nature is celebrating, mixing the bright red and blue of the lake water interrupted by the white of the ice surfaces, the green vegetation and the chocolate brown of the surrounding mountains. Nature has a great talent! It's surprising that red and blue water touch but not mix. Of course it's because the red water is full of microorganisms, which gives it a different density. The slender dancing bodies of the feeding flamingos is the final touch to the wonderful work of art...You sleep at the nearby hotel.
Next day after a short stop at the "rock forest" with the enormous rock formations, you are taken to the Bolivian villages of Alota and San Cristobal, typical and beautiful. Then to the Train Graveyard. You sleep in Uyuni. Next day you are taken to a small village near the Salt Flat of Uyuni where you can buy products made locally out of salt. Salt too hard to melt or break if you carry it along. I tried it! Then a visit to the Salt Flat with the mirror-flat surface that, in case of a recent rain, reflects the image of the sky! It's this double sky that the jeep is sliding through bringing you to the Salt Hotel where everything is made of salt . Even the furniture ! Pay to see the interior. Finally you can go to Uyuni or come back to San Pedro....
All meals are included. One of them in a salt restaurant including meat of llama . It has the taste of pork and beef.The price is 70-80$ US, not very expensive to cross to Bolivia , visiting places that are difficult to visit by yourself.
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