This place is a joke
This little town is the jumping off point for tours going to Souther Bolivia, and buses going over the range to Argentina. As a result of this everything is overpriced and you will be rubbing elbows with lots of backpacker types. The tourists dollars have made the locals keen on making a few pesos off you while you stay in town.
On the positive side, many of the places in town are spending their earnings to upgarde their establishments.
Unique Suggestions: Eat at one of the cheaper places (like the locals who know better) north of the market and near the football field.
Fun Alternatives: Maybe you could venture out of the town and stay in someone's home. This area is a desert andthere is a vast emptiness about it. If you like to be in the middle of nowhere and want to meditate on the spaciousness of it all, you might like it.
- Road Trip
San Pedro is bit of a tourist trap in itself
San Pedro de Atacama is very touristic, even though it's rustic exterior looks far from anything you have visited before, nearly every business in the town is aimed at backpackers. The isolation of the town also means you pay whatever price is on offer for food, alcohol and souveniers.
Unique Suggestions: There seems to be a tiny bit of resentment from the locals toward the backpackers who have taken over their town.
Take the time to greet them in Spanish and try to chat to them.
Fun Alternatives: San Pedro is a good base if you plan to visit Boliva (Uyuni), Tatio Geisers and Death Valley
- Study Abroad
- Budget Travel
My recommendations on touristic services
This is not about tourist traps, but all the opposite: my recommendations on tour operators in San Pedro.
Although all of them care a lot about good service, and pool their passengers to uniform their fares and keep the business cost-efficient as well, there are some that have an outstanding service without charging extra.
As my experience goes, the small TURISMO EL SOL (Tocopilla 432 – Tel.: (055)851230) firstname.lastname@example.org) resulted the best agency in San Pedro, readily open to solve problems, take special requests, and always personally caring about their passengers. On top of that, they were the cheapest of all agencies, without compromising the quality of service. Its owner (Magaly) and guide Hernan Zuleta (aka HZ) are very friendly and helpful.
Katarpe tours guides were also good and friendly, and cared about me –and about their passengers too, of course, although I guess I was myself somewhat of a tourist attraction- while in El Tatio, ferrying messages and good breakfasts for me.
Although I didn’t hired them,Cosmo Andino has good mountaineers amid their guides, so if you’re after a tailor-made mountain tour, this is a good choice.
I had a problem with Pachamama, as I was left without the included, prepaid breakfast (nor any explanation about it) on an early morning tour in which I was pooled by El Sol; other travellers had problems with the same guide too. El Sol compensated me adequately for that, but be careful if booking Pachamama, as some of their guides/drivers seem to be overstressed and have a lack of sleep, which can be hazardous if travelling on difficult mountain or dirt roads.
Fun Alternatives: When you face any problem with the tour agencies (such as being stranded, or having a broken car without refunds, or not complying with what you've expected from the service) you can make a written complain at the Sernatur (National Tourism Service), which in San Pedro is located in the old Pedro de Valdivia's house (a national monument as well), in the NE side of the plaza (main square).
Both tour operators and Sernatur take this very seriously, and usually complains are settled very fast.
Shop around and compare prices before making a final purchase, specifically pertaining to crafts and bicycle rentals.
Unique Suggestions: Don't spend yet!
Fun Alternatives: Skip a meal if you've been had.