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At first glance, San Pedro feels like it’s straight out of an old time Western film, set somewhere in the Southwestern US. The white one-story Spanish colonial adobe buildings are mud-splashed from the deep red dusty roads. You might see cowboys on horses or sheep or goat herders, or first you might hear their hooved friends pounding the unpaved roads on a walk outside of town.
Between the altitude (7,900 feet / 2,400m) and the scorching sun and freezing nights, those walks can be a challenge. Much like our hikes in Tucson during the day, we were often left breathless, conversations ending not because they were finished, but from catching our breath or stopping to drink water here in this seriously dry desert.
That’s where any comparisons come to an end, however, because San Pedro really can’t compare to any place in the world, not even to another location in Chile. Somehow this tiny little desert town balances an odd mix of sleepy, remote border village and adventure capital of the Atacama Desert.
We’ve already told you about the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert, and we’ll talk about the things you shouldn’t miss on a visit to San Pedro next week, but here are just some of the places that make San Pedro de Atacama an outstanding place to visit:
- The third largest geyser field in the world (El Tatio Geysers)
- The third largest salt flats in the world (Salar de Atacama)
- The lunar landscapes of the Moon Valley and Death Valley
- The Deep blue altiplano lagoons like the Laguna Miscanti, Miñiques and Chaxa
- The Laguna Cejar that is so salty that you can float in it like in the Dead Sea
- The two faces carved in rock walls (Pukara de Quito)
- Milky Way, Saturn and the moon – stargazing is one of the top activities in San Pedro
You can easily spend a week here and not see everything the Atacama Desert has to offer, but truth be told, the tours are very extreme affairs due to long drives, early starts, freezing temperatures, boiling temperatures, the altitude or the intensity of the landscape around you. So you’ll need to plan in a few rest days in between all the tours – and San Pedro is the perfect charming base to do just that. Although it might seem odd, there is just something that drew us to this northern town so much so that we named it our favorite place in all of Chile.
The main road in town, Caracoles, is lined with restaurants and tour agencies – and while it could feel overly touristy, the quaint Spanish-colonial buildings make the whole setting just picture-perfect. Neither of us will ever forget that first dinner in town in a candle-lit adobe restaurant with live guitar on a dimly lit stage- it was very intimate and romantic.
Food in San Pedro de Atacama
Oh the food in San Pedro! Honestly, being so remote in the middle of one of the world’s driest places, we expected a few ramshackle restaurants with canned and fried foods – the bare minimum. We could have never imagined what a foodie mecca it is up here! There are almost too many restaurants to try during your short time in town and too many delicious-sounding dishes on the menus, too. Even the vegetarian options go beyond the standard rice and vegetables or spaghetti pesto – instead, we could choose between savory crepes filled with sautéed vegetables, quinoa risotto with local greens, creative salads with baked brie and cranberries, or a Chilean version of a tabbouleh (with quinoa instead of bulgur).On every menu, there was at least one vegetarian dish, and even though San Pedro is so tiny, there is even a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in town. Eating our way through the town’s restaurants was reason enough to stay for a few days and indulge on good food – something we didn’t often find in Chile.
It’s not just the food that makes the restaurants so great, either. We love rustic feeling inside most of them, with adobe benches and bars built right into rock surfaces and how they keep fires lit at night for guests to stay cozy and warm.
During the day, most visitors are out on tours or tucked away in their hotels, but at night the town seems to come alive. Caracoles swarms with people shuffling back and forth looking at the menus, deciding which restaurant to dine at that evening. Restaurants all tend to have a lunch menu with a starter, a main and dessert or coffee, while dinners often include at least one special dish that changes every night.
Even though its location is remote and activities here tend toward the adventurous, San Pedro is not a ‘backpacker’ destination. There are a few cheapie places and little ‘tiendas’ that sell basics for cooking in a kitchen, but while you’re here, we say splurge on the higher-end restaurants for truly delicious dining experiences.
What to do in San Pedro (besides eat)
San Pedro has a slow pace and almost sleepy feel. Head one block off Caracoles and you’re strolling along the tree-lined, shady and serene Plaza de Armas, where you can have coffee and people watch on the square. We, of course, spent time with the stray dogs sunbathing here, too.
At the square’s northwestern corner sits the gorgeous white church, Iglesia San Pedro, which dates back to 1640 and is the second oldest church in all of Chile. The bright white color of the simple façade sets a beautiful contrast to the cloudless, bright blue sky, but it is the inside that makes this church truly special: the walls, roof, and the entrance door are built with cactus wood and bound together with llama leather – no nails were used here!
From outside of the church and just about anywhere in San Pedro, you can see volcano Licancábur, the high volcano on the east side of town, looming over the village at 19,409 feet / 5916 meters. In the summer, the brown dry peak matches the surrounding landscape, but is a snow-capped summit in winter. If you need to orientate yourself, east is where the volcano is.
Within a five to ten minute walk away from Caracoles you will be surrounded by local houses made of mud-brick with clay and hay roofs. Even though these days most of San Pedro’s inhabitants live off tourism, there is still a fair number of people who still do what the Atacameños have done for thousands of years – farming and livestock breeding. This is so much of San Pedro’s charm – llamas, goats, sheep, and their cowboys bustle along the unpaved roads here every day.
The reddish dusty roads are actually watered every morning by truck in order to keep it packed down, but with only 1.4 inches / 35mm of rain per year, it seems unsustainable to wet down the roads, provide the water necessary for locals and keep up with the tourism boom happening here in town.
When you really take a good look around, it is easy to get the sense that San Pedro might be one of those places that change completely within a decade or so, considering the fast development of new resorts and tour agencies, but we hope that the village will be able to retain its laid-back Wild West charm no matter how much our favorite Chilean town grows!
Where to eat in San Pedro de Atacama
Adobe (Caracoles 211): Delicious food, great coffee and excellent Wi-Fi. Come for lunch, when they have set menus (starter, main, desert or coffee, and sometimes a free pisco/drink) that are very good value for money.
La Estaka (Caracoles 259): Fabulous set lunch menus for CLP7,000. We never had a bad meal here. Overpriced at night though, when a main dish costs more than the entire set lunch.
Quitor (Licancabur #154): Excellent three course meals for CLP6000 with a good vegetarian option. One of the most creative and scrumptious meals we had in San Pedro.
Café Bar Export (corner of Caracoles and Toconao): We didn’t love the food here, but the ambience at night – only lit by candle light – was beautiful; a lovely place for a Pisco Sour or a glass of wine!
Estrella Negra (Caracoles 362) is entirely vegetarian (with vegan options) and has affordable lunch menus for CLP3,500 (including drink, soup, salad and main course).
Casa De Piedra (Caracoles 225): even though this place doesn’t have a great selection of vegetarian dishes, we found the wi-fi here to be the best in all of San Pedro and the food was decent.
Sol Inti (on Tocopilla, just north off Caracoles): Very good value-for-money set lunch menu for CLP4,500: Starter, main and desert. Vegetarian option available upon request.
Tierra del sol (corner of Caracoles and Domingo Atienza) for ice cream! Try unique flavors like quinoa, chañar (a local tree) or local berries here.
Market: If you’re on a budget or just looking for fresh, healthy snacks, there is a market in a courtyard off Caracoles (between Toconao and Ignacio Carrera Pinto) twice a week (Tuesday and Friday) where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables and eggs. Along with the tiendas around town, you can find enough groceries to cook for yourself if your hostel has a kitchen.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
If you are looking for a truly luxurious experience, you should check out the Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa (prices start at $600 per night) or Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa (prices start at $500 per night).
For a mid-range luxury experience, we recommend Atacamadventure EcoLodge, prices start at $185.
The cheapest options for budget travelers start at $20 for a dorm bed (yes, San Pedro is not cheap!) – there are several hostels right in the center of town. For a private double room, expect to pay around $40 – $50 at a hostel. Hostal La Florida on Tocopilla 406 just off Caracoles has clean double rooms, free use of kitchen, good Wi-Fi, shared bathrooms and a courtyard with hammocks for $40.