San Pedro de Atacama
Quaint, unhurried, and built of adobe brick, the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama lies in the midst of a region replete with bizarre land formations, giant sand dunes, jagged canyons, salt pillars, boiling geysers, and one smoking volcano. It seems better to call it a moonscape rather than a landscape. For adventure seekers, there is a wealth of activities to participate in, including hiking, mountain biking, sandboarding, and horseback riding. This region was the principal center of the Atacama Indian culture, and relics such as Tulor, an ancient village estimated to have been built in 800 B.C., still survive. There’s also a fine museum of ancient artifacts well preserved by the bone-dry climate.
San Pedro’s tiny, 3-by-4 street center has a pleasant bohemian vibe. Although the town has grown at a prudent rate this past decade to cater to a growing number of visitors, it’s maintained its mellow charm. Its location almost exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn (which means no drastic changes in the length of daylight hours) and a stable climate make any time of the year a good time to visit here. But if you dislike the cold, June through September can be uncomfortable when temperatures plummet at night. Also, if you want to avoid the crowds, steer clear of high season, since you might feel overwhelmed by the number of tourists if you come from December through February, mid-July, or Chile’s Independence and Armed Forces’ Days of September 18 and 19.
San Pedro de Atacama is divided into several ayllus, or neighborhoods; however, the principal area of the town can be walked in about 10 minutes or less. As more businesses pop up, residents are beginning to use street numbers, but many cling to “s/n” for sin número, or without number. The town’s main axis that funnels east to the explora hotel and west to the Quitor archaeological site is Calle Domingo Atienza. The thoroughfare and dining and shopping epicenter is the north-west Calle Caracoles. Note that the street Antofagasta becomes Padre Le Paige (also known as Gustavo Le Paige) closer to the plaza. Several sights are within walking or biking distance, such as Quitor and Tulor, and it is possible to bike to the Valley of the Moon and through Devil’s Canyon. But you’ll need a tour to get to the El Tatio Geysers.