I showed up to San Pedro de Atacama without even knowing where I was going to sleep that night. I had just come from Argentina on a dizzying bus ride after two weeks of a full work schedule. I was exhausted and honestly did not feel like exploring a new place. The only reason I even stopped through San Pedro was because of its convenient proximity to the airport in Calama, which could get me to my next work destination (Patagonia) for cheap.
I apprehensively booked three nights in a hostel, and what happened after that completely, utterly, deeply, wholly blew my mind. San Pedro de Atacama will never again be just another dot on the map for me, and it shouldn’t be for you, either.
Go there. Here’s why.
Astronomy Tour in San Pedro de Atacama
I love the night sky. I love stars, constellations, shooting stars, planets, satellites, galaxies, whatever I can see.
I used to lay on my trampoline in our backyard counting shooting stars until I fell asleep. I’d enlist my friends to sleep over and count shooting stars with me.
But I’m telling you, I’ve never experienced anything in my life like what I saw in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Because of its location in the middle of the driest desert in the world, it is both far from the light pollution of big cities and is known for having clear night skies, without clouds or precipitation. This combination is what makes this a bucket lister for so many who love the night sky as I do.
Go there and do an Astronomy Tour. To find a tour, ask your hostel or the tour offices on the main street of Caracoles. There are several options every night. No need to book more than a day or two in advance.
Make sure it includes a telescope like this:
A “globular cluster” is a concentrated group of more than 1,000 stars. We looked at one called Tucan 47, made up of about 6 MILLION stars, that is 17 light-years away. With the naked eye, it looked like it could have been one star, but through a telescope, it looked like a jewel, with diamonds spilling out from the center in all directions. It was possibly the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and that’s coming from a girl who could normally care less about all things sparkly.
I was fully geeking out. Six million stars… can you even wrap your head around that? I can’t. I just can’t, and that’s what it feels like to have your mind absolutely blown.
An open cluster is a concentrated group of fewer than 1,000 stars. We looked at one of these that (with an imaginative mind’s eye) creates the shape of a butterfly if you play connect the dots.
There are two galaxies that can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere, the Large and Small Magellan Clouds. I’ll never forget the first time I saw these, in the middle of the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chilean Patagonia. In the naked eye, they looked like small clouds, unmoving against the night sky. A mysterious puzzle for the eye and brain to comprehend. They are 164,000 and 168,000 light-years away.
Through the telescope, the Large Magellan Cloud looked like a sort of tarantula. Like black and white blotches. The black, I learned, is nebula forming new stars. The white/grey blotches are material from stars that have already died, and that material reflects light from current stars.
The first thing we looked at through the telescope was Saturn with its rings. It was a good move by our guide to show us that first because while we thought it was amazing, even Saturn in all its white shining glory was nearly unimpressive compared to the clusters and galaxies we saw next. Can you imagine? Saturn, boring!?
AND… while we stood there in the dark in front of the Milky Way under the stars, a meteorite shot across the horizon right in front of us, burning red, white, then green, and eventually fizzling out so close to the earth that our guide made us catch our breath and gasps so we could listen for IMPACT.
It stretched across the entire sky in front of us, it must have lasted at least 10-15 seconds. I’ve never seen any shooting star that close, that firey, that real, right in front of my eyes.
This is San Pedro de Atacama. Go there. Visit the night sky. Be changed.
Sandboarding On Mars
As if one trip outside of Earth wasn’t enough, the very next morning we signed up for a sandboarding lesson. The tour would apparently take us just outside of town to a place called “Death Valley” but I kid you not, when we turned onto the road, the sign I read as we passed said “Marte” which means “Mars.”
So, we went to Mars that day.
The drive literally took no more 5 minutes from town, yet it felt like we had entered… well… Mars. The rock formations, sand dunes, volcanoes on the horizon… Mars.
Oh yeah, and we learned how to sandboard! Sandboard San Pedro has great guides and gave a super helpful lesson, plus we got to use real snowboards and boots. Thanks to Burton, I finally was able to make turns down a sand dune. My previous tries in Brazil and Peru were not so successful with wooden boards and velcro straps.
This sandboarding tour is a half-day, and I recommend going in the morning to beat the heat. Bring water, sunscreen, and sunglasses, and if you bring a camera, make sure you have proper encasing to protect it from the sand.
ATV Tour in the Desert
The last activity we opted for was an ATV tour. We had gazed at the sky, and we had experienced at Mars, but this gave us a chance to take a step back and see the valley that the town of San Pedro was in, surrounded by Mars, volcanoes, salt flats, and desert.
We went with On Safari Atacama, who offers half-day, full-day, and multi-day tours. They are a small operation, so when we went it was only the two of us and a guide. There literally was no one else around.
We opened up the throttle on those dirt roads, it was just a little bit fun.
Volcán Licancabur creates the dramatic backdrop of San Pedro de Atacama and nowhere did we get better views than out on the ATVs in the middle of the desert.
This short but incredible trip to San Pedro de Atacama would not have been complete without my signature jump because it was that kind of place:
Visiting San Pedro de Atacama
We stayed at Hostel Pangea. It is nicely located, includes breakfast, has private rooms, free WiFi, comfy hammocks, and really great front desk guys, but the rooms are nothing to write home about. There are probably more comfortable options in town, but since we arrived without having booked a place in advance, we were happy to have found this option for three nights.
Our favorite restaurant was La Picada del Indio, get the menu of the day, it’s always good and plenty of food. They also have Austral beer there, my favorite from Chile.
How to Get to San Pedro de Atacama
From Chile: Calama is close by with great connections via air and bus to other places in Chile. Sky Airlines is Chile’s domestic budget airline. We flew from Calama all the way to Puerto Montt in Patagonia for about $140 each, including a checked bag and preferred seats. You can get a bus between Calama and San Pedro, or you can opt for about a $12 per person private shuttle ride from your hostel to the airport at whatever time you need. We arranged this directly through our hostel front desk.
From Bolivia: If you’re coming from the Salt Flats of Uyuni, it is easy to take a tour that goes through the Salt Flats and ends in San Pedro. It is cheaper to start in Bolivia and do a salt flats tour than to go the opposite way, starting in Chile and going to Bolivia because Bolivia is much cheaper.
From Argentina: We took a 7 am bus from Salta, Argentina for around $30. We purchased the bus tickets at the bus terminal in Salta the day before we made the trip. The trip took around 8 hours. Be prepared for winding roads through steep canyons and a high elevation border crossing. I was a hot mess between car sickness and altitude sickness happening at the same time. Drink plenty of water and take Dramamine if you are prone to motion sickness.
Even after having dealt with my rough ride to Chile from Argentina, San Pedro de Atacama was completely worth it. The dirt streets and charming stores took me back to my backpacking days through Central America more than a decade ago. This town stole my heart immediately, and that’s before I even knew what was in store for me.
As I was preparing to write this post, I looked up the San Pedro de Atacama website. The first thing I read was, “I never thought I’d see anything like this in my life. Everything here is impressive … A beauty from another planet!” That was a testimony from a German tourist, but it very well could have been mine, or anyone else’s.
I only spent three days there, and it wasn’t enough. While I got to go to Space and Mars, I didn’t make it to the moon, which is another option! Guess I’ll just have to go back