SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA Routes

San Pedro de Atacama Chile Mietwagen

Valle de la Luna

There is a beautiful mirador (viewpoint) off the paved road to Calama that can be reached by car or bike. This is around km 83. You'll see a small hut off the road. Head towards the rocks that were put there to simulate chairs and tables. There is a bit a climbing with the bike from San Pedro. If the road incline is down for a significant duration then you have passed the viewpoint. This viewpoint is quite a bit after from the turnoff to Valle de la Luna. This is a beautiful viewpoint to see both the sunset and the sunrise. Hardly anybody is there for the sunrise. A little bit of walking away from this point is a spiral maze. I walked in and out the spiral to make a wish.

Commonly advertised as 'Moon Valley' in English, this part of the Salt Mountain Range offers stunning clinal and anticlinal formations in a perfectly barren landscape. Almost all tours include watching the sunset there-you shouldn't miss it. The large stone walls resemble those of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, sans river. There are also huge halite (rock salt) strata that produce a knacking sound all day long. This can be unsettling at first, but it's actually harmless. Among its prime attractions are the Grand Crater, the Salt Canyon, the Three Maries and salt mines, the Salt Caves, the Cari Viewpoint (also called 'Piedra del Coyote'; this location is off the road to Calama and not actually in the Valle de Luna) and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). All tours visit a number of these, but it's virtually impossible to know which beforehand. Summer tours tend to be longer, though, and therefore have a greater probability of including more destinations.

San Pedro de Atacama moon valley valle de la luna Chile Mietwagen It's perfectly possible to ride a bike there, but you should take your time. The full bike tour to the end of the park, a place called 'tres Marias', is 17km. From there you can add another 2km (return) by taking the road to the left to a spooky salt mine over a seriously bad road. The other roads are pretty good: tarmac to the park office, 6km from San Pedro, then 5km on good dirt to the checkpoint. After that the only nasty climb of the day. When biking, it's advised to travel early (think 7-8 AM) in the morning, for afternoon temperatures can be suffocating year-round. You miss the sunset, but also lessen the possibility of heatstroke and the sightseeings won't be filled with tourists. Also, it's easier to find someone to rescue you if you get in trouble. Most drivers and guides are willing to help stranded cyclists, especially if they're female, or if you travel with one. Just don't expect them to carry a retinue of ten or so tired bikers! You should get a flashlight especially if you want to watch sunset (the road can be dangerous when dark) but also because there's a cave you can visit and it's pitch black in there.



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Geysers del Tatio

Located at 4,200m above sea level, and 100km away from town, these are some of the highest geysers in the world. It's also the third-largest geyser site on Earth, with over 80 active ones. Most agencies travel there at 4 AM so as to arrive at sunrise. The spectacle is hard to forget-even if the geysers themselves are smallish, the backdrop, lighting, and sheer variety are astounding. Usually, you get to see them from the first stages of dawn, an hour before the sun rises, until sunlight bathes them completely. The best time to take pictures is at exact sunrise, but other lightings can also create wonderful pictures. All respectable tour agencies include breakfast for their guests. If you book one that doesn't, then you've been scammed. If you have rented a car, alternately it may be better to visit the Geysers del Tatio at sunset, when you will have the entire place to yourself for quiet contemplation. On the way back, it's typical to find wild vicuñas, an endangered andean camelid that's highly protected in Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama Geyser del Tatio Chile Mietwagen They were rescued from the verge of extinction thirty years ago. Vicuñas in the area are accustomed to human presence, and will tolerate tourists coming to some twenty meters away; any more, and they're likely to flee. Be extremely respectful of the regulations, for many guides and drivers might even react in an aggressive manner if you bother the animals in any way. A common stop is the fording of the Putana river, a spectacle that for some even surpasses the geysers themselves. Many different bird species inhabit it, and it's perfectly possible to get very close to them-giant coots (fulica gigantea) are especially indolent. Winter has the most birds, with over ten different species cohabiting the place at peak migration, but temperatures are harsh. There's also the possibility of seeing a vizcacha or two (lagidium viscacia), a funny mix between a bunny, a squirrel, and a kangaroo. They're very shy, though, and if you don't get there among the first visitors, they'll have usually disappeared. In the background, to the east, lies the Putana volcano-an active mountain that boasts seven small fumes. Lastly, there's usually the choice of visiting one of two locations.

The first one is Machuca, an abandoned altiplanic village that lived from the mining of sulpher. Most regular tours stop here. Nowadays, you'll find a few locals there, roasting anticuchos made of llama meat. Teas, soft drinks and empanadas are also available. The meat is of questionable origins, with some wild theories as to its origin floating around. Ask your guide for a laugh. It's fairly safe to consume, though, as sanitation's decent. Just after exiting Machuca, it's common to see llamas grazing on a beautiful pasture. After that pasture lies a micro-sized salt pan, where vicuñas and James' flamingos can be seen (the latter only in summer, though). The other location is Puritama. If you plan on going, please consider the following things:

  • Temperatures can be terribly cold: -15ºC is common through June to August, while in summer it rarely dips below -5ºC. It's paramount to wear gloves, a cap, and preferably two layers of socks, along with a very warm jacket. After sunrise, the cold quickly subsides, and it gets bearable. Once you get to Machuca, the heat can be stifling. Prepare accordingly.
  • The altitude, coupled to a steep and winding road, can easily cause altitude sickness. Almost all agencies claim to carry an oxygen bottle on board; this is false. They do bring a can with air compressed to one atmosphere, but it does little other than acting as a placebo. See the section 'Stay healthy' for advice on preventing and ameliorating the sickness.
  • The road was entirely paved at some point in the distant past, but now it is in mostly poor condition, especially from Machuca to the end. Infrastructure improvements are underway to make this route more easily accessible, but as of 2016 it is fine on a 2 WD vehicle, it will just be a bit bumpy.



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Laguna Cejar

Set in the northern tip of the Atacama salt pan, this location offers a splendid panorama of the Andes, and the possibility to bathe in waters as salty as those of the Dead Sea. The landscape's also remarkable.

Besides the Cejar and Piedra lagoons, excursions usually stop by the 'Ojos del Salar' (Eyes of the Salt Pan), two freshwater eyes very close together, and lake Tebenquinche, a water mirror that offers the absolute best sunsets in the whole area-imagine the mountains slowly changing colors, from yellow to pink, and that same image reflected on the lake's perfect surface! You can get there by bike, but bear in mind that it's a long ride: 50km for the round-trip, with the sun burning your scalp without any mercy. There are shorter paths, but the safest is the main road; to get there, just ask where the customs ('aduana') are, and then travel south until you see a sign that reads 'Laguna Cejar'. The road's paved, and drivers are accustomed to see bikers on it. Wear bright clothing (red, blue and yellow work best), just in case. You shouldn't have any trouble locating it, for there are other signs along the way. If you'd like to visit the other lagoons, besides Piedra and Cejar, you can try asking the employee at Cejar's entry.

San Pedro de Atacama Geyser del Tatio Laguna Cejar Chile Mietwagen Consider the following:

  • Sun protection is a must. Cejar's environs are of a pure, perfect white, which tends to obscenely reflect light.
  • The water is cold. From October to March, this will be quite welcome, but not so much in winter. There is an upside to traveling in the latter season-some birds, like flamingos, migrate there (June-August).
  • It's necessary freshwater to remove the coating of salt that will cover your body after taking a plunge. If not removed, it can cause an unpleasant itch. When desperate, you can always try swimming in the Ojos del Salar. Even if you can't swim, the water of Piedra lagoon ensures you'll never drown. People float like feathers on it. It might be worth a try.

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Sandboarding

Like most deserts, Atacama has its share of dunes and sand-banks. The most popular is located in Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). All sandboarding tours will take you there. The dune is almost 100m in height; still, the typical track is barely a fraction of that. Some of them offer also to watch sunset in the Moon Valley-but be aware that you won't visit any of its spots, except the Great Dune or the Cari Viewpoint. If you plan on going, please consider the following:

San Pedro de Atacama Geyser del Tatio Laguna Cejar sandboarding valle de la muerte death valley Chile Mietwagen A few bike rentals also rent sandboards, expect to pay around $6.000 for both for 6 hours and another $3.000 to enter the park. Make sure a spare tube/pump, helmet, and boots to pair with the board are included to save your ankles. It might also be worth buying a cheap candle to wax the board. It takes around 45 minutes each way, some of which you will have to walk your bike through sand. If the moon is full, or close to, and rising early, it might pay to ride there later-skipping the unforgiving sun can be of great advantage, especially during warmer months (from October through March).
If you're cycling there with company, the traditional axiom is: One board per three people. Remember that there're no lifts in Valle de la Muerte, which means you've to climb the sands by foot. This will be tiring and frustrating! Three people can share one sandboard with ease; while one toils away, the other two can relax and rest. Of course, this assumes you've lots of time, which might not be the case.

Sandboarding is absolutely forbidden in Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)! Expect to be fined if you even try.


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Salar de Tara

It's perhaps San Pedro's best-kept secret. Or not. It really depends on your interests. The road is long, but well-paved, until you reach the entrance to the most remote part of the Los Flamencos national reservation: Monjes de la Pacana (Pacana Monks). The place is well above 4,500m-consider it carefully, as it's not uncommon for people to get altitude-sickness. After that, it's a visit to some peculiar stone formations, obsidian quarries, more stone towers (called 'Catedrales'), and the huge Tara salt lake. Fauna is abundant, and particular to that environment. The landscape is stunning at all times-it's easy to catch glimpses of Bolivia here and there, as well. Traffic is light, as this destination's not really popular. If that matters to you, then taking this tour is the perfect way of saying 'I was off the beaten track of San Pedro de Atacama'. The schedule's a lot more flexible than in other tours, so harass the driver and guide as much as you like. There are a few optional treks along the way, but they're difficult to attempt. You'll be feeling shortness of breath almost at once.

If you plan on going, please consider the following:

  • Altitude! The highest point of the excursion is almost 4,900m above sea level.
  • The same nasty winds of Miscanti can be present here, with a vengeance; take warm clothing along.
  • It's not uncommon to get stuck in the sand, particularly when the driver's not really acquainted with the path. It can be fun to push the van out of the mire, though.
San Pedro de Atacama Pacana  sandboarding valle de la muerte death valley Chile Mietwagen


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Valle del Arcoiris

San Pedro de Atacama Pacana  sandboarding valle de la muerte death valley Chile Mietwagen

Or Rainbow Valley. It features three different parts, all of them interesting. The "Hierbas Buenas" petroglyph site is the first, featuring over a thousand ancient stone carvings from the ancient "atacameño" people. They're from all time periods, from the first caravaners to the Incas. Most tours just visit sites 1 and 2, but that should be enough to afford a pretty nifty panorama of these ancient people's history. The other four sites are of difficult access.
Then you've got the village of Matancilla, which is only habited according to season. If you go there in winter, be assured you'll find it deserted. The inhabitants grow a variety of crops, which are easily distinguished all through autumn.
Dead wild donkeys are all too common, on the side of the road, while goats and llamas are harder to spot. Finally, you've got the namesake for the place: the ever-stunning Rainbow Valley, a series of hills that display countless colors, from white to black, from blue to red. Usually, all tours visit two of the four roads available, where the best views are to be had: The "cathedrals" and the great valley. Next to the former, to the left side, are some ever-mysterious buildings, made partially of serpentine, which gives them a light green color. They're well-camouflaged, so you'll have to climb to actually see them. On the way back from these "cathedrals", there's a beautiful hill that displays a wealth of colors; if the guide doesn't offer you to walk down the slope, ask for it! It's certainly worthwhile. You can watch a similar spectacle in Argentina, on the "Cerro de Siete Colores", but you'll miss the petroglyphs. It might be worth it to rather book a tour in San Pedro, especially since most tourists are completely oblivious of the Rainbow Valley's existence, so you'll most likely be alone when you visit. Most of the advice given for other excursions applies here.


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Mountain Climbing

The environs of San Pedro de Atacama sport a large variety of mountains to climb, catering to many levels of difficulty. There's a few specialized agencies that offer this kind of service; be sure that they provide all necessaries, not only asking the clerk, but also the driver and guide! An oxygen tank and climbing rods are the least you should expect. The easiest mountains to climb are Cerro Toco (5604m) and Volcán Lascar (5510m)-they're fairly popular, and take no longer than a day to complete. Higher in difficulty are Cerro Pili (6064m), and Sairecabur (5971m). The beautiful Licancabur Volcano, which towers over the town, is a real challenge; although only 5916m high, it takes at least three days to complete, not counting an exacting preparation period. Another choice is the Kimal mountain (4276m); even when its altitude is not that impressive, it's surrounded in myth and legend. According to local folklore, the "princess Kimal" is extremely jealous, and enjoys snatching adventurers away. There's even a supposed season for climbing her, when she's more pleasant; of course, no agency will tell ever you this beforehand. Take the chance at your own risk. Should you attempt any mountain climb, in any case, you ought to be well aware of the potential risks.

San Pedro de Atacama Pacana  sandboarding valle de la muerte death valley Chile Mietwagen
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