The desert oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, which has been continuously inhabited for about 10,000 years, was prized by the Inca and Tihuanaco empires for its mineral wealth and importance as a stopover on the caravan trade routes. It sits at the northern end of the Salar de Atacama, a vast salt lake desert that is home to a variety of bird life and some bizarre but truly beautiful landscapes.
San Pedro De Atacama © Alejandro Rodriguez Clemente
Today San Pedro de Atacama is one of the major travel destinations of northern Chile and an attractive, albeit touristy village with a laid-back atmosphere and the simple, low-slung adobe buildings typical of the region. A great base from which to explore the astounding natural beauty of the region, the village has few real attractions of its own. There is a small 17th-century church built with local materials and a small well-organised museum with a good gift shop that sells the only truly locally-produced crafts in the town. There are a number of restaurants and bars to enjoy - a particularly welcome relief after days spent exploring the surrounding desert - but local restrictions on liquor sales see the nightlife come to a halt at about 11.30pm on weekdays and Sundays and 2am on weekends. Authorities seem to have made a conscious decision to discourage a party culture in San Pedro but many visitors will salute this move as the region boasts some of the best star gazing on earth and the desert silence is a joy when it can be experienced.
There is plenty to see and do around San Pedro, which is ideally situated as a springboard to some of Chile's most wondrous attractions. The town is close to interesting archaeological sites, the salt flats and Valle de la Luna, and lies within easy reach of the nearby Lagunas Altiplanicas and the El Tatio Geysers. Outdoor activities like mountain climbing and sandboarding are popular, or for a relaxing time the hot springs of Puritama are not far away. Almost every shop along the main road sells tours to the various attractions in the area, or hires out bicycles. Bikes can be rented by the day and many of the top attractions can be reached cycling, including the famous Valle de la Luna and the Pukara de Quitor Ruins. Those exploring independently should just make sure they are prepared for the heat of the desert and take plenty of water on excursions.
El Tatio © Phil Whitehouse
El Tatio GeysersAt an altitude of 13,760 feet (4,300m), El Tatio is one of the world's highest geyser fields, and possibly the hottest. Surrounded by volcanoes and fed by 80 geysers and hundreds of gassy fumaroles the geyser fields are best viewed at sunrise when there are changes in atmospheric pressure; the steaming fumaroles are particularly spectacular at this time, shooting up clouds of steam about 35 feet (112m) into the air. Mineral deposits left behind after the evaporation of the boiling water have formed other interesting structures on the thin crust of the geyser field. While it is possible to bathe in the hot geyser water in a small pool, parts of the field are very dangerous with only a thin crust over nearly boiling mud so it is always a good idea to visit the geysers with a knowledgeable guide. This is a glorious attraction for photographers as the steam and the odd landscape make for dramatic pictures. The geysers are not great for anybody who has respiratory issues though, so visitors with breathing problems should proceed with caution. Also, be sure to wear layers because although the pre-dawn temperatures are freezing, it is much warmer at the geysers. Most travellers visit the geysers as part of a guided tour. These usually leave San Pedro de Atacama early in the morning. Many operators offer this trip and it is worth shopping around to find the best option. Many geyser tours include a stop at nearby hot springs in the desert which is a great addition.
Pukara de Quitor Ruins © Pablo Trincado
Pukara de Quitor RuinsThe Pukara de Quitor Ruins are a very short distance from the town and one of the most popular attractions in San Pedro de Atacama. The fortifications were built by the Atacameno people, a pre-Incan civilization, in the 12th century. The ruins have not been excavated fully, despite being incredibly well-preserved, because they will be quickly destroyed by the elements if they are exposed further. The way they stand, half-uncovered, actually adds to the mysterious atmosphere of the place, and visitors can still have a fair idea of what the structures looked like originally. To help travellers envisage the buildings as they once were a replica of one of the 800-year-old houses has been built. A bike ride or a quick hike to the ruins is one of the most popular things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. The distance is under three miles (4km) and can be walked in about an hour. The path is well sign-posted and not demanding. Possibly the most astounding thing about the fort are the views from the site and those visitors who have seen more extensive and impressive ruins - like those just north in Peru - will still be blown away by the surroundings. The ruins can be explored with remarkable freedom which is also a bonus.
Laguna Chaxa, Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos © Daniel Galleguillos
Reserva Nacional Los FlamencosThis popular nature reserve in northern Chile (many claim it is the most popular) is 459 square miles (740km sq) and is divided into seven sections, all offering highlights of their own. One of the most interesting areas within the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos is the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a surreal landscape of salt peaks formed by uplifted lake sediments that have been shaped into dramatic formations by wind erosion. With a surreal blend of pastel colours the valley is even more enchanting at sunset. Close to San Pedro de Atacama, the valley can be reached by mountain bike or on a guided tour. A striking feature of northern Chile's geography is the shimmering and apparently endless salt lakes that are home to many bird species; the Salar de Atacama in the reserve has a lagoon, Laguna Chaxa, which supports three species of flamingos as well as other bird life. The salt lake also affords good views of the volcanoes in the Andean chain of mountains on the nearby altiplano. The stunning desert landscape offers many attractions: hiking, horse riding, bird watching and photography are some of the most popular activities. Be aware that in this desert region temperatures vary dramatically and can drop suddenly.