After a few days in San Pedro de Atacama and writing a few blog articles on the spectacular scenery that can be found in the surrounding area, I realised I have neglected to write anything about San Pedro itself. It’s an oversight that seems to affect other blogging visitors too, as most articles focus on the incredible landscape scenery that are within relatively easy reach by using San Pedro as a base. Death Valley, Moon Valley, the Tatio Geysers, Salar de Tara, Salar de Uyuni and many more, are really only easily accessible from San Pedro de Atacama.
It’s a very small but busy desert town, miles from anywhere and closer to the Peruvian and Bolivian borders than to any major Chilean centre. In many respects, it’s a cute little place too, full of old single storey adobe buildings that are networked tightly together in the centre. A traditional central square is dominated by a simple but pretty 17th century church that seems to be in almost constant use by the community. The surrounding narrow streets are thick with parched desert dust that takes to the air with ease with every passing bicycle or vehicle. To complete the image, it’s located at the relatively high altitude of 2,400m, and so basks under a constant deep blue sky, the thin atmosphere allowing the sun to rapidly heat the air by day, only to give it up to cold nights after sunset.
All in all, it’s just about everything you would expect of a textbook small desert town. Yet there are two problems that, to me, rather take the edge off the experience, both of which have to do with its popularity.
The first is that it’s all a little too polished. Everything might appear a bit hippy and relaxed, but it also feels just a little bit manufactured, like it’s preparing to be a movie location (it would make a great film location for a Western). The content has a similar issue. Each of the buildings across the town seems to be either a hotel, hostel, restaurant, tour operator or souvenir shop, each with their own ‘authentic’ desert town signage, and each in competition with its neighbours for essentially the same things, in what is clearly a well tuned commercial operation.
All of which brings me to the second part of the problem – tourists! I know, we were tourists too, so are as guilty as the next person in this respect; but that’s exactly the point – if you want to explore this area, this is the perfect base from which to do it. Because of its strategic position as the only practical gateway to so many fantastic natural landscapes, it’s a very busy town indeed and its role as a hub for travellers wanting to tour anything within about 80 mile radius is both essential and welcome.
To be fair, the town has embraced the opportunity and commercialised the operation pretty well. It’s just that with the hoards of people and dozens of mini buses zig-zagging across the streets constantly, it just loses some of its authenticity in the process, which is a shame given the outstanding natural wonders that surround it.
The daily routine in San Pedro de Atacama goes something like this. There is hustle and bustle everywhere first thing in the morning from about 5:00am until 9:00am as the tour operator minibuses start to set off for their various day trips. By mid-morning things get a little quieter as the tourist population drops, leaving the streets much quieter and more suitable for some exploring on foot (although as a tourist of course, you are more likely to out with the masses on an excursion, rather than quietly wandering the town). By mid-afternoon, the shorter tours start returning and dusty chaos gradually returns. After a busy day, there is just time for a quick trip back to the hotel for a freshen up, and then wander into town to check out a few souvenir shops and grab a bite to eat before getting an early night and preparing for the next day.
The tendency is to pack in as many tours as possible over a few days and a combination of early morning starts, long days and high altitude means that late night partying is out. I don’t think that’s my age talking either! There are not really any dedicated bars or clubs as such in the town. Evening entertainment is more typically taken in the form of bar-restaurants, relaxing over a light meal and perhaps a decent glass of Chilean Malbec. On weekdays, pretty much everything is closed before midnight too (although probably a bit later at the weekend)
I would not actually recommend scheduling much free time to explore the town while you are there. We had originally planned a full day to explore. However, it quickly became clear that this would be a waste of a day as it’s easy to see everything and get a good feel for the place in a few hours here and there in between tours. We filled our spare day with an additional full day tour which was much better use of the time.
So, did the romantic imagery of a little adobe desert town lead me to fall in love with San Pedro de Atacama? I don’t think so. Curiously though, what it did manage to do is lure me in with its charm. Its remoteness and its vibrancy combined with spectacular scenery and the scorching desert sun does capture the imagination and is quite intoxicating as an antidote to the grey skies of life back home in the UK. The fact that I came to within a Llama’s whisker of buying myself a rather fetching red poncho is testament to that!
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