Exploring the Lunar Valley and San Pedro de Atacama

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
8
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
6
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
4
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
3
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
6
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
9
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
60 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
South America
country
Chile
Length of time
1-2 days
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 120
Time of year visited
February
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
204th/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 70% SUMMARY RATING: Worth doing

Summary

There are a bunch of fun things to do when saying for one or two nights in San Pedro de Atacama.  In particular, you’ll want to visit the otherworldly Lunar Valley to see those gorgeous changes from reds and yellows to purples and pinks as the sun sets.  I’d also highly recommend taking advantage one evening of the best star gazing in the world by visiting one of the observatories

(You also must must must Take a 4WD tour from San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian Salt Flats so check out this entry for more details)

But it was San Pedro de Atacama itself that was the highlight for me.  It will just feel so different from anywhere you’ve been before that you’ll be kept happily entertained just wandering through the rock hard clay streets with their single floor adobe buildings and seeing the otherworldly red surroundings of volcanoes in the distance, all while appreciating the subtle adaptations the place has to make to survive in what is the driest place in the world (outside of the Poles).  If you have the time, its a great place to chill out, sample some of the surprisingly good restaurants and also to learn a bit about the pre-Spanish culture

 

highlights

#1 Wandering the red clay streets of San Pedro de Atacama. A real frontier otherworldly feel to it (hopefully not when its raining like it was for us!)

#2 Spending an evening looking up at the stars through some of the clearest skies in the world

#3 Seeing the martian landscape of the Lunar Valley

#4 Just chilling out in a place that feels a bit like no other you will have been to - enjoy it

#5 Visiting some of the old Salt Mines and imagining what it must have been like in those brutally hard times

Rough itinerary

  • Wander around the streets of San Pedro, getting a bit lost if possible!  As you wander through, ask a few travel companies for which tours they are running.  You’ll want to do three things depending on your timings:
    • An evening in one of the observatories to see the world-class star gazing
    • An afternoon trip to the Lunar Valley, including sunset
    • A Tours 4 Tips tour around San Pedro to provide some pre-Spanish historical context

Travel Tips

  • San Pedro feels in places like one of those far off red desert levels you play on some fantasy computer game.  Have fun getting lost through the streets and stumbling into inner courtyards of some of the lovely restaurants and hotels
  • Tour 4 Tips – to get a good feel for the place and the history of the pre-Spanish culture, I’d recommend Tours 4 Tips.  Last 2-3 hours (or just drop off if don’t want to stay till the end) and you pay whatever you think right at the end (typically asked for between USD10-20 per person)
  • Restaurants – San Pedro is a central point for many heading up to Bolivia and for generally traveling to this dry red Mars-like place, so there is a cool traveller atmosphere here with some decent traveller-style nightlife.   It’s also got some really quite good restaurants considering where you are.  In particular, I would recommend Adobe and Cafe Katarpe
  • Lunar Valley – getting a tour to the Lunar Valley is super simple as there are so many operators in the main central streets of San Pedro, but I would suggest a quick cross reference on something like trip advisor because we heard some stories of quite bad experiences.  You’re basically looking for an afternoon tour that takes you to the Salt Mines and the Lunar Valley itself, but make sure the sunset is included (and bring a book because you may be waiting on the ridge of the Lunar Valley for a couple of hours)
  • Star gazing – the Atacama Desert has a combo of altitude, lack of humidity and lack of light pollution to give it some of the world’s clearest skies for star gazing. Again, finding a tour is quite easy to do in the main streets and we had a great time being taught about the stars.  Just a few things to bear in mind – it will be a late finish (get back at 230am or so) so be prepared for this; it can be a bit touristy with the large numbers also joining you; don’t expect a classic observatory-style building – it may well be a guy’s garden with some modern tech telescopes.  Again though, we had a great time and would recommend
  • Salt Flats – there are also some of the world’s biggest salt flats and flamingo colonies nearby which would be certainly worth visiting if not already planning on heading to Salar del Uyuni (the Bolivian Salt Flats – details here The Bolivian Salt Flats in rainy season)
  • For accommodation, the place is really small so as long as you’re close-ish to the centre you’re fine location-wise.  We stayed at the very friendly and well kept Hostal Ayni which had some great views of the nearby volcanoes.  We also stayed at the Hostel y Restaurante La Manada del Desierto which was very central, with a pool but the rooms were comically small
  • Altitude – whilst nothing like the nearby Bolivian Altiplano, San Pedro is still quite high at 2,400m / 7,900 feet so just be aware you may get a slight headache and be out of breath a bit quicker than normal
  • Should it rain like it did with us (driest place in the world they said . . . ), be prepared for some of the various sites around San Pedro to be closed and for you to certainly be unable to access them with your own vehicle / bike.  Best bet is to enjoy this rarity for what it is and keep checking in with your hotel and a few travel companies in the main streets to find out when they will next open

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Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone