This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Atacama Desert Adventure Travel Guide

Most travelers who want to explore the Atacama Desert make the town of San Pedro de Atacama their base camp. We’ve covered a wide range of Atacama Desert tours in previous posts. Now, it’s time to tell you what do in San Pedro de Atacama including visiting the ALMA Observatory, local museum highlights, the second-oldest church in Chile, and more.

salar aguas calientes

Atacama Desert scenes like this draw travelers from around the world to the town of San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama sits in a natural depression that stretches more than 100 miles (160 km) between the volcanic peaks of the Andes to the east and the Cordillera del Sal (Salt Range) to the west. The town is surrounded by the Atacama Desert including the Salar de Atacama which is Chile’s largest salt flat.

The location is spectacular, but San Pedro de Atacama itself does not make the best first impression. Like most towns in or near natural wonders–in this case, the Atacama Desert which is one of the largest, highest, and driest deserts on earth–San Pedro de Atacama has gotten fat and sassy off of tourist dollars. This is not surprising since this tiny, high-altitude oasis town (population around 5,000) is the only adventure base camp for anyone who wants to explore the salt flats, wildlife, hot springs, and landscapes of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

san pedro de atacama from above

The oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama as seen from above.

What started as a small village and local community has evolved and sprawled into a place that seems purpose-built to accomodate tourists and to house hundreds of tourism industry workers (most of whom are recruited from other parts of Chile and beyond). The dirt and cobblestone streets, including pedestrian-only Caracoles Street in central San Pedro de Atacama, are full of tour operators and their touts and this town, located at 7,900 feet (2,400 meters), also offers a wide range of hotels and many places to eat.

Like a desert version of national park gateway towns in the US, this dusty, ramshackle place can look and feel like one big rip-off. Every other storefront seems to be a tour company, each touting the same trips. Hotels charge incredible rates for dreary shoeboxes. And restaurant menu prices this high would not be tolerated in most other parts of Chile.

atacama volcanoes

Volcanoes ring the town of San Pedro de Atacama.

And yet, the town of San Pedro (as everyone calls it) bustles with Chilean and international travelers including so many Brazilians that some call this place São Pedro de Atacama. Bottom line: if you want to explore the Atacama Desert (and you do) you’re likely to spend some time in San Pedro.

We spent 42 days in San Pedro during visits in 2017 and in 2024 during which time we enjoyed many active tours in San Pedro de Atacama and also many easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

Now it’s time to tell you what to do in San Pedro de Atacama town itself.

What to do in San Pedro de Atacama

The Atacama Desert is the main draw, but here’s what to do in San Pedro de Atacama town and nearby areas.

Check out Iglesia de San Pedro

Iglesia de San Pedro what to do in San Pedro de Atacama

Visit Iglesia San Pedro to see what is believed to be the second-oldest church in Chile.

When we visited San Pedro in 2017, the historic Iglesia de San Pedro (Saint Peter’s Church) in the center of town was an ochre color with exposed adobe walls. When we visited San Pedro in 2024, the church had been whitewashed. No matter what color it is, this church, which dates back to the 17th century (though a previous church was built on the same site 100 years earlier), is worth a look to appreciate its Andean Baroque style. Outside, the church is distinguished by traditional adobe walls, a cactus wood door painted bright blue, and a bell tower that was added in 1964. Inside, look up to appreciate the ceiling covered in cactus wood and note that the beams used to support the church are lashed together with leather. Iglesia San Pedro, which was made a Chilean National Monument in 1951, is believed to be the second-oldest church in Chile. It’s often illuminated at night.

Stroll along Caracoles Street

caracoles street what to do in san pedro de atacama

Caracoles Street is a pedestrians-only thoroughfare lined with tourist-centric shops and services.

Caracoles Street, a dirt road that bisects central San Pedro, is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare and the main tourist drag in town. This is where you’ll find most of the tour companies that offer active tours in the Atacama Desert and easy ways to explore the Atacama Desert. Caracoles Street is also home to many restaurants and services like the town’s two ATMs (that don’t always have cash so it’s a good idea to come with cash on hand) and pharmacies.

Visit the Meteorite Museum

meteorite museum what to do in san pedro de atacama

The Meteorite Museum in San Pedro de Atacama has a world-class collection.

The Museo del Meteorito (Meteorite Museum) in central San Pedro lives up to its name with 77 meteorites and bits of meteorites on display in two connected domes (5,000 CLP/US$5.50 per person). The meteorites were found by brothers who’ve spent decades looking for meteorites in the Atacama Desert, eventually amassing one of the largest collections of meteorites on earth. Videos, displays, and an audio guide in multiple languages (including English) explain what meteorites are and how they helped form our planet. You can even touch a meteorite. Yes, it’s a bit geeky and sciencey but it’s also enjoyable and informative. A gift shop offers items like jewelry made from pieces of meteorites. Reservations required, allow at least 30 minutes.

Visit the Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige

Since 2015, a tangled and heated struggle over the future of nearly 400,000 pre-Columbian artifacts found in the Atacama Desert has been slowly playing out. The Chilean government, which wanted to build an ambitious museum facility to show off the world-class collection, was on one side. Members of local Indigenous groups, who wanted the relics of their ancestors to be re-buried in the Atacama Desert, were on the other.

In 2017, we met the museum director who showed us a few of the tens of thousands of amazing artifacts–each incredibly well preserved in the cold, dry conditions of the Atacama–in a storage facility where they were being protected pending a resolution between the parties.

Gustavo La Paige Museum what to do in san pedro de atacama

Selections from a massive collection of Indigenous items are on display at the Gustavo Le Paige Museum in San Pedro de Atacama.

Today, a less ambitious version of the Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige is open on the outskirts of San Pedro (2,000 CLP/about US$2 per person). Named for Jesuit missionary and self-taught archaeologist Father Gustavo Le Paige, artifacts on display include textiles, pottery, snuff paraphernalia, weapons, and more created by Atacamenian cultures and selected from one of the largest and most important collections in the world. Your entry fee includes an optional guided visit in Spanish (recommended if your Spanish is adequate) and written descriptions of the collection in Spanish and in English. Allow at least 45 minutes.

Go shopping

San Pedro is full of stores selling cheap mass produced crap. For high-quality handmade finds, head for a shop called Chañar on Domingo Atienza Street just off Caracoles Street. Here you’ll find a wide array of true local handicrafts including pottery, paintings, jewelry, and more. And if you find yourself in need of boots or a jacket or other outdoor gear, a few stores in San Pedro sell international name-brand and local name-brand outdoor clothing and gear.

Visit the ALMA Observatory

The Atacama region of Chile is world-famous as a dark skies nirvana where thin high-altitude air, very low humidity, and almost no light pollution combine to create ideal conditions for sky watching and astronomical observation and study.

ALMA sign

Note the flying saucer addition that someone made in the top right portion of this sign marking the entrance to the ALMA Observatory.

The ALMA Observatory facilities are located 34 miles (55 km) from San Pedro on a hillside at 9,514 feet (2,900 meters). ALMA’s radio antennas are located even higher than that on the Llano de Chajnator at 16,400 feet (5,000 meters). ALMA is one of four observatories in Chile operated by the European Southern Observatory (EOS). The ALMA Observatory (alma means soul in Spanish but also stands for Atacama Large Millimeter Array) is the largest astronomical project on earth and, like all EOS observatories, it’s where scientists from around the world come to study the sky.

ALMA antenna what to do in San Pedro de Atacama

One of the 66 massive radio antennas at the ALMA Observatory near San Pedro de Atacama.

There are 66 radio antennas at the ALMA Observatory. Each weighs 100 tons, is 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter, and contains 10 sensitive receivers. The first antenna was installed at the ALMA Observatory in 2009 carried by one of two special transport vehicles (named Otto and Lore–pictured below) that have 28 wheels and a max speed of just 3 miles (5 km) per hour as they gently move their large, delicate, and costly cargo (each antenna costs more than nine million dollars).

lore alma antenna transporter

Each massive antenna at the ALMA Observatory requires a massive vehicle to move it around.

Data collection began at the ALMA Observatory in 2013 and was marked with an Indigenous ceremony to Mother Earth, which is fitting since the Llano de Chajnator area where the antennae are located was also used by Indigenous cultures for night sky observation.

The giant machines at the ALMA Observatory are radio telescopes. Unlike telescopes like Hubble, which focus on light areas of the sky such as planets and stars which they can photograph, the radio telescopes at the ALMA Observatory are “big ears” that focus on dark sky areas of space. By training all of the ALMA radio telescopes on a single point in the universe, their receivers can “capture and concentrate the cosmic signals” so that scientists can listen to space.

alma scientists

Scientists from around the world come to the ALMA Observatory to study the sky.

With the help of technology, including one of the largest non-military supercomputers on the planet and thousands of laptops, signals from the ALMA antenna are digitized and fed through an incredibly precisely calibrated gizmo called The Correlator which helps scientists understand the wavelengths that have been picked up by the antenna and turn that into learning about the cosmos.

Every three months the positioning of ALMA’s antenna is changed during a weeks-long process to adjust each antenna. Though each antenna is only 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter, they can be positioned in close proximity or spread out over up to 8.6 miles (14 km) to create what amounts to an 8.6 mile (14 km) wide antenna.

In 2017, we took the free public tour of the ALMA Observatory which included transport from San Pedro de Atacama (private vehicles were not allowed on observatory grounds), a guide (Spanish or English), a short video (with English subtitles), a walking tour around some of the exterior facilities, and a guided tour through parts of the offices and interior research facilities (where we were delighted to note that even astrophysicists struggle to fix the copy machine).

Note: public tours of the ALMA Observatory were halted after a ransomware attack on the facility in late 2022 and had not resumed as of this writing.

Explore the night sky on an astronomy tour

If stargazing through a telescope is more your brand of astronomy you’ll find many opportunities for star gazing and night sky tours in San Pedro.

moon seen through a telescope in San Pedro de atacama

The moon seen through a telescope in San Pedro de Atacama.

 Some higher-end hotels in San Pedro de Atacama, including the Explora Atacama and the Nayara Alto Atacama, have their own observatories where guests can explore the night sky over the Atacama Desert.

Milky Way without a telescope in San Pedro de Atacama

The Milky Way is visible even without a telescope in the ultra-clear skies above San Pedro de Atacama.

Tour companies in San Pedro also offer night sky tours that include telescopes and a guide who can explain what you see in the sky. These tours vary widely and there are two important things to look for before you book. The first is the number of telescopes (the lower the number of telescopes the more time spent waiting for your turn to look through one). You also want a guide with a high degree of knowledge and passion for astronomy. A well-traveled friend of ours (who is not, by nature, a group tour kind of person) decided to book a night sky tour led by Carlos Petersen, owner of Apacheta Tours, and she was delighted with the number of telescopes (no waiting!) and thrilled with the information and enthusiasm that Carlos conveyed. Apacheta Tours is located on a corner of the main plaza in San Pedro.

Witness a festival

If you’re in San Pedro in late January/early February you may also have the chance to catch local dance groups in traditional costumes celebrating in the street as part of the Virgin of Candelaria Festival. This annual event is a big deal in most parts of Latin America, however, in small San Pedro the scene is more relaxed and crowds are smaller–though participants are no less dedicated.

Check out some of the Virgin of Candelaria Festival activities in San Pedro de Atacama in our video, below.

Similar festivities can be seen in San Pedro de Atacama during Carnival as well.

Get to know the Ruta del Vino

We were as surprised as you are to learn that wine is being made in the Atacama Desert and even more surprised when we learned about a recently created ruta del vino (wine route) experience that gives visitors a look at vineyards and the winery where this Atacameñan wine is being made from grapes grown by a small band of wine pioneers from the Indigenous Lickanantay community.

Not only are these grape growers producing tasty wine varietals, they’re doing it in some of the highest vineyards in Chile located between 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) up to 10,499 feet (3,200 meters).

ayllu vineyard san pedro de atacama

We’ve heard of sandy soil, but this is the first time we’ve seen wine grapes growing in desert terrain like the Atacama.

In total, there are 20 family vineyards growing wine grapes in the Atacama Desert with a total of 17 acres (7 hectares) planted in vines. Together, that group of small grape growers produced just over 21,000 kilos of grapes in 2022 which yielded 13,000 liters of wine made under the Ayllu Winery label. This label was formed in the early 2000s when the Cooperativo Ayllu was created to give growers a market for their grapes and to allow Ayllu winemakers access to the full spectrum of grapes grown in the region.

ayllu winemaker atacama

Ayllu’s agronomist checks out the vines and bunches at the Santi Romina vineyard near the town of Tocanao.

The word ayllu (pronounced ay-yoo) means community in the local language. The Allyu Cooperative’s slogan is “viñedos mysticos del desierto” (mystic vineyards of the desert) and the co-op’s logo shows a crescent moon with sun rays radiating from it and a pair of human hands. That’s fitting since the creation of the co-op allowed for members of the organization to use their hands to rescue vines and vineyards that had been abandoned or neglected over the years. Now, grape growers who are members of the co-op get paid for their fruit and get a portion of Ayllu wine sales.

All grapes are also grown using biodynamic principles which puts a fitting emphasis on cycles of the moon and other celestial bodies here in a region famous for its dark skies and astronomical observation. These vines receive sun 360 days a year and growers and winemakers also credit nighttime moon bathing as an influence on their wines as well.

ayllu wines

The Ayllu winery currently makes five wines under the Ayllu label from a range of varietals including syrah, petite verdot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sauvignon gris, moscatel de Alejandria, moscatel rosada, chardonnay, malbec, and garnacha. The winery also makes a red blend called Hallar. The first vintage of this limited edition wine was released in 2020 with 40% syrah, 40% petit verdot, 13% malbec, and 7% garnacha.

In 2019, Ayllu debuted a wine tourism program that includes a vineyard visit, a short tour of the simple winery, and a tasting of Ayllu wines in their facility in the town of Tocanao. During our tour, we visited the tiny Santi Romina on the outskirts of Tocanao where a small herd of llamas is used to clean the plots and prune the vines after each harvest. As we walked through vines we tasted grape varietals including petite verdot grapes which burst with intense chocolate notes. Each varietal we tasted was strikingly different from the same varietals grown in different environments and terroirs and this is why Ayllu says their wines deliver “the desert in a glass”.

Stop at the Tropic of Capricorn

The Tropic of Capricorn (aka Southern Tropic) and the Tropic of Cancer (aka Northern Tropic) mark the southernmost and northernmost latitudes on the planet where the sun can be directly overhead. Think of them as two belts that circle the earth with points marked in various countries that the belt passes through.

tropic of capricorn atacama-chile

Look for one of our Trans-Americas Journey stickers on this sign marking the Tropic of Capricorn near San Pedro de Atacama.

A large marker on the side of the main paved road in the region (CH-25) about 40 miles (65 km) from San Pedro de Atacama marks the Tropic of Capricorn where the belt passes through northern Chile. This makes a fun photo op/stretch your legs stop.

Fun fact: When the Tropic of Capricorn was named, the sun was in the constellation of Capricornus (hence the name).  However, the Tropic of Capricorn is moving slowly but surely north year by year, and now the sun is in the constellation of Sagitarrius.

Check out a Chilean rodeo

The nearby village of Solar is home to the Club de Rodeo where visitors can get a glimpse of Chile’s unique form of rodeo. Unlike rodeo in Mexico or the US, the Chilean version takes place in a circular high-sided wooden ring, but only half of it is used–hence the name: media luna (half moon). And Chilean rodeo has just one main event that involves two traditionally dressed riders (wearing traditional boots, pants, chaps, a stiff wide-brimmed hat, and spurs the size of salad plates) and one young bull (wearing a skeptical expression).

karen media luna rodeo

Karen tried her hand at the main event in Chilean rodeo and it’s even harder than it looks.

One rider pursues the bull to make it run around the ring while the other rider moves their horse into a sideways gallop (using those enormous spurs placed flat against the horse’s sides) until the horse’s chest pins the bull into a padded section of the wooden wall and everybody comes to a stop. The team repeats this three times and a panel of judges issues a score based on posture, pinning technique, speed, etc.

chilean huaso

Traditional clothing and tack–including oversized spurs used to gently push a horse sideways–are required during Chilean media luna rodeo events.

After watching pros Don Ramon Bascur and Daniel Madeao do it a few times, Karen had the chance to try this move herself riding a traditional stocky, strong, and elegant Chilean Criollo stallion tricked out in traditional tack. She even put on the traditional hat and spurs. It took a minute to get used to the huge spurs (which are not used to poke the sides of the horse but as a flat surface that urges the horse sideways), but she finally got a few okay runs in. The experience was beautiful and a bit scary with 12 legs thundering through the media luna in such close proximity. And, yes, Karen was wicked sore the next day.

See Karen in action in the media luna in Solar in our video, below.

The Club de Rodeo media luna in Solor is open to the public, but events are not held every day. Ask about upcoming rodeo events at your hotel or at your preferred local tour company.

Getting around San Pedro de Atacama

There is no comprehensive local public transportation in San Pedro de Atacama. Public buses run to and from the city of Calama, where the airport is located, but that’s pretty much it. Sites within town are easily walkable (town is tiny). Your options for reaching destinations further afield include booking tours through one of the tour companies in town which include transportation or renting a car or a camper in Calama or in San Pedro de Atacama (reserve well in advance) and driving yourself around.

san pedro de atacama

Karen headed back to our Airbnb on the hectic and bustling streets of San Pedro with our friend’s dog Charlie (very much NOT a stray) and the day’s grocery shopping.

San Pedro de Atacama stray dog warning

San Pedro de Atacama has a human population of around 5,000 and a stray dog population of around 4,500. You will notice stray dogs everywhere and, unfortunately, in recent years stray dog attacks on humans have been on the rise in San Pedro de Atacama. For example, in 2023, a female guide was killed during an attack and in 2024, a Brazilian tourist was badly injured by stray dogs. Town administrators are trying to get rid of the dogs, but as of this writing no official plan has been approved. Stray dog attacks tend to occur mostly at night, so be cautious and aware if walking the streets after sunset.

 

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Adventure Travel in the America

 


Series Navigation:<< Restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama, ChileAtacama Desert Easy Tours in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile >>

Share via