San Pedro de Atacama Stories and Tips

On Volcanoes, Apostles and an Oasis

San Pedro de Atacama Photo, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

By far, San Pedro de Atacama is the most identified settlement with the Atacama Desert. This is odd, since it actually occupies a small area which is not part of the desert. Most of the human settlements in the Atacama Desert are along the coast and were created only due to the exceptional natural resources of the area: saltpeter, guano and silver from nearby Potosi. An exception is San Pedro de Atacama, a village placed on an oasis next to the Chilean-Bolivian border; if traveling in the Potosi area, it is possible to cross the border there. This is the only area of the desert inhabited since before the Inca Empire; old forts called "pucaras" can still be seen.

The only desert settlement continuously inhabited since pre-Inca times is an odd reminder of how different is this desert from all others on earth. Even trade routes didn’t develop in the Atacama Desert. The reason was obvious: there wasn’t enough water along possible routes to ensure the caravans’ survival. The people living in San Pedro de Atacama developed self-sustaining settlements relying on minimal amounts of trade. Oops! The plural was wrong. Settlement. A single settlement - and a tiny one for that - in a desert larger than many countries.

Roughly a hundred kilometers from Calama, San Pedro de Atacama is next to the impressive Licancabur Volcano. More often than not, this area is linked to earthquakes in our memories and not to volcanoes; yet all along the Chilean-Bolivian border there are beautifully conic volcanoes, local replicas of Mount Fuji. Some of them occasionally smoke, especially the Nevados de Payachata next to the Tambo Quemado border cross, reminding the traveler of past – yet still hot - conflicts in the area. San Pedro de Atacama lies slightly higher than Calama, yet, 80% of humans won’t need an altitude acclimatization period here. The situation changes once crossing over into Bolivia; roughly at four kilometers above the sea level, Potosi (the department and the city) would invariably demand an acclimatization period of all visitors.

By far, this is the smallest settlement visited in this tour, with roughly just five thousand inhabitants. Yet, it is the major touristic attraction of the desert, offering unique sights of the altitude desert and several desert sports. Moreover, it is a major crossing point from Chile to Salta in Argentina. What to see? It depends on the time the traveler can stop here. The Licancabur, San Pedro and San Pablo volcanoes are major – in every sense of the word – attractions. The Salar de Atacama – a major salt flat – is just north of the city. If planning visiting the larger Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, this one can be skipped. The Pukará de Quitor is a fortification built by the Atacameño people in the 12th century and of mild interest; if having seen Inca forts elsewhere, this one has nothing new to offer. The Laguna Miscanti is similar on many aspects to the Lagunas Verde y Colorada (red and green lagoons) just on the Bolivian side, though this one is filled up with just regular blue water. The most impressive site is the called El Tatio, where eighty geysers compete for the travelers’ attention. Finally, a Valle de la Luna (Moon’s Valley) not very different from those found elsewhere on earth is available for a visit. To them, a special journal would soon be dedicated.

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