San Pedro de Atacama is like nothing you have seen before. An entire town made of dusty red adobe. Complete with red dusty streets and a crystal clear desert sky. Arriving into San Pedro de Atacama was like arriving into another world – either that – or somehow going back in time. It certainly helped with the atmosphere that our AirBnB was a 200 year old adobe house.
We arrived just after mid day, conveniently after the hordes of tourists had all departed town to go to Valle De La Luna. The town can get chaotically crowded, but there are certain times of day when it is almost deserted. This is the most photogenic time to wander the streets, but it is also part of the hottest time of the day. You will really feel like you have traveled back in time, and gotten lost somewhere in the wild west.
One thing we did not really consider when we were planning our trip was altitude. I didn’t think about altitude and what that would do to our bodies. It was only when our AirBnB host warned us that many tour operators would not take the children past certain altitudes that we became aware of the issue. San Pedro de Atacama is located at 2,500 meters above sea level, which is the highest “safe” level before some people start to feel the affects of altitude. However, many of the really cool attractions around San Pedro de Atacama are above 3,500 meters.
Since we are traveling with a baby, and altitude can affect babies more than adults, we decided to stick to trips that did not exceed 3,500 meters. The following list are all within that “safe zone”.
Another thing to mention is that if you are traveling with kids, its probably best to rent your own car. I got pretty angry when a tour operator said to me, “I’ll sell you a ticket, but if your baby cries, the driver might kick you off the bus.” One, my baby doesn’t cry, and Two, why would I give you my money after you threaten that I might get stranded in the middle of the desert? No way lady. Instead we rented a car from our AirBnB host. There are not a lot of rental car agencies in San Pedro, so I would recommend you pick up your car from the airport in Calama where you will have greater choice and cheaper prices.
Valle De La Luna
Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, is located just 13 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama and is one of the region’s star attractions. The valley is characterized by massive sand dunes, salt caves, and various stone and sand formations. There are several short hikes and viewpoints throughout the park, however we were a little late in arriving and only got to complete two of the most popular hikes – the salt cave, and the main dune for sunset. The salt cave was amazing but definitely not something I would recommend doing with little kids! As we began the hike, we joined the single file line which was walking through the narrow sand formations. Sure it was narrow, but it was fine. We had J with us and Z in the baby carrier. Then we entered the cave, and that was fine to. But it kept getting narrower and narrower and smaller and smaller. At one point we were crawling on our hands and knees while Simon was cradling Z in the baby carrier so he didn’t slip out. Z thought the view from that angle was hilarious. J kept bumping his head on the top of the cave and wailing. We were certainly a hilarious sight. We had fun, but probably not baby friendly! The second hike was much more accommodating. The place to go for sunset in San Pedro de Atacama is the top of the biggest sand dune in Valle de la Luna. It’s a short hike, and although it looks really high up, it actually is quite gradual and not difficult at all. The views are stunning, and as the sun sets, the sand and the salt change into a huge range of colours.
Valle De La Muerte
We will never forget Death Valley. Located near Valle de la Luna, Death Valley is smaller and offers a short hike to a mirador over the region. This is also where you will be taken if you want to do sand boarding. For the hike, once you pay the entrance fee, you will be told to drive 3 kilometers until there is a parking lot. From there you start the 45 minute one way hike. What we were not told is that the parking lot is unmarked, and that if you continue past the 3 kilometer mark that you WILL get stuck in the sand, no matter how bad ass your truck looks.
We didn’t hike to the mirador, but we did have a lovely 3 kilometer hike back to the entrance to call a tow truck.
Despite our travel fail, it is a stunning area, and definitely worth a visit. Just don’t miss that parking lot!
Pukara de Quitor
If you drive to the entrance of Valle de la Muerte, but then just continue a little further along that road, you will come to a fantastic archeological site and viewpoint called Pukara de Quitor. This fascinating fortress was built by the Atacama people to defend themselves from other groups living in the region and eventually to defend themselves from the Spanish. The fortress held out for quite some time, and even repelled the Spanish for a time. The archeological site is pretty interesting, but our favourite part of the visit was actually the hike up to the top of a nearby tall hill where we had incredible views over San Pedro de Atacama, the desert, and Death Valley.
This was by far my favourite day trip around San Pedro de Atacama. About a one hour drive from town will take you to the salt lagoon of Lagoon Chaxa. This lagoon is special for being the permanent home of hundreds of flamingos. There are three different types of flamingos which call the salt lake home. Some live here all the time and some transit through. But no matter when you visit, you are pretty much guaranteed to get to see these majestic pink birds.
If floating in the dead sea is on your bucket list, make sure you do not miss a visit to Laguna Cejar. This salt lake has pretty much the same properties as the dead sea, and this is one of the lagoons that you are allowed to swim in. There are changing rooms and showers on site, so you can get changed into your swimmers when you arrive. Floating in the lagoon is an other worldly experience – I could have seriously spent the entire day there but it’s probably good I didn’t since you are not allowed to wear sunscreen into the lagoon. We had to take turns floating in the water because of Z, but it was still an experience I am very glad we had. Laguna Cejar is only a short 15 – 20 minute drive from San Pedro de Atacama.