San Pedro de Atacama – Chile’s archeological capital

SAN PEDRO – Set in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the most arid desert in the world, San Pedro de Atacama is Chile’s archeological capital. San Pedro is also one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations.

San Pedro de Atacama is located in Chile’s 2nd region, at 2,438m above sea level, in the most arid desert of the world. It is at the basin of the San Pedro River, which is the biggest river to reach the Atacama salt flats. This basin borders the Domeyko Mountain Range to the west and the high plateau, or “altiplano,” of the Andes, named Puna de Atacama, to the east.

The name Atacama is said to come from the indigenous word “Accatcha” in the Cunza language, meaning Head of the Country.

The archeological capital of Chile

San Pedro de Atacama is known as the archaeological capital of Chile, because of the many surrounding archaeological features. The town is said to be built in an ancient indigenous cemetery, where artifacts are still found today. Because of this, the locals say it is illegal to dance on the land if it isn’t for religious reasons.

Over 11,000 years of human inhabitance

San Pedro de Atacama and surrounding areas were originally settled over 11,000 years.

First it was used in the pre-Hispanic times as a primary stop and meeting point on the trading route for llama herders living in the highlands as well as fishing communities of the Pacific. Later, during the Nitrate Era (1880s-1930s), it was also a main stop on the cattle trail from Salta, Argentina, toward the nitrate centers, bringing fresh meat to the miners.

The people are known as Likan-Antai, which translates to “people of this land.” More commonly known by the tourists as the “Atacameños,” they are nowadays a mix of descendents of the Likan-Antai and people of the world who decided to stay.

San Pedro de Atacama is now known as a place for people who are passionate about nature and appreciate quality of life. Thanks to this, the small town has developed into one that welcomes tourists who want to learn about their heritage and fall in love with their landscapes.

Chilean ancient culture unveiled by rock art llamas

Clear skies and the largest radio telescope in the world

The sky in San Pedro de Atacama is especially clear. It is said to have clouds only two weeks a year, mainly due to a low humidity between 5 and 10%. This, together with the altitude, make the northern sky perfect for stargazing, and it is why the largest radio telescope in the world, the  ALMA Observatory, is here. The public can visit ALMA on the weekends by registering online.

Increased tourism means less water for locals

The town gets water from the San Pedro River. The water is distributed from Catarpe down to San Pedro by gravity. Around the town, small communities known as Ayllus, manage the water for farming wheat, corn, vegetables and fruits. Alfalfa, however, is their biggest crop, and it is used to feed livestock like sheep, llamas, donkeys and horses.

Lately though, the amount of tourists have surpassed the town’s water capacity. This, in turn, has forced the locals to use the reserves they store in giant tanks or to cut their own water use for small periods of time.

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A trip back in time

Downtown San Pedro is named after Saint Peter. Here, you can find a church surrounded by pepper trees, wooden benches and cafes. The Iglesia de San Pedro is the largest of the Andean churches in the region and was built in 1744. By 1951, the church was nominated a national monument by the government.

The town still preserves its Spanish-influenced structure and construction. Its unpaved dirt streets are lined with attractive houses made of red adobe and topped with roofs of clay and hay. (Adobe is a product made out of earth and organic materials, and it lasts for a long time in dry climates. )

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The main street is Caracoles. It was named after the miners who used it as a route toward the Caracoles silver mine discovered in 1870 by Diaz Gana. The street hosts tourist agencies, restaurants and stores filled with tourists from around the world. It’s a perfect place to talk to locals, tour guides and tourists who want to share their stories.

Also in the center of town is the Casa Incaica, San Pedro’s oldest building, now filled with handmade artesanias. The artesanias are handmade products by the locals and herbs from the area. A common herb found is Rica Rica, used for stomach pain, kidney cleansing, and blood circulation. The herb is also mixed in with pisco sour or made into ice cream for enjoyment.

Abundant tours

The tours offered are all based on the marvelous landscapes surrounding the town: vast, desolate plains surrounded by volcanoes that change colors as the sun sets; beautiful and colorful lakes; Chile’s largest salt flat, Salar de Atacama; the fuming Geisers del Tatio; and, of course, pre-Columbian ruins and geoglyphs.

At times, it is positively other-worldly. The canyons, for example, are filled with salt crystals that blink in the sunshine. In this regard, it is also said that the Valle de la Luna got its name because it looks like the moon in a black and white photograph.

All locations surrounding San Pedro are accessible by bicycle. Bike rentals are an option for the sportier tourist – with independent and guided options. Among the latter, Hatitours offers exclusive biking and hiking tours to the Guati canyon and surrounding areas.

Also accessible by bike is the Devil’s Throat, a canyon with hidden, former waterfalls and challenging twists and turns.

Stargazing San Pedro de Atacama (and others) offer tours and talks focused on the nighttime sky.

All around town, the tourism agencies compete with each other to offer tours to Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte, Piedras Rojas, the lagoons and neighboring towns. Each of these places has a story to tell, and sights that take your breath away.

It is hard to believe humans settled here against all climate odds so many thousands of years ago. It is even harder to imagine how they managed to develop a community that withstood the tests of time.

An inspiring destination

San Pedro de Atacama doesn’t cease to surprise with its views, nature, and especially its people. Everyone here, local or tourist, is open to conversation from the minute one arrives. The streets are full of foreigners walking through and ready to share their story. The mystic atmosphere is impossible not to feel, and it is no wonder it has become the tourist hotspot of Chile.


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