The Village that Stole our Hearts ~ San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

We knew the Atacama Desert offered more than enough to entertain us for the five days we were to be in the region. We just didn’t expect to fall so hard for San Pedro.

As I sat down to write this post, I struggled, as I did while we were there, to describe why I was so drawn to this dusty little village. Dirt roads, countless stray dogs, more tour companies than we could count, and streets lined with endless shops wouldn’t normally be our ideal place to wander, but it was obvious we were smitten. Behind the doors of these adobe-caked façades lie upscale boutique shops, amazing cafes, great artisanal ice cream, and pisco sours infused with local desert herbs.

San Pedro is an oasis sitting at roughly 8,000 feet, a swath of fertile desert surrounded by a strikingly conflicted landscape. Sprawling, barren desert of salt flats, hot springs, and contorted rock formations swiftly ascend to the Altiplano, butting up against the soaring Andes and a dozen volcanos. San Pedro is at the center of immeasurable interest for scientists across several branches.

The uniqueness of this village is not lost on Volcan Licancábur, who, at 5,916 meters (19,410 feet), looms over San Pedro like a protector. This volcano is sacred to the Inca Empire, and given its perfect conical shape, it seems to be the model volcano for all others.

Volcan Licancabur standing guard over San Pedro.

There are 360-degree awe-inspiring views here but if you never looked up at night you would be missing a spectacular light show. Given its lack of light pollution, aridity, and altitude, the Atacama has drawn its fair share of astronomers and is known as the place to be if you are an astronomy geek. I wouldn’t call us geeks but we were drawn to the idea of looking at the night sky through powerful telescopes so chose this as our last venture into the Atacama.

With an astronomer as our guide, we soon were educated on terminology, got an impressive laser light show of planets, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, and zodiac sign constellations, and did some telescope viewing, along with iPhone shots of the moon. It was another great tour experience.

Another adventure that we had read was a must-do is the El Tatio Geyser Tour. Since we had lived in Yellowstone National Park for a couple of years and visited several times since, we didn’t feel the need to drag ourselves out of a warm bed at 4:00 am and climb to over 14,00 feet to witness sunrise over the steaming geyser basins. Had we had the time, the 4-day trek to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia would have been on our agenda.

Beyond the myriad of tours available to hold your interest, just walking the streets of San Pedro is a source of entertainment all its own. This is a people-watching village, as characters from across the globe gather here. And for a town of little more than 2,500 (although it is growing), the number of highly recommended restaurants is impressive. The one we will forever remember is Roots, the place we went for breakfast, every single day. The coffee prepared by a real barista, every menu item we tried, the waitstaff, and the music (watched the cook singing and dancing to Adele vocals) were all wonderful. It was like saying goodbye to family when we departed from San Pedro.

The Atacama Desert and San Pedro seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship of sorts, both needing one another for their vitality. The remoteness of the Atacama draws the curious and San Pedro holds their interest, booking tours into the desert.

Until recently, discoveries made in the Atacama could be seen in the Gustavo Le Paige Museum in San Pedro, which is no longer open to the public. The world’s oldest mummies, the Chinchorro, a culture found in the Atacama from 7,000 to 1,500 BC, are buried in this unforgiving environment. They, along with other artifacts, are well-preserved, due to the arid climate, and are found to predate even Egypt’s oldest mummies. The indigenous community here finally won the right to have their ancestors removed from the Le Paige Museum, which seems the proper decision.

As we packed to leave this magical place, we agreed that with all the breathtaking scenery surrounding us throughout our time in Patagonia – soaring mountains, jagged, crevasse-filled blue glaciers, grassy steppe, misty forests, the barren Atacama desert, remote, stripped naked of virtually all moisture, may be Chile at her best.

What we initially saw as a passable event on our trip planning calendar was one of the great joys of our South American adventure. This land of such breathtaking natural beauty, born from the basic elements of gravel, clay, salt, and minerals, provided us some of our richest experiences and heightened all our emotions. Even the “animas” we saw on our drive to the airport, those little houses built along the side of the highway to memorialize those who had died on the roads, seemed to flow with the drama and mystique of the Atacama.

Upon our arrival back to Santiago, Chile, where we started this journey, we drank our final pisco sour in honor of our time in the Atacama Desert.

If you want to read more about our time in the Atacama, here are links to my earlier posts:

Like Nowhere Else on Earth, Part I

Like Nowhere Else on Earth, Part II

We are now home in southern California, back a bit earlier than we had planned, due to the wild Patagonia weather and a dislocated finger that has plagued me since early March. More on that later, as I wade through the U.S. healthcare system, which is always a joy.

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47 thoughts on “The Village that Stole our Hearts ~ San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

  • This entire trip was so fascinating, for the two of you. Beautiful and unusual scenery, and lots of places to hike; right up your alley. I know you were disappointed, that you didn’t get to see everything that you had planned to see, but you sure made the best of your time. I hope your finger gets better soon. Thanks for sharing all of this with us.

    • Even though we didn’t see everything we wanted to see, we saw so much beauty. Very grateful to have done this trip. Now to focus on the finger. 🙂

  • Sometimes the places with our lowest expectations, surpass our wildest dreams. Thanks for taking us on your epic trip to South America and sharing your stunning photographs. I do hope that injury is on the mends.

  • Loved your posts about this incredible place on our planet which I will probably never travel to. Your descriptions and pictures brought it all to life.

  • I am glad you made it home safe. What a journey you have taken us on! I’ve loved seeing new territory and am eager to learn more about the Chinchorro now.

    • We are now back home safely Ste J. I did not know anything about the Chinchorro before I went to San Pedro either. So much to learn; so many places to explore!

      • Yes! such wonderful choice. I love those surprises that we come across when travelling, especially if there is a book on it. We went to a place a while back and there were some historical artefacts there but we were told not to mention them because of robbers. It’s sad when that is the case but at least they are in tact and safe.

  • I was going to ask how your finger was. Hoping it gets better now that the wonderful healthcare system is waiting with open arm$ for you.

    Your pictures are perfect with your descriptive words of this gorgeous place.

    I have enjoyed coming along on your fabulous trip. Thanks for sharing your beloved trip with us. We loved it!

  • It’s so interesting, the places that capture our hearts. Given my affinity for quirky, off-the-beaten path, colorful places, I think I would fall in love with San Pedro, too. I don’t know that we’ll ever make the journey to Patagonia, but I sure am glad that you’ve taken us along and shared your beautiful photographs and words. Just looking at your photo of the desert landscape makes me feel peaceful!
    I’m so sorry to hear that your finger is still causing you pain, Lu. This is likely one of those arenas where Western medicine excels. oxoxo

    • I am so glad that we altered our plans and make the trek to the Atacama. And yes, given your affinity for quirky, colorful places, I think you would love this desert. As for my finger, I am just thankful that I finally found someone who can help me. The first hand surgeon I went to told me there was nothing he could do. Right now I can’t make a fist so there are many things I enjoy doing; lifting weights, some yoga poses, holding a hiking pole, etc. that I can’t do as I once did. I now have one of the best hand surgeons in the country, according to his bio, on the job. I’ve got a summer of aggressive hand therapy ahead of me, but I am hopeful now that I will be enjoying all the activities I did before my little mishap. Looks like you two are enjoying the midwest. Safe travels my friend.

      • Oh no!! That’s a significant injury. I’m so glad you’ve found someone skillful to help you. We’ll be thinking of you and envisioning you returning to doing all of the things you love. Take good care, my friend. I’ll be in touch. (And yes—much our surprise and delight—we are loving our travels in the midwest!)

      • Who would have thought that a dislocated finger could be so problematic? Although it has altered our plans for the summer, I feel confident by summer’s end that I will have a hand that functions again. It seems the expression “no pain, no gain” is to be my mantra this summer. 🙂 So glad to hear about your midwest travels. We are considering a midwest road trip this fall since our families all live back there.

  • Thanks, LuAnn, for your eloquent post and beautiful photos. I was in San Pedro de Atacama in March and loved the village for similar reasons. Wishing you speedy healing for your finger.

  • LuAnn: I can tell how much you loved the Atacama and San Pedro by the beauty of your writing. Thank you for sharing your love with us. I am so glad that you got to experience this place.

  • So many times those places we almost pass by or plan to just briefly visit end up being some of our all time favorites. Many times John and I have said how glad we were that we made a stop. Thinking what we would have missed. So many hidden gems out there. Sounds like you ended your journey with a bang. That photo with the volcano looming over the town is spectacular. Although I might be a little leary of the volcano today! San Padro looks like a darling little town. You two are so good at finding the local spots with charm:) Hope you have finally gotten things straighten out with your finger.

    • And to think we almost passed on going to the Atacama. It was magical! As for my finger, I am thankful I have finally found a hand surgeon who says he can help me. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me to be able to fully use my hand again, but I am now feeling confident that I will get there. Unfortunately our Yellowstone plans had to be canceled as I have 10-12 weeks of what my doctor calls “aggressive” hand therapy in my near future. Hopefully that will do the trick. If not, then surgery would be the next step, but I am staying positive that the therapy will work. Right now I can’t make a fist, so many of the things I love to do; e.g. lifting weights, some yoga moves, push-ups, even holding a hiking pole in my left hand, aren’t possible. It’s not the summer we had planned, but it is minor compared to what could have happened.

  • LuAnn what a joy to follow on your incredible journey. It certainly was not without challenges and so many high points including this one. The photo of the volcano standing as If protector is astounding. You have stirred up a great deal of South American wanderlust dust at our house.
    Best wishes with the healthcare adventure. I’m sorry to hear that it too will have challenges.

    • Our trip was full of diversity and breathtaking beauty. Even with the little mishap on the mountain, it was an amazing journey! It took some searching but I now feel confident I have a doctor who can fix my finger, so all will be good, hopefully by the end of summer, if not before. 🙂

  • So glad that this less anticipated destination turned out to be one of the highlights of your South American Odyssey! Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on what draws you to a certain place but your lovely photos and posts have been an ode to the Atacama Desert’s beauty and mystery. I’m nowhere near an ‘astronomy geek’ but I would have loved to have been part of your group to get an introduction to the Atacama’s night sky. Up until reading a few years ago that many kids raised in big cities have never seen the wonder of a night sky, I used to take star-gazing for granted. Kind of like good health, right? Wishing you an uneventful and successful journey in dealing with both the US healthcare system and your recalcitrant finger/hand so that you can get back to the things that bring you joy. Anita

    • You know, I didn’t think much about the night sky either until we moved away from the big city and found ourselves in Sedona. The community we lived in had no street lights and the night sky was amazing! Our first night there we grabbed a blanket and just laid outside, looking up. Although I didn’t become an ‘astronomy geek’, I was certainly enamored after that. Thanks for the good thoughts on the hand. I am confident I will be back to doing all the things I love by summer’s end. 🙂

  • Now I had been to South America, thank you for the ride. LuAnn, your photos captured the essence of the town that stole your heart, the spectacular beauty you have experience is something that you will forever cherish. What a wonderdful trip you had. I also hope that your finger is already fixed and mending well. Welcome back home, im sure your back is happy to be in your own bed.

    • This trip has been high on my travel list for many years so it was great to be able to check it off. As for my finger, I have some work ahead of me, which has altered our summer plans, but as the expression goes, “this too shall pass”. Glad to see you and Steve are having some great adventures.

  • This is the first time I’ve heard about San Pedro de Atacama and seeing your pictures made me fall in love with it, LuAnn. It’s so colourful and a must visit. I will have to add it to my bucket list and cross it off when in Chile!

  • LuAnn, one of the pleasures of travel is being surprised. And it looks like San Pedro is one of those “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” kind of places. I’ve spent lots of time in the desert, and for me, no matter how hot, barren, and harsh, there’s always an underlying peace that comes sometimes – and a place for good coffee never hurts. ~James

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