The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on the planet. In some corners of the desert it only rains every 10 years. In others, every 20. I asked my taxi driver here to recount to me the last time it rained. A man of about 50, he told me he literally couldn’t remember. In this sort of environment there aren’t supposed to be towns—or really life in general—but yet, smack dab in the middle of the sand dunes and desert plains sits the charming, uber expensive little town of San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis of activity in the most barren landscape imaginable.
Set up like a Chilean version of Santa Fe, New Mexico, San Pedro is a concentrated cluster of adobe huts and trendy cafes that simmer in the daytime sun. An hour and a half from the city of Calama and the same distance from the Bolivian border (and the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni), San Pedro floats in the desert like a money sucking mirage. Now that I’ve mentioned it twice, I’ll come right out and say it that this town is expensive and there is nothing that you can do about it. Chile as a whole is the most expensive country in South America (save for the French colony of French Guiana that uses the Euro as their currency), and the prices in San Pedro are compounded with the fact that the town is close by to virtually nothing. In other words, don’t waste your time trying to walk around town and hunt for a bargain—you aren’t going to find it. Just sit back and have your overpriced coffee or beer and enjoy the colors of the desert sunset.
Even though it’s stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, that doesn’t mean that San Pedro doesn’t offer its fair share of activities and adventure. While most excursions focus on the Eduardo Avaroa Park across the Bolivian border (which you will see as part of the Salar de Uyuni crossing anyway), other popular diversions in town are mountain, biking, sandboarding, and heading out to the picturesque Valle de La Luna 16 km outside of town to catch the colors of the desert sunset.
The easiest way to get in and out of San Pedro is with TurBus, and if you need to catch a flight down to Santiago (as I did), the nearest airport is down in Calama with daily flights from LAN, Sky Airlines, and Aerolinea Principal. A 3 hour flight versus a 24 hour bus ride? I think I’ll take the plane.