San Pedro de Atacama is the best of both worlds — other worldly deserts and canyons, expansive night skies, hot springs and high altitude lakes and the quaint outpost-type town of San Pedro. We went with our three children, a friend and her daughter and we had a wonderful time over the September 18 week off in Chile.
San Pedro de Atacama is about a two hour flight north of Santiago. The first glimpse of it as you head from the Calama airport to San Pedro makes you feel like a Storm Trooper is going to go swooshing by at any moment. And in fact, parts of the Last Jedi were filmed in nearby Bolivia.
We loved Atacama as a family holiday and even though there are long distances and potentially early mornings (to see the geysers) and late nights (star gazing) and adventure on the sand dunes (sandboarding) you can still have a wonderful four to six day family adventure in Atacama.
There are two ways to explore Atacama. You can book a tour and go with mid-sized vans and tour guides who provide lunch service and take you to the top spots. Or you can rent a 4×4 at the Calama airport and self-tour. Based on the fact we had four children ranging at the time in age from four to nine we chose the latter to give us flexibility on how long we stayed in a spot, when we went where and food choices.
Though I must say when we rocked up to the salt flats and I saw brightly coloured tablecloths flapping in the wind on tables ladened with tea, coffee, hot chocolate and all sorts of baked goods the recent transplant-from-the-UK-in me thought “a National Trust cafe! I’m saved!” Sadly for me, it was for the private tours and I had to make due with my packet of crackers and thermos of tea.
While we were up there I asked two different guides when the best time was to travel to Atacama for the weather. They both said the best months to go are October to the beginning of December. For this reason, Atacama would make a great extra long five day weekend for the Nov 4-day long weekend in Chile. They said to avoid June-August, if you can, as it can be very cold and snowy. We had great weather in September with one windy day, but that was a fluke. They said normally September is really windy and after one windy day we had our eyes and clothes full of sand. If going over the September holidays, I would bring neck buffers and sunglasses and maybe even goggles for the kids. The guides said March and April can also be really nice in Atacama.
We booked an AirBnB as we were seven people and we wanted flexibility for preparing food (our children wake up at 6 a.m.!) But I did check out Hotel Kimal on our food tour. We had a snack there as part of our tour and the food was really nice, the hotel itself had a lovely atmosphere. Kimal is also well-located and tranquil inside the adobe walls, which would be a welcome relief after a day of dusty driving. Our friends with young adult children stayed at Casa de Don Tomas and she loved it for comfort, value, decor and location. She also said the food was superb. Multiple friends with children really liked staying at Hostel Pueblo de Tierra as it’s great for families, has a pool (not heated), great courtyard, nice breakfast and very walkable. The place I want to book with the children when we go back is where other friends with young children stayed and highly rated and that was in one of the bungalows at Atacama Loft & Glamp. They also recommended Ckoi Atacama.
But when we went to Atacama we had been in Chile three months and we didn’t know any of these well-informed friends and we also had 7 people which can be tricky to accommodate. As our children were young we also wanted a semi-normal bedtime so we booked a house via Airbnb.
With three adults and four children it meant my friend and I did a lot of pre-planning for our itinerary. We wanted to see the best combinations of sites and yet not run the children ragged. We also did a lot of pre-meal planning as we were arriving for Sept 18 Fiestas Patrias — Chile’s biggest holiday — we weren’t sure if the shops were open (they were!) but we were prepared.
We rented a 4×4 Toyota 4Runner at the airport as we would all comfortably fit. We did bring a few booster seats for the children, which was good as it meant they could see out the window. And there is a lot of driving in Atacama! We also brought a medium crushable cooler and my friend brought her freezer lunch cooler bag which worked so well I bought my own after the trip. We had a 5 litre jug of water in the car at all times and we made sure we had a full tank of fuel every night. The distances are very long and far. One day we were getting hungry and we stopped in a small town at about 2 p.m. and I ran into the bakery to buy bread. She looked at me as if I was nuts asking for fresh bread so late in the day! I had to buy more crackers which held off starvation until we made it back to San Pedro.
To see Atacama properly with young children I think you need at least five nights and six days. Of course you can cut things and do it with less, but you don’t, as my father would say, want to be ‘ramming the roads all day.’ Here is our itinerary.
Day 1: flew Santiago to Calama and arrived at 10 a.m. Picked up our 4×4 and drove 1.5 hours to San Pedro. Bought groceries at little corner shops in San Pedro. (You can get some gluten free, but not a lot. It’s all very small shops). That day we went to the Tulor Village on the edge of town and saw how the desert was first settled. Our children really liked this (they are history buffs in the making) and it was a good way to do something and stretch our legs. We also could have gone to Valle de la Luna for sunset if we hadn’t gotten lost (downside to self-tour!) Note: For sunset you need to arrive at the gate of the park by 4/4:30 p.m. to do all the suggested things before 7:30 pm sunset. However they close the park at 4 p.m. so be sure to arrive before that!
We drove through the Toconao village on our the way to Laguana Chaxa which is a salt pan where you can see flamingoes (photos above). We aimed to arrive early to see the flamingoes, avoid the crowds and allow for other trips that day. We arrived by 8 am.
After the salt pans we continued on to to Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques (Altiplanico Lakes) and we drove via Paseo Sico to Piedras Rojas. It was a very long day with high altitude but the children did really well! We had lots of snacks and food in the car. We had supper at home.
We decided we wanted to see the Tatio Geysers. There was a lot of should we-shouldn’t-we. They are very high and you do have to get up early. People who have seen Old Faithful don’t really rate these geysers. But their appeal is the high altitude and maybe that they are just going off every day without fail way out in the middle of nowhere. We decided we would go and see them.
Make sure you bring light food to eat afterwards, really warm clothes and lots of water. You must leave really early to get there to see them at their peak. We left San Pedro by 4:45 a.m. Everyone says “follow the tour vans”and we were a bit nervous as it’s pitch dark. But, sure enough, you drive into town and you see a parade of red car lights weaving their way out of town. Make sure you follow at a good distance and don’t speed. You can’t see anything going up but coming down you will soon see you are often driving on the edge of a canyon. The park gate opens at 6 a.m. We were there by 6:15 am which was perfect timing.
After the Geysers we made a stop in Machuca Pueblo. We arrived about 8:30 a.m. which was wonderful as no one was there. One local lady said the village was particularly quiet as the locals had left to celebrate Dieciocho elsewhere. I would get there before 9 a.m. to beat the tour buses. Walk up the hill to the church, they were opening it up when we arrived and it was so still and quiet. We could soon smell the smoke from the llama brochettes that were cooking. I don’t know if it truly was llama (lots of debate about that!) but the meat was mouthwateringly delicious! You can also buy coffee, tea and pay-per-use toilets. I don’t look like I’m enjoying my meat-on-a-stick at 9 a.m. in the morning, but I am!
After the village you can drive to the Puritama Thermal Baths on way back to San Pedro. They are rather expensive, as the entry is $15,000 CLP per person, but they are worth it, especially if you plan to spend the better part of the day here. A cascading, multi-level pools of clear, natural hot baths await. In September we easily found pools to ourselves. We really enjoyed it — until our youngest looked a bit off and I scooped her out of the pool and towards the grasses just in time for her to vomit. Altitude sickness!
When you get to Puritama you park up top and, with young children, it is quite a hike down to the baths. No cars allowed. So plan your change of clothes/towels/lunch/water/hat/sunscreen packing accordingly. Maybe useful backpacks rather than cute straw baskets. At the baths you can access change rooms and toilets. There are no other amenities. There are lockers so bring a lock if you have one.
Very long day with very high altitude.
We booked a food tour with Bite of Atacama from 9:30-2:30. This was the one tour we did. It is a walking, local food tour around the town of San Pedro. She adapted it for our children and she also offers a vegetarian option. We had a wonderful time learning about (and sampling!) different food and drinks. A very unique way to learn more about San Pedro and Chilean food. Tours in English, Spanish and German.
We went to Valle de la Luna at 4 p.m. for a few canyon walks and a scramble up to the dune for sunset. Our one regret is we didn’t go back for a full day as there are a lot of walks to do and a lot to see. If you have older children you can also sand board down the dunes, which would be fun.
We drove out to Arco Iris/ Rainbow Valley. We arrived at 10 a.m. or so and stayed til after 1 p.m. We weren’t expecting to stay here for lunch, but we absolutely loved it. We saw one or two other cars of people and that was it. We pulled off and parked and had a picnic and explored and let the children just run. We did a lot of walking and exploring canyons. It’s very secluded. We felt very small in the canyon!
On the way back we stopped in at the Laguna Cejar which is a salt pan lake you can float in like the Dead Sea. Arrive before 2 p.m. to avoid the crowds. Bring flip fops. There are change rooms but a very long wait when we got out as the crowds were starting to arrive. It was interesting and kind of weird. I am still not sure what I think about it!
We did some shopping at different markets in town, wandered around the cemetary and then over to the church where you can see the cactus ceiling. Then we headed back to the airport.
If you had extra time, I would add a tour of ALMA. We applied to have a tour, but we didn’t get in. I would also add Valle de la Muerte // Death Valley during the day. If I had to cut anything it would be Laguna Cejar.
What to pack:
- swimsuit/flip flops/lock for locker at hot springs
- sun hat/sun screen/sunglasses
- water bottle to refill
- long underwear, wool socks, thick sweater, gortex, hat, mitts, scarf, tylenol if going to geysers
Between my friend and I we also packed a variety of simple suppers (pesto pasta, spaghetti, fajita wraps and can of beans) along with simple food for lunches (block of cheese, salami sticks, nuts) and supplemented by shopping at the small shops in town for fresh bread, etc.
Where to eat:
We didn’t eat out much, just two nights plus the day of the flood tour. We did have supper at Cafe Barros and it was wonderful, I had very delicious lamb. We preferred the cafe to the Restaurant Barros. Friends like Adobe.
How to decide, guide or self-tour?
For the seven us with a Santiago-Calama return flight, Airbnb, 4×4 truck rental, fuel and no guided tours it worked out to $500 Canadian per person total for Monday-Saturday long trip. The only extra was food and the Bite of Atacama tour.
My in-laws went up to San Pedro in December and they booked with Chile Guru and really loved the experience. Our friends have also recommended denomades for a variation of full tour and self-tour. Another friend had great success taking the bus to San Pedro and booking ad hoc tours through the tourism centre in town. She said the bus drivers were excellent, checked seatbelts and handed out snacks and water. They thoroughly enjoyed their tours through the San Pedro tourism centre. Tours available in English and Spanish.
- You could combine San Pedro with a side trip to the Uyuani salt flats in Bolivia. This would be next on my list!
- You could do a Valle de Elqui – San Pedro trip (fly from La Serena to Antofagasta, bus from there to Calama)