Deserts, Stars and theRoad to Bolivia – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Top Backpacking Destinations Ranking – 6.5/10

San Pedro de Atacama is most commonly visited as a launching point for the trip across the Salar de Uyuni and into Bolivia. It is certainly the place to head for this reason as there are jeeps leaving on a daily basis, but it is also a beautiful little town in its own right.

Most backpackers visit on their way up through South America, coming from Northern Argentina or other areas in Chile on the hunt for a taste of desert action and the opportunity to see one of the world’s most unique sights. Whilst many will expect to book their trip to the salt flats on arrival and leave the next day there is certainly the potential to get stuck for a few days exploring the desert which sprawls out into the horizon. The town itself is very pleasant if a little quiet (as you’d expect for a town dropped in the middle of the desert!), but it is the surroundings which may capture the imagination of the backpacker.

One activity that may suck you in is the opportunity to find the star gazer in you and experience a star show like you’ve never seen before. As the town is so isolated it is possible to go and visit a French astronomer just a few miles away who has set up his own observatory which harbours a small army of giant telescopes. They’re all lined up pointing at particular attractions, from Mars to the Big Dipper, and this makes it an easy and breathtaking couple of hours. It’s also just nice to sample the peace and quiet in this incredibly secluded spot. You might even get an amazing photo of the moon…

Once you’ve had your moment with the stars you can also get a feel for the desert in the day time which is almost as impressive. We hired bikes and rode out into the distance, finding some decent dunes and a lot of rocky, isolated vistas. Make sure you take plenty of water though as once you’re out there you’ll be lucky to find much shade and even luckier to bump into any other human life. My favourite bit was reaching a gushing river which came from nowhere (and seemed very out of place) and ‘accidently’ falling in so i could cool down a bit!

San Pedro is certainly an attraction in itself, but nearly every backpacker is there for the journey out into the salt flats and this prevents it from developing an atmosphere of its own. I’d recommend it to anyone heading towards the Salar, though i don’t think many would make the long journey to this extreme spot just for the destination on its own.

More top backpacking destinations in South America this way…