The little oasis village of SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA (100km southeast of Calama), with its narrow dirt streets and attractive adobe houses, has transformed itself, since the 1990s, into the tourism centre of Chile. Sitting at an altitude of 2400m between the desert and the altiplano, or puna (the high basin connecting the two branches of the cordillera), this has been an important settlement since pre-Hispanic times, originally as a major stop on the trading route connecting the llama herders of these highlands with the fishing communities of the Pacific. Later, during the nitrate era, it was the main rest stop on the cattle trail from Salta in Argentina to the nitrate oficinas, where the cattle were driven to supply the workers with fresh meat.
The large numbers of Chilean tourists and hordes of gringos here can come as quite a shock if you have just arrived from more remote parts of northern Chile. San Pedro has recently begun to lose some of its charm and is lined with overpriced, trendy-looking hotels with poor service. Luckily, you will find exceptions.
Tours from San Pedro
San Pedro has a high concentration of tour operators offering excursions into the surrounding altiplano, all broadly similar and all at pretty much the same price. This can, of course, be a curse as well as a blessing, for it increases tourist traffic in the region to the point where it can be difficult to visit the awe-inspiring landscape of the puna in the kind of silence and isolation in which it really ought to be experienced. Some of the tours are responsibly managed but many are not; the astounding environmental damage of late has finally, if belatedly, forced local communities (but not the national authorities) to take action; they now charge entrance fees to each site and do their best to clean up after visits. The tourist office keeps volumes of complaints registered by tourists (usually concerning reliability of vehicles or lack of professionalism) and they are worth consulting to find out which operators to avoid.
Tours usually take place in minibuses, though smaller groups may travel in jeeps. Don’t necessarily choose the cheapest tour, as some companies cram passengers in and offer below-par services, so it may be worth paying a couple of thousand pesos more. Do visit several companies – or their websites, where available – to get a feel for how they operate and to work out which one you prefer. If you don’t speak Spanish, check that they can offer guides who speak your language (French, German and English are most common languages on offer).