The desert oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, which has been continuously inhabited for about 10,000 years, was prized by the Inca and Tiahuanaco empires for its mineral wealth and importance as a stopover on the caravan trade routes. It sits at the northern end of the Salar de Atacama, a vast salt lake desert that is home to a variety of bird life and some bizarre but truly beautiful landscapes.
Today San Pedro de Atacama is one of the major travel destinations of northern Chile and an attractive, albeit touristy village with a laid-back atmosphere and the simple, low-slung adobe buildings typical of the region. A great base from which to explore the astounding natural beauty of the region, the village has few real attractions of its own. There is a small 17th-century church built with local materials and a small well-organised museum with a good gift shop that sells the only truly locally-produced crafts in the town.
There are a number of restaurants and bars to enjoy, a particularly welcome relief after days spent exploring the surrounding desert, but local restrictions on liquor sales see the nightlife come to a halt at about 11.30pm on weekdays and Sundays and 2am on weekends. Authorities seem to have made a conscious decision to discourage a party culture in San Pedro, but many visitors will salute this move as the region boasts some of the best stargazing on earth and the desert silence is a joy when it can be experienced.
There is plenty to see and do around San Pedro, which is ideally situated as a springboard to some of Chile's most wondrous attractions. The town is close to interesting archaeological sites, the salt flats and Valle de la Luna, and lies within easy reach of the nearby Lagunas Altiplanicas and the El Tatio Geysers. Outdoor activities such as mountain climbing and sandboarding are popular, or for those keen on a bit relaxation the hot springs of Puritama are not far away.
Almost every shop along the main road sells tours to the various attractions in the area, or hires out bicycles. Bikes can be rented daily and many of the top attractions are within cycling distance, including the famous Valle de la Luna and the Pukara de Quitor Ruins. Those exploring independently should make sure they are prepared for the heat of the desert and take plenty of water on excursions.