Digging Up Adventure in San Pedro de Atacama – Part 1

The landscape coming into San Pedro in the north of Chile is red hot, dominated by dusty sand plains, arid desert and salt flats. Located in Chile’s Region II, the Atacama Desert is the most arid desert in the world. In the heart of the desert is the pueblo San Pedro de Atacama. At the base of the High Lands and in ancient Inca and Atacameños territory, it is the archaeological capital of Chile.


After a few days of R’n’R in Buenos Aires, and a passage through the charming city of Salta in northern Argentina, we headed back to Chile, this time to the opposite end of the spectrum from Puerto Natales. San Pedro was not always on the travel cards, but we sure are glad that we stopped by.

From the time we left Salta, we were victims of the Chilean conception on time. Despite leaving on time, at the station we were told the bus arrives at 5pm, when in fact it arrived at 8pm. When I quizzed the driver what time we could cross the border, he replied midday, and in actual fact it was 3pm. Upon arrival we were given three different timezones, one for Chile, one for Argentina and the other for the Atacameños I presume. When asked if Chile was an hour behind Argentina, one Chileno replied “no importa!”…It doesn’t matter. Welcome to the desert.

Coming from the cold south of Argentina to the hot northern desert region of Chile was quite a shock, but we were happy to see some sun after two chilly months. After the first hour in San Pedro we realised that sunshine was not the only factor…we had succumbed to the high altitude desert climate and spent our first day trying to relieve altitude sickness, which occurs above 2,500 metres.

San Pedro de Atacama sits at 2,438 metres above sea level, but what travel books don’t tell you is that from the north of Argentina, you actually pass through a point that is 4,200 metres above sea level at the customs checkpoint. That puts a totally different spin on high government authorities making you ill!

In fact the climate here dominates everything, from daily life to natural attractions. When night falls, the sun approaches the Tropic of Capricorn, which provokes maximum radiation and electric storms on the high plains. The result of millions of years of unique climatic events is evident in the surrounding areas like Valle de la Luna, Laguna Cejar and the Tatio Geysers.

Such ancient landscapes once dominated by ancient cultures like the Incas and the Tiwanaku are bound to be archaeological treasures.

One afternoon we attended a conference held for the local community on the history of human habitation in the region. The speaker was Chile’s famous (and according to locals, only) archaeologist, Ana Maria Baron Parra. Senora Parra presented her work including evidence that migration of man to South America happened more than 70,000 years ago. Her work, based on her excavations and that of other South America archaeologists traces the migration back to Africa more than three million years ago, to Dubai, India, South Korea (around 800,000 years ago), China and finally the US about 200,000 years ago before reaching South America.

So intrigued were we by her talk that we visited the Museo de Archaeologia in the centre of San Pedro to find out more. What we found was an enormous cultural and environmental timeline that dates back to 12,000 years ago, from the Incas to the Atacameños, to the Bolivian Tiwanaku to Spanish settlement. The cultural development until present day is quite intriguing and explains today’s Atacameños preservation of a particular conception on environment, using medicinal rituals and a socio-political system no doubt influenced from its past.

The famous and gorgeous geometric designs that are so recognisable around the world are believed to be an ancient symbolic code that was recognised and understood by the whole community and demonstrated social stature and cultural identity.

One day we wandered over to the ancient ruins of Quitor, 3 km from the centre of San Pedro. The ruins at Pukara de Quitor were formally a fortress used by the Atacameños against invaders. We walked up to the top of the Mirador, imagining the goings on of this place during the Inca, and then the Spanish invasions.


The Incas first colonised the Atacameños towards the end of the 15th century, and lived in relatively peaceful coexistence with the Atacameños. They were able to control the Atacameños towards the end of the pre-Hispanic period and the Atacameños helped the Incas to be sustainable by settling administrative centres.


When the Europeans arrived they were much more violent and the first war between the Spanish conquistadors and the Atacameños happened in 1536. In 1557 a peace treaty was signed with the Spanish and the Atacameños were forced to adapt to another cultural process.


We spent most afternoons strolling through the streets of the town centre. The centre of the pueblo is what you’d expect from a typical Chilean desert town, complete with adobe huts, mud mural walls and narrow dirt streets.

The town still maintains its colonial Spanish influence. The main square is lined with pepper trees and the old white church made of adobe, wood and cactus dominates the plaza, especially when it lights up at night. To maintain their original look minus the pollution, the dirt streets are treated with vichufita.


Despite the charm of this cute little pueblo, there is a lot more to see of this region (and a little adventure). So our next visit is to Cejar Lagoon…


5 Responses to “Digging Up Adventure in San Pedro de Atacama – Part 1”
  1. Hey thank you for your great post. I really appreciate the efforts you have put in your blog .It is interesting and helpful. Good luck with it!!!

    San Pedro de Atacama

  2. jackluc says:

    fantastic Atacama.We are dying for Part 2.Nice transition to get used to the heights of Bolivia!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] a week in San Pedro de Atacama we had decided it was time for a change of scenery and […]

  2. […] the 22 million year old geological site. However, afternoons and evenings still get quite hot in San Pedro de Atacama, so we thought, “what if we hired a bicycle to see sun rise over Valle de la […]

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