San Pedro de Atacama is a Tourist Trap



When the term “tourist trap” comes to mind, an image of this town called San Pedro de Atacama will vividly flash into my memory doing a song and dance. This place is literally a drop off point to get to Bolivia or vice versa via the salt flats. It does have some tours but nothing special. This place is the biggest tourist trap I’ve been in since I can remember and that’s not a good thing.

The town is old with dusty streets and dog feces everywhere. Our taxi driver joked it should be called San Pero de Atacama; pero means dog fyi. It’s a place where people come to get a three day tour to Bolivia which is what I’m here to do. I could have stayed a night and that would have been more than sufficient, luckily I’m out of here tomorrow.

It seems like this was a dead town that recently sprang back to life and is filled with people all too eager to take every penny possible form the tourist. We’ll get to that in a minute. First realize this is on the gateway of the driest desert in the world or one of them aka the Atacama Desert. It’s so incredibly hot during the day that I can’t describe it and it’s also really dusty and just miserable.

I checked into a guest house and immediately decided to leave the next day as it was weak. Turns out the alternatives were worse and an English gent mentioned they were there and bedbugs. Turns out our room was gone so we got a new room which is the most expensive I’ve ever paid in any of the Americas and get this, it doesn’t even have a fan in the hottest of all places I’ve ever been! It’s so hot I can’t even sleep at night; the term miserable comes to mind.

Besides that, I somehow got screwed on a laundry deal that ended up being ~$30; after a heated negotiation we got it to $~20. This was at our guest house, they wanted ~$20 a load and we ended up doing 1.5 loads because the lady did the small bag sitting next to the washer which was waiting for the rest of our stuff. What’s astonishing is the fight she gave us considering the extortionate price and shared fault…

The lady who smiles at you in the corner store may short change you; I caught this one lady twice and on the second time confronted her. It was so obvious that I had a receipt saying they owed me 500 pesos for a bottle return, she gave me 400 and only after I gave her the “what’s up with this, not going anywhere” look did I get my final 20% begrudgingly.

You’ll go get a sandwich some spot which is their “premium model” and it will cost $10 and it will be worse than a $2 sandwich anywhere else with stale bread. The exchange rates are atrocious and the city has no soul or even a pulse. It’s just dusty over-priced hostels / hotels which are very dear and bare bones or exchange bureaus, artisan shops, over-priced restaurants or tour operators.

That said, there is some decent food at acceptable prices to be found if you sniff around.

I wanted to stay here one night but one thing lead to another and a few issues came up including illness which have me leaving tomorrow. I can’t get out of here fast enough. It’s hot, I have no fan, it’s the most expensive room I’ve been in S. America, the hottest, dustiest, the price of an avocado seems to fluctuate every time I go in to get one and don’t see a lot of smiles. Seems like laid-back locals living amongst the influx of tour operators and other opportunists.

This is a serious tourist trap, if you want to do the salt flats I suggest you come and go as quickly.

This was my experience, I hope yours is more positive but hey, it was what it was.

Tomorrow I’m doing the salt flats tour to Uyuni, Bolivia, see you in 2014…

Tips hat,

P.S: Went on a walk today to see an attraction near town but nothing worth reporting on.

P.P.S: This isn’t news, people warned us but I had no idea it was like this…


  1. Gautier

    December 29, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Hope you’ll feel better soon, dude! Get outta there quick and head North to Colombia for some caliente chicas! The salt desert must be awesome, good luck #puravida

    • Rob

      December 29, 2013 at 5:47 pm

      Thanks and you are right! That said, Columbia is too far by the 20th, I think Lima, Peru is going to be the stop.

      Thanks for the well wishes and happy new year! #LaPuraVida

  2. David DiGregorio

    December 29, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    This post immediately reminded me of Peru’s Aguas Calientes – the gateway to Machu Picchu. If you haven’t been, you aren’t missing much!

    • Rob

      January 2, 2014 at 2:58 am

      Indeed, I should be there shortly though and will plan to get in and out.

  3. James Shannon

    December 29, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    There are parts of that desert that have not seen rain in over 400 years … it’s that dry there!

  4. Marysia @ My Travel Affairs

    December 30, 2013 at 5:39 am

    it is sad to read that nothing change about this place for years!

  5. Tom Bartel

    December 30, 2013 at 8:44 am

    I’ve been to San Pedro de Atacama and didn’t find any of the problems you had. We had a nice room, some very nice guides to take us to places in the Atacama we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, and the prices were pretty much what you should expect unless you are used to staying in the worst places in South America, which, I guess, we weren’t.

    A couple of thoughts: this is Chile, not Bolivia. Chile is comparatively first world, with prices to match. If you want dirt cheap, stick to Bolivia and Ecuador, and get what you pay for.

    Second, San Pedro does indeed exist for tourist purposes. Why else would it exist in such a desolate place?

    Third, the way to say dog in Spanish is perro, not pero. The difference in the pronunciation is that you roll the rr in perro. Pero means but.

    Forth, 100 Chilean pesos is worth 19 cents. A big deal to you? Worth an argument? Not to me.

    Fifth, a question. How much was the room? You don’t say.

    Sixth, in a place where water is extremely scarce and expensive, how much do you think laundry should cost? What do you think a Chilean should expect for her time to do the laundry?

    • Rob

      January 2, 2014 at 2:58 am

      Hi Tom

      Thanks for the Spanish / geography lesson and you ask too many questions.

      You seem to have liked it, I’m glad you had a good time.

  6. Anna

    March 11, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    I stopped reading at the “It does have some tours but nothing special.”. It only shows that you don’t have even the smallest idea of how incredible the Atacama desert is. OK… the town of San Pedro itself is nothing special. Everything is overpriced (like every other major tourist place) and the hostels are not that good. The good restaurants are really overpriced for the average backpacker; same thing goes for the good hotels. OK, I get that.
    But what you can’t say is that the tours are nothing special. How can you say that if (apparently) you weren’t in any of those? Places like Geisers del Tatio, Lagunas Altiplanicas, Salar de Tara, Salar de Talar, Laguna Tebinquinche, Valle de la Luna aren’t to be missed! You’ll need (at least) an entire week in San Pedro to appreciate all those amazing surroundings, so don’t talk about what you don’t know… ’cause obviously you don’t know sh** about the Atacama!!!!!!!!!

    • Rob

      March 11, 2014 at 8:28 pm

      Stopped reading but took the time to leave a long comment?

      Those things are basically all seen on the Salt Flats Tour to Uyuni and you’ll see geisers, play in hot springs and see enough Lagunas for three lifetimes.

  7. Andrea

    January 24, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most amazing places on earth. The town is not what you go to see but the Death Valley, Moon Valley, ojos del Salado, Geisers del Tatio (they are at a very high altitude wich is awesome), the hot springs in the middle of the desert and floating in Laguna Cejar are the amazing things you go to see and do. It´s expensive because it´s in the middle of the desert, water is not easy to find and food its not cultivated nearby (and also because Chile is more expensive than other countries of Latam).
    I think you should talk so bad about a place you stay just one day. You didn´t see any of those things and you didn´t do other stuff. You didn´t sandboard in the Death Valley, you didn´t see the sunset in the Moon Valley or the salt flats, you didn´t go to the Moon Valley caves at night. Did you even go to the restaurants in town? (and please don´t write an aggresive comment to me just because i think you should have seen more before you write a place is awful, as you did with other people. Is just my opinion)

    • Rob

      January 26, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      I’m glad you feel that way and I spent a few days there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read previous post:
24 Hour Bus from Valparaiso to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Greetings, Today we’ll discuss a 24 hour suicide bus from Valparaiso to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The bus is...