Traveling with Children to San Pedro de Atacama: Tips for a Family Trip to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile
San Pedro de Atacama, population 5,000, is an oasis in Chile’s piece of the vast Atacama Desert. It is the most popular tourist destination in Chile. With plenty of comfortable hotels, restaurants and cafes, souvenir shops, grocery stores and pharmacies, it’s the perfect spot for families to stay while exploring this amazing region of northern Chile. Renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended as many sights are accessible only by rough dirt roads.
What to See and Do in San Pedro de Atacama
There are several interesting attractions for kids and their parents in this laid-back, dusty town. The town’s Museo Arqueológico exhibits fascinating artifacts (like pottery and textiles) from the prehistoric Atacameña culture. Its emphasis on visual displays keeps children’s attention, although there is little hands-on action.
Facing the main square, the Plaza de Armas, is the 18th century church, Iglésia de San Pablo. It’s worth a careful look since the structure was built entirely without nails—the builders used cactus sinews to bind the wood frame and doorways together before filling out the walls with adobe.
Just nearby is the colorful pedestrian mall, Paseo Artesenal, featuring hand-made toys, woolen and leather goods, and traditional clothing.
Another treat for kids is dining out in the evening. Many of San Pedro’s restaurants have outdoor courtyards, where roaring open-pit fires keep diners warm against the plummeting desert temperatures.
Visit Valle de la Luna near San Pedro
Just outside San Pedro is Valle de la Luna, an area of salt hills and sand mountains. It’s fun to walk up and roll down a giant sand dune. Don’t miss the salt cave, made entirely of salt crystals – children will want to lick the walls to prove it! Families with older kids might enjoy renting mountain bikes in San Pedro and riding through this amazing lunar-looking landscape.
Watch Flamingoes at Laguna Chaxa
Laguna Chaxa, located about 40 miles/65 kms southwest of San Pedro, is a high-altitude salt water lake that is a breeding ground for flamingoes. Here, they wade through the shallow water eating algae and tiny invertebrates. Bring binoculars for a close-up view of the birds.
Visit the Traditional Atacama Desert Town of Toconao
On the way to or from Laguna Chaxa, you will pass by the tiny town of Toconao. Although it might not interest children too much, it’s worth a quick stop to see the charming main square and its church, Iglesia San Lucas, built entirely of volcanic rock around 1744.
Enjoy Natural Hot Springs at Termas Puritama
After a few days in the arid heat, the whole family will appreciate a visit to the Termas Puritama, natural hot spring pools set amidst a beautiful desert garden. They are located about 19 miles/30 kms outside of San Pedro. There are changing rooms and bathrooms on site, but you must bring your own towels, drinks, and snacks. Waterproof sandals are also helpful as the wooden boardwalk to the pools can cause splinters.
See the El Tatio Geysers
One of the most popular tourists sights in this area are the El Tatio Geysers. They are a 2-plus hour drive north of San Pedro and are best seen in early morning, before 8 a.m., which means leaving San Pedro before dawn. This, in addition to their high altitude (14, 100 feet/4,300 meters above sea level) makes them a sightseeing option better suited for families with older children.