San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Tiny San Pedro de Atacama (elevation 2440m) is a precordillera oasis village turned into a tourist boomtown, and is also the gringo gathering point of northern Chile. Its popularity stems from its position in the heart of some of northern Chile’s most spectacular scenery. A short drive away lies the country’s largest salt flat, spotted pink with flamingos and its edges crinkled by volcanoes (symmetrical Licancábur, at 5916m, looms closest to the village). Here too are fields of steaming geysers, a host of otherworldly rock formations and weird layer-cake landscapes.

San Pedro itself seems hardly big enough to absorb the hordes of travelers that arrive; it’s little more than a handful of picturesque adobe streets clustering around a pretty tree-lined plaza and postcard-perfect church. However the last decade has seen a proliferation of guesthouses, restaurants, Internet cafés and tour agencies wedging their way into its dusty streets, and turning the town into a kind of highland adobe-land. And sure enough,

San Pedro suffers from the classic drawbacks of any tourist honey pot: high costs, irritating restaurant touts and lackadaisical tour agencies. However, the town has an addictively relaxed atmosphere and an enormous array of tours that can hook travelers for weeks. And at the end of every trip, there’s the comfort of a creamy cappuccino, a posh meal and a soft bed waiting in San Pedro.

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