Gorgeously surrounded by the barren Andes, temperatures during the day can reach 25 degrees, while dropping below zero, occasionally far below zero, at night. Still, San Pedro is also very much a tourist trap, the whole town's existence based on the hordes of tourists that pour in every day.
Even in the off season, the town is terribly busy, with its unsealed streets lined with fancy overpriced restaurants, and boutiques selling expensive hiking gear, every second store a bike rental, cute cafe or tour agency. The sights in the area are, it has to be said, impressive. But the tours are painfully expensive.
Want to see the nearby geyser field? That's fifty dollars please. Want to float in a nearby salt lake? Forty dollars please. Want to see Moon Valley? Forty dollars please. And these are all half day, if that, excursions. Then there are the extended excursions.
If you want to visit the full list of sights and do all activities, you'll have to have deep pockets, the total coming to over 500 dollars. Excluding accommodation and, mostly, without food.
Here, almost at the end of my Chile visit, I learned that Chile has a law that forbids restaurants to serve only alcohol to its patrons. That's the prerogative of bars (who are not allowed to serve food).
On the up, my overly expensive restaurant did also serve up live local music.
I contemplated taking the three day tour from San Pedro to Uyuni, in Bolivia. It takes you through what is said to be impressive scenery, several pristine lakes and a salt flat or two. At a cost of about 200 USD. True, this includes food and accommodation, though the latter comes down to sleeping under the stars.
Before making the decision, I went on a morning trip to a nearby geyser field, which includes a very pleasant dip in a hot springs. Upon arrival, some 4300 meters above sea level, about an hour before sunrise, temperatures were about minus 15. With virtually no winter clothing with me, it felt my fingers and toes were slowly separating themselves from my body. The decision was made: I was not going to spend two nights out in the open in the middle of the Andes.
The scenery around San Pedro is impressive. Take equal parts northern Mongolia and central Afghanistan, stir it up with a healthy dose of Oman, and you pretty much have northeastern Chile. And, though tour operators try shaking down tourists for short taxi rides around the area, on top if which you are expected to pay entry fees, several of the sights are within striking distance by rental bike, though the altitude and sometimes steep inclines can make for a few healthily tough trips.
For the sites that are further away, renting a car quickly becomes cheaper compared to the shared tours on offer.
I went for one shared tour and cycled the rest. After my visit to a geyser field, some 100 kilometers away from San Pedro, the tour made a stop at a small community where a clever entrepreneur sold barbecued llama. Quite delicious.