98km (61 miles) SE of Calama; 1,674km (1,038 miles) N of Santiago

Quaint, unhurried, and built of adobe brick, the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama lies in the midst of a region replete with bizarre land formations, giant sand dunes, jagged canyons, salt pillars, boiling geysers, and one smoking volcano. It seems better to call it a moonscape rather than a landscape. For adventure seekers, there is a wealth of activities to participate in, including hiking, mountain biking, sandboarding, and horseback riding. This region was the principal center of the Atacama Indian culture, and relics such as Tulor, an ancient village estimated to have been built in 800 B.C., still survive. There's also a fine museum of ancient artifacts well preserved by the bone-dry climate.

San Pedro's tiny, 3-by-4 street center has a pleasant bohemian vibe. Although the town has grown at a prudent rate this past decade to cater to a growing number of visitors, it's maintained its mellow charm. Its location almost exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn (which means no drastic changes in the length of daylight hours) and a stable climate make any time of the year a good time to visit here. But if you dislike the cold, June through September can be uncomfortable when temperatures plummet at night. Also, if you want to avoid the crowds, steer clear of high season, since you might feel overwhelmed by the number of tourists if you come from December through February, mid-July, or Chile's Independence and Armed Forces' Days of September 18 and 19.