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two people guide a man sitting in an all terrain wheelchair through the desert

Accessible San Pedro de Atacama: My Experience in the Driest Desert on Earth

My name is Claudia Hernandez and I live in San Pedro de Atacama, one of thor most visited and interesting destinations in the world. I always say that the geology and landscapes here surpass tourists’ expectations. Laguna Cejar, for example, is similar to the Dead Sea, where you can float in the water without even trying. 

I’m a bilingual tour guide and a Wheel the World Ambassador, and I specialize in this specific area of Chile in everything from indegenous culture, geology, climbing volcanoes, trekking, cycling and astronomy. 

That sounds kind of daring, doesn’t it? It really isn’t that scary. My challenge is to climb volcanoes, traversing some of the most difficult trails in San Pedro de Atacama. We have to cross rivers, resist high temperatures during the day and cold temperatures at night, and altitudes of 2,500 to 4,800 meters. There are many barriers to overcome to make it to the top of a volcano, but when you are motivated and passionate, the universe feels that and helps you. 

A volcano rises up behind a blue lake next to a hill with yellow plants in the middle of the desert.
Lagoons and volcanoes in the Atacama desert

Accessible transportation in San Pedro de Atacama

In San Pedro de Atacama, the only way to get around the surrounding areas is by van or truck, both of which have space to store wheelchairs or adaptive bicycles, and options for accessible seating. Many tour companies don’t have accessible vans, but you can always book a tour with Wheel the World, which provides accessible transportation and equipment.

You can bike to the salty Laguna de Cejar, visit Rainbow Valley and see petroglyphs, or experience the Lagunas Altiplanicas!

A man in a wheelchair sits in front of a lagoon surrounded by desert and hills
One of the Lagoons in the Atacama Desert

Exploring Accessible San Pedro de Atacama

The main street, Caracoles, was named after an old mine where fossilized seashells (caracoles in Spanish) are found. It was the street where miners used to wait for the carts that would take them to the mine, loong before San Pedro de Atacama became a tourist destination. 

San Pedro de Atacama’s history dates back 11,000 years to the Lickan-antai people, or people of the Earth. Due to its history, this street is recognized for its national heritage and therefore is preserved. So, it has narrow sidewalks that are difficult to use in a wheelchair. But, there is a wide walking street in the historic center of the city around a plaza and an adobe church that is approximately 5 centuries old. In that same plaza you can find restaurants, artisan fairs, a pharmacy, banks with ATMs, stores and tour companies.

An old bell tower made of adobe brick, covered in white peeling paint
History in the architecture of San Pedro de Atacama

Caracoles and the central plaza are the heart of the town. All of the tours that head out to explore the surrounding volcanoes, valleys, salt flats, lagoons, and geysers leave from here. The Puritama hot springs are located to the south of the town, the famous Valle de la Luna (moon valley) offers gorgeous sunset views, and the salt flats and lagoons are complete with a flock of desert dwelling flamingoes.

A flamingo and its reflection in the water in a shallow lagoon with a volcano in the distance behind it.
A flamingo at Chaxa Lagoon National Park in the Atacama desert

Accessible Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama

Hotel Cumbres is the largest hotel in San Pedro de Atacama, with 60 beautiful rooms and patios. It has an accessible bedroom and all parts of the hotel are wheelchair accessible. A pathway leads straight from the hotel room to the excursion area and the large restaurant with a fusion of local cuisine. The hotel also has a spa with 3 pools, 2 heated pools, a sauna, steamroom, and oxygen therapy. The salt plaza and astronomy plaza are places to connect with yourself or the universe.

Other luxury hotels in accessible San Pedro de Atacama are Explora Atacama and Hotel Tulor. Explora Atacama is 100% wheelchair accessible, has personalized customer service, and a powerful team to expeditions and excursions. Hotel Tulor is for those who want something unique, with round guest rooms that resemble the nearby archaeological site Tulor, which was excavated in 1980 by archaeologist Ana María Baron, who owns the hotel.

If you’re looking for cabins to stay in with family, friends, or a partner, I recommend Ecohostal Refucio, which is located very close to the trail that leads to the wheelchair accesible Archaeological Research Center and Museum. It contains a large collection from over 11,000 years ago of the Lickan-antai culture, the Tiwanaku state, the Incan Empire, and the Spanish arrival to the Americas.

Where to eat in accessible San Pedro de Atacama

To enjoy a delicious lunch or dinner and taste the best Chilean wines, Adobe has a large menu with a lot of variety. Las delicias de Carmen or La Casona are great spots for classic Chilean food. 

If you’re in the mood for sandwiches, pizzas, fresh juice, or salad, you must visit Solinti on Tocopilla street. My favorite sandwich is Licanabur or Barros Luco, and the Oasis salad is the best salad in the world. 

All of my recommendations are located in the historic center of town, not all of it is easy to access on a wheelchair due to the preservation of heritage sites, but with some assistance and great customer service, it can be accessed.

The historic center of town also has beautiful stores and artisan fairs for souvenir shopping. It can only be explored on foot or by wheels, there is no public transportation. The streets are unpaved, and the construction is picturesque. It will only take about 2 hours to see it all, it’s only 3 square blocks. Remember that it’s the heart of this desert zone, all trips to explore the Atacama desert leave from here.

My Experience Mapping Accessible San Pedro de Atacama

One of the things I have always tried to do in the tourism industry has been to insist that hotels and restaurants commit to adapting and making changes to become more accessible. I know that it’s difficult to change structures that weren’t built taking accessibility into account, but it makes me happy to learn about the innovation and commitment that goes into creating a cement or wood ramp, for example. 

With Wheel the World’s mapping tool, I was able to go to San Pedro de Atacama’s most visited places. It’s easy to use and sends the accessibility information to Wheel the World that people around the world can access when they plan their trip.

I mapped the two biggest hotels in San Pedro de Atacama. The first was Hotel Cumbres, always committed to making the world more accessible. We mapped the pathway to a spectacular accessible room, measuring the width of doors, the king size bed, the bathroom and all of its accessibility-related components. The best part was mapping the outdoor shower in the private patio. I imagined taking the shower chair out of the indoor shower and moving it out there to take a hot shower underneath the stars, what a unique experience. The other thing I love about this hotel is the pathway they created to connect rooms with the large lobby, the restaurant, and the different patios with fire pits. We kept mapping and arrived at the excursion office, where doors are a meter and a half wide, there is storage for wheelchairs and adapted bikes. After the excursion office, we headed to the Spa, where you can keep following the wheelchair accessible pathway.

The other hotel we mapped was Hotel Explora Atacama. This luxury hotel has one accessible room, with doorways a meter and a half wide, adjustable beds, a beautiful bathroom the size of the bedroom where you can turn freely. It also has a long pathway that connects all of the public areas of the hotel.

These two hotels were easy to measure, and I found them very spacious and accessible. The accessibility mapping system was crucial to this project because it sends the information immediately to be analyzed and reviewed, to see if any changes could be made to become more accessible, and then to be recommended to those looking for accessible accommodations. 

We also mapped the Reverend Father Le Peage Archaeological Museum and Research Center, where the director, Arturo Torres, installed pathways, ramps, and support bars in the bathrooms. We measured it all and realized that the gift shop and sample room needed ramps. Arturo committed to add them. This museum holds centuries of culture of the indigenous people of the Andes. 

We mapped other places, like the restaurant Solinti, where the owner will also install a ramp at the widest door.


This article was written by an Accessibility Ambassador to share her experience and information about exploring San Pedro de Atacama. If you are interested in traveling to this fascination desert town, you can check out all the options and contact us here!

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