You won’t read this in your guidebooks, on the contrary. While there are many great things to say about the Lonely Planets of the world, the further they will usually go in denouncing the impact of tourism on some places is to characterise it as « transformed by tourism ».
Why you shouldn’t go to San Pedro
Don’t get me wrong, San Pedro de Atacama does offer beautiful views, lovely nature and is full of charms. It is however condemned if we keep on coming in such large numbers. Estimates predict that the underground water supplies will be dry within 40 years. To be fair, tourism is not the only culprit: lithium production in the salt flat is also putting a strain on water supplies. There is however nothing we can do about that.
« 40 years, that’s a lot! » you might say. Sure enough, foreign-owned tourist agencies that overcrowd San Pedro, as well as the tourist crowd will move on, pretty carelessly. But San Pedro is originally inhabited by andean tribes that have made this place their home for centuries. They worship the mountains, and hold sacred most of the sites tourists roam through on a daily basis. For them, moving away will be tragic, one last blow in a long series of abuses suffered since the Spanish conquest. How about we finally learn to be decent people and just skip this spot on our tours?
It’s all the more easy to skip San Pedro that you can find very similar sights just a few hundred kilometers above, in the northern part of Chile. Near the towns of Iquique and Arica, the Parque Nacional Lauca, the Salars de Huasco and Surire are equally gorgeous but staying in these cities is not an environment and cultural problem. They are costal cities where you can base yourself before taking tours that will bring you there at a lower environmental cost and no negative impact on the lives of local people.
You will also enjoy a lot less crowds, quite possibly being on your own at some of the sites and you’ll have an equally rewarding experience with a clearer conscience while at it! Tempting right?