San Pedro de Atacama is a true hub for tourism, allowing access to many sites like geysers, salt lakes, historical cities, and more. Given that all these locations are so close, it is no surprise that the town became so popular with tourists as a sort of base camp. However, not all of the things that are close by are equally popular, some undeservingly so.
The Yerbas Buenas petroglyphs are one such site that you won’t find on most destination guides. However, they are arguably one of the most interesting locations in the area, featuring hundreds of ancient pre-hispanic petroglyphs.
The site is the focus of many archeological studies because it has served as a resetting place for herders, traders, and travelers for several centuries, with four distinct petroglyph styles being left by them. Many of the images at this site feature depictions of llamas or alpacas. You will find small llamas, big llamas, pregnant llamas and herds of llamas everywhere you look. It would be easy to play a game of “spot the next llama” while walking through the site.
Besides llamas, there are some other drawings of flamingos, predatory animals, and even a monkey. This last one is quite a mystery to archeologists, as there are no monkeys in this part of South America, which suggests that people traveled very far even in those days.
It is unknown why the drawings are there if they are made to pass time or to keep count of herds or even to prove a trade. Unfortunately, local guides will spice up what is known with stories of mysticism, tall tales, and even aliens. The truth, while perhaps less spectacular, is that we do not know.
Know Before You Go
You can easily get to the site by following the google maps directions. It's roughly a 50 kilometer drive on mostly good roads, good enough to traverse with any rental car. Make sure to bring a full tank and food and water, as nothing is sold there.