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The Atacama Desert is known for being the driest desert in the world (how on earth do they measure that?!) but more importantly, for you anyway, it’s a hot-spot for travellers looking to explore all that Chile has to offer. There’s so much to see and do here – so without further ado, here’s the ultimate guide to ensure that you make the most of your trip to San Pedro De Atacama.
How To Get To Get There
If you’re travelling from elsewhere in Chile, you’re likely to be coming from Santiago (Chile’s capital).
Calama is the closest transport hub to San Pedro De Atacama and can be reached either by bus (circa 22 hours) or plane (circa 2 hours) from Santiago.
Given the length of the bus journey, I opted to book a flight. As my time in San Pedro De Atacama was relatively close to the start of my 3 months in South America, I booked the flight well in advance to secure the best price. On arrival in Calama airport, you will find a shuttle bus company which operates between Calama and San Pedro De Atacama. There are plenty of shuttles and they depart regularly, the journey takes around 90 minutes.
RELATED: Santiago is a great city and shouldn’t be skipped – read my 5 day itinerary here!
If you are travelling in the opposite direction, coming from Bolivia, you can either use public buses to travel directly from Uyuni to San Pedro De Atacama (BusBud currently does not operate in Bolivia, so use Rome2Rio to determine the best bus company and timings) or book a tour via the Uyuni salt flats.
Uyuni Salt Flats tours are usually 3-4 days long and begin in either Uyuni or San Pedro De Atacama (ending in the opposite destination). Tours can vary in prices but as a general rule, the more expensive tour guides have much higher safety ratings. I booked via Cordillera Traveller and would highly recommend them but we will talk more about that later!
RELATED: Bolivia isn’t just home to the impressive Uyuni Salt Flats. Cycling down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” was one of my South America highlights – even if someone in my group fell off the cliff! Read abut my experience here!
The Best Time to Visit
Given that The Atacama Desert is allegedly the driest desert in the world, you’re unlikely to face rain no matter what time of year you visit – some areas of the desert have not seen rain in more than 400 years!
I visited in the Summer months (December – February) and it was perfect! Not only were the days warm and beautiful, the star-gazing visibility at night was incredible and not TOO cold. Even in the height of Summer, I didn’t find that the days were too hot to explore and the early morning wake-ups for some tours were made easier by the warmer night-time weather. However, this is the most popular time to visit, so tours and hotels will get booked up faster.
Given that San Pedro De Atacama is a fairly sleepy town, the Summer months don’t feel over-crowded, especially if you’re used to travelling in cities! If you are concerned about tourist levels, the “shoulder seasons” (September to November or March to May) will see less tourists and usually have pleasant weather too.
If you are considering a trip in Winter (June – August), you need to consider that some of the night-time activities (such as the incredible star-gazing) won’t be available due to the sub-freezing temperatures.
Where to Stay
If you’re travelling on a budget, I stayed in Hostel Laskar which had super friendly staff and a good social atmosphere. However, if you book further in advance than I did, you can probably find somewhere slightly cheaper and closer to the town center.
RELATED: I spent three months travelling through South America – see my full itinerary including accommodation here!
Tips on Booking Tours
There are plenty of online operators providing tours in San Pedro De Atacama ( Get Your Guide, Denomades and Keteka and are just a few). I would only recommend online bookings if you are time restricted and don’t want to seek local guides on your arrival.
If you have more time to spare, spend your first few hours in San Pedro negotiating with local tour guides. Online prices can be high and you are more likely to find a bargain or be able to negotiate a deal with local tour agencies.
With regards to picking local tour agencies, the general rule of thumb is to look around and pick the agency who are the most helpful and have reasonable prices. For the most part, the shops that you see in the town are just sales agencies who will book you onto the same few underlying tour operators.
The only tour that needs more thought and attention is the excursion into the Uyuni Salt Flats. Prices can vary for these tours and generally the lower the price, the lower the safety and hygiene standards. I highly recommend Cordillera Travller who have very high safety ratings and are the only Bolivian company to currently operate from San Pedro De Atacama. Having a Bolivian tour guide show us the towns close to where he grew up made it all the more special.
Things to Do
Now for the good bit! There’s a whole host of things to see and do in San Pedro De Atacama, so you certainly won’t get bored! In fact, you might suffer from quite the opposite, there’s too many things to do and walking into a tour agency can feel very overwhelming!
On the flight from Santiago to San Pedro De Atacama, I bumped into a couple that I had travelled with in Argentina which was a lovely surprise. Having three of us booking tours together meant that we could negotiate group deals between us – even though we didn’t all do the same tours! If you can find some friends to check out the tour agencies with, I highly recommend it!
My itinerary looked a little something like this…
- Day One – Arrival in San Pedro Atacama, speak to tour agencies and a night time astronomical tour
- Day Two – Morning tour of Valle De Luna and an afternoon free walking tour of San Pedro De Atacama
- Day Three – Morning tour of the geysers of El Tatio and an afternoon tour to the salt lakes
- Day Four – Depart Chile on a 4 day tour through Bolivia to see the Uyuni Salt Flats
The tour agencies are super helpful in planning your time in San Pedro De Atacama, but it’s good to go in with an idea of which tours you would like to do. So here’s an outline of the tours that I did…
Price: 20,000 CLP (Approximately £24)
My first tour ended up being one of my San Pedro highlights! We were picked up at 10:30pm and drove for around 20 minutes to a deserted area (away from the light pollution of the town) with a giant telescope to start our astronomical tour.
The stars were so bright and felt so close to us – something that I had never experienced before! The tour guide taught us about astronomy and pointed out the main star-sign constellations. I found it so fascinating that by the end of our tour, you could see how much the star-signs had shifted across the sky.
We got super lucky, as we could even see Jupiter! Obviously, taking photos of stars is ridiculously hard – while I only have the photo from the guide of me and the milky way, I will remember this night for a very long time!
Valle De Luna (Valley of The Moon)
Price: 15,000 CLP (Approximately £18)
As the name suggests, Valle De Luna is like something from another planet (although probably more like Mars than the Moon given the red toned landscape…).The tour will take you through some incredible rock formations that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before!
The tour visits various different areas of the Valley, each more impressive than the last, before finishing with a view over the famous valley sunset.
If you don’t want to do a tour, it’s possible to hire bikes and cycle to the Valley from San Pedro De Atacama. We saw people attempting this journey in the middle of the Summer’s heat and it didn’t look comfortable at all. If you are going to attempt this, make sure you have sufficient water!
Free Walking Tour
Price: Whatever you want to tip!
I found myself with some down-time after my Valle De Luna tour, so I decided to take the Tours 4 Tips free walking tour. While there isn’t all that much to see within the town, the guide was great and pointed out loads of cool restaurants, bars and cafes.
The food in San Pedro De Atacama exceeded all of my expectations. I expected a very touristy town with bleak food options; what I experienced was quite the contrary! There were some great options available – while the nicer restaurants are more pricey, they were certainly worth it.
The buildings in the town are all made from the same clay-looking material, so everything starts to look the same – I have never struggled with my sense of direction so much in a small town!
Geysers at El Tatio
Price: 18,000 CLP (Approximately £20)
The next tour on my itinerary was the famous geysers at El Tatio. This is one of the most popular tours in the region – and I’m sure I would have had a great time… if I made it that far!
The tour starts at 4.30am so that you reach the geysers in time for sunrise. Things started to go wrong from the outset when my tour bus was 2 hours late with absolutely no explanation. After 2 long hours of waiting in the hostel trying not to fall asleep, I climbed into the minibus and hoped that it would still be worth the trip. It’s a fairly long drive (around 2 hours), so we all took a well needed nap… when I woke up, our mini-bus was rolling backwards down a steep hill and then wouldn’t re-start.
We waited for over 2 hours to be rescued by another van, by which time it was too late to visit the geysers as they are predominantly active at sunrise. On the way back to town, we stopped off a tiny village where we could buy llama meat. Deciding to skip the meat feast, I met a local who had a really cute dog, so all is well!
Other people’s photos look absolutely magical and I will be sure to try and do this tour again if I ever re-visit San Pedro!
Fear not, if you are unable to do this tour (like me!), you can try and see geysers (albeit much smaller) on a 4 day Uyuni Salt Flat tour.
Salt Lakes Tour
Price: I was given this tour for free – there was however a 5,000 CLP entrance fee (Approximately £6)
The tour agency were very apologetic for the issues with my Geysers tour. Given that I was leaving San Pedro the next day, I couldn’t book onto the same tour the following day. Instead, they gave me a free tour to the salt lakes that afternoon.
While Blovia’s Salar De Uyuni are the most famous salt flats, there are some salt flats to be found in Chile too. The best part about these ones are that you can float in the salty lakes – which I imagine is very similar to floating in the Dead Sea!
After trying to get all of the salt off of us, we headed to another view point for sunset (this time with lots of drinks and nibbles – yay)!
The tour was very basic, so I’m glad that I didn’t have to pay for it but was enjoyable nonetheless and a great way to see another natural phenomenon in the area!
Begin your Bolivian Adventure
Price: Prices vary, I booked with one of the more expensive firms who charged 115,000 CLP (Approx £130)
San Pedro De Atacama is the perfect place to begin the 4 day/3 night expedition through Bolvian countryside, ending with the famous Uyuni salt flats!
We booked our trip as soon as we arrived in San Pedro, knowing that we would be departing in a few days time. As mentioned before, this is the one time that you need to be careful with tour guides. There are horror stories about drunk tour drivers etc. but with some careful planning, you will be fine!
I booked with Cordillera Traveller who were excellent. They are a Bolivian company who pride themselves with great safety ratings and an excellent experience. While the tour guides often don’t speak English, you don’t need to be told much to enjoy the views. Before booking, you should note that accommodation in this area is very lacking and all tour providers use very basic local-run “hostels”.
There are a few more very popular options that I chose not to participate in:
- Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) – If Valle De Luna wasn’t enough for you and you need more otherworldly landscapes, then the very popular Red Rocks tour is for you! Give it a google – the scenery looks phenomenal.
- Rainbow Valley – In a similar vein, I was running low on time so had to pick one incredible landscape to explore. Rainbow Valley is made up of colorful rock formations – I decided to save myself for Rainbow Mountain in Peru!
- Dune Buggying and Sand Boarding – Later in my South American adventures, I visited Huacachina (Peru) which is renowned for it’s incredible sand-boarding, so I decided to give this activity a miss in San Pedro De Atacama. Definitely book this if you aren’t also visiting Huacachina though!
Have you ever been? What was your favourite excursion?
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