Have you ever heard of the Atacama Desert or San Pedro De Atacama, Chile? Well if not you were on the same boat as me before I found myself in the Atacama Desert. I also did not know much about the place, or that I would even be going there until I found myself on a three-day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. A three-day tour that ended in San Pedro De Atacama one of the destinations that surprised me the most. Here are some things you should know before you come to the driest place on earth.
Where is the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama Desert is located in the northern part of Chile a strip of land that is 600-700 square miles north to south. Close to the border of Bolivia and Argentina, this weird plateau of a Volcanic and Salt Mountain Range, and the driest place on earth make this one of the most unique landscapes in the world. The desert is located in the Chilean state of Antofagasta, Chile a region known for its’ mining due to the rich mineral deposits.
What exactly makes the Atacama Desert so special?
The Atacama Desert is definitely a natural wonder of the world, and is special because it is the only true desert. The Atacama Desert is commonly known as the driest nonpolar place in the world. It receives .6 inches of rain per year, the region sits at an average of 3000 meters (10,000 feet), and the soil has been compared to Mars.
As one roams the Valle De La Lune, Tatio Geysers, and wanders from lagoon to lagoon, you cannot help but feel you are on another planet. Simply put, what makes the Atacama Desert so special is it transports you from everything you knew about the natural world and stretches your imagination. At least, that is what it did for me.
15 Things I wish I knew before I got to San Pedro De Atacama
While my adventure was a little unplanned to San Pedro de Atacama, I want to make sure you know everything you need to know to plan a budget-friendly, safe, and effortless trip to the Atacama Desert. Here is a short guide of what to expect in regards to weather, altitude, and things to do. Also, money saving tips that will make this touristic destination more affordable (especially talking to my backpackers here!).
1. It’s expensive compared to other parts of South America.
When I was in other parts of South America everyone would say how expensive Chile is, however I would not let that deter you from going there. There are plenty of ways to visit San Pedro de Atacama on a budget. How much will you need for your trip to San Pedro De Atacama?
According to budgetyourtrip.com, the average daily price based on the expenses of visitors was CL $44,389 ($53 usd). I can tell you that this is accurate, but spending this amount would mean you are on an extreme budget (for example: staying at a hostel, sharing a car rental, and making most meals at your accommodation).
2. Rent a car and see as many Lagunas in Los Flamencos National Reserve
The best bang for your buck tour, is by doing it yourself. Most tours don’t include entrance to the lagunas, national park, and other sites. Also, if you are stretched for time, renting a car will allow you to see as much as you want in a day, versus having to pick and choose what you want to see.
Also, don’t be afraid to share a car rental with other travelers. I ended up splitting an SUV for 4 full days and spent about $45 USD total including gas. Without the car, 1 tour alone could cost you $25 – 100 USD depending on what you wanted to see. This way we were able to drive to see Valle De La Lune, Laguna Miscanti, Miniques, Tebinquichi, Ojos De Salar, Laguna Cejar, Los Flamencos National Reserve, and many other sites along the desert route.
The best thing about Chile’s Atacama Desert was that it was fairly easy to get around without a tour and locals were very nice to let you know in advance if something was closed due to weather or if it was a safe ride or not.
3. Don’t accept the cheapest tours or travel agencies
If you are unable to rent a car (which I highly recommend) or if there are somethings, such as the Tatio Geysers, or that you might not feel comfortable off roading to see, than you can take a tour.
However, don’t go for the cheapest tour and make sure it is an English tour. Or you could be like me and end up on a tour of the Rainbow Valley and be the only English speaker!
4. Spend extra on your hotel or hostel to be close to the Old Town of San Pedro De Atacama (Stay Close to Caracoles Street)
While I absolutely loved my stay at Rey Largos Hostel in San Pedro De Atacama, I do wish I would have been closer to Caracoles Street and the old town of San Pedro. Don’t get me wrong it was still very nice, they gave you bikes to use for free, had a great common area, and it was extremely affordable. However, if you are in town for only a few days I would stay closer to the action of San Pedro de Atacama. After everyone gets done with their activities for the day they head to Caracoles St. and the old town for food. Street musicians and people were literally dancing through the street one night that I was in town.
5. The Portions at the Restaurants are huge and get the Almuerza
The almuerza or specials offered during lunch are often three courses for a good price. I remember being surprised by the amount of food I got for 5000 Chilean Pesos ($6 USD) when I sat down at Barros restaurant in San Pedro. The amount of food everywhere I went to in San Pedro de Atacama was enough for at least two meals.
6. See Sunset at Valley of the Moon Valle De La Luna
Valle De La Luna or Valley of the Moon is the best place to watch the sunset in San Pedro de Atacama Desert. There in the middle of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range) is a landscape that transports you to another world. There are rock formations that will make you feel like you are on the moon, and sand dunes that will make you feel as if you are on Mars. It is truly one of the most unique places you can watch the sunset in the world.
Also, there are many ways to explore it. While I went last minute with some friends I met crossing the Bolivian- Chile Border in a car rental, there are tours that take you out here to go sandboarding and watch the sunset.
7. Don’t Mess with the Altitude…
It is the driest place in the world and it is also probably way higher up than you think. It is dry, hot during the day, and cold at night. The conditions are harsh and it makes you wonder why anyone decided to build a town in the middle of nowhere. Many people don’t realize the altitude until they arrive since pictures show a relatively flat landscapes with mountains popping up in the background. However, when we crossed the border at 4480 meters we definitely could feel it when we went hiking. Also, whenever I picked up my 80-liter backpack. (Another mistake not to make).
When you come to San Pedro de Atacama, remember to acclimatize to the altitude for a day or two before you do anything too strenuous. If you need have some coco tea or candy, and always stay hydrated water helps
8. Don’t forget your swimsuit…Float in the Laguna and feel weightless
It is funny that the world’s driest place-the Atacama Desert- actually seemed to have quite a few lakes and lagoons. I did not know much about this place until I arrived. However, I would have been really salty if I missed floating around like a dead man in Laguna Piedras. It was right next to the beautiful Laguna Cejar.
There are two Lagunas, however you can only float in Piedras and you must take a rinse-off shower to get off any sunscreen you may have on.
9. Stargazing in San Pedro De Atacama Desert
If there is one thing that took my breath away during my trip to the Atacama Desert, it had to be the view at night. One of the top things to do in San Pedro is an Atacama Desert Stargazing tour. The sky here is virtually free of light pollution. My tour guide here was very knowledgeable of the nighttime sky. And they provided drinks, coffee, tea, and snacks. Eating and having a warm cup of coffee between my hands as I gazed up at the Southern Cross was amazing. Also, the Milky Way was so bright. Nerdy I know, but the tour was actually quite good and I am so glad I did it.
10. Learn about Ancient History at the Yerbas Buenas Ancient Petroglyphs
Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs are some of the oldest and highly concentrated petroglyphs in the world. A short 45-minute ride in a four-wheel drive will take you back in time to 10,000-year-old petroglyphs. Here you can see where shamans and the ancient ancestors of the Atacama people lived.
11. Enjoy the Volcanic Views
San Pedro de Atacama will make you feel as if you are in the middle of a dream. The Cordillera of volcanic mountains enhances the dreamlike effect. Fun fact, Chile actually has a chain of about 2,000 volcanoes dotted along the Andes that is part of the Ring of Fire. Which means that this region is susceptible to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and also is the driest place on earth.
12. El Tatio Geysers
Know before you go to El Tatio Geysers that you need to wake up really early. Like before dawn early for the best show of the famed Tatio Geysers. Waking up early has its’ benefits, on the drive to the geysers see wild vicunas, alpacas, and an amazing sunrise. After having an early morning relax in the thermal pools in the area.
13. Walk around the village of San Pedro de Atacama.
The San Pedro de Atacama village feels as if you walked onto a set of an old western movie. At night the place is alive with music in the streets, amazing food, and tourists roaming from shop to shop. After a night out when the place inevitably closes around midnight head to an Atacama Desert party. From local designer shops, to artisan markets and spas this small desert town caters to tourists. Whether you want to take it easy, or hurl yourself off sand dunes there is always something to do.
14. Rainbow Valley aka the Valle Arcoiris
As you drive through an abandoned river bed in a canyon/ valley illuminated by colors that are bright and rich. The mineral-rich rocks in the Domeyko Mountain range give the Rainbow Valley its’ colors. Like another famous location in Peru- the Rainbow Mountain. Red, green, white, yellow, and earth make up the distinctive vertical layers of the landscape of the valley.
15. End or begin your Uyuni Salt Flats Tour in the Atacama
The Uyuni Salt Flats or the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s most famous mirror. Also, it is the largest salt flat located in Bolivia near the border of Chile. Tours leave from either Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama, or vice versa from San Pedro de Atacama to the Salt Flats in Uyuni.
I ended my Salt Flats tour from Uyuni, Bolivia in San Pedro de Atacama for an additional $10 USD. The transfer was cheap, on top of the $190 USD for the Salt Flats English Tour. The tour was three days and two nights including food and accommodations.
San Pedro de Atacama on Budget
Here are five ways you can save money in San Pedro de Atacama. It is one of the pricier destinations in South America, so these ideas may help.
- Set up your own stargazing tour
- Stay at a hostel that gives you a bike rental for FREE
- Make food in the hostel kitchen and stay somewhere with free breakfast.
- Share a rental car so you don’t have to pay for tours individually plus park admissions.
- Stay outside of the old town if you really need to save money.
If you want to read more about my South American adventures, check out my time in Cajas National Park in Ecuador.