Chile’s Atacama Desert runs 600 miles from the Pacific Coast to the Andes Mountains and is the 3rd driest place in the world, behind only the North and South Poles. It is quickly becoming Chile’s main year-round tourist destination with several attractions including natural geysers, salt flats, salt lagoons, interesting wild life, thermal baths and more. It is a short flight from Santiago and is also a great jumping off point for trips to Bolivia’s Sal de Uyuni (salt flats) and Argentina’s rainbow mountains in Salta.
…Here are my 10 tips for visiting the Atacama Desert
1. One way in, one way out
All flights arrive and depart from Calama, however the main town is San Pedro de Atacama about an hour drive away. Taxis were expensive so we booked a shuttle bus with Trans Licancabur. Our ride with Trans Licancabur was terrible. On our way to San Pedro, I had to sit in the back and several pieces of luggage kept falling into my lap. The driver stopped at a nice look out point and we snapped a few photos. After a few minutes most of the group expected to be on the road, however some of our fellow passengers were not so thoughtful. They took over 30 minutes snapping selfies and the driver didn’t say anything! On the plus side, I was able to book the shuttle several months in advance. Knowing we would make our early morning flight back to Santiago on time helped me keep calm.
2. Pick your tour company wisely
There is a lot to do in Atacama and there are a lot of tour companies offering daily tours to all of Atacama’s attractions. Not all tour companies are created equally though. Some companies only offer guides who speak Spanish, some are with larger groups, some are more expensive, and some have no accreditation. If you are a “fly by the seat of your pants” type of person, you can just show up, walk into one of the many tour group offices and figure out what you want to do. That’s is too overwhelming for me. I would have a hard time feeling confident that we were working with a reputable company and that I was getting a good deal. Since that’s not really my style, I researched companies and pricing beforehand. I found Whipala Tours to have positive reviews and fair pricing. I booked our tours online and we received a 10% discount when paid in cash.
3. Prepare to be flexible
In Atacama, you may book with one company, but that doesn’t mean you will actually tour with them. If the tour company does not have enough people booked, they will outsource you to a different company. They also may try to change the days/times of your tours in order to maximize their group size. Thankfully, we had enough days in Atacama that we were able to move our tours dates around. If you are short on time in Atacama, you may have to book with several companies in order to fit in multiple tours. We actually had two of our tours outsourced to different companies (Thermal Bathes and Geyser Tour). We really enjoyed the tours we had with Whipala, but were not as impressed with the other companies. Our guide with Whipala was very friendly, knowledgeable about the region, remembered to repeat things in English, and went above what other companies offered for breakfast and snacks. We also liked that Whipala offered smaller, more personal tours. Unfortunately, our last tour to the Cejar Lagoons was only a partial tour because the road to the Ojos del Salar and Laguna Tebenquiche was under construction.
4. Park entrance fees add up
Expect to pay entrance fees to all parks. The tours do not include this cost. They range from $3,000 CLP - $17,000 CLP per person which adds up quickly.
5. Pack for hot and cold weather
Even though you are in a desert, pack a lot of warm clothes including gloves, warm socks, a jacket and a hat. We also used bandanas to protect ourselves from the sand during the Valle De La Luna tour, from the -20F cold on the Geyser Tour, and from the strong UV filled sun midday. Bring a bathing suit, flip flops, sunglasses, hiking boots/running shoes, layers, moisturizer, and a lot of sunscreen. I brought a pair of jeans that I wore once because I felt I needed to wear them. Most of the time I wore workout leggings or sweats. I did make the mistake of wearing shorts and my legs paid the price with a major sunburn. Even when it was hot, I typically wore a light long sleeve, long pants, and a wide-brimmed hat.
6. Look for the specials
Take advantage of the restaurant’s daily menu specials. Often times they offer a pretty good menu including a small appetizer, choice of entrée and a light dessert for around $5000 CLP. I enjoyed several nice meals including ceviche, ribs, and salmon.
7. Steal sleep
Sleep when you can because you don’t get much. Between the early morning flights, early morning tours, and the barking dogs at night, I didn’t get much shut eye in our hostel. I typically get between 8-10 hours of sleep each night, so running on 5-6 hours of sleep is not really my thing. Most of the morning tours leave between 5 am – 6:30 am because the destination is 1 to 2-hour drive from San Pedro. Luckily, I am the type of person who can sleep anywhere, so I slept on the bus rides and took afternoon naps between tours. Hey, sometimes a girl just needs to sleep!
8. Lodging prices depend on location
The hostels can be expensive. We stayed at Domos Los Abuelos hostel for around $65 per night. I picked it was because I wanted a place that was walking distance to the main part of San Pedro. Many of the hostels located in the town are expensive and less expensive hostels are farther away from town. Overall, I was happy with our hostel. The staff was friendly, the rooms were cool, and they had a pool!
9. Prepare to go unplugged
Okay, maybe not the entire time but there will be long stretches without Wifi. Our hostel didn’t have Wifi in the rooms, only in the common areas. We also didn’t have a TV, which was okay for me but my husband got pretty bored.
10. Expect a bumpy ride
Most of the roads are unpaved or under maintained. It is a booming tourist area and things are getting better, but there are still a few rough patches.
Let me know what your favorite desert destination is by leaving a comment below.
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