A Quick Guide to the Atacama Desert

I know! I can’t believe how quickly I’m writing this post-travel. It usually takes me forever to write posts about my trips! My friend and I did a bunch of research into Atacama before we went, and were still kind of confused and unsure of what to expect when boarding our plane from Santiago. There’s a lot of lists of what to do and photo inspiration, but nothing is really clear-cut with prices and such. I thought I’d put together a quick guide to the Atacama Desert in case you just want some easy answers as you plan your own trip.

Where is it?

Located in the northern region of Chile, the Atacama Desert extends about 41,000 – 49,000 square miles between the Andes and the Chilean coast. Most people who visit stay in the town of San Pedro de Atacama.

What is it?

There are two big areas people talk about when it comes to Chile, Patagonia in the south and Atacama in the north. Known as one of the driest and oldest deserts in the world, Atacama has some seriously breathtaking landscapes for miles and miles. It’s often compared to Mars, and many scientists use the area to test theories about the planet.

When should you go?

We went in the fall season and found it pretty perfect. Keep in mind Chile is south of the equator, so the seasons are switched from the Northern Hemisphere.

How is the weather?

Like most desert areas, the days are hot and the nights are cold. Pack a ton of sunscreen and a warm coat for the night. I spent one day getting sunburned biking through Valle de la Luna only to freeze watching the stars at night! Check out the weather averages here.

How do you get there?

There are two popular ways of getting to San Pedro: by bus or by plane. The bus takes about 22 hours and the plane ride takes about 2 hours.

By Bus

From what I’ve read, you can get a bus from one of the terminals in Santiago to San Pedro, though many will go to Calama. 

I looked at the most popular option, Turbus, for the sake of research. It leaves from both Terminal Alameda and Terminal San Borja and the tickets ranged from 46,000 CLP (~70 USD) – 68,000 CLP (~104 USD). Here’s more info on your bus options. I honestly would just fly. You’re going to spending a lot of time driving or in buses to get to the different landmarks in

I honestly would just fly. You’re going to spending a lot of time driving or in buses to get to the different landmarks in Atacama, so save yourself the headache and pay a little more for the plane.

By Plane

There are two main airlines that go between Santiago and Calama (the closest airport to San Pedro): LATAM and Sky. Sky Airlines is cheaper, but the website might be tricky to work with. My friend had to call to book hers as the site wouldn’t accept her credit card, and the first time I tried it took my card but said there were site issues and never gave me confirmation. It worked the second time, but I had to call my credit card company to contest the charge.

You’ll fly into Calama, which is another hour or so from San Pedro. It’s a small airport, so you’ll be fine navigating. Right at the exit is where all the car rental and shuttle services are. We paid about 12,000 CLP (~18 USD) one way with Transvip (the first counter we saw). My friend had heard horror stories about booking round trip and the shuttle never showing up, so we decided to do one way and then have our guesthouse call to schedule on the way back. The return shuttle was only 10,000 CLP (~$15), but it was a bigger bus rather than the smaller van.

Top 5 Things to Do in Atacama

There are a lot of things to see and do in Atacama, and I honestly wish I had planned a longer Chile trip to spend more time here! Every single place we visited was breathtaking. Unless you’re a master of geography and fully confident in your driving skills, you’re probably going to wind up taking one of the many tours offered from San Pedro. Many are full-day or half-day. Don’t be afraid to walk around to a few to gauge prices and what exactly they offer. We just asked for a pamphlet and costs and compared a few.

Stargazing 

Atacama has some of the clearest skies I’ve ever seen. You can see the Milky Way just walking back to your guesthouse or hotel at night! You’ll see many tours specifically for stargazing, and they’re usually around 11 p.m. for shorter tours and 8 p.m. for more in depth ones. Prices range from 15,000 CLP – 70,000 CLP (~22 USD – 107 USD).

Visiting Salar de Atacama + Laguna Chaxa

If you do a full-day tour, you’ll probably see the Salar on the same tour as the Lagoons and Piedras Rojas. The Salar is largest salt flat in the country and the third largest in the world. We were there mid-morning, and it was stunning. There are paths through the white rocky terrain, and you can see crystal clear reflections in the lagoons from the nearby mountains. Oh, and you’ll see plenty of flamingos from afar. Entrance to Laguna Chaxa is 2,500 CLP (~3.80 USD)

Visiting the Altiplanic Lagoons + Piedras Rojas

Even further out from San Pedro at the Piedras Rojas and the Antiplanic Lagoons  (Miscanti and Miñiques). The Piedra Rojas (red rocks in Spanish) are in the Salar de Agua Calientes (Hot Water Salt Flats) and offer a unique view of ruddy red against the clear white blue of the flat. Apparently, the red comes from iron oxidation.

The lagoons were the last stop of our day-tour. Our guide took us to a lesser known one, Laguna Tuyajto before he took us to Miscanti and Miñiques, and truthfully that wound up being my favorite one. Entrance to the lagoons is 3,000 CLP (~4.50 USD).

Going to El Tatio, the Geysers

This is the one thing on this list I didn’t get to personally do simply due to timing and exhaustion! El Tatio has over eighty active geysers and is one of the largest geyser fields in the world. Most tours for El Tatio will leave around 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. and come back around noon after visiting a nearby village. When we were looking, we found tours from around 17,000 – 20,000 CLP (~26- 30 USD). Entrance to the geysers is an additional 10,000 CLP (~10 USD).

Visiting Valle de La Luna

There are two valleys near San Pedro, Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley) and Valle de La Muerte (Death Valley). We, somewhat foolishly, decided to rent bikes and head about 15km to La Luna thinking we’d be able to fit both valleys in an afternoon. You can’t. La Luna is huge on its own, and biking it when you’re not an avid mountain biker is… an experience. You can go into the valley and loop around, but we were so tired that we only made it part of the way in before turning around.

The only way I can describe Valle de La Luna is vast and epic. I’ve never been to any of the major US National Parks like Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon, so I’ve never experienced anything quite like this.

Where should you stay?

As I said before, you’ll probably wind up stay in San Pedro de Atacama. We saw most places were right in town, but the overall area is pretty small and easily walkable. We stayed at Lodge Altitud, which was a 10-minute walk from the center.

The town has plenty of restaurants and shops, and my debit card worked at one of the nearby banks for taking out cash.

Wi-Fi is pretty bad in San Pedro. Most restaurants won’t have it, and even your accommodation will probably have a weaker version. It’s nice if you want a digital detox, but if you do any online work I’d make sure all your deadlines are met beforehand!

>> CHECK + COMPARE HOTEL AVAILABLITY IN SAN PEDRO HERE <<

Money + Safety Matters

You know what was actually pretty refreshing? San Pedro, for being a traditionally tourist town, didn’t feel particularly touristy. Our host told us that San Pedro is a bit of a hippie place. It’s very relaxed, and you really don’t ever feel uncomfortable walking around. No one is harassing you to buy anything, and, hey, even all the dogs look well fed and well loved!

As far as money goes, 1,000 CLP is roughly 1.50 USD, so things actually are a little more expensive than you might anticipate. Ask your host if you can pay in USD cash because it might actually wind up being cheaper than paying in Chilean pesos.

And that’s it! I have so much more to write about Chile, but I’ll start rolling them out in the next month or so. In the meantime, I thought I’d write this all down before I forgot the specific details.

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One of the must-see places in Chile, here's a quick guide to all things Atacama Desert.

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