Adventures in the Atacama Desert

Adventures in the Atacama Desert

February 12, 2016

HELLO AGAIN WORLD,

I just got back from my latest journey to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. It was an  incredible experience! There are a ridiculous amount of diverse landscapes within this place! I recommend it to all travelers who are into the outdoors, nature and adventure. It is an absolutely gorgeous desert. I’m going to break down my whole trip for you guys so you can have a similar experience to mine or better.

SOME BASIC INFO…

First off, you have to realize that you are traveling to an oasis in the middle of the driest desert in the world… so naturally, things are going to be more expensive because just about everything is imported from somewhere else. However, it is still possible to make this trip economically feasible. San Pedro de Atacama is very unique in that is a COMPLETE tourist town! Apart from the store/restaurant workers and tour guides, everyone else is a traveler just like you..and it is a BUSY town! The town runs completely off of tourism. It’s  lively during every season of the year! Be prepared.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE:

If you do not have a South American debit or credit card, the likelihood of your card working at an ATM in the town is very slim! My girlfriend and I had this problem, along with countless other tourists. There are 6 ATM machines total in the town and NONE of them worked with our English debit cards (we bank with Lloyds and NatWest in England). Luckily we had withdrawn money in Santiago before flying to San Pedro but we ran out of cash on our 3rd night. Most restaurants accept debit cards but you will need cash for park entrances. Keep that in mind.

Check it out…

TRANSPORTATION:

The town in which you will stay when visiting the Atacama Desert is called San Pedro de Atacama. To get to this town you must fly into the airport outside the city of Calama. From there it takes about an 1hr and 30min to get to San Pedro by car. I highly recommend organizing transportation from and back to Calama prior to arriving there (many tour guide companies include this in a package deal if you book prior to your arrival). Economic transportation costs between $10,000 and $12,000 CLP per person. You will ride in a van with around 10 other people, so it gives you a chance to talk and get pumped with travelers that are doing the same trip as you!

If you forget to arrange transportation or just want to spend a little more cash for comfort, there are two other options that are available upon arrival:

  1.  Transport by taxi (I can’t imagine this being very cheap, as it cost 10 people 10,000-12,000 CLP each to ride together in a van).
  2. Truck rental (at the airport you can rent a well-equipped pick up truck for the duration of your trip. Probably not cheap at all but definitely sounds pretty sweet!)

Below is a map illustrating the location of San Pedro de Atacama in relation to Calama:

Atacama Map

 

ACCOMMODATION:

Take this in…

RESERVE ACCOMMODATION IN ADVANCE!

I am extremely happy that I reserved accommodation in advance for a few reasons:

  • Busy streets

In doing research for my trip, a few different blogs said that it’s possible to just walk around the city and organize your trip when you get there. This is definitely possible, but it is likely that you will quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of accommodation options you have to choose from. There are hostels and hotels EVERYWHERE. If you are on a budget, you’ll probably spend your entire first day walking around the town looking for the cheapest available accommodation…and if you go during the summer season it’s extremely hot during the day!

  • Saved money

As I said before, it’s possible to just walk around the city and organize your trip when you get there. If you do this, it is almost guaranteed that you will end up paying much more for your accommodation as hostels are in high demand. You may be forced into purchasing more expensive accommodation. Again, hostels are everywhere! Beware though, a lot of them are really expensive just because they are in the San Pedro oasis. If you look at hostels online before arriving you will certainly pay less for your accommodation. My girlfriend and I  ended up paying $200 US including VAT tax for 4 nights for a very nice and basic double bed room at Hostel Viento Norte. That was the cheapest option I found for a well-reviewed hostel with availability for the amount of time I needed. Other hostels varied from $50- $300 more for the same amount of time. In our time at the hostel, we saw at least 4 different groups walk in without reservations. Needless-to-say, they were turned away.

  • Save time

Everyone I met in San Pedro was only staying there for a week max! It’s a beautiful place but I can see why people wouldn’t stay much longer than that…It’s extremely hot in the summer and absolutely freezing in the winter. Plus, you’ll eventually do all the tours and run out of things to do unless you enjoy doing the tours more than once or want to explore on your own. There is quite a bit you can do when you get there, so it would be a shame to use a day just looking for accommodation. Book in advance, save time and money!

TOURS:

Alright, this is just as important as your accommodation…

I strongly advise you to reserve all of your tours in advance, assuming you are not renting a pick up truck to do them on your own. There were countless people walking around trying to get in on all of our tours without reservations everyday. They were turned away! Don’t be those people. It sucks! Most tours only run during certain parts of the day due to the heat, sunsets or site activity – so if you don’t plan your days right, you may not get to do very many tours. Chances are that you’ll probably be able to find availability somewhere for a tour, there are companies EVERYWHERE! Just beware that you might pay significantly more for it, as the different companies most definitely vary in price, and you might end up going with a poorly reviewed agency. I reserved online and checked out at least 6-7 companies before emailing any of them. I ended up emailing 3 of them for prices and paid $370,000 CLP for a total of 6 tours and transporation from and back to Calama (price was  for 2 people and did not include park entrance fees). The two other companies I emailed with were $150,000-$170,000 CLP more expensive for the same tours.

My girlfriend and I did the following tours booked through Denomades (LaYana Tours):

  • Transfer from San Pedro de Atacama to Aeropuerto Calama
  • Valle de la Luna (including the ‘3 Maries’ rocks and Valle de la Muerte)
  • Piedras Rojas y Lagunas Altiplánicas (including Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques, and Laguna Chaxa)
  • Salar de Tara (including the Monks of Pacana, Rock Cathedrals, and Cerro Zapaleri)
  • Geysers del Tatio (including thermal hotsprings)
  • Laguna Cejar (including Ojos del Salar and Laguna Tebinquinche – and pisco sour sunset!)
  • Star Gazing (including telescope views, tour guide and hot beverage: independent company)

Note: If you are a student…TAKE YOUR STUDENT ID CARD! You will receive small discounts on all park entrance fees!

Below is a map of the Atacama desert illustrating the various tour sites:

Atacama Map 1

Other tours/things worth looking into doing if you have the time and money are:

  • Mountain biking
  • Bolivia tours
  • Valle de Arcoiris (including rock art)
  • Sandboarding
  • Tour Arqueologico (Archaeological Tour)
  • Motorbiking

OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION :

WATER:

 

The thing you will buy most often is water! If you go during the summer, the heat is no joke. Atacama is not the hottest desert in the world, but it is the driest! The heat with the dry air will dehydrate and fatigue you very quickly if you are not constantly drinking water. My girlfriend and I went through three 1.5L bottles of water between the two of us everyday for 4 days and  felt a bit dehydrated every morning (we definitely should have been drinking more). Each bottle of water ranges between $1,000 – $2,000 CLP depending on the store you buy it from.

Note: You will need  sunscreen, bathing suit, a hat and sunglasses. Sunscreen is available for pretty cheap in the local pharmacies in San Pedro.

PLACES TO EAT:

If you are on a budget like we were there are definitely good cheap places to eat. Check out the “zona economica” or “picadas” made up of little food shacks with Coca-Cola flags all over them. Other restaurants/bars that are worth checking out are the following:

Space 2

I hope this helps you plan a sweet trip to the desert! Let me know if you have any questions.

S