The high altitude desert of Atacama is truly one of a kind. It’s an extreme landscape featuring salt flats, floating lagoons, flamingos galore, NASA training grounds, and true oasis valleys, there’s a reason why this is part of the Chile triangle that also includes Patagonia and Easter Island.
If you’re about to plan your epic trip to Chile and the north is part of your plan, this San Pedro de Atacama travel guide is going to not just tell you about the top things to do but get into the nitty gritty of what most guides don’t cover including how tipping works, the sneaky fee for one type of credit card, the truth about driving the gravel roads, and so much more!
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Here's what we're covering:
- Things To Know Before Going To The Atacama Desert
- How To Get To The Atacama Desert?
- What To Do In The Atacama Desert?
- How Bad Is The Altitude In The Atacama Desert?
- How To Get Around Atacama?
- Driving in Atacama
- Should you book tours or rent a car?
- Is the Atacama Desert safe?
- Food To Try in Atacama
- How To Save Money in Atacama?
- Souvenirs to Buy in San Pedro de Atacama
- What To Pack to the Atacama Desert?
- Where To Stay in San Pedro de Atacama?
- When Is The Best Time To Visit Atacama Desert?
- How Many Days in Atacama Desert?
- Atacama Trip Costs
- Is Atacama Worth It?
- Final Trip Planning Tips
- Photography in Atacama Tips
- Frequently Asked Questions
Things To Know Before Going To The Atacama Desert
As we’ve done with our Torres del Paine travel guide, since there is a lot of information to digest, we’re going to start with the basics of traveling to the Atacama Desert and with that, also a focus on the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
Keep in mind that the Atacama Desert actually spans more than just Chile but since a majority of the tourism for the desert is focused around San Pedro de Atacama, that’s where we’ll be referring to.
- Electricity – 220 volts, 50Hz
- Type L (Italy and Chile)
- Type F (most of Europe)
- If you have Type F adapters, these will work fine. No need to invest in Type L.
- Currency – Chilean Peso (CLP)
- $1,000 CLP = $1.089 USD = $1.469 CAD = 1.089€ EUR
- For many, it’ll just be easier to consider 1000 as $1 USD but if you want something more accurate, make sure to print a currency conversion cheat sheet before you go.
- Timezone – GMT -03:00 (all year round). This means it is normally 1 hour ahead of EST (New York, Toronto). A heads up that continental Chile (including Santiago) observes DST so in the summer months but the Magallanes region (where Patagonia is) does not. It’s quite confusing and well-explained in this Wiki but if you’re ever unsure, trust Google (and not Apple which caused us some problem because the government decided to change the date of the time change one year).
- ATMs – These are quite sparse in San Pedro de Atacama. You’ll only find Banco BCI and Banco Estado here and none of the other major banks.
- SIM card – The main cellular companies in Chile are Entel, Wom, Claro, and Movistar. As you may have seen from our Patagonia guide, we highly recommend Entel based on local recommendations because of their excellent rural coverage. This is the same in the Atacama Desert. More on this in the connectivity section.
- Alternative data options – eSIM or wifi hotspot are good alternative options. For eSIM, we recommend Airalo (15GB/10 days Chile only for $18 USD) and for hotspots, you can’t beat the price of PokeFi especially with our special offer where GAP23200 saves you $25 USD ($200 USD for the device and extra battery and 5GB, top up of data is 5GB/2 years global coverage for $15 USD).
- Measurement system – Metric scale is used for distance and the Celsius scale for temperature.
- Tipping – Tipping is standard practice in the country. Chile is unique in that at most restaurants, an automatic 10% tip is applied and you can accept, decline, or change. Guidelines for these tips provided in the money section.
- Language – The official language is Spanish.
Where is the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama Desert (Desierto de Atacama in Spanish) covers 105,000 square kilometers (40,541 square miles) of area that is predominantly in all of northern Chile but also creeps over into southern Peru, southwestern Bolivia, and the northwester tip of Argentina.
In that way, the region of Atacama Desert isn’t exclusively Chilean, similar to how Patagonia actually spans two countries.
However, from a travel perspective, when someone says Atacama Desert, it’s widely known and accepted that they are referring to not only the Chilean side but more specific the area around the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
As a result, “Atacama”, “Atacama Desert”, and “San Pedro de Atacama” usually refer to the same place.
What’s so special about the Atacama Desert?
If you follow our 6 day San Pedro de Atacama itinerary, you’ll see all of the incredible wonders that this area has to offer but beyond tourism, here are a couple of reasons that distill what is so fascinating about the Atacama Desert.
- The Atacama Desert is driest nonpolar desert in the world (only second to Antarctica) and to add to that, the only true desert to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts, and the largest fog desert in the world.
- The town of San Pedro de Atacama is literal oasis surrounded by desert.
- The Indiginous peoples of the Atacameños lived here 3,000 years ago.
- It’s so dry because it’s sandwiched by the Andes mountains and the cold Humboldt Current from the Pacific Ocean. The area’s high pressure is also another reason.
- The soil here is similar so similar to Mars that NASA frequently uses this area for testing and training.
- Chinchorro mummies have been discovered here, making them older than those in Egypt.
- The Atacama Desert is 50 times drier than Death Valley in the USA.
- Mining is a huge industry here with the world’s largest sodium nitrate found here.
- Thanks to its high altitude, lack of humidity, and clear skies, the largest astronomical project in the world is located here and it’s called the ALMA Observatory.
How To Get To The Atacama Desert?
For this Atacama travel guide, we won’t be talking about how to get into Chile, but instead, focusing on how to get to San Pedro de Atacama once you’re in Chile.
There are essentially 2 steps you’ll need to take to get to San Pedro de Atacama:
- Fly direct from a Chilean city to Calama
- Drive from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama
Getting to San Pedro de Atacama isn’t the most straightforward since most people (us included) that you can fly straight into San Pedro de Atacama. That said, be glad that it’s not as lengthy as what it takes to get to Torres del Paine so we’d say this is a much easier trip.
Step 1: Fly to Calama
The closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is in the city of Calama which has a population of over 140,000 compared to over 5,000.
The airport is known as El Loa Airport and has the code CJC.
Currently, there are 3 airports that offer direct flights to Calama:
- Santiago (SCL)
- La Serena (LSC)
- Concepción (CCP)
For most, Santiago will make the most sense since all international flights come through there.
The airlines that fly from Santiago to Calama are:
- Sky Airline
Flight time: 2 hours and 8 minutes
This is a frequent route and there are multiple flights a day. The price is also quite affordable especially when compared to flights to Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales in Patagonia.
To get an idea of what your options are, start your search by using Skyscanner.
- Domestic flying – Security doesn’t require you to take out your laptop or shoes. They also don’t check for liquids so feel free to bring as much water in with you as you want. From SLC, remember that this is in Terminal 1 which is not connected to the International Terminal 2.
- Save money on flights – Always use the local site for booking flights. As we cover in our Torres del Paine travel guide, there are significant savings when booking through the Chilean page of LATAM versus the Canadian or USA page.
- Base fare doesn’t include baggage – When comparing different airlines, factor in the cost of baggage which is different for each airline.
- Weight and size allowances – Be mindful of the weight and sizes of your bags. More specifically, be careful with your carry on. They don’t weigh it when checking-in but sometimes at the gate, they’ll call you out and check the size with their device. In my case, the Shimoda Action X50 backpack easily fit in the overhead bins of the Airbus A320.
- No wifi at Calama – There is no wifi here so ideally, have your Entel SIM set up in Santiago.
- Best views for flying into Calama – There isn’t a massive difference but on our flight, sitting on the right side of the plane had great views of the volcanic mountains and desert.
- Lounges in SLC – American Express says that the lounges are part of the privileges for cards like the Platinum but unfortunately is not the case for North American cardholders. They are however part of Priority Pass if you are a member.
Step 2: Drive to San Pedro de Atacama
Since there is no airport in San Pedro de Atacama, the only way to get there is by taking the highway that connects Calama to your final destination.
The drive from El Loa Airport to San Pedro de Atacama is along Ruta (Highway) 23.
Driving time: 1 hours and 20 minutes
The two ways of doing this transfer is by either renting a car or booking a transfer.
A heads up that you might feel the effects of altitude along this drive. At its highest point, you’ll crest at 3,424 meters (11,234 feet) so if you feel something along the way, this is normal. Calama is at 2,260 meters (7,381 feet) and San Pedro de Atacama is at 2,400 meters (8,000 feet).
That said, there’s no need to acclimatize in Calama first because you don’t spend too much time at 3,424 meters. We go into altitude in much more detail.
Book a transfer
From CJC, there are many companies that offer private and shared transfers that take you straight to your accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama.
The ones we recommend are:
- Private transfer with Chile Conectado 123 Andes – $200 USD total (up to 4 passengers)
- Shared transfer with Gray Line Chile – $31 USD per person
- Shared transfer with Ruta Chile – $27
There are transfer desks at the airport such as Translicancabur, transvip and Transfer Pampas but unfortunately the reviews on them are quite terrible so I would avoid them if you can by booking something else ahead of time.
Renting a car in Atacama
As you will have seen from our 6 day Atacama itinerary, we opted for a car rental instead booking a car transfer and relying on tours. This allows for maximum flexibility and freedom but you’ll have to do all of the driving which is an adventure in itself.
At CJC, there are the following car rental companies:
- Europcar – We ultimately rented from here because they had the best rates.
Remember to check out our page on car rental coupon codes to see if any apply because there could be huge savings. It might be also worthwhile to check RentalCars and Discover Cars search engines to compare all of your options at once and see if they have access to better prices.
When you land in Calama, all of the car rental desks are in the main hall. All of the cars are also a short walk away in the public parking lot right across from the airport.
Since the rental car is in the lot, they’ll provide you with a prepaid parking ticket that’ll let you out. From there, you’ll be on your way to San Pedro de Atacama.
- 4×4 is a good idea – While a sedan is technically do-able, a car that has more clearance from the ground and has better suspension will give you a lot more confidence and make the drive smoother. At a minimum rent a crossover SUV such as the Nissan Kicks.
- If no one is at the desk – This happened to us with Europcar and there was a sign on the desk with a phone number so we called it and it turned out to be the cell phone of one of the staff. There’s usually only 1 or 2 people working there so they may be roaming around.
- Car insurance – With all of the rough roads you’ll be driving on, we think it’s worth it to add this on which covers tires and glass. In Europcar’s case, the insurance is $8,500 CLP per day. Tire and glass has a $0 deductible. If there’s other damage, the deductible is $18,700 CLP.
- Thorough inspection – The Europcar staff are very through with their car inspection but we recommend you doing your own run through to make sure nothing is missed. Pay special attention to chips in the glass, curbed rims, and make sure to test the AC, windshield wipers, windshield fluid, USB chargers, and the cigarette adapter.
- No tolls – If you’re wondering, there are no tolls to worry about.
- Fill up before returning – Remember to fill your tank before returning. Mark the gas station pin on your phone before heading out of San Pedro de Atacama and account for the extra time. Calama gas stations can get quite busy so get ready for a queue.
- Returning the car rental – To return the car, drive back into the parking lot and keep the parking ticket. If there’s no one at the desk, call the number that’s there. This happened in our case and we were instructed to drop the key with the parking ticket in the box.
- International driver’s permit (IDP) – It’s a good idea to have one even though car rental companies don’t require it. However, if you get puled over or get into an accident, they might ask for your IDP so it’s still a good idea to get one for Chile.
What To Do In The Atacama Desert?
You’d think that the arid desert would be inhospitable and have limited attractions but the opposite is true. San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings are unlike any other desert landscape you might’ve been to and you’ll find that there are more activities and sights than you can cram in.
6 Day Atacama Itinerary
If you’re looking to see a majority of the attractions in San Pedro de Atacama, you need at least 6 days. We cover in detail what you need to know about each place and how to break out each day.
Here are 10 of the must-visit places in Atacama.
1. Laguna Chaxa
If you want to see a flamboyance of flamingos (yes, this is what you call a gathering of these pink-feathered friends), this lagoon can’t be missed.
Thanks to the high salinity of the water, there’s an abundance of brine shrimp here which coincidentally flamingos love to feast on.
2. Valle de la Luna
This vast area is aptly named Valley of the Moon because it is truly feels like you’re on the surface of the moon. Here, you’ll be able to hike to desert dunes, see grand amphitheatres, old salt mines, famed spires, and razor sharp canyons that rise from the valley.
Visits here are usually combined with sunset view which is now included with your ticket. After exploring the park from within, you’ll drive to combined viewpoints of Mirador de Kari & Piedra del Coyote.
3. Piedras Rojas
Translated to red rocks, this is typically part of the tour to see the Altiplanic Lakes. Not only will you see the high altitude lake of Aguas Calientes, you’ll also see the jaw-dropping copper-coloured rounded rocks juxtaposed against the crystalized salt and pastel-shaded mountains.
If you’re lucky, you might also see vicuña in the vicinity. These are the even-cuter cousins of the alpaca in the llama family.
4. Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques
Located near the town of Socaire are the twin lagoons high in the mountains that are right next to each other. Here, the deep blues of the lake are surrounded by the volcanic desert mountains. It’s a fascinating landscape of browns, reds, and yellows with dots of pink flamingoes in the water.
5. Geyser del Tatio
Proudly as the highest geyser field in the world, fleets of cars and vans drive up here in the dark to be able to catch the geysers when they are the most active in the morning. When you arrive, you’ll see an area full of geothermal activity with plumes of smoke rising up and water gurgling and periodically shooting into the sky.
To temper your expectations a bit, there isn’t necessarily one geyser that shoots several meters high but it’s really about being amongst such a density of activity.
6. Termas de Puritama
Sprouting out in the middle of nowhere are 8 geothermal pools nestled in a hidden valley. Requiring reservations ahead of time, guests book time slots to enjoy the serene hot springs which is a perfect activity to add some relaxation to your itinerary.
7. Lagunas Baltinache
There are several salt water lagoons that you can swim in but the best one is Lagunas Baltinache. Out of the 7 lakes, you can enter 2 of them and thanks to the natural buoyancy created from its high salt content, you’ll float with ease just like in the Dead Sea.
What makes this experience special is that these lagoons are quite small and if you’re lucky to go when it’s quiet, you can have it all to yourself.
There’s a reason why the ALMA Observatory is set up in the Atacama Desert and that’s because it’s one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Thanks to being at a higher altitude with clear and dry skies, and low light pollution, there’s a clarity in the sky that can’t be matched.
Join a stargazing tour such as Atacama Desert Stargazing with Jorge (different from the ones recommended below) to learn the history of astronomy and use a collection of high-powered telescopes to see deep into the cosmos.
9. Town of San Pedro de Atacama
While based in San Pedro de Atacama, you’ll be able to explore its traveller friendly streets that are lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops. The dusty roads combined with mud and brick homes give a real feel of a desert village.
At its center is a church, city hall, and large park that’s often set up with local vendors which is worth a visit. On weekends, they also have a huge local night market that transforms into a lively party.
10. Mirador Lickan-Antai
This is arguably the best spot for sunset even when compared to the special access to Mirador de Kari & Piedra del Coyote. The reason is that the more interesting dragon-like rocky spines of Valle de la Luna are closer to this viewpoint, it’s free to access, and there are no guards here which means you can stay for as long as you want.
This viewpoint off the side of the main highway is also a great spot for stargazing as well.
How Bad Is The Altitude In The Atacama Desert?
For most people, the effects of altitude start kicking in once you’re at a above sea level. San Pedro de Atacama sits at this exact threshold but areas such as the Altiplanic Lakes climb upwards to 4,200 meters (13,780 feet).
As your body adjusts to the change in air pressure and air oxygen levels, it impacts each person differently and also at different times. Generally speaking, altitude sickness comes in 6 to 24 hours and includes symptoms that are similar to a hangover such as headache, nausea, and a general sense of feeling sick.
For some, the altitude will hit you hard and for others, you might not feel anything at all. It’s really hard to say unless you have prior experience with it such as Machu Picchu and along the Inca Trail. For reference, Cusco is at 3,400 meters (11,154 feet) and Machu Picchu is 2,430 meters (7,874 feet).
The good news is that San Pedro de Atacama is not at an extremely high elevation and so its effects should be minimal. That said, from personal experience, while I did not have tingly fingers as I did in Cusco, I did not always have the best sleep.
Where to be careful of altitude?
There are two days to pay particular attention to while in the Atacama desert:
The first is the day you’ll be seeing the Altiplanic Lakes:
- Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques
- Tayujto Lake
- Aguas Clientes
- Piedras Rojas
The second is the morning you visit Geyser del Tatio which contains the highest altitude of your trip standing at 4,320 meters (14,173 feet).
On these days, pay particular attention to how your body is reacting. You may feel it as early as your gradual drive up but most likely, it’ll start impacting you when you’re on foot. Your lung capacity will feel smaller, making breathing more difficult, your legs will feel heavier, and you might develop a headache.
Regarding all of the other locations you visit such as Valle de la Luna, Puritama, and Laguna Chaxa, and Lagunas Baltinache, those are closer to the altitude of San Pedro de Atacama so it won’t be as significant.
How to mitigate the effects of altitude?
If you know that your body handles altitude poorly, you can get a prescription of Diamox before your trip but since you won’t be physically pushing your body as you would on a demanding hike like the Inca Trail or Mount Kilimanjaro, it might be overkill for most people.
Coca tea is common local remedy for altitude sickness. This is sold in San Pedro de Atacama and your accommodations will likely have it as well. From anecdotal evidence, this works for some and not so much for others.
The best way to prepare for activities in higher altitude is to stay hydrated ahead of time and during your time there. Make sure to pack plenty of water and constantly remind yourself to drink it.
Lastly, the key is to not push yourself. If you start feeling symptoms, slow things down and take it easy. Hiking faster will only make things worse so take breaks and walk slow.
Atacama attractions sorted by altitude
If you are particularly sensitive to altitude, you may want to order your itinerary so you do the higher altitude attractions towards the end of your trip after your body has acclimitized.
Here is a list of the main attractions with the highest altitude first.
|Atacama Attraction||Altitude (meters/feet)|
|Salar de Tara||4,860/15,945|
|Geyser del Tatio||4,320/14,173|
|Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques||4,200/13,780|
|Termas de Puritama||3,475/11,401|
|Mirador de Kari – Piedra del Coyote||2,580/8,465|
|Valle de la Luna||2,520/8,268|
|San Pedro de Atacama||2,400/8,000 |
(average threshold of when people living near sea level start feeling effects of altitude)
How To Get Around Atacama?
There’s really only two ways to get around the Atacama Desert – either rent a car, book tours, or rent a bike. There aren’t any public transportation options.
- Rent a car – This is for those that like to DIY their own trip. Having your own car will provide will full autonomy of your trip and provide more flexibility as well. The downside is that you’ll have to do the driving in less -than-ideal road conditions, take care of navigation, and you will also need to take care of all of the entrance tickets as well.
- Book a tour – Most travellers book the standard tour vans. There are a ton of tour operators selling these in town and also online and there can be savings if you bundle several tours together. These are mostly pretty cookie-cutter tours but easily accessible.
- Rent a bike – Cycling is quite popular in San Pedro de Atacama and for the enthusiasts, you can ride to the attractions close to town.
Within San Pedro de Atacama itself, since it’s a small town, you can easily walk around everywhere.
Driving in Atacama
Deciding on whether to rent a car comes down to understanding the road conditions you’ll be faced and having solid trip planning ahead of time.
What are the roads actually like?
The roads in the Atacama Desert go from great to terrible quite quickly. Here’s what you can expect.
- Main highway – Ruta 23 which connects Calama to San Pedro de Atacama and continues south towards Piedras Rojas is excellent. It is paved and in certain areas, recently redone. You won’t find any potholes and there is comfortable pull off space if you want to stop for photos. Passing is quite easy other than in the windy parts
- Geyser del Tatio – This is infamously rough but is definitely not the worst. Driving along B-245 starts off with well-flattened gravel once you leave town but does get quite rough and bumpy. In between when closer to some of the villages, there are some sections of smoother road which gives you a break. Driving to the geysers will be in the dark which sounds scary but since there are very few switchbacks, is really not bad. Lastly, there aren’t many big potholes to worry about so it’s not treacherous in that way.
- Lagunas Baltinache – B-241 is by far the worst road because while the gravel been machine flattened instead of being smooth, it has that rough tread on it which causes the car to violently rumble. For drivers that aren’t used to this, you’ll feel like you want to drive very slow but in fact this makes it worse. The key is to actually speed up to 60 km/h to almost glide through the bumps. There aren’t many potholes here and the road is very straight.
- Laguna Chaxa – Once you get off Ruta 23, it becomes a gravel road but is quite flat and smooth so it’s quite the easy one to drive on.
As a whole, the difficulty of driving in Atacama really comes down to the rumbling of gravel roads. As the driver, you have to have confidence on driving with a bit of speed despite every bone in your body telling you to slow down.
What gets tiring is constantly trying to find the flatter parts of the road. Sometimes this means driving on the wrong side of the road.
Driving a rental car here certainly isn’t for everyone but at the same time, I stress that it’s possible. Gauge your driving skills and the style of travel you want to have in the Atacama desert to make the right decision for you.
- Fill up gas every day – There is only one gas station in San Pedro de Atacama (COPEC) and with some days of long driving, don’t risk running out of fuel. To play it safe, it’s a good idea to fill up nightly.
- Check your tire pressure daily – With the bumpy gravel roads, avoid overinflated tires. From the recommended tire pressure that you’ll find on the driver side door jam, it’s recommended under-inflate by 2-4 PSI. It’s also worth checking your tire pressure every day to check for leaks and make sure they’re always balanced.
- Parking in San Pedro de Atacama – The core of town is mostly pedestrian so you won’t be able to park but if you follow our Atacama itinerary, you’ll see a map with a few parking spaces marked.
- Avoid the sand – Gravel roads have plenty of traction so you won’t notice any wheels slip. The real danger is in soft sand. If you’re pulling off the side of the road, avoid sand at all cost.
Should you book tours or rent a car?
Let’s not beat around the bush here. For this Atacama travel guide, let’s just breakdown why you should do one versus the other with an old fashioned pros vs. cons.
|Car vs. Tour||Pros||Cons|
|Rent a car||– Cost of car rentals is quite low|
– Freedom to build an itinerary around your own schedule
– You can stay at attractions for longer or shorter
– Outside of tours, you’ll be able to drive to
– Proven that the a trip built around a rental car can be equal or cheaper than one with tours
– Save time from having to negotiate with booking tours in town
– You can stop on the side of the road anytime
– You can load the car with your gear however you’d like
|– While do-able, driving in Atacama is still challenging|
– Requires understanding all of the ticket rules
– No need for tipping
– Need to deal with car issues if they arise and you’ll need to handle fuel and tire pressure
|Book tours||– Once booked, it’s largely stress-free with the drive, ticket purchasing, location, and time control in someone else’s hand|
– In town, there are deals if you bundle many tours together for cost savings
– Access to a professional guide with more background knowledge
– You can nap on the bus
– Many of these tours include a snack break
– Safety net of a local guide
|– Typically, the time spent at each location is less than what you’d like. It’ll feel rushed.|
– Tours are standardized across the board and so you’ll be touring when everyone else is going.
– You still have to pay entrance fees
– It’s a fixed schedule that can’t be deviated
Is the Atacama Desert safe?
Atacama Desert is probably one of the safest places in Latin America thanks to being so isolated and away from urban centers. It’s a town that relies heavily on tourism and overall is safe at multiple levels – crime, health, and nature.
Whether you’re traveling solo, as a family, as a couple, or in a large group, San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert will never feel unsafe. That said, you always want to be aware of your surroundings and travel smart.
If there are instances of any crime, it’d have to be in the town of San Pedro de Atacama but there is virtually no violent crime in San Pedro de Atacama.
When you first arrive in town, the first impression you might have is that it looks a little run down but that has more to do with the dusty streets, Adobe-syle construction, and stray dogs but the reality is that San Pedro de Atacama is very friendly towards tourists. The only sketchy people might be some of the drunks you see around the bar but they’re harmless just like the stray dogs.
The only type of crime that you might hear about is petty theft but even that is a rare occurrence.
There are a couple of reasons why San Pedro de Atacama is safe from a crime perspective:
- As a very small town, all of the locals practically know each other.
- The police in town are actually quite helpful and friendly.
- Being in the middle of the desert, it’s not a transient town or one that’s easy to access where unsavoury people could make their way through.
Theft is certainly still a possibility as recounted by Fram Opazo, so at the end of the day make sure you lock all doors and windows, have locks for your suitcases if there aren’t lockers, and never have valuables visible in the car.
Once you get out of San Pedro de Atacama, safety crime is even less of a concern because of how difficult it is to get around. That said, always make sure you travel smart.
When it comes to your personal health, the Atacama Desert is not a high risk area but there are a couple of things you should know about.
While some may say that it’s okay to drink tap water, I wouldn’t risk it. The main issue with water in San Pedro de Atacama is not with the water quality but it comes down to the amount of minerals it has in it.
This isn’t necessarily dangerous but ultimately not recommended.
In the Atacama Desert, drink only bottled water. The best place to buy them as at the local supermarket such as Supermercado Ketal.
Considering the effects of high altitude and dry weather, water will be incredibly important so make sure you’re drinking the right water.
TIP: Buy the large 6L jugs of water that you can keep in your room and in the car instead of the small water bottles. Use re-useable bottles like the Hydrapak SkyFlask.
Other than the requirements entry into the country, there’s no need for any specialized medication.
You do not need to worry about West Nile, Zika, Yellow Fever, Dengue, or Malaria in the Atacama Desert.
Traveler’s diarrhea is always a possibility but Chile and San Pedro de Atacama aren’t known to have this issue so it’s up to you whether you want to use Dukoral before your trip.
As a small town, they only have a small medical facility with an ER. You’ll also find a few pharmacies in town. If a major accident happens to you, you’ll most likely get transferred to Calama or Antofagasta so make sure you have the right travel insurance.
The vast desert is unforgiving and can be dangerous so be aware of your surroundings.
We covered this earlier in our Atacama travel guide but altitude sickness is certainly at play when visiting.
What’s different about the altitude here and say with somewhere like trekking the Inca Trail is that you’re not constantly exerting your body and you’re not consistently hanging around 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) and above. Every day, you’ll be returning back to San Pedro de Atacama which is at 2,400 meters (8,000 feet).
The only treatment for altitude is to get back down to lower altitude but on a trip like this, you’ll have to manage at San Pedro de Atacama’s height above sea level.
In most cases, you’ll feel lightheaded, nausea, loss of appetite, headache, poor sleep, and shortness of breath. In worse cases, symptoms include vomiting, difficulty breathing even at rest, and severe headache.
If you have any heart and lung conditions, are pregnant, or know that you don’t handle altitude well, make sure you consult a physician ahead of the trip.
Overall, keep in mind these tips to help with the altitude:
- Don’t work your body too hard.
- Walk slowly and take your time, don’t run.
- Stay extremely well-hydrated. This means constantly drinking water even when you’re not thirsty. Your lips should always stay moist.
- Don’t drink alcohol.
- Your body will need 3 or more days to acclimatize to the higher altitude.
A trip to the Atacama Desert involves walking around mostly well-marked trails and maybe a few adventure activities but being out in the desert means that there’s some inherent risk.
When it comes to adventure activities such as ATV, sandboarding, and cycling, know your body’s limits.
While you’re in the desert, the worst thing you can do is get lost so never go off known trails and roads. If you do, make sure you have an app such as AllTrails or Gaia GPS marking your route. The Apple Watch Ultra also has a backtrack feature that can be quite handy if you’re going backcountry.
Lastly, when it comes to your surroundings, abide by the rules provided by the signs and guides at each location. There’s a reason why they provide mini orientation sessions before you’re allowed to go out.
The few locations to pay attention to are:
- Geyser del Tatio – The bubbling water and steam reaches up to a scolding 85°C (185°F). Don’t touch or get near them.
- Valle de la Luna – With Duna Major particularly, there are some drop offs on the trail so don’t get too close to the edge.
- Mirador Lickan-Antai – There are no barriers laid out at the edges so be careful not to fall over.
- Mirador de Kari & Piedra del Coyote – The chain that wraps the edge is there for your safety. Don’t cross them and definitely don’t take photos at the cliff edges as it’s a sheer drop.
- Lagunas Baltinache – This really goes for any salt lagoon but the salt at the edges are very sharp so be careful where you put your feet as cuts are quite common. High salt concentrations in water can also have various effects on your skin so if you know your skin is sensitive, test it first before spending a long period of time in the water.
When compared to Patagonia, the weather in Atacama is definitely more challenging. Instinctively, you’d think it’s just hot all the time, but there are several factors at play that you need to be ready for:
- Cold at night – The temperature swings are massive. Yes it can get very hot in the middle of the day when the sun is up but once it dips, it gets quite cold. That’s why for any type of stargazing activity, you’ll have to bring out winter gear.
- Insanely dry – Bring your best moisturizers. Your skin will feel the moisture being zapped out of you. Be prepared for lots of hang nails and chapped lips as well.
- Windy like you won’t believe – This was the most unexpected part. Especially at the Altiplanic Lakes, the wind thrashes with a vengeance which compounds with the altitude sickness.
- UV – With the cold mornings, you’ll be deceived into not putting on sunscreen but that changes in a hurry. You should definitely put on sunscreen once you head out the door and re-apply in the afternoon. If you look at the UV levels in San Pedro de Atacama, it’s usually at “Extreme” so you don’t want to mess around.
It’s unforgiving alright!
The high altitude and dry climate is almost a natural barrier against most insect-borne disease.
The good news for those that attract mosquitoes is that there are non to speak of here. Mosquitoes love moisture, they hate the cold, and they hate altitude, making this the perfect haven for those that want to get away from them.
The primary animals you’ll see in Atacama are stray dogs, flamingos, vicuña, donkeys, smaller birds, lizards, foxes, and horses. None are aggressive so there’s not too much to worry about.
At most, stray dogs do like to bark and chase after bikes if you’re riding in town.
Is Atacama safe to travel alone?
Yes, San Pedro de Atacama is incredibly friendly towards solo travelers.
The first thing you’ll notice in town is how many hostels there are in town. As a popular destination for backpackers, you’ll be able to meet other solo travelers quite easily.
If hostels aren’t your thing, there are also plenty of hotels and B&Bs to choose from that are all very central.
Ultimately, the lack of crime, friendliness of the locals, affordable day tours, and abundance of travelers, make Atacama safe to travel alone.
Be safe just in case
The key to being safe in Atacama really comes down to travelling smart and being prepared for the conditions you find yourself in.
There are a few things we haven’t mentioned yet that’s worth mentioning:
- Pack a first aid kit – It’s always a good idea to have a mini first aid kit. If you’re prone to blisters, make sure to pack moleskin and other remedies.
- Hydration pack – Having a hydration bladder system as part of your backpack is super handy to make sure you have water accessible at all times.
- Bring a lock – Whether at a hostel or hotel, lock your zippers up when going out. If you’re going to Puritama, you need your own lock for the lockers in the change room.
- Stay connected – Let your friends and family know your itinerary and buy an Entel SIM to get access to cellular data when it’s available.
- Have travel insurance – With the amount of outdoor activities you’re doing, we highly encourage you to have insurance in case sh*t happens. A medical evacuation back home, trips to the hospital, and other health emergencies, you’ll want to make sure you’re protected.
For adventure sports coverage as a Canadian, Allianz has a really good custom plan that you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re in Canada, check RATESDOTCA to make sure you get the best rates. If you’re anywhere else in the world including the United States, World Nomads is a popular provider.
Spanish is the official spoken language in Chile and when you’re in the Atacama Desert, it definitely helps to be able to speak it.
When comparing our 6 day Atacama itinerary experience where we travelled independently versus our 10 days in Torres del Paine which was almost entirely with a tour operator, it was definitely challenging not knowing any Spanish. In many cases, we had to resort to using Google Translate and their handy Conversation feature.
What you’ll find is that in San Pedro de Atacama, many people will speak English or at the least you’ll be able to get by. Outside of town though, in say Toconao, Socaire, and at the individual attractions, knowledge of English will be minimal.
What you’ll always appreciate is that if they know a little English, they’ll always try their best.
TIP: Make sure to download the Spanish language pack for offline use within the Google Translate app.
Food To Try in Atacama
Speaking honestly, San Pedro de Atacama isn’t exactly known for their gastronomy but there are a few things we’ll point out in this Atacama travel guide.
Chilean beef is still the thing to order in restaurants Atacama if you’re a meat eater. It’s high quality, cooked consistently well, and is quite affordable.
What you’ll find is that lomo (steak) or lomo vetado (rib eye steak) is served in very consistent styles in Atacama:
- Lomo a lo pobre – Translates to poor man’s beef but this is basically your traditional beef steak with a sunny side up egg, caramelized onions, and fries.
- Lomo en salsa cabernet – Steak with a cabernet sauce.
- Lomo en salsa champiñon – Steak with a mushroom sauce.
- Lomo vetado roquefort – Rib eye steak with a sauce that’s made from a Roquefort blue cheese.
- Lomo vetado al pil-pil – This is the name of a sauce made with garlic and chili infused in olive oil and delicious with shrimp as well.
These styles of cooking doesn’t apply only to steak but you’ll also see it with chicken, vegetarian dishes, and shrimp.
This specific restaurant deserves to be mentioned on its own. Located on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, they offer 3 course meals with an emphasis on local and Indigenous Mapuche ingredients.
What impresses is their creativity, simplicity, and also their plating style, and overall ambiance.
This was easily our best meal in San Pedro de Atacama.
Empanadas are amazing here and you’ll love that they’re affordable as well. The best place to get empanadas is at Emporio Andino where they have an assortment of fillings including two vegan ones as well.
Sopaipilla is deep fried, crispy, and puffy orange bread that’s a staple in Chile and often made out of pumpkin. Every region has a different take to how it’s made but is also served with pebre which is a type of salsa.
Many restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama will include sopaipilla as a complimentary appetizer. There is no additional cost for it however we found that in many cases they served the pebre with a basic bread bun instead of sopaipilla.
To get authentic sopaipilla, you may need to order it as a separate appetizer.
Our honest take is that the sopaipilla in Patagonia is much better.
Fresh Fruit Juices
This isn’t necessarily unique to Atacama but we found that their Jugos Naturales (natural juice) to be excellent here.
Most restaurants have pineapple and mango available.
Thanks to its proximity, there is quite a bit of Peruvian influence in their dishes here. That’s why you’ll find dishes such as Lomo Saltado (beef stir-fry with rice) on many menus here.
And just for kicks, we might as well throw in the fact that you can get Inca Kola here. I’m sure you can find this all around South America but I was certainly amused that you could order this in restaurants.
If you’re craving Peruvian, you just might find it here.
It goes without saying that the pisco sours in Chile are delicious and you can’t go wrong wherever you order this.
Pisco sour is served in the traditional way but also several unique flavours. One to look out for is Pisco Sour Rica Rica. Rica Rica is an Atacama Desert herb that grows in abundance in this region.
We’re suckers for sweets and while our expectations were low for gelato in the desert, we were impressed with the unique flavours they have here.
The main gelato shop in San Pedro de Atacama is Heladeria Babalú and is always great in the middle of the day under the scorching sun or as a pre or post to any meals you have in town.
A few unique flavors to look out for are:
- Chañar Chip – A Chilean palo verde tree’s fruit that has almost a milk tea flavor to it that goes well with chocolate chip.
- Maracuya – This is passion fruit and a popular flavour in South America.
- Ayrampo Flor de Cactus – Maroon colored gelato that’s made from a cactus flower.
- Cherimoya – A large custard apple fruit that’s closely related to sweetsop and soursop.
In many ways, the issue of connectivity is similar to Patagonia. When you’re in town, finding wifi and cellular data is easy but once you get out into the desert, signal is mostly non-existent.
Here’s a breakdown of how to get internet access while exploring the Atacama Desert.
Finding wifi in San Pedro de Atacama is relatively easy as most restaurants will have it and all hotels will certainly have it.
For restaurants, most connections are protected so you’ll need to ask the waiter/waitress for a password.
However, once you leave town, don’t expect to find wifi connections anywhere. That’s when you’ll need to rely on a good cellular network but even that will only take you so far.
If you have a smartphone, there are several ways you can access cellular data:
- Local SIM card
- Roaming with a home SIM card
- Wifi hotspot device
Local SIM Card
This is the cheapest and most reliable way to get data service in Atacama.
In Chile, the providers with prepaid SIM cards for tourists are Entel, Wom, Claro, and Movistar but the only one you should consider getting is Entel.
Entel is the carrier of choice because they have the best coverage in the more remote areas of Chile.
For us, we activated a SIM card while in Patagonia so we just continued to use the data we purchased there.
What you’ll love about Entel is that specific music, social media, and message apps are unlimited and don’t use data. This includes Spotify, Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Where can you buy an Entel SIM card? The unfortunate thing is that you can’t buy Entel SIM cards at the Santiago or Calama airports so you’ll have to pick one up in town. It’s $2,500 CLP for a SIM card that’s loaded with 1GB and 30 minutes and you’ll find these in most local pharmacies or convenient stores. You don’t need to go to an Entel store. In San Pedro de Atacama, there is an Entel store but the most convenient spot would be the Cruz Verde pharmacy.
Is it easy to activate the Entel SIM card? It’s quite easy but since the SMS instructions come in Spanish and require you to complete steps in Spanish over a number you dial, you might want to ask a local to help you out. Activation takes 2 minutes.
Is it easy to recharge the Entel SIM card? You can load more data to your plan by going to a pharmacy or convenient store. Another way to do it is through the Entel app. You first have to load money into your account. With that money, you’ll purchase a data and minutes plan ($8,000 CLP = 20GB, $5,000 CLP = 10GB).
TIP: Many of your credit cards have two-factor authentication enabled on international purchases where it’ll send you a text message with a code. This won’t work because your phone will be using the Entel SIM. There’s not much you can do about that but there’s bound to be a credit card that doesn’t do this so we recommend that you bring as many credit cards as you can on the trip. Worst case, you’ll have to ask a local to help by using their local bank.
How is Entel’s coverage in Atacama? There’s a limited radius of coverage around San Pedro de Atacama but once you start driving away, data signal diminishes. It pops back up in the larger towns such as Toconao and Socaire but is very limited. The one surprise was that we noticed that there was still 3G signal at Geyser del Tatio.
NOTE: This only works if your phone is unlocked.
Advantage – The cheapest method and ensures you are connected to Entel.
Disadvantage – Buying a SIM card may not be as convenient and may require a local Chilean to help with activating and recharging.
Home SIM Card
If you don’t want to deal with buying an Entel SIM card and getting it set up, it might be easier to just roam with the SIM card from home.
While convenient, the trade off is that it will be expensive as it’s typically a flat fee per day and it might not be able to roam onto Entel and as a result, the coverage could be quite poor.
TIP: Make sure your plan has international roaming enabled. This is usually done from your carrier’s online portal or you can call in.
Advantage – Requires no additional work.
Disadvantage – Easily the most expensive method of connecting and may not reliably connect to Entel.
If you already own a wifi hotspot device, this may be a good option for you. These are pocket devices that you load up with data and can roam onto local 3G and 4G signal and converts them to wifi signal that you and your family/friends can connect to.
PokeFi is the most affordable where plans are $15 USD for 5GB. The device itself is $200 USD and ships from Hong Kong and is secretly what many pilots and flight attendants use.
Advantage – You can share the connection with multiple people and it can work globally.
Disadvantage – Hotspot device needs to be charged and it is not as cheap as a local SIM. There’s also a risk that the device you have doesn’t connect to Entel.
PokeFi Exclusive Promotion
Are you an avid traveler and could use an affordable wifi hotspot system? Invest in a PokeFi and take advantage of our special promo code.
Use the code GAP23200 to get $200 HKD or $25 USD off the starter package which comes with an extra battery and 5GB built in.
The newest method of connecting to cellular data while travelling is through eSIM technology. If your smartphone has this capability, you can definitely consider this option. In some cases, some phones only allow eSIM.
eSIMs aren’t physical cards but something that can be activated by software on your phone.
The biggest player in the eSIM market for travelers is Airalo. With them, you have the option to purchase an eSIM that can work globally or be specific for a country.
Here are their sample rates:
- Local Chile eSIM – 20GB for $23 USD (valid for 30 days)
- Global eSIM – 5GB for $35 USD (valid for 30 days)
Notice how the prices vary quite a bit between the two. Depending on your trip and whether you’ll be hopping to different countries, you can choose what makes sense.
Advantage – Relatively convenient solution that is completely digital and can be done from home. The prices are also reasonable.
Disadvantage – Airalo has limited validity days unless you purchase the larger packages. The prices are definitely higher than wifi hotspots and local SIMs.
The local currency in Chile is the Chilean Peso or CLP.
Banknotes come in the denomination of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 pesos. Coins come in 10, 50, 100, and 500 pesos.
Unlike in Torres del Paine, you don’t need to necessarily have all of your cash planned out since you’ll be based in San Pedro de Atacama which has ATMs, but it’s still a good idea to have cash handy.
While Chile has its own currency, you’ll find that most companies will quote a US Dollar (USD) versus a CLP. This doesn’t mean that they only accept USD but is often done to make it easier to understand the cost.
In most cases, businesses still prefer Chilean Pesos even though prices are quoted in USD. The exception is when businesses want you to pay before arriving, in which case it’s expected that you pay in USD even if you’re not from the United States.
The VAT tax in Chile is 19% but in the case of hotels in Atacama, international travelers are exempt only if they pay in USD. This is the only time when the tax can be avoided. Otherwise, the 19% is built-in.
When will you need to spend cash?
To figure out how much cash you need when traveling the Atacama Desert, it’s a good idea to figure out in what scenarios you’ll need cash – whether it be USD or CLP.
Here are a few scenarios you might encounter in Atacama:
- Hotel (USD to save the 19% tax)
- Tips for transfers, guides, restaurants, and housekeeping
- Entrance fees
The hotel expense is the big one but most hotels take credit card. That leaves mostly having cash ready to tip and local markets for souvenirs. For this, it’s a good idea to have a lot of the smaller bills handy.
For entrance fees, we were never sure if places took credit card so we always paid in cash but from what we saw, some did take credit cards.
Do most places take credit card?
The good news is that credit card is widely accepted everywhere in Atacama.
You’ll be able to use your credit card everywhere from restaurants, gas station, grocery store, pharmacy, some souvenir stores, tour operators, and some entrance fees.
Where can you get Chilean pesos?
There are 4 ways travellers can get Chilean pesos:
- Money changer in your home country
- Large bank in your home country that has an exchange office
- Withdraw from an ATM in Chile
- Money changer in Chile
Why change money at home? Depending on your itinerary, you may not have time to exchange money right after you land in Chile. Take the stress away by getting all or a large chunk of the CLP you’ll need by getting it at home. CLP is a bit of a specialized currency so you may need to put in a special order but it is definitely possible.
Is it safe to withdraw from ATMs in Chile? For the most part. ATMs that are inside banks are safe but avoid standalone ATMs out in the open. We heard from one traveller that their card got cloned after using an ATM in the Santiago Airport’s T2 (international) terminal.
Do ATMs in Chile charge a fee?
This took a bit of investigation but we managed to try a number of ATMs in Santiago to figure out what their withdrawal fees were for international debit cards.
- Scotiabank – $7,000 CLP ($200,000 CLP limit)
- Santander – $7,000 CLP ($200,000 CLP limit)
- BancoEstado – $5,500 CLP (no posted limit)
- BCI – $8,000 CLP ($200,000 CLP limit)
- Banco de Chile – $8,500 CLP ($200,000 CLP limit)
- Banco Falabella – Could not withdraw for some reason
There are no banks in Chile that have free ATM withdrawals and keep in mind that most have a withdrawal limit with the exception of BancoEstado. The limit for most is roughly $200 USD.
Note that your bank might also charge an international withdrawal fee. It will show up as a “PLUS” transaction. In our case, this was $5 CAD.
Which banks are available in San Pedro de Atacama?
In San Pedro de Atacama’s case, they only have Banco BCI and BancoEstado. This is perfect because BancoEstado has the best withdrawal fees.
Is it a good idea to use money changers in Chile?
They are not known to scam travelers but the rates offered by the ones at airports are typically worse. Ones in the city offer better rates but they are often not much better than the rate you get from withdrawing at an ATM.
There are money changers in San Pedro de Atacama but we’d recommend sticking to ATMs.
What other currency should you carry?
The only other currency worth carrying in Chile is the US Dollar. Some places may take the currency as an alternate form of payment but this is typically limited to tour operators.
You can also pay tips in USD but I’m pretty sure they would prefer CLP. It works in a pinch though.
USD is also what you’ll need to get a favourable conversion at money changers if that’s how you plan to get CLP.
Overall, it’s a good idea to have at least $200-$300 in USD for emergency use.
Credit card fees
Your life will be much easier if you are okay to use your credit card throughout Chile. This alleviates how much cash you have to bring.
Foreign Conversion Mark-Up
By using your international credit card, just remember that you’ll be charged an additional 2.5% on the currency conversion. It’s a hidden fee that’s embedded into the rate that’s used to convert to your home currency.
The exception of course are special credit cards that don’t have no foreign transaction fees (0% fx) such as the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite Card in Canada.
Point of Sales (POS) Credit Card Machine Fee
From Transbank (a majority of POS credit card machines), it looks like their machines added a new fee for cards issued abroad for the Mastercard and VISA brands starting February 1, 2021. On the receipt, this shows up as Recargo tarjeta extranjera.
According to Transbank these are the current surcharges but they are based off of a USD fee so it will change according to the exchange rate. This is supposed to be adjusted annually.
|Purchase Amount||Surcharge in CLP|
|$0 – $1 USD||$0 CLP|
|>$1 – $20 USD||$347 CLP|
|>$20 – $80 USD||$1,227 CLP|
|>$80 USD||$2,677 CLP|
Our recommendation: This feels counterintuitive to say but American Express is the way to go in Chile.
Carrying over what we learned in Patagonia, tipping is said to be not essential but at the end of the day is common practice.
These are the standard tips for Chilean tourism services:
- Guides – $10 – $15 USD per person, per day, given directly to your guides
- Restaurant Staff – 10% of your restaurant bill
- Housekeeping – $5 USD per room, per night
- Drivers – $5 USD per person per day, given directly to your drivers
Of course, adjust your tipping based on actual service received.
Tipping in restaurants
Something quite unique to Chile is that restaurants automatically add a 10% tip but instead of sneakily leaving it there, they’ll always ask you whether it’s okay. You have the option of saying yes or no.
On the bill, it’s labelled as propina (Spanish for tips).
Personally, I found 10% to be quite reasonable and appreciated the fact that we had the choice instead of some countries where they slip it in without you knowing and you end up paying double the tip.
How To Save Money in Atacama?
In this San Pedro de Atacama travel guide, we’ll be covering the cost breakdown a little further below and you’ll see that it isn’t necessarily the cheapest trip.
That said, there are still a number of ways to save money on your trip to the Atacama Desert. Here’s how.
- Pack snacks from home – If you have the space, pack a bunch of granola bars, energy gels, and other snacks so you don’t have to buy them in Chile.
- Buy food from the grocery store – The next best thing is to get your supplies from the local grocery store. Better yet, the cheapest place to grab supplies is at Supermercado Ketal.
- Book flights from the Chilean website – We covered this earlier but always book your flights on the Chilean version of the airline site as there are substantial savings.
- Save on credit card foreign transaction fees – Grab a credit card that doesn’t apply a 2.5% rate mark up on the exchange rate.
- Don’t use MasterCard or VISA – I don’t know why but their most common point of sales machine has a thing against MasterCard or VISA which adds surcharge so use anything but.
- Pay for the hotel in USD – Save the 19% tax when paying in USD.
- Choose CLP when using your credit card – For machines that give you the option, always choose CLP because your home bank will usually have a better conversion rate.
- Drive manual transmission – If you know how to drive manual, you’ll find cheaper car rental rates.
THINKING ABOUT PATAGONIA?
If you like all of the details in this Atacama travel guide, make sure to jump over to our Patagonia travel guide that focuses on Torres del Paine National Park.
Souvenirs to Buy in San Pedro de Atacama
If you’re looking to buy a few souvenirs for yourself or friends and family back home, there are quite a few options in San Pedro de Atacama. In fact, you really can’t miss them because they’re everywhere.
The truth is, all of the souvenir stores sell the same variations of products that are questionably made in China but here’s the secret of what to buy in Atacama.
- Shop at the main plaza – Go to Plaza de San Pedro de Atacama where local vendors will set up shop all around. You’ll find more authentic and local crafts here.
- Handmade art – In the plaza and at a few of the artisanal boutiques, you’ll find interesting alpaca-made art that’s framed and copper-made figures.
- Alpaca – There are boutique shops that sell the softest baby alpaca sweaters that are quite affordable and genuine.
- Ponchos – I’m not sure if I’ve seen this many people wear ponchos anywhere I’ve travelled. if there’s a place to buy and wear them, it would be here in San Pedro de Atacama.
Where to shop for souvenirs?
The main street of Caracoles and perpendicular side streets are filled with the “standard” souvenir shops”. If you’re looking for larger markets with many vendors all together, look for these markets:
- Feria Artesanal San Pedro de Atacama – This is right next to the city hall.
- Centro San Pedro Atacama – This on Caracoles street.
What To Pack to the Atacama Desert?
Not sure what you need to pack for your trip to the Atacama Desert? We won’t go through an exhaustive list because we broke down everything we needed for the Patagonia packing list but we’ll share the key items you don’t want to miss.
- Windbreaker jacket – A waterproof shell is worth packing especially if you’re also going to Patagonia and/or Easter Island.
- Pack plenty of layers – From Arc’teryx base layers, fleeces, and mid-layer jackets, you’ll be needing a combination of these depending on what time of day it is.
- Hooded long sleeve sun shirts – It’s hot and the UV is incredibly powerful. Stay cool with something like the Echo Hoodie.
- A good hat – The Arc’teryx Calvus Cap is lightweight and perfect for a desert climate like Atacama.
- Toque/beanie – Sounds a little crazy but a quality toque or merino pocket beanie is handy to have because it gets very cold during stargazing and the early morning at Geyser del Tatio.
- Gloves – If you get cold easily, a liner glove is a good idea.
- Swim suit – You’ll need this for the salt lagoons and hot springs.
- Towel – The tours won’t provide this so you’ll need to bring your own towels.
- All the creams – Whether it’s hand, body, or face lotion, bring all of your good stuff.
- Lip balm – The worst feeling when travelling is having dry lips and not having lip balm.
- Nail clippers – Hang nails are going to happen so you’ll want to have this handy.
- Eye drops – Your eyes will get dry.
- Re-useable water bottles – It’s much easier to buy the 6L jugs of water and refill your own water bottles.
- Sunglasses – Don’t forget a good pair of these.
- Flip flops/sandals – These will come in handy for Puritama and places like Lagunas Baltinache.
Where To Stay in San Pedro de Atacama?
There are lots of choice when it comes to finding a place to stay in San Pedro de Atacama that range from budget to luxury.
Before going into our recommendations, there are a few questions you’ll want to answer to help narrow down the choices.
- Does the accommodation need to be a close walking distance to the central part of town?
- Do you care if breakfast is included?
- What style of accommodation are you looking for?
- Do they need to have their own parking lot or is street parking ok?
Another small detail to keep in mind is that when checking into a hotel, they were ask for your passport and IDP receipt that you received when you landed in Chile. They will be photocopied and is a requirement in order to be exempt from the 19% tax.
Hotels and B&Bs
Ultra Luxury: Explora Atacama
Explora is top-of-the-line luxury and is a well-known brand in South America where they are able to blend in local elements and eco-tourism with modern design, and 5-star service.
Their Atacama Desert property follows an all-inclusive model where stays here include your choice of excursions for the number of days that you’re staying there.
Luxury: Terrantai Lodge
Located right next to the San Pedro de Atacama church, this hotel is incredibly central without being right on the main strip which means that you can easily walk around town. Plus, breakfast is included!
This is cozy a boutique hotel that’s constructed with natural and local stones. Rooms are modernly finished and kept very clean. Additional amenities include a swimming pool and garden. They also have free wine tastings each evening.
Midrange: Hoteles Pueblo de Tierra
This is the hotel that we stayed at and we were very impressed with the its balance of price, and quality of the property and rooms. Breakfast is included each day where you can also order scrambled eggs in addition to other options of toast, yogurt, fruit, cake, oatmeal, cold cuts, milk, coffee, and tea.
From the outside, it’s an unassuming adobe-style building but once you enter, you’re greeted with a large courtyard large pool, lounge area, upper deck for hanging out, the breakfast restaurant, and the surrounding suites.
I’ll admit, the name threw me off a bit because it’s sometimes called “Hostal Pueblo de Tierra”, but trust me when I say it’s a gem of a hotel.
The rooms themselves are incredibly spacious and have a modern concrete finish to them. The water is hot and the pressure is solid. Heating is controlled by a gas heater in the room which is a little difficult to operate at first but eventually got used to it. The room does get quite cold at night, so you’ll need all of the bedding layers. In the summer, they also have air condition to keep you cool.
This property doesn’t have its own parking lot but because it’s in a quiet part of town, there are no issues finding street parking which is also quite safe.
TIP: If you can, request rooms rooms 114 and 115. They’re further removed from the central courtyard so it’s pretty quiet and there’s the bonus of the wireless router being positioned right there. The hotel manager said that not all rooms have great reception.
Budget: Casa Lickana B&B
You’ll find this B&B right on Caracoles street, featuring a large garden, free private parking, and buffet breakfast. This is a highly rated property that has exceptional service, in a central location, and has the bonus of a hot tub.
The rooms themselves are no frills but has everything that you’d need including hot water, shower, toiletries, bed linen, towels, and a mini-fridge.
The 5 top rated hostels in San Pedro de Atacama are:
- Hostal Campo Base
- Mamatierra Hostel
- Backpackers San Pedro
- Casa Voyage Hostel
- Aji Verde Hostel San Pedro de Atacama
When Is The Best Time To Visit Atacama Desert?
There are 3 primary seasons for travel to the Atacama Desert. There’s a reason to go to each one but we believe that shoulder season is still the best time to go.
Chile being in the southern hemisphere, remember that the seasons are switched if you’re coming from the northern hemisphere.
High Season (December – February)
The busiest time of the year coincides with the warmest months in Atacama. This is a popular time for travellers to come to Chile because folks are escaping the cold temperatures and it’s around the holidays.
During these months, the temperatures get quite hot during the day but stay pleasantly warm at night. The highs average at 26°C (78.8°F) and lows of 8°C – 9°C (46.4°F – 48.2°F).
It’s not a sweltering evening but compared to the shoulder season, it’s quite comfortable for stargazing.
The flip side to high season is that it is the cloudiest parts of the year so there are chances of overcast skies, especially in January. Being the high season, it also means lots of visitors.
- Dec – Immaculate Conception Day, Christmas Day
- Jan – New Year’s Day
Shoulder Season (March – May, September – November)
The shoulder season months is an excellent time to come because the crowds die down and the evening temperatures still stay above freezing.
The highs range from 22°C – 26°C (71.6°F – 78.8°F) and lows of 4°C – 8°C (39.2°F – 46.4°F). This means that during the day, it can be quite hot but temperatures will drop considerably at night.
As a quieter part of the season, you’ll find that the prices are lower and entrance tickets and tours less competitive to book. The downside is that you’ll need to bundle up for stargazing.
- Apr – Holy Saturday
- May – Labour Day
- May – Navy Day
- Sept – Independence Day
- Sept – Day of the Glories of the Chilean Army
- Oct – Meeting of the Worlds
- Oct – Reformation Day
- Nov – All Saint’s Day
Low Season (June – August)
This is the Atacama Desert’s winter months.
This is the quietest time of the year with barely any visitors but one of the big reasons to come during this time is because it is the clearest part of the year. As a result, this is a popular time for serious stargazers and astronomers.
Overall, the highs range from 20°C – 21°C (68°F – 69.8°F) and lows of 2°C – 3°C (35.6°F – 37.4°F) but evenings can easily go below freezing depending on the altitude.
If you’re wondering about daylight, it does not change too much throughout the year. Winter is the shortest time of the year with the shortest day at 10 hours and 44 minutes. In the summer, the longest day is 13 hours and 33 minutes.
- Jun – Indigenous People’s Day
- Jun – Saint Peter and Saint Paul Day
- Jul – Our Lady of Mount Carmel
- Aug – Assumption Day
There aren’t any specific highlights throughout the year besides clarity in the sky. From a wildlife perspective, there also aren’t any significant migratory or mating events.
How Many Days in Atacama Desert?
There are various takes on this question but in this Atacama travel guide, I can offer up a few versions of it based on how your trip planning is shaping up and, what you want to see, and how many days you can afford.
Tight on time and want to cram everything in
If you’re trip is shaping out to be quite tight and you want to fit in the Atacama Desert but can’t afford a lot of days, we’d say 3 days is potentially do-able if you fly into Calama really early and fly out really late.
You won’t be able to see as much but you’ll be able to fit in Valle de la Luna, Geyser del Tatio, and maybe even one of the lagunas.
You have some time to work with and want to see most of the key highlights
5-6 days is really the sweet spot for the average traveler that wants to do pretty much everything the Atacama Desert in Chile has to offer.
For this, we recommend you check out our 6 day Atacama itinerary. You’ll see that we took it slow on the back half of the trip but in theory you could really squeeze more in.
You want to take it slow and see Atacama thoroughly
Do you enjoy slow travel and want to take a non-rushed pace through Atacama and your time in San Pedro de Atacama? 8-9 days might be what you’re looking for.
With the extra time, you’ll be able to fit in more breaks throughout your trip, and also get to fit in a few more of the extra things we identify we missed in our Atacama itinerary.
Atacama Trip Costs
How much an Atacama trip costs will be quite different depending on trip styles, how cheap you can find a flight, and accommodations.
In our itinerary for San Pedro de Atacama, we break down all our real costs and also compare it to what it would cost to take a set of tour instead of doing it independently with a car rental.
Another look at the costs is by pie chart which is below where you can see a clear breakdown of how we spent our money.
From the above, you can see that flights and accommodations make up half of the expenses while car rental comes in at a close third.
If you can cut the costs of flights and accommodations, you’ll be able to reduce the cost of your trip which for us was $1,439 USD per person.
Is Atacama Worth It?
Yes, absolutely. The Atacama Desert is an incredibly unique landscape that will have you going “wow” at every turn. It’s an extreme part of Chile that shows you just how dramatic the country’s geology is.
For most, these will no doubt be the highlights:
- The best stargazing in your life
- Moonscapes of Valle de la Luna
- Flamingos in the wild
- Pastel mountains, red rocks, and salt lake at Piedras Rojas
- Hot spring bliss at Puritama
- Geyser fields
From our honest perspective, what we’ll say about Atacama is that Patagonia and Easter Island will be more impressive if you ever asked us to rank these far regions of Chile.
While the desert has an oasis of gems to be discovered, the barren landscape just doesn’t have quite the lasting impression as Torres del Paine and the moai’s of Easter Island.
Final Trip Planning Tips
Rounding out this Atacama travel guide are a few loose end tips that you’ll want to mark down. Many of these are things we had to learn by trial and error.
- Los Flamencos National Reserve – This is an easy area of confusion. Normally, national reserves cover one continuous area. In this case, it’s really a collection of 7 separate sections, many of which are key tourist areas such as Valle de la Luna, Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons, and Aguas Calientes. From a trip planning perspective, it’s better to refer to the individual attractions than try to pinpoint where this reserve is. it also doesn’t help that Google Maps has one specific area pinned as “Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos”.
- Lack of quality official websites – For Atacama, there’s unfortunately a lack of unified and single source of truth when it comes to the primary attractions.
- It’s almost like they don’t want people to independently travel Atacama – The lack of information gives off the perception that you can’t travel through this region on your own which is why we feel like it’s almost a system built for tour operators. This lead to some frustration travelling here but hopefully we’ve uncovered all of the small details that’ll save you from a lot of headache.
- Book ahed of time – Make sure to book Puritama and Valle de la Luna ahead of your trip.
- PuntoTickets – This is the platform that sells tickets for Valle de la Luna. If you’re trying to access the page and it defaults to English language, the page will appear blank. You have to change it to “espanol chileno” for it to work.
- Valle de la Luna is closed on Saturdays – This is detail that’s easy to miss.
- Book stargazing earlier in your trip – Not only that but also book your trip to Atacama away from the full moon. Booking your stargazing excursion on day 1 of your trip allows you to reschedule if it happens to be a cloudy day.
- WhatsApp heavy – Business is done on WhatsApp. We recommend that in many cases, you go straight to WhatsApp if they list their phone number versus using e-mail. It’s awkward and sketchy at first but you’ll get responses a lot faster this way. It’s also quite common to use the voice message feature.
- Withdraw cash ahead of time – Depending on how your trip lines up, we recommend that you withdraw cash in Santiago so you’re ready rock once you arrive.
- Entel SIM – For those that are going with the local SIM option, we also recommend that you get that sorted in Santiago before you arrive in San Pedro de Atacama.
Photography in Atacama Tips
If you’re a photographer and curious how it works in the Atacama Desert, we’ve also compiled a few notes on what we learned and where some of the best locations are.
- Very few places allow for sunset and sunrise photography – The challenge is that all of the popular sights are gated and regulated with opening and closing hours. These hours aren’t set with sunrise and sunset photography in mind. There might’ve been a time when it was allowed at places like Laguna Chaxa and Valle de la Luna but it doesn’t work that way anymore.
- Middle of the day is incredibly harsh – No surprise here that mid day with all of that sun, no cover, and no clouds means harsh lighting. You’re often dealing with the sun right in your shot or glare that your hood won’t be able to help prevent.
- Sunset within Valle de la Luna – It’s easy to misinterpret other travel guides that urge you to do sunset at Valle de la Luna. What they really mean is sunset at Mirador de Kari & Piedra del Coyote which is the ticket that’s included with your visit. This is just as well because the view from the cliffside is definitely better.
- Blue hour not included – Specific to Valle de la Luna’s sunset at Mirador de Kari & Piedra del Coyote, it’s disappointing that they start kicking people out right after the sun dips below the mountains which means that you’ll miss a good chunk of Golden Hour and all of Blue Hour.
- Tripods are allowed – There aren’t any locations where there were restrictions on tripods so you should feel comfortable setting it up anywhere you go.
- About drones – The two locations with explicit no-drone signs were Lagunas Baltinache, the town of Machuca, Miscanti and Miñiques Lakes, and Puritama. That leaves many other locations up to discretion. We’d say use your best judgement here and I’d avoid flying it at any of the attractions that have entrance fees, especially any that are part of Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos.
- Farther than they look – While there are many flamingos in the lakes, they aren’t necessarily as close as photos portray. This is why I relied heavily on the OM System 150-400mm lens paired with the OM-1 body with its excellent bird detection.
- Drones and sand don’t mix – We learned the hard way with this one. Off the side of the road, I accidentally placed the drone on the soft sand and it got into the motors. It was unusable after that so be careful where you take off and land.
- Mirador Lickan-Antai – This is a personal favorite for photography and not one that’s commonly mentioned but many tour companies will take folks here. It’s free to visit which means you can come and leave at anytime anytime. This makes it a great spot for sunset, sunrise, and night sky photography.
- Piedras Rojas – This is another amazing spot for photography in that it was more photogenic than I thought it would be. There’s something magical about the pastel-colored mountainside and vicuña if you’re lucky enough to spot them.
- Use your hands – There’s probably a tool for this but the only way I could quickly control the sun glare during the day was to use my other hand block out what I could. It can be quite challenging depending on the sun position but note that with how blue the sky is, you can fix it in post quite easily.
- Lens ranges – This is a tough one because the easiest answer is to say to bring all of them but I found that I often shied away from the ultra wide angle during the day because it was really hard to control the glare. As a result, the OM System 12-40mm f/2.8 got a lot of use and so did the 40-150 f/4 as the reach allowed me to avoid the glare and also get close to the flamingos and vicuña when I didn’t need the super reach of the 150-400mm.
Frequently Asked Questions
Technically, an IDP is required in Chile but car rental companies don’t require it. That said, it is a good idea to have it on hand in case you get pulled over by the police.
This will depend on your travel style. Tours are easy and affordable but often more rushed. Having your own rental car will allow for more freedom, building a more customized itinerary, and is great for photographers.
At most attractions, pets are not allowed in Atacama.
Yes, San Pedro de Atacama and Atacama as a whole is very safe as crime is low. The area to be more careful about is staying hydrated, be careful with altitude sickness, and not getting lost in the desert.
The 5 main attractions in the Atacama Desert are: Geyser del Tatio, Valle de la Luna, Piedras Rojas, Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques, and Laguna Chaxas.
Yes, altitude sickness can affect travelers in Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama is 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) which is when symptoms can start to appear. There are attractions in the desert that go up to 4,320 meters (14,173 feet) at Geyser del Tatio.
No, mosquitoes are non-existent because of the dry climate and high altitude.
There isn’t unfortunately but the best page is the CONAF site for Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos.
The best time of the year is shoulder season March to May and September to November when the weather is pleasant, crowds are low, and prices aren’t as inflated.
What you should read next
Travel Resources For Your Next Trip
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If you need more help planning your trip, make sure to check out our Travel Toolbox where we highlight all of the gear, resources, and tools we use when traveling.