Your Guide to Tours in San Pedro de Atacama The Atacama desert of northern Chile has quickly become one of the most popular travel destinations in South America. It deserves this distinction, because there is a lot of great stuff to do, but when you arrive, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where […]
The Atacama desert of northern Chile has quickly become one of the most popular travel destinations in South America. It deserves this distinction, because there is a lot of great stuff to do, but when you arrive, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to eat and which tour operators to use for your day trips. There are over 60 tour operators in this fairly small town, and many of them offer extremely similar experiences, which makes browsing for day trips confusing. Many travellers are also surprised to find that most of the restaurants have prices similar to Santiago, which adds up quickly! Fortunately, we’ve been there and done the research for you, so read on for a full guide of how to fly in, where to eat, and what to do during the days.
There is actually decent nightlife for a small tourist town, but it is not a destination in and of itself. Travellers typically fill their time in the area with day tours or back-to-back half day tours, even taking trips the same day their flights arrive and depart! Following is a breakdown of the popular trips, as well as a few alternative options.
These are the destinations that most travellers see when they visit the area, including one of the world’s biggest salt flats, the 3rd largest geyser in the world, a Dead Sea-esque high altitude lake, and many strange and spectacular archaeological formations.
At over 13,000 feet, the high altitude lagoons are brilliantly colored and surrounded by massive, snow and salt-capped mountain peaks. The Red Rocks are straight out of a movie set on Mars – desolate and dazzling under a sun that feels a lot closer than usual. You can visit each of these destinations separately, or in one big day trip that also includes one of the world’s largest salt flats.
Travellers often say they feel like they are walking the surface of the moon when treading this alien-looking landscape. This trip is a great option for the day you arrive, as it is a quick trip that is extremely accessible.
This is the second largest salt flat in Latin America, after the famous Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia. A dramatic contrast of jagged salt plains, sparkling water, and grazing flamingos, Laguna Chaxas is flanked by the mighty Andean mountains, making every photograph a classic shot.
Just like the Dead Sea, this lake is so salty that you float effortlessly. It’s one of the stranger sensations you will ever experience and well worth the half day trip!
These are the third largest geysers in the world and are particularly incredible at sunrise, which is why many of the tours to the geysers leave before dawn. At over 13,000 feet, the sunrise is amazing as it comes over the surrounding peaks and floods the geyser valley with a warming glow.
Several agencies offer stargazing tours with roughly the same format: 1 hour of looking at and learning about the cosmos with a professional astronomer; 1 hour of looking through pre-calibrated telescopes that are aimed at famous celestial bodies (like Jupiter, the Pleiades, and Saturn); and about 1 hour of sipping hot chocolate and asking the astronomer any question you might have about space.
Horseback riding is one of the best ways to see the desert and to see destinations that are away from the crowds. Plus, you’ll feel like a space cowboy riding over the dramatic high altitude landscapes! Some of the half-day and full-day rides take you to oases and ancient ruins, while others bring you to the biggest dunes so you can sandboard down them! And if you really want to get off the beaten path, you can take a multi-day ride and camp under the stars.
First, you don’t actually fly directly into San Pedro – you fly into Calama and take a “transfer” shuttle straight to your hostel or hotel. The ride from Calama is about an hour and a half.
It may seem hectic when you arrive, but it’s actually quite easy. After you exit the baggage claim area, you may get surrounded by a bunch of guys trying to convince you to take their Transfer service. The funny thing is, they all try to make it sound like they have a special deal for you, but they all have exactly the same price! So just go to the left and there will be a few desks in a row that all sell Transfers. It doesn’t matter which you pick, since they all have the same price and the same service. Buy a roundtrip ticket and hold on to your receipt, because that will be your ticket when you go back to the airport.
Tell the driver the name of your hostel and he will drop you right in front. Bring your hostel’s address and phone number, just in case he doesn’t know it. If he doesn’t know it, he’ll just call them and they will give him directions. They also pick you up at your hostel on your way back to the airport – you (or your hostel’s manager) just have to call the number on the receipt the day before to tell them what time. The ride is about an hour and a half, very smooth, with some nice views.
Many of the restaurants in the “downtown” (around Caracoles street) are fairly expensive, which can add up on a three or four day trip. Luckily, we found you a restaurant hack. In a parking lot on Licancabur street, right up against the soccer pitch, there is a row of modest restaurants where the locals get their meals. The food served is actually very similar to what you will find on Caracoles or other parts of the main drag, but for almost half the price! This nifty map should help you find the local spots:
Now you know how to fly into San Pedro de Atacama, what to do, and where to eat. It’s an awesome destination and we look forward to helping you plan your trip there. You can book any of the trips mentioned in this post at the links above, or visit https://www.keteka.com/country/chile/atacama/ to browse a full list of activities. Also feel free to email us any time at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will answer any questions you have and help you plan out a great trip!