One Week in Chile: Atacama or Patagonia?

A lot of travelers face a similar dilemma when planning their trips – “I have one week in Chile, should I go north to the Atacama Desert, or south to Patagonia?” The crux of the dilemma is that they are both obviously worth seeing, but very different experiences. Atacama is a high altitude desert and Patagonia is a combination of steppes, ice fields, and forests. Both have a desolate appeal, though one because you are so close to the sky, and the other because you are at the end of the world. This post compares the experiences and prices you can expect in each region, to help you make the best decision about how to spend your time in Chile.

One Week in Chile: Atacama or Patagonia?

High Altitude Lagoons in Atacama

What Types of Experiences – Atacama

The most popular destination in the north of Chile is San Pedro de Atacama – a small town centered entirely around the tourism flowing through it. Between the dusty streets and the adobe-walled buildings, you’ll feel like you are strolling through a Moroccan desert village, rather than an Andean Chilean town. The experiences around San Pedro essentially entail enjoying spectacular geological formations. Some of the most popular include seeing the vast salt flats, high altitude lagoons, the massive Tatio Geyers, and the Rainbow, Moon, and Death Valleys. This area also has literally the world’s best stargazing (which is why they chose to build the ALMA observatory here). Most travelers to this area will load their days with tours – either full day packages, or two half-day trips in a row, using their only downtime to eat and sleep. I think this is a good use of time,  especially if you do only have one week in Chile, since there is little to do in San Pedro itself, and nothing around it except desert.

See Some of Our Experiences Around San Pedro de Atacama

What Types of Experiences – Patagonia

Some of the most common activities in Patagonia include hiking, trekking (including on glaciers), ocean kayaking, and boat rides along the coast and among the glaciers. Two of the most sought-after destinations for these activities in Patagonia are Torres del Paine National Park and El Calafate (the capital of glaciers). While there are hundreds of excellent trekking options in Patagonia, Torres del Paine is extremely photogenic and has solid hiking infrastructure around it, making it easy to plan a multi-day trek there. El Calafate is essentially a natural theme park of glaciers just over the Argentinian border, and many travelers will hike through Torres del Paine and then get up to El Calafate on the same trip. If you only have one week in Chile, you might be best trying the famous ‘W’ trek of Torres del Paine which can be done in four or five days.

One Week in Chile: Atacama or Patagonia?

Ocean Kayaking in Patagonia

Hiking in Patagonia is often challenging, not just because of the terrain, but because the weather is prone to extremities. In the winter, it’s one of the coldest places in the world, in the summer, the temperature is pleasant, but it is so windy that the city of Punta Arenas has ropes on the sidewalks to help residents pull themselves along. The wind is also apt to destroy tents – a major challenge if you hope to avoid paying for the Refugios in Torres del Paine (more on that below). That said, the views are consistently some of the most spectacular you will ever see. There are plenty of other hiking options outside of these popular areas, which require a bit of research to discover.

An Awesome Alternative Hiking Option in Patagonia

Boat trips (which often include ocean kayaking) are typically all-inclusive deals that take you to some of the most stunning parts of the shoreline to enjoy seeing glaciers, penguins, waterfalls, and other natural wonders. They are expensive, but also hassle-free in terms of logistics, which can be a good way to maximize your time in Patagonia. If you only have one week in Chile, you could consider one of the W treks in Patagonia combined with something like a kayaking and whale watching trip to make the most of your time.

Price Comparison

Activities in Atacama

You should plan to spend around $250-$300 on four days of activities around San Pedro de Atacama. This will include days filled with activities and a stargazing tour one of the nights.

Flying to Atacama

Flight prices vary quite a bit depending on the season, but you can generally find flights from Santiago that cost between $50 and $150 (it’s a two hour flight).

Lodging and Eating in Atacama

There are ample lodging options in the San Pedro area, ranging from hostels (about $15 per night for a dorm bed, $30 for a private room), to luxury hotels (around $200 per night). The restaurants in the center of town are expensive, but there are some good local spots with essentially the same food near the soccer field (check out our blog post about San Pedro for a useful map).

Activities in Patagonia

There is a huge variation in activity prices, depending on whether you decide to spend more of your trip in a boat or hiking without a guide. If you do a multi-day trek completely DYI, including carrying and making all of your own food, you can probably get away with spending less than $300. If you are going to do boat or kayak trips, plan on spending about $3,000 for one week of such activities (that price includes food and lodging). If you have a combination of hiking and ocean experiences, you will end up spending somewhere between $400 and $3,000.

One Week in Chile: Atacama or Patagonia?

A stunning view from a Patagonia Trek

Flying to Patagonia

This also depends on the time of year, but during high season (December – March), expect to pay about $150 for a flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas (it’s about a four hour flight).

This also depends on the time of year, but during high season (December – March), expect to pay about $150 for a flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas (it’s about a four hour flight).

Lodging and Eating in Patagonia

This depends so much on which type of trip you take, it’s hard to give a general overall estimate. Again, most of the boat trips are all-inclusive, so lodging, food, and activities are all rolled up into one price. Hostels are normally priced in the cities (Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales). It costs about $12 per night to rent a camping spot in Torres del Paine and about $60 per night to stay in a dorm bed in one of the Refugios. The meals at the refugios are about $20.

You Have One Week in Chile – Patagonia or Atacama?

Whether you go north or south during your visit to Chile, you are bound to have an amazing experience. Hopefully this post helped you make the best decision, and if you have any further questions, or would like help planning your trip to Chile, email and we can help you put together an awesome itinerary!