I had no idea what to expect but San Pedro de Atacama was the perfect in between stop after Argentina and before I had to meet a friend in Uyuni, Bolivia. The Atacama Desert is the darkest and driest place on earth which make for amazing sunsets and stargazing.
SEE ALSO: 3 Days in the Desert: Uyuni, Bolivia
I flew from Buenos Aires to Calama via Santiago. The closest airport is Calama and from there you either can arrange to have your hotel pick you up, hire a taxi transfer or the cheapest way, take the bus.
I took a taxi from the airport to the bus station for 8000 pesos. The bus was supposed to come every hour but I ended up waiting almost 2 hours before a bus to San Pedro de Atacama showed up (3000 pesos with TurBus). The sunset into the desert was gorgeous. When I arrived at the bus station in San Pedro I took a taxi to my hostel (3000 pesos). I probably could’ve walked but it was dark and the taxi was cheap.
I took a bus back to Calama at the end of my visit and it was only 2000 pesos with a different bus company.
San Pedro is a very small desert town with only a few main streets and it is a complete tourist town which I didn’t mind. There are lots of tour companies, restaurants, heladerias (ice cream) and souvenir shops lining the streets. There is an outdoor outfitter if you need more warm clothes and laundry (lavenderia) in town if you need that as well.
*Also a note, my US iPhone did not adjust the time correctly and even though it set to Santiago time. It was an hour off to the actual time and I had to manually adjust it so make sure you ask someone when you land the correct hour.
There are ATMs in town and many places accept credit cards but sometimes will charge an additional fee to use them. I was able to pay for my hostel with US dollars.
Most of the tours provide breakfast and lunch if it is a full day tour and there are an endless number of restaurants and cafes in town.
I stayed at Hostel Campo Base which was very close to town and one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed at. It was $35 per night in a shared 4 person bunk bed room with its own bathroom. They were even nice enough to pack me a snack the day I booked a tour through them.
San Pedro is about 2,400 meters above sea level and it gets higher at some of the spots I visited. If you know you are sensitive to altitude I would leave a day or two in your itinerary to adjust or get a prescription before you leave for altitude sickness medicine. They also recommend that you don’t do the Tatio Geysers as your first activity because of the increased altitude above the other sites.
Tours can be booked very easily in town through the many tour agencies or through your hostel. I arrived on Monday night around 9pm and had my hostel book me on tour the next morning through Desert Tours. Make sure you bring sunscreen, water, and warm clothes to layer for the cold (14°F at the Tatio Geysers) and hot weather (60°F). Also make sure you bring toilet paper, there were plenty of bathroom stops along the way but they didn’t always have paper. If your tour leaves in the morning they will pick you up right from where you are staying in town.
LAGUNAS ATIPLANICAS, PIEDRAS ROJAS (RED ROCKS), FLAMINGO RESERVE (40,000 pesos)
The first tour I did was a full day trip leaving at 6am and returning around 5pm. We started the day at 4200m altitude visiting Lagunas Miniques and Miscanti. This was my first encounter with feeling the affects of the altitude and our guide warned us to walk very slow. We then went to my favorite stop of the day to see the very windy Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks), my favorite site of the day. Our last stop was the flamingo reserve in the Atacama salt flats. The third largest salt flat in the world. Because of the time of year we were able to see the pink Chilean Flamingos (usually only around May-August).
For my second day I booked through the same company two half day tours (25,000 pesos total).
Because it’s best to see the geisers in their full glory when the steam is more prominent in the cold this tour started with a 4am pickup and 14°F morning. The geisers are also very high in altitude (4,320m) and they warned us not to eat red meat or drink the night before the tour.
The entrance was 5000 pesos (there is a discount for students and residents). Make sure you wear very warm clothing! It was very cold walking through the geysers and having breakfast outside nearby. After you visit the main geyser field you drive to a nearby smaller one where there is a hot spring heated by the geysers that you can swim in so bring your suit if you can brave the cold.
We quickly stopped by a wetlands and at the very end we stopped in a local village and tried some llama meat. It tasted like lamb and steak mixed together! We were back in town by noon.
VALLE DE LA LUNA (MOON VALLEY) AND VALLE DE LA MARTE (MARS VALLEY)
My second tour of the day left the tour office in town at 3pm. Moon Valley is very close to town so you can also do horseback riding or bicycle tours from town. The entrance is 3000 pesos in the afternoon and 2500 pesos in the morning.
The landscape is unlike anything we saw the day before. We drove into the park and hiked up a very sandy hill to see the full view of the valley and then stopped to see the Las Tres Marias (The Three Marys) rock formation.
We then went to see Mars Valley or Death Valley as it often called. The entry was 1000 pesos. It was originally named Mars Valley (Valle de la Marte) but people were confused because they heard the word Muerte instead of Marte which means death in French. We ended the day with a gorgeous sunset view over the valley.
Float in Laguna Cejar
Some tours are also seasonally dependent so research the weather before you go.
TOURS TO UYUNI, BOLIVIA
Many people head to Uyuni from San Pedro via a 3 day/2night Jeep tour that ends with the salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia. I was meeting a friend in Uyuni and had a tour booked from there already so I had to take a bus back to Calama (2000 pesos) in the evening, stay a night in Calama (not the greatest place) and then a bus from Calama to Uyuni first thing in the morning. There wasn’t a direct transfer from San Pedro to Uyuni without a tour.
CALAMA TO UYUNI
Buses leave four times a week at 6am (Monday, Wednesday, Thursdays and Sundays) to Uyuni and it’s about an 8 hour trip in total (2 of the hours are just going through immigration). I made sure I was there at 5:30am though and was glad because the bus ended up leaving earlier than 6am. I took more of a locals bus but there are other bus companies that go to Uyuni at the same time leaving from different bus stations. It’s best to ask your hotel/hostel because schedules never seem to be for sure. My hostel didn’t speak English and with my limited Spanish it was hard to ask about the other buses so I had to go with the one they directed me to (Cruz del Norte). The ticket was 10,000 pesos and I paid on the bus. There are two immigration stops, one to exit Chile and one to enter Bolivia. This was where I was glad I had gotten my visa before I left the country. You can buy snacks and drinks from locals at the border, we didn’t make any other stops along the way. I arrived in Uyuni at 2pm. It was very cold on the bus in the morning, some people brought blankets. Make sure to bring any water and food you’ll want for the day.
SEE ALSO: 3 Days in the Desert: Uyuni, Bolivia