Chile: All you need to know about San Pedro de Atacama on a budget
January 1, 1970
by Alfonso Gonzalez
There is something special about this place; maybe it’s the landscape, the lagoons, sand dunes, fauna, or the mysticism and peaceful vibes that you can find that are amazing and a MUST-HAVE experience for every adventurous traveler.
Best Time to visit
The Atacama Desert is located in north of Chile and is known as “the driest non-polar place on the planet”. In February there can be a little rain because is the “Altiplanic winter”, but the best thing about it is that you can see rainbows everywhere and it’s beautiful. The best time to visit San Pedro de Atacama for me was between March and May, there’s nice weather and it’s not too crowded like December, January or February.
How to get there
Going to San Pedro de Atacama Town is not cheap from Santiago, you can choose between an airplane or bus. It depends on your budget and your time, I have used both, but the bus is 23 h and the airplane 1 h 45 min. There are two airlines LATAM and SKY about US$ 275 (both ways), I would say SKY is slightly cheaper but it is better booked the tickets with anticipation. In Calama’s airport EL LOA, you can book a shuttle to San Pedro the main town in Atacama for US$ 20.00.
The cheaper option is by bus, Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama. There are many bus companies, but I book TUR BUS https://www.turbus.cl/wtbus/indexCompra.jsf, they have 2 kinds of seats, with a bed seat US$ 150.00 or standard seat US$ 90.00 (both ways). I have tried the standard seat with music a good book, water and some chips. It’s not that bad!
There are lots of hostels that includes breakfast and range from US$ 18.00 to US$30.00 per night, it depends on your budget. I stayed in LA RUCA HOSTEL which is a few steps from the main street “Caracoles”, they also have private rooms, wifi, kitchen, hammocks and there is a big common area, perfect for a group of friends, though it is a bit noisy specially January and February. The cost of the shared room was US$20.00 per night, and they are open for big group deals.
For couples, I recommend Hostel Mirador is 15-minute walk to town, but is quiet and you can relax, the view is amazing from there. The private room with shared toilet was US$42.00 per night without breakfast, but has a nice kitchen where you can cook your own meals and eat.
What to do in San Pedro de Atacama
Sandboarding in Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte or Dead Valley, is a place with amazing sand dunes where you can practise sandboarding. If you book a tour, there is a 2-hour or full day tour. If you are an amateur, 2 hours is more than enough. The tour agency takes photos and a video, it also provides you with transport and equipment but no shoes you should carry your own sneakers and long socks, NO sandals.
This costs around US$ 18.00 plus you should pay a fee US$5.00 at the entrance to the Valle de la Muerte. If you have your own transportation, there is the option to rent the sandboard as well.
Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna is a place very similar to the surface of the moon or “Luna” in Spanish, with stone and sand formations which have been carved by water and wind. I have been to this place 3 times in different locations fortunately. This place is magical, it has landscapes, caves, rock formations, and it is especially beautiful to watch the sunset from a higher place. To get there you can book a tour in town from between US$ 23.00 to US$30.00 (including Death Valley) or just rent a bike for US$12.00
Atacama Desert is the best place to see the stars, the biggest telescope on earth called ALMA is there. In San Pedro de Atacama I took a Star Tour with the SPACE Agency http://www.spaceobs.com/en and it was phenomenal. They use lasers to point out the constellations, we watched planets and stars through the telescopes and finally we had a talk with a professional astronomer with a cup of hot chocolate or coca tea.
Ojos del salar & Tebenquinche Lagoon
These two places are very close to each other and usually there is a tour which costs between US$ 20.00 to US$ 40.00. In this place, it is better to book a tour than go by yourself because the road is very difficult (sand everywhere) and it is easy to get lost unless you have a good GPS in your car.
The first stop was in Ojos del Salar, which is two fresh water lagoons in the middle of the driest desert on the planet, that’s a very good excuse to go and take a quick jump into it huh? You can take amazing photos of the landscape; we were lucky there was a spectacular rainbow behind us.
If Valle de la Luna was my favorite place in San Pedro de Atacama, Tebenquinche Lagoon is the second. Here you will find a salt flat lagoon where you can have a picnic and it’s a wonderful place to watch the sunset. Additionally, you can take crazy photos like walk on water or playing with the background perspective.
Floating in Cejar Lagoon
Is an amazing experience you shouldn’t miss! The Cejar lagoon has 14% of salt compared to 3% of the ocean, so you can float without even trying! You must be very careful to avoid getting water in your eyes. I have destroyed my sandals in that place because of the salt so don’t them! Usually you can book a tour with Ojos del Salar and Tebenquinche Lagoon.
Relax in Puritana Hot Springs
Puritama Hot Springs, in my opinion, are the best hot springs I have been to in my life. This little oasis in the middle of the desert is not too far from San Pedro, around 35 minutes, and there are eight natural pools with geothermal spring waters and all of them are very beautiful. The thing I didn’t like was that the locker rooms were really small and it was hard to find a bathroom. The tour was 3 hours in total for US$27.00 plus the entrance US$5.00
What I don´t recommend
El Tatio Geysers
I didn’t like the experience at all, because first the tour starts at 3am and it is freezing, it’s 4,000 meters above sea level so you can get altitude sickness and most of all I was expecting big geysers, but it wasn´t for me and it was too expensive (US $100.00). If you have already been to Yellowstone to see the geysers, don’t go to El Tatio because in there are small.
Pukara de Quitor
The best thing about this place is that can go on your own. We rented bikes but the place was a bunch of rocks, it was nothing special.
If you have never seen a flamingo, this’s the place to go. I went in April and we could see a few but nothing spectacular in the salty lagoon. Honestly, in my opinion is not worth paying for it.