If you’re travelling in Chile or simply intend to, you already know about the Atacama desert. You might have heard that the climate conditions there are hard, that it’s awfully touristy and therefore terribly expensive. In this humble guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about how to visit the Atacama desert and make the most of your experiences, based on our experience.
Why to visit the Atacama desert?
While all we stated in the introduction is true, the scenery is nonetheless absolutely fantastic and should by no means be missed! There are geysers, volcanoes, deserts, lakes, salt lakes, flamingos, llamas and their cousins, cute foxes, and the constant backdrop of the Andes mountains throughout the day. Literally everything to satiate all sorts of nature lover is gathered in Atacama.
Here’s an appetiser of what is awaiting you:
I was tensed in the few days before arriving: worried about not finding a bed, about spending too much money on tours and accommodation, about which attractions to see or to skip, about getting sunstroke or altitude sickness. Now that those few intense days are over, here are my tips for visiting the Atacama desert with a peaceful mind.
Booking a hostel in Atacama
Nobody likes a place that is dedicated to tourism: soulless, business-oriented and full of people carrying a backpack like you and doing the same stuff as you. The village of San Pedro de Atacama is exactly like that, with tour agencies lining its main street and everybody either working as a guide or in a hostel.
In some special circumstances (beginning of school breaks, bank holidays etc.) it might be hard to find accommodation, but in general you should be able to find a bed thanks to the very wide offer. We didn’t book anything in advance and found a dorm straight away for CLP 10.000 (the cheaper one at CLP 8.000 was fully booked).
How to visit the Atacama desert
Be prepared to spit out your greens, there’s no way around that. Most attractions are far from town, so you will have to either rent a car or book a tour, and almost all have an entrance fee. There’ll be no local bus bringing you there and hitchhiking possibilities are reduced to the few tourists who have a car (that is not already full!).
There’s so much competition between agencies, they will probably offer you a discount on the initial price straight away. It’s essential that you don’t rush; take the time to ask several agencies, compare prices and services, discuss.
Book several tours with the same agency for a better discount. Some of them are definitely more expensive than others but offer more guarantee. Check their reviews online to get an idea.
As for us, we booked at an agency which was very cheap and had terrible reviews and we had a great time, so nothing is set in stone!
Ask your agency what you should wear/bring because the wrong clothing or lack or water can ruin your day.
Keep in mind that all parks have an entrance fee that is NOT included in the tour price, remember to bring some cash with you. Here’s a list of those fees as of January 2019 (in Chilean pesos):
|Geiser del Tatio||$10.000 foreigners; $7.000 nationals|
|Valle de la Luna||$3.000|
|Valle de Marte||$2.000|
|Salar de Tara||$0|
|Valle del Arcoiris||$3.000|
|Termas de Puritama||$15.000|
What to see in Atacama
There is so much to see in the Atacama desert, and such varied fabulous sceneries like geysers, salt flats, salt lakes, coloured mountains, lagoons, rock formations… It can truly be overwhelming! Good news are, if you’re traveling around South America, chances are you will see similar landscapes somewhere else, maybe for a cheaper price (remember that Chile is the most expensive country on the continent).
Feel free to tell the tourist agency where you’ve already been and where you’ll go: they will honestly advise you on what you can skip here, eg. no need to visit the Salar de Atacama if you know Uyuni, or the mountain lakes if you plan to visit Peru. That will already help sort out things!
Protection in the desert
Another thing you’ll have to keep in mind: the altitude and its consequences. Some places in the desert culminate at 4000 m and more above sea level and that has an effect on your body known as altitude sickness. Do NOT underestimate it. Here are a few basic tips:
- Drink water constantly or better, drink (possibly homemade) coca tea;
- Take a day to acclimatize with low-level excursions and climb slowly;
- Don’t rush your body, don’t run or jump;
- Get coca leaves and either chew them or infuse them.
Because of the high altitude, the sun is also stronger. Consider wearing a hat if it’s sunny and always use sun protection.
Also remember that this is the driest desert in the world, so make sure you drink water regularly (but avoid tap water!).
All the tours in the Atacama desert
Because our travels will lead us to other stunning places with similar patterns, we did only 3 excursions here: the Tatio geysers, the Valle de la Luna (by bike) and the Laguna Escondida.
Here’s the complete list of (probably) all possible tours offered by the various agencies:
|Geiser del Tatio||early morning tour!|
|Laguna Cejar||Salty lake, very hype and expensive|
|Lagunas escondidas||Other salty lakes, less famous & cheaper|
|Valle de la Luna||possible by bike|
|Valle de Marte||possible by bike|
|Salar de Tara|
|Valle del Arcoiris|
|Termas de Puritama||possible by bike|