Peter Orsel

All You Need To Know About Visiting The Atacama Desert in Chile

San Pedro de Atacama is besides Patagonia one of the most famous tourist destinations in Chile. The unique landscapes and the dry climate of the Atacama Desert make it a place high on many peoples bucket list.  I travelled to San Pedro in December 2022 and I’m here to give you my recommendations! In this post I tell you all you need to know about visiting the Atacama Desert and San Pedro de Atacama for the first time!

In This Post

Vicunas walking around in Chile
You'll see many vicuñas on a road trip through the Atacama Desert

How to get to San Pedro de Atacama?

Most people arrive either by flight at Calama airport, or from Bolivia after doing the Uyuni tour. Both options work, just check whatever fits in your travel plan. 

If you arrive at Calama airport, it’s still a 1,5 hour drive to arrive in San Pedro. Don’t consider staying in Calama, as many people say there’s nothing to see and nothing to do. I rented a car beforehand and got to pick it up right after arriving by plane. 

If you don’t have a rental car, you can take the shuttle from Calama airport to San Pedro de Atacama. It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes and they leave frequently and once they’re full. The price is fixed and should be 15.000 pesos (about $18 dollar). 

I used TransVip once and the journey was quick and smooth.

A rental car in the atacama desert of Chile
If you drive yourself, you can stop for some photos whenever you want

How to get around in San Pedro de Atacama?

San Pedro de Atacama is a famous destination and tour operators are doing everything they can to earn as much money out of it. Unfortunately this is the reason why many people skip this destination or only decide to stay one or two nights. Half day tours can be somewhere between $35 and $70 dollar. If you want to see just three spots, you’ll be spending around $150 to $200. That’s a whole lot of money on tours, if you ask me.

In my opinion, your best option is to rent a car. In San Pedro there’s only one agency called West, but they’re not the most reliable. It’s hard to make a booking online too. Instead, you could rent a car at Calama airport like I did. The cars are in very good condition and they accept all major credit cards. 

Road trip through the atacama desert
Driving through Rainbow Valley is amazing

If you rent a car, don’t pick the smallest one. There are chances that you’ll hit some dirt roads and it’s more comfy in a bigger car. I rented a Volkswagen T-Cross, a medium sized SUV, non 4WD. If budget is not a thing, I would rent a 4WD and have some offroad fun with it. Some companies state in their terms that you can’t hit dirt roads with your rental car, so make sure you are aware of the terms and conditions! During Christmas I rented the car for about $48 dollar a day.

The bureaucratic situation of Chile

Chile is a bureaucratic country and they are surely aware that tourists rent a car instead of booking expensive tours. During certain hours it’s even forbidden to enter specific sites without a tour. This is in my opinion one of the stupidest rules I’ve EVER seen in a tourist destination, but unfortunately you have to deal with it. If you plan to go to a certain sight, always ask the staff of your accommodation if it’s possible to go there at that time of the day. They’re most likely to know as they deal with this problem on a daily base.

Internet connection in San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is famous for lots of things, but not for their internet coverage. WiFi is usually weak and it’s better to rely on mobile data. This works best in town, so if you’re staying at the borders of San Pedro your signal can still be weak. I bought a Movistar sim card in Santiago for about 5.000 pesos, giving me 40GB of data for one month. Chile might be expensive, but in terms of sim cards they were very cheap! The best connection in San Pedro is in town, and I had 5G coverage around most of the tourist shops and restaurants.

Valle de la Luna with a person standing in front of it
The views of Valle de la Luna are amazing

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

During my time in San Pedro de Atacama, I stayed at Hostal Campo Base. The owner Rodrigo takes very good care of his guests, sending loads of voice memos with information about your stay, and the breakfast is super good. If you leave early, they even prepare a little take away breakfast for you. There’s always potable water, the showers are hot, the beds very comfy, there’s daily housekeeping (even in dorms!) and they provide free towels. For me, I couldn’t have wished for a better place during my stay!

If you travel with a +1, friends or family, I can imagine you want to stay in a private accommodation. There are countless options starting from about $35 USD. I recommend finding your spot through Booking.com, as they have many options and a lot of flexibility.

Some options:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️  Hotel Cumbres San Pedro de Atacama

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Lodge Quelana

⭐️⭐️⭐️ Hostal Pablito

Food recommendations during road trips in San Pedro de Atacama

There are countless restaurants in town and at most of the places, it’s possible to eat for about 8.000 pesos. Many restaurants have a set menu where you get to enjoy a starter and a main dish for a fixed price, sometimes it even includes a dessert! If you’re doing day trips, get some take-away empanadas or sandwiches. Most of the places you visit won’t have any shops or restaurants. Bring loads of water (more than you need) and enough snacks for at least a full day, in case you get stuck. 

Lamas on the street in the Atacama Desert of Chile
Seeing wildlife is a guarantee in the Atacama Desert of Chile

Drone Photography in San Pedro de Atacama

The last thing I want to mention, is that San Pedro and Chile in general got way stricter in drone usage recently. I don’t really know why as you’re completely alone at a lot of places and you can’t harm anyone. It feels like people just feel unsafe about drones and they decide to ban them. The DJI No Fly map doesn’t count the locations as no drone zones, but I advice you to be aware whether to use it or not. 

First of all, there’s a strong wind at some locations, making it very hard to control the drone. Besides that, you’re likely to get to high altitudes. Your drone will give you a warning that you’re flying above 3.000m and that your drone probably won’t operate the same as when you’re at lower altitudes. Your propellors have to work harder because of the lower density of the air and your battery could be damaged by using a drone at high altitudes. I got some drone footage at the spots, but don’t be disappointed as they won’t let you fly your drone at most of the locations, especially when you’re joining tour groups.

How to find the best photography spots in San Pedro de Atacama

If you’re interested in the best spots to visit during a trip through the beautiful Atacama desert, head over to this post! I visited a lot of great places and the landscapes are some of my favorite landscapes in the world. Enough reason to travel to one of the driest places in the world!

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