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Are you planning a trip to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile? I’ve compiled the 10 things you should know before going to San Pedro de Atacama so you can fully enjoy your trip to this amazing region.
1. Start your Chilean adventure with the Atacama Desert
San Pedro de Atacama is a must on any South America bucket list! When you plan your trip to Chile, I would recommend making San Pedro de Atacama the first leg of your trip. The main reason for this choice is the dietary restrictions that you will need to follow in order to feel well at a very high altitude. Before going to the Geysers, the Altiplano Lakes, and most importantly Salar de Tara, your guides will ask you to abstain from eating meat (particularly beef), fish, and drinking any alcoholic beverage. If you’re like me and looking forward to giant platters of grilled meat and multiple glasses of delicious Chilean wine, this particular piece of news is a bummer. But believe me, it’s all worth it! Either way, we were glad we started with San Pedro so we were able to enjoy Chilean food and wines during the second leg of our trip.
2. Don’t rent a car in Calama if you are only going to San Pedro de Atacama.
In recent years I have become a big advocate of car rental, as it usually gives you more independence and flexibility but you definitely don’t need one in San Pedro. The town is tiny and you can walk or bike easily to get around. In addition, you absolutely shouldn’t be driving to the sites due to the effect of altitude and the off-roading component. Use TransVIP instead for a shared transfer to San Pedro. The road from the Calama Airport to San Pedro seems flat and harmless but there have been many fatal car accidents between the two cities, especially due to drunk driving. The locals will all recommend that you take a transfer to the airport, and bus tours or guided agency tours to visit the sites.
3. Stay close to Caracoles Street
Some fancy hotels will advertise an isolated desert experience but at the end of the day if you’re too far off the main strip you will have issues with pickup/drop-offs, and it will be painful to get around. Stay as close to Caracoles Street as possible, which is the main street with all the bars, shops, and restaurants. It will make it very easy for your tour agency to pick you up early morning and you won’t have far to walk when you come back starving from your tours. We stayed at Hotel Kimal and I definitely would recommend it. It was a charming boutique hotel, perfectly located right at the beginning of Caracoles Street. Others we met in San Pedro also enjoyed Pascual Andino and La Casa de Don Thomas.
4. Don’t book your tours with a random agency or look for the cheapest price.
This seems like an odd piece of advice… Everyone loves a bargain, right? Not so fast… In the Atacama Desert, you will be visiting sites at high altitudes, with extreme conditions of heat and/or wind. Often, the nearest hospital is over 4 hours away. Make sure you do a lot of research and book your tours with a trustworthy reputable agency. We booked everything with Cosmo Andino which is rated #1 on TripAdvisor and it was the best decision we made the entire trip. The guides spoke perfect English and all of them were trained to recognize symptoms of altitude sickness. They were very attentive and often checked on everyone to make sure we were all feeling okay. They were carrying oxygen and an emergency kit at all times. Altitude sickness is nothing to sneeze at and tour agencies need to be prepared. The van drivers were careful and drove very safely. This was very important since they pick you at 4 am to go up to the Geysers and need to drive off-road at a high altitude to Salar de Tara.
5. Don’t mess with the altitude…
Before going to San Pedro de Atacama, I honestly had no idea that so many tours were at high altitudes. If you are in good health and decent physical shape, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Altitude sickness does affect everyone differently, but most people feel fine as long as they follow some simple guidelines.
Your guides will repeat this advice many times during your stay in San Pedro and you should trust them. The night before you go on a high-altitude tour (Salar de Tara, Altiplano Lakes, Tatio Geysers), DO NOT drink any alcoholic beverage or eat ANY meat or fish (particularly red meat). You might think that you will be fine but I assure you that if you don’t follow their advice you will end up with a killer headache, nausea, or serious altitude sickness. During the climb up in the minivan, make sure to drink little sips of water to keep yourself hydrated.
6. Don’t eat at tourist traps in San Pedro de Atacama
You will most likely come back late from some of your tours and might be inclined to walk into the nearest restaurant. That would be a mistake since Caracoles Street is full of touristy overpriced eateries. The best places to eat in San Pedro are La Casa de Carmen (for meat and fish), Pico del Indio (not many tables always a wait around dinner time but definitely worth it), Baltinoche (make a reservation) and finally Super Empanadas on Caracoles (the empanadas are huge and SO tasty…frozen empanadas will never taste the same)
7. Don’t assume it will always be hot just because it’s called the Atacama Desert.
The weather in Chile can take you by surprise. You may start the day in 30-degree weather at the Tatio Geysers and a couple of hours later be trekking in the Moon Valley in 90-degree heat. Its best is to dress in layers and make sure you bring a good set of winter accessories for cold mornings. Don’t forget to bring your earmuffs when visiting Piedras Rojas as the wind can get very strong there. Finally, wear sunscreen at all times even when it’s cold out.
8. Don’t rely on cellular network or wireless
San Pedro de Atacama and the surrounding areas are pretty much a dead zone when it comes to internet and cellular network. That is one of the many reasons why we recommend taking a guided tour, as you won’t be able to rely on a GPS signal to get yourself around or contact anyone in case you need help. Your hotel will most likely advertise Internet but chances are it won’t work unless you connect in the middle of the night! If you want to get a prepaid SIM card for your stay in Chile, you will need a Chilean ID number in order to activate it. Make sure you ask the store if they can use a dummy ID number BEFORE you buy the card. Otherwise, they will send you on your way with a useless SIM-card! We asked the reception at Hotel Kimal and someone nicely agreed to enter their ID number to activate our phone. Once your SIM is activated you will need to call a number to add credit then use this credit to purchase data. All of this in Spanish…
9. Plan your stargazing experience ahead of time
San Pedro de Atacama is arguably the best place on earth to see stars. If you plan to do a stargazing tour, make sure you understand how the process works as it can get a little confusing. All stargazing tours are completely dependent on the weather, so even if you booked your tour months in advance there is no guarantee that it will actually take place. There are tons of outfits offering star gazing tours but the best agency to go with is Space Obs. You will need to reserve your tour before you get to San Pedro as they sell out days in advance.
If you book a tour online, Space Orbs will ask you to come to their office on Caracoles Street to confirm your tour the day before it is set to take place. This alone can be challenging if you have a tour planned the day before so make sure you keep it in mind and swing by there on the day of your arrival. Once your tour is confirmed, they will ask you to come back around 8/8.30 pm the day of your tour to see if the weather condition allow for the tour to happen. We got unlucky and ours got canceled because the sky was cloudy. We weren’t able to re-schedule as they were sold out for a week.
If your tour gets canceled, don’t worry…. you will definitely see millions of stars when you get picked up for your tour to Tatio Geysers at 4.30 am!
10. Expect raw and relatively untouched landscapes
The Atacama Desert is arguably one of the most beautiful places in South America. The stark color contrasts and sweeping landscapes that look like they were hand-painted will often make you feel like you’re on another planet. Is that what Mars looks like? Probably as close as you’re going to get!
Amazingly, the Atacama desert still feels relatively protected from mass tourism. Sure you will encounter a couple of vans in the most popular spots. But most of the time, you can walk a couple of minutes and find yourself completely alone, except perhaps for a herd of vicunas or a group of flamingos. Don’t expect a lot of entry booths, gift shops, and amenities! In many instances, you will need to use what Chileans refer to as the Inca toilet (which is essentially finding a rock to block you from gusty winds). The Atacama wasn’t built for the tourist. The raw beauty of this area is still pretty much intact.
I can say with confidence that the Atacama Desert graced me with some of the most beautiful photos I have taken in my travels. Don’t forget to follow @wandering.jules on Instagram to see the rest of our shots. Don’t forget to check out this more extensive guide on what to do and where to eat in San Pedro de Atacama.
Another great place to visit in Chile is Torres del Paine National Park all the way on the far southern tip of the country, see five easy hikes to do in Torres del Paine here!