Mini Vacation in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
- Length of Stay: 4 nights
- Season: Summer
- Reason: Vacation
I flew in from Santiago to the nearest airport in Calama (CJC). You can get a round-trip airport transfer with TransLicancabur for 20.000 CLP. The booking can be done in advance via email. I’m glad I went with this option since it was very convenient and I didn’t have any issues. They dropped me off at my hostel and picked me up with enough time to be on time for my departing flight (despite running a few minutes late for my pick-up).
Local transportation in San Pedro de Atacama is either by foot or bike when you’re in the tiny town. Getting to the natural attractions is generally done by tour bus or van.
Expect to pay for everything in cash, including tour packages. Most of the travel agencies will tell you they don’t accept credit cards and will cut you deals if you pay in cash. All of the park entrance fees are cash only as well.
There are ATMs around San Pedro de Atacama but I didn’t use any of them. I’d recommend getting cash in Santiago (if that’s where you’re coming from) to avoid high foreign ATM fees. The total amount of cash I brought with me was around 100.000 CLP (or $150 USD).
I stayed in a quaint hostel called Hostal La Ruca. Soledad (the receptionist) was very kind and welcoming. I reached out to her via email to talk about rates and she left me a bed for 12.000 CLP a night. I secured the reservation using Booking.com and we later settled the debts in person the night before my check-out.
- Daily house-keeping (I witnessed sheets being changed!)
- Hot showers, towel service.
- Breakfast (bread, ham, cheese, cereal, yogurt, instant coffee).
- Can pay with credit card.
- Close walking distance to Calle Caracoles (the main street with most of the travel agencies and restaurants).
- Friendly and helpful staff.
- Last stop for tour or airport transfer pick-ups. If someone along the way is late to get on the bus/van, you’re most likely going to be waiting a few minutes past the scheduled departure time. This sucks when you’re waiting outside in the cold at 5am.
- There’s a restaurant/bar/travel agency next door that plays music into the night.
- Lots of traffic at night and people talking in front of the room windows if you’re in the shared room.
- No laundry and hand-washing is not allowed.
- Claro móvil pre-paid cell signal was fine in San Pedro de Atacama. No cell service once you get out to see nature.
- There’s free WiFi in Plaza de San Pedro de Atacama but I wasn’t able to connect.
- A lot of restaurants advertise free WiFi but it’s slow “como un rió de manjar”.
For this trip, I tried to save my cash for tours and ate on the cheap.
- Buy a big container of water (instead of individual bottles of water) once you get settled in so that you can fill up when needed. This will run you about 2.500-3.000 CLP.
- I ate at Pollos Asados Tchiuchi for three of the four nights. The menu is literally rotisserie chicken and fries. I had a quarter chicken for 1.900 CLP. You can specify which part of the chicken you want. Make sure you squirt some Ají Chileno on it. Note: if you do take-out/take-away, they will not give you utensils. Cash only.
- Pino empanadas at Canaan Market. This place is at the end of the western side of Caracoles. 2.000 CLP for an empanada the size of your face.
- Vegetarian empanadas at Estrella Negra. This place is at the far end of the eastern side of Caracoles. 2.500 CLP for a variety of cheese and veggie empanadas the dough here had a multi-grain texture with what I think was either sesame seeds or quinoa. This is also the only vegetarian restaurant I saw in San Pedro de Atacama. Ginger lemonade was also great for the heat and my thirst. Credit cards accepted.
- Aura Andina is in the same space as Estrella Negra. They have a hot buffet where you can pick a combination of a drink, salad, main course, side and dessert for 4.000 CLP. I found the food to be OK. Credit cards accepted.
- Heladería Babalu has a section in their freezer case dedicated to flavors from ingredients in the region. I had algarrobo, quinoa con tres leches, and ayrampo. 1.900 CLP for a single scoop. There is a location on both ends of Calle Caracoles. Cash only.
- Don’t bother. I brought my AeroPress and coffee to make coffee at my hostel. For the most part, if you’re doing early tours, the only time you will have for is instant, no-es-cafe, Nescafé.
- I checked out Roots next to my hostel on Tocanao, but the coffee they sell, Marley Coffee, is nothing to write home about. They do have WiFi but it’s terribly slow. The positive here is that they accept credit cards.
- There are several souvenir shops on Caracoles as well as a passageway (Feria Artesanal) with several stands behind the main plaza. I noticed you could pay with credit cards at many.
- My plan was to not buy any souvenirs but I saw a colorful camera strap at 100% Chile that caught my impulse buying eye.
San Pedro de Atacama is exhausting if you’re around for a long weekend. There are so many activities to take advantage of and I would recommend working in a day to just relax.
I did a bike ride on my second day in San Pedro de Atacama with a friend I made on the first tour I went on and I highly recommend it. Lots of fun and a great feat to attempt.
From San Pedro de Atacama, we found a bike rental shop called Turismo Teckara that lent us very nice Trek mountain bikes for 7.000 CLP for 6 hours. The rumor is that there is no penalty if you return the bikes later than 6 hours.
You can also rent bikes from Hostal Matty (next door) for 500 CLP less per bike but the purple trek is obviously superior.
I am not going to lie, the loose sand, heat and incline up to the tunnel at Catarpe is tough. Make sure you pack a lot of water and prep yourself for a crazy ride back down! The view up there is great.
There are plenty of tours to pick from and many agencies to book at. It is not hard to find an agency that allows you to pay with credit card, but paying in cash will get you discounts. For the 4 days I was there I did the following tours with the corresponding agencies.
- Agency: Andean Salt Flat Expediciones
- Cost: 39.000 CLP
- Entrance Fees: 2.500 CLP with student ID
- Payment method: Cash
- Length: Full Day (7-7:30am - 5:45-6pm)
Booked a day before because of the early departure. The agency that ended up picking me up but everything seemed to be under control. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we visited several different sights and I liked her laid back approach to herding us around. En resumen, we visited Laguna Chaxa, Salar de Atacama, Laguna Miscanti y Miñique, Salar de Atacama, Piedras Rojas, and did quick stops at the poblados of Toconao and Socaire. None of the stops were alike in sights and weather! I recommend this to get a glimpse of a little bit of everything in one day but make sure you pack layers.
I had very low expectations when I read that breakfast and lunch were included. However, breakfast included slices of toasted French baguette from La Franchuteria in San Pedro de Atacama along with cheese, butter, jam, instant Nescafe, tea, fruit. I am not one for breakfast but I could not say no to good bread.
My expectations for lunch were ham and cheese sandwiches but I was extremely and pleasantly surprised when the tour guide laid out the lunch spread: A pesto pasta salad, pumpkin soup, cucumber and bell pepper quinoa salad, grilled chicken tenders, and more of the crack bread. 🍞
According to the guide, the food came from a restaurant near Hostal La Ruca called Jallalla. Thanks for the fantastic food coma, Paula! ❤️
- Agency: San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE)
- Cost: 15.000 CLP
- Payment method: Credit card
- Length: 2.5 hours
Reserved a day before but was not allowed to secure the spot by paying until the day of the tour. I later learned that this was to avoid refunds if the weather wasn’t suitable for the tour. Staring into the sky without any light pollution was mesmerizing. The tour was split into two parts. The first was a lecture and explanation of why we are able to see different constellations in other seasons or other parts of the globe as well as guided identification of constellations, planets, and satellites with the naked eye. The latter part was a circuit of looking into a several telescopes to get a closer view of stars, galaxies, and nebulae (both new an old). The tour included a choice of hot chocolate, herbal tea, black tea, or mate de coca.
- Agency: Cosmo Andino Expediciones
- Cost: 17.500 CLP
- Entrance fees: 4.500 CLP with student ID
- Payment method: Credit card
- Length: Half-day. 3:30-8pm.
This was a last minute booking that I felt lucky to have found (everyone else was booked and cash only). This was my favorite tour out of the rest by far. The guide was charming in his way of talking about what we were about to see along the trip. We covered a lot of ground by stopping at Mirador de Kari/Piedra del Coyote.
We also drove and trekked along a ridge where the wind began to pick up. Our ride would be waiting for us at the basin so we finally running down a sand dune to “survive” Valle de la Muerte and continue exploring the salt mountain range in Valle de la Luna.
Our final stop was walking up to the anfiteatro (amphitheater) in Valle de la Luna to watch a dramatic sunset.
If there’s anything you do in San Pedro de Atacama, do this.
- Agency: Andean Salt Flat Expediciones
- Cost: 17.000 CLP
- Entrance fees: 5.000 CLP with student ID
- Payment method: Cash
- Length: Half-day. 5am-1pm.
I was very reluctant to try this one. I hate being cold. However, I came well prepared with snow pants, gloves, etc. I also had several conversations about this one with other travelers that finally convinced me to go. Reasons being:
- I had never seen a geyser before.
- When am I ever going to have the opportunity to dip into a natural spring at 4000+ meters above sea level?
- The other travelers I spoke to were women also traveling by themselves and much older than me.
So I did it, I saw it, I took a dip. Seeing the geysers as the sun is rising is a neat way to wake up. Make sure you pack some coffee or warm beverage. If you’re lucky and the sun is out, the cold won’t be as bad.
Bottom line: Would I do this one again? Probably not.
We stopped at Pueblo de Machuca along the way on our way back to San Pedro de Atacama and had the opportunity to buy llama kebabs and goat cheese empanadas (fried).
The scene was enough entertainment for me. I asked if the trumpet was to signal that the food would be out soon (a la sad trombone) but it was just to entertain the long line of hungry travelers.
- Agency: Volcan Paniri
- Cost: 18.000 CLP
- Entrance fees: None
- Payment method: Cash
- Length: Late evening. 10pm-12:30am
This was a last minute tour before an early flight back to Santiago the next morning. There was not much advertisement for it, I just happened to see a flyer on a post outside while I ate ice cream. The price was originally 25.000 CLP but the lack of interest from the general public encouraged the agency owner to cut a deal. No photos from this trek but it was a great opportunity to walk the Cavernas de Sal at night. There was a spooky story-telling twist to the trek and women dressed as witches to spook us along the way, but the real treat was looking up at the stars and hearing the salt crystals cracking as the temperature dropped and to cause them to contract. 😮