Chile is by far one of the most diverse countries I’ve ever visited and it will always hold a special place in my heart. It has a beauty that I have yet to see duplicated in any other country. To understand Chile you need to understand its different landscapes: the Andes, the Pacific Ocean, Patagonia, the Atacama Desert, etc.
San Pedro de Atacama is an oasis town in the driest desert in the world. You could easily spend a week here, but sometimes all you have is a few days. Here, I hope to provide you the information to help you make the most out of your weekend in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
How to arrive:
The best place to stay when exploring the Atacama Desert is San Pedro de Atacama. One option is to take a two-hour flight from Santiago, the capital of Chile, to Calama. From the Calama airport, take a taxi or shuttle bus that will bring you to San Pedro de Atacama. The ride is 2-3 hours and costs about 25,000-35,000 Chilean pesos ($38-$45 USD)* in taxi and $12,000 Chilean pesos ($18 USD)* in a shuttle bus. You can reserve the shuttle bus ahead of time on Transfer Licancabur’s website.
The other option is to take a bus (Turbus) from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama for about $31,200 Chilean pesos ($47 USD). The bus ride is 30 hours long.
When to go:
The weather in San Pedro de Atacama is great all year. In winter (April to October), it might be a little bit colder, especially at night, but temperatures are still warm.
Where to stay:
There are several options in San Pedro de Atacama and they range from low-budget hostels to five-star retreats. There are also camping opportunities but keep in mind that the temperature drops drastically at night (take it from someone who learned their lesson the hard way).
Some great hostels in the town are Hostal Campo Base, La Casa de Matilde, and Hostal Rural. If you’re looking for more of a luxury vacation some pricier places to stay are Awasi Atacama, Explora Atacama, Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, and Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.
What to pack:
During the day, San Pedro de Atacama is hot, with temperatures ranging from 70F to 90F (21C to 32C). Be aware that at night temperatures can drop drastically, ranging from 30F to 60F (-1C to 15C). So, depending on your lodging plans, make sure to pack for both hot and cold weather.
When I went, I stayed overnight in a tent and I only brought a small backpack with me. I put all my smaller items in the backpack and wore the heavier items (it was winter in Santiago).
Here’s what I packed:
1 pair of shorts
2 tank tops/t-shirts
1 pair of pants
1 pair of leggings
1 long sleeved shirt
a North Face fleece
a winter hat
personal toiletries and items
Keep in mind that I was sleeping in a tent during the colder months. If you’re staying in a hostel or a hotel or going in the middle of summer it won’t be necessary to bring so many warm clothes. Also, definitely make sure to pack sunscreen!
What to eat:
San Pedro de Atacama has a ton of great restaurants! But don’t expect anything to be super cheap because most of the items need to be transported from areas outside of the desert.
I had the best meal of my entire life while I was here. I wandered into a restaurant that seemed to be cheap but was actually super expensive. The meal was fresh ceviche de salmón and a generous glass of Chardonnay. I may have had to eat crackers and avocado for the rest of my trip, but it was 110% worth it.
If you’re the adventurous type, alpaca is a common food here that’s worth trying.
What to do in the town:
The best thing to do in town is to walk around and check out all the shops selling artisan crafts. You can find items that are difficult to find in other parts of Chile, such as sweaters made from alpaca fur, coca tea, and coca candy. I highly recommend that you try coca because the tea is delicious and well…when in the Atacama…
There are several independently-owned shops as well as a market that is open during the weekends (and possibly during the week as well).
The real attractions in San Pedro de Atacama are really outside of the town. You can easily book tours in town as almost every other building is a travel agency (an exaggeration, but you won’t have any trouble finding one).
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
I definitely recommend visiting Valle de la Luna. Tours leave at different times throughout the day, but the last tour is the best one because the sunset is absolutely stunning. You can see ruins of old Chilean salt mines and the desert laid out in front of you for miles.
Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)
If you go to Death Valley I recommend riding horses through it to make it a little more interesting. It’s beautiful and cool to see, but it’s nothing amazing by itself. It’s usually included in tours that go to Moon Valley. The real attraction of this place is the eery feeling you get going through it. You can also go sand boarding here if you’re looking for a more active experience.
Laguna Cejar is a lagoon located in the Atacama Desert. The lagoon itself is a beautiful blue color and you can see the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. The lagoon has a high salt concentration so it’s easy to float if you’re not a strong swimmer! Many tours will go here in the afternoon and include a pisco sour while you watch the sunset over the lagoon.
El Tatio is a field with over 80 different geysers. Most tours leave early in the morning (5-6 A.M.). I didn’t go, but I heard from other travelers who went that it wasn’t too impressive. But if you have the time, why not give it a try?
Salar de Atacama
While not as famous as Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, Salar de Atacama is a large salt area in the middle of the Atacama Desert. It’s worth going and super beautiful, especially at sunset.
Another popular activity in San Pedro de Atacama is stargazing. Plenty of hostels and travel agencies offer stargazing tours at night. This is some of the most incredible stargazing around, because there are no major cities nearby and no bright lights affecting the visibility of the stars. The sky is also usually clear.
If you’re heading to Argentina or Bolivia, you can find a tour in town that will take you across the border.
If you’re heading to another area in Chile you have two options. If you have a flight to catch and need to get back to Calama, I recommend booking a seat on a shuttle bus (Transfer Licancabur is the most popular option in town) either through the office in town or through your hostel/hotel. The shuttle bus picks you up at your accommodation and brings you directly to the airport.
Your second option is to go to the Turbus office in town. Turbus has buses that go from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama, Antofagasta, La Serena, and Santiago. You can transfer to other destinations from the bus stations in Antofagasta and Calama.
Extra tips and information:
Remember to bring sunscreen and clothing to protect you from the sun, which is intense here.
Drink plenty of water! Since you’re going to be in the driest desert in the world this should be obvious, but just a reminder!
If you decide to rent a car just keep in mind that there aren’t many gas stations, so gas up every chance you get.
Make sure you carry enough cash on you because, while there are ATMs, there aren’t many.
I didn’t exchange money while I was there, but I’ve heard people say the exchange rates are pretty bad. Research ahead of time or, if possible, exchange your money in a different location.
The Calama airport is super small and you don’t need to be there super early. When I went I think I arrived 30-40 minutes before my flight and I still had plenty of time to wait around.
If you’re planning on partying late into the night, buy your alcohol before 11:30 P.M. on weekdays and before 2 A.M. on Friday and Saturday. Local laws prevent the sale of alcohol, in bars and store, after these times.
Have you ever been to San Pedro de Atacama? What would you add to this guide?
Brittany Mailhot is a freelance writer, blogger, and personal freedom advocate. She began living a location independent lifestyle shortly after graduating from college and continues to share her experiences to inspire others to say f*ck it to the 9-5 and live their dreams! She's always available to answer questions by email or on social media so don't be afraid to reach out!