In 2017, I moved to Santiago de Chile to do a seven-month internship as part of my studies. I planned to return home to Germany in the spring but not before traveling through South America for a month. Once I arrived in Chile, I quickly realized that I would never be able to see even a fraction of South America in a month so I decided to stick to traveling Chile.
Besides Patagonia, the Lake District, and Easter Island, I wanted to see the Atacama Desert. From what I had heard from my Chilean friends and host family as well as other Travelers, it was a must-see on any Chilean Bucket List.
So on Easter weekend 2018, I boarded a plane to Calama.
How to get around
There are two ways of exploring the Atacama desert. You can book the tours or you can rent a car and go see it yourself. If you are a solo traveler, I would recommend the tours. If you travel with a group of friends or can spend a little bit more, rent a car.
The pros of taking a tour are that you won't have to worry about the bad conditions of the streets, you'll meet new people and your tour guide can tell you everything about all the places. The cons are the crowds since most of the tours take their groups to the locations at the same time of day.
I took the tours but regretted it a bit. I could not afford to rent a car at the time but visiting all the beautiful places in the desert, I felt as though the crowds of people took away a bit of the experience.
If you are traveling alone or with just one friend, I suggest making friends at the hostels and renting a car with a couple of other people.
What to see
There are a couple of places that you cannot miss when you are traveling to Atacama. The most popular are the following four:
Altiplanic Lagoons, Piedras Rojas
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Geysers del Tatio
Los Flamencos National Reserves (Flamingos)
Another must-do is the Astronomical Tour at Night to see the incredible desert night sky. Unfortunately, I visited Atacama during the full moon so all night tours were canceled. One day, I would love to return just for this experience alone.
If you have more than just 3 days, I highly recommend taking the tour from the Atacama desert to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia (or vice versa). I did not have the time but we talked to people who had the best time. You can book tours and go with a group, it is usually a three-day tour incl. food and accommodation.
Where to Eat
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town yet there is a good amount of food options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here are my recommendations:
Mal de Puna (Chilean)
Las Delicias de Carmen (Chilean)
Estrella Negra (Vegetarian)
Salon De Té O2
Heladería Babalú (Icecream)
Franchuteria (bakery, great breakfast)
Where to stay
We stayed at the Airbnb that unfortunately is not available to be booked anymore. I still recommend looking into Airbnb rentals or Hostels. San Pedro is a hotspot for backpackers so if you're looking for some Travel buddies or people to share a jeep with, a hostel is probably your best bet.
Room and board are very affordable in San Pedro, with a night at a hostel starting at about 20 EUR/USD.
I suggest taking at least three full days to see the Atacama desert, adding the tour to Uyuni if you have the time. Chile is more expensive than Peru and Bolivia but still affordable in comparison to prices in Europe or North America.
Don't skip this place if you are exploring South America, it is truly special.