San Pedro is the town that grew around an oasis in the Atacama desert, the driest nonpolar place on earth. People come here from all over the world to see dunes, lagunes, volcanoes, valleys and much more. San Pedro de Atacama is small and cozy, but there’s not much to do in the city itself. Restaurants, church, souvenir shops, few markets, hostels and tour agencies – that’s pretty much all you can find there. It’s a place with less than 4000 inhabitants, where people come to visit one of the most famous deserts in the world.
Getting a tour in a desert is very easy: the town is flooded with tour agencies. You choose what you want to do and they often will take you there on the same day. Some of the most popular places to visit include Moon Valley, Laguna Cejar, Lagunas Antiplanicas, Salt Flats and Tatio Geysers. You can walk around and compare prices and offers, but they all will be roughly the same. Here is what we learned about tours in Atacama.
1. Additional fees
As there is so many things to see, the cost can add up to be quite expensive. Many agencies offer a discount if you book several tours with them. What some forget to mention is that the entry fee is not included in the tour price. So, if stand alone price for visiting Moon Valley is 15000 CLP, you’ll have to pay extra 3000 at the entry. The fee just for getting into Laguna Cejar is 15000 CLP, plus whatever you pay to the agency (normally also around 15000 CLP). Keep that in mind and always ask about extra costs.
2. Group tours
Group tours are the easiest way to enjoy Atacama, and when you book they tell you that you are going with a group of 10-15 people. The truth is that you are not necessarily going with the people who booked at the same agency as you. Tour agencies get orders, then contact whoever actually arranges the tour and say that they have certain amount of people who want to go. They will pick you up either at the agency or at the hotel and put you in the van with other people. So yes, your group will be limited to the amount of people a small van fits. But due to this arrangement, all the tours start at the same time, so there will be a lot of groups going to your destination. You might have 12 people in the group, but there will be many vans like yours at the same time. So, as romantic as watching sunset at the Moon Valley sounds, it’s not as dreamy when you are doing it with 300 other people.
3. Alternative ways
Try and do something different than group tours: rent a car or a bike. I honestly wish we have gone with a bike one of the days. Of course, not all destinations can be reached by biking. You should definitely be in shape for it and be careful not to get sunburned. For groups of 3-5 people renting a car is also a reasonable option. Not only you can choose where and when to go, you can do it at exact opposite time of all the tours, so it won’t be that crowded. It’s a bit easier to get car rented in Calama, but few options are available in San Pedro de Atacama as well.
4. Alternative tours
We decided to go on a hike in Cactus Valley, finishing in Puritama Thermal Springs. Springs were honestly not as impressive as the ones we visited later in Peru. But hiking in a Cactus Valley was probably the best choice we made during our time in Atacama. The valley is beautiful and we had a picnic in the canyon. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and told us many interesting things about flora, fauna and Atacama people. We really saw this place from a different perspective. Also, during 5-hour hike we only saw two other people doing the same. As much as I recommend Cactus Valley, there’s so much more to do besides these few traditional tours. Try bike tours, sand boarding, climb a volcano and enjoy yourself.
5. Things are different in a desert
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town, and in most places you cannot pay by card. There are few ATMs, so that shouldn’t be a problem. But, as in most small places that are next to tourist destinations, prices are quite high, often because of lack of choice. Also, it’s a desert, so hostels might have different water saving policies; water is not cheap and your clothes WILL get dusty. On the other hand, nights are so peaceful and the sky is beautiful. By the way, if you are there at the right time, you can do the stargazing tour. There you can find out what indigenous people of Atacama thought of the sky, stars, moon and more.
6. Where to find food
On some tours you will get lunch, but often you will have to find your own food. There are numeral eating places around town, but not many of them offer local stuff. Pizzas, pastas etc are quite popular around there. You can, of course, get lots of empanadas, chorrillanas and more. If you are on the way out of Chile and it’s your last chance to try something local, we recommend to head to La Casona and try pastel de choclo – one of our favourite Chilean dishes (check out this article by Authentic Food Quest about what else to try). If you decide to cook yourself, there are some minimarkets, but the choice is not so good. For fresh veggies and fruits take a look at the markets at the Caracoles street.
Don’t forget to drink lots of water, make sure you acclimatize beforehand to avoid altitude sickness if you are heading to the volcanoes and get ready for beautiful trips.
P.S. Let us know in the comments what you loved the most in San Pedro de Atacama!