Atacama desert backpacking in the driest place on Earth

Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile
Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile

San Pedro de Atacama was the beginning of our epic 3 months hitchhiking and camping adventure in Chile. Coming from Uyuni, Bolivia (check our Uyuni article) we immediately noticed difference in price. Everything from accommodation to activities was much more expensive in Chile so Atacama desert backpacking on a low budget is tricky. To keep up with our 12$/person per day budget we had to sacrifies some comfort. We decided to hitchhike everywhere in Chile. And we had the best hitchhiking experience ever, 100% hitchhiking friendly country.

Back to San Pedro de Atacama, we arrived there just before the high season in mid December. Not the best time; prices are higher, everything is booked, many tourists. Due to its remote location and scarce natural resources (water, soil etc.) everything here is more expensive than in Chilean central regions. San Pedro is a gateway to Atacama desert, all activities, tours etc. start from here that explains why there are so many tourists in this tiny town.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile
Campbell on the top of the hill in Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile

What is special about Atacama desert?

First of all Atacama is considered to be the driest place on Earth. Rains are not frequent visitors, once in   years or so. Second, Atacama is not just a desert with a lot of sand, many unique nature formations are hidden here. Salt lakes, hot springs, caves, canyons, colorful mountains and stunning night sky just some of them.

What to do in San Pedro de Atacama?

Budget options

Valle de la Luna

The nearest and easiest to get from San Pedro is Valle de la Luna (Moon valley), about 6 km away. You can do a bus tour for CLP 7000/$10 or rent a bicycle and go on your own, CLP 3000/$4,4 for 6 hours. 6 hours is enough time to visit everything inside the park. Total distance from the entrance to the final point 11 km, plus 6 km to San Pedro. Entrance fee 3000/$4. Tour prices don’t include entrance fee. Most tours leave at 4 pm for the sunset, beautiful but very crowded, better to go in the morning and have all the valley for yourself.

Tres Marias, Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert backpacking guide
Tres Marias, Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert backpacking guide

Valle de la Muerte

One more valley Valle de la Muerte (Death valley), not far from San Pedro de Atacama, 3 km, walking takes about 45 min. No entrance fee. Strange tunnel like rock formation reminding labyrinth. We were there in the morning and didn’t see other people, really cool feeling wandering around the labyrinth in the desert.

 Valle de la Muerte, Atacama desert, Chile
Campbell at the entrance to Valle de la Muerte, Atacama desert, Chile

One night in the desert

Camping in the driest place on Earth, why not?! One day we left our luggage in the hostel, took our tent, some food and a lot of water and went camping in the desert. We walked from San Pedro for about 2 hours through the desert, passed Valle de la Muerte. When it started getting dark we found a nice flat place and pitched our tent. The sunset in the desert was unreal! The night sky in Atacama is fantastic, so many stars! Next morning we woke up for the sunrise, ate breakfast and went back to the town, on the way explored Valle de la Muerte. Amazing experience that didn’t cost anything!

Camping in Atacama desert, Chile
Early morning in Atacama desert, Chile

Star gazing tour in the desert

You can do it for free as we did but you won’t see much, just many stars in the sky. Or do a tour with an agency and look at the sky through professional telescope. Atacama is considered one of the best place for ‘star gazing’.

Fantastic scenery of Atacama desert, Chile
Fantastic scenery of Atacama desert, Chile

Non budget options

All mentioned below places we didn’t visit. First of all because they were out of our budget. Second, coming from Uyuni  salt flat we had already seen some similar things, e.g. geysers, salt lakes, flamingos, salt flats etc.

Geyser del Tatio, second biggest geyser in the world, tour from San Pedro including breakfast CLP 20 000/$30, plus CLP 5000/$7 entrance fee. Tour starts very early at 4.30 and finishes about midday.

Laguna (lake) Cejar with very salt water, analog of famous Dead sea. 5 hour tour costs CLP 15 000/$22, including snacks and cocktail, plus CLP 17 000/$25 entrance fee.

Lagunas Altiplanicas, high elevated lakes, with flamingos around. Tour from 6.30 am to 2 pm, CLP 25 000/$36 including breakfast, plus CLP 5500/$8 entrance fee.

Salar de Tara, salt flat with weird shape rock formations. Tour from 8 am to 4.30 pm  CLP 60 000/$88, including breakfast and lunch.

Doesn’t matter whether you walk or cycle don’t forget to take enough water and sunscreen it’s a real desert!

There is no public transport to any of these places, to get there you’ll need a car or go with a tour. The only one place you can try to get by bike is Laguna Cejar, 16 km from San Pedro. To rent a car in San Pedro is very expensive. Van for two people CLP 90 000/$130 per day or CLP 170 000/$250 for two days plus petrol.

Lagunas Altiplanicas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Lagunas Altiplanicas, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama

The cheapest we could find was Hostel Atacama Roots at Ignacio Carrera Pinto 633, behind the bus terminal. Nice place, shared showers/toilets, hot water, wi-fi, kitchen with utensils, stove, pots, all you need for cooking, nice view over the desert. Bed in dorm CLP 6000/$9, private double CLP 20 000/$30. In high season (from Christmas to Feb) bed in dorm CLP 10 000/$14. Other hostels were from CLP 8000/$12 per bed. To save some money we camped one night right in the desert.

The cheapest laundry we found was at hostal Viento Norte (in the center), CLP 5000/$7,3 for a full basket, 4-5 kg.

cycling through Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile
Alya cycling through Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile

Food in San Pedro

There are many restaurants and cafes in the town, all expensive. Breakfast options from CLP 2500/$3,5, set lunch from  CLP 3500/$5, family pizza CLP 10 000/$15, big sandwich CLP 2300/$3,3, coffee from CLP 1000/$1,5 etc.

Cooking will save a lot of money so try to find a place with a kitchen. There are no supermarkets in San Pedro, only small shops where you can buy pretty much everything you need for cooking. Prices in shops for the same things are different don’t be lazy and shop around a bit to find the best. We bought most of the stuff in SYS minimarket at calle (street) Caracoles. Average for food we spent about CLP 3000/$4,4 per day for both. The only one thing that is cheaper in Chili than in other South American countries is wine. For a bottle of Cabernet we paid about CLP 1800/$2,5.

Moonlike landscape of Atacama desert, Chile
Moonlike landscape of Atacama desert, Chile

Transport from San Pedro de Atacama

Buses in Chili are expensive specially in the extreme south and north of the county. To get from Atacama to let’s say Santiago will cost you CLP 35 000/$51 from Calama (bigger city nearby), plus CLP 3000/$4,5 bus from San Pedro to Calama. To the cost e.g. La Serena CLP 25 000/$37 from Calama. Buses that cross to Argentina are even more expensive.

We hitchhiked from San Pedro to La Serena, about 1000 km and made it in 24 hours. We started in San Pedro in the morning and arrived at La Serena next morning. It was Christmas Eve people were very helpful, we even got some presents from our drivers.

 hitchhiking in San Pedro de Atacama on Christmas Eve.
Alya hitchhiking in San Pedro de Atacama on Christmas Eve.

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