The Atacama Desert has to be one of the most breathtaking places on the entire planet. Located in northern Chile, you’ll start wanting to take photos on your bus ride into town. My friend and I spent a few days here and were absolutely blown away with all the natural beauty. Whether it’s stargazing at night or visiting lagoons during the day, you’re going to fall in love. Here’s a first-timer’s guide to visiting the Atacama Desert with eight essential tips so you can get the most out of your trip!
A first-timer’s guide to visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile:
1. Why should you visit?
Chile is perhaps most famous for its natural landmarks. There is Easter Island and Patagonia in the South and the Atacama Desert in the north. Atacama is one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world and its landscapes are so similar to Mars that scientists often use the desert to test new equipment before sending it up into space.
2. Look for places to stay in San Pedro
San Pedro is the main town in the Atacama Desert. It’s very walkable and quite easy to navigate. For a tourist town, it doesn’t feel touristy at all and it’s one of the safest places in Chile. Our guesthouse owner joked that it was a hippie town.
3. You’re going to fly into El Loa Airport in Calama
San Pedro is actually pretty remote and small, so you’re not going to be able to fly right in. You’ll fly into El Loa Airport in Calama, which is about an hour away by bus from San Pedro. Don’t worry, there are plenty of shuttle buses and they all cost about the same. You can choose between LATAM Airlines and Sky Airlines, which is the budget airline for Chile.
4. Here’s how to get around
Unless you choose to rent a car, the best way to get around is to participate in one of the tours or figure out how to rent a taxi for a day or few hours. Everything is far from the main downtown area, so you won’t be able to simply walk or bike even to the closest attraction.
5. The nights get VERY cold
You’ll have to worry about sunburn during the day and being freezing at night! While we were there in April, it got as low as 2C (36F). We did not pack accordingly, so we were shivering as soon as the sun went down. And trust me, you do not want to miss going stargazing because it’s too cold.
6. Stay there for 4-5 days minimum
We stayed there for 3 days and it was definitely not enough! Give yourself at least 4-5 days to really get a chance to see everything and even longer if you like to take your time. There are a tonne of beautiful places to see from the Atacama salt flats to the geysers at El Tatio, and we obviously couldn’t see them all.
Also, since the desert is at a higher elevation, you may need time to deal with either altitude sickness or just a more sluggish feeling in general. I remember thinking I’d go for a run while we were there, and by the third day, I could barely drag myself out of bed for breakfast!
7. Don’t plan on doing a lot of online work here
If you’re a digital nomad, then I would not anticipate working while you visit the desert. The Internet is pretty slow and expensive. While we managed to load our emails and do some writing, I can’t even imagine trying to plan Skype calls or upload photos/videos with our guesthouse’s Wi-Fi speeds. Plus, you really don’t want to spend time inside waiting for Internet pages to load when outside the landscape looks like this:
8. See if you can pay for things in US dollars, not Chilean pesos
If you want to save a little money, see if your tour or guesthouse accepts US dollars. It saved us quite a bit actually when we factored in the exchange rate (1,000 CLP = $1.50 USD) and taxes on pesos. We didn’t think of this at all until we read our guesthouse’s welcome email comparing the costs.
And there you have it! A first-timer’s guide for visiting the Atacama Desert, Chile with eight quick tips!
Looking for more first-time guides? Check out these posts next:
- First time to the Great Barrier Reef? 10 Things to Know Before You Go
- The Best of San Diego: A First-Timer’s Guide
- A First-Timer’s Guide to Seoul
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Do you have any tips to add to our first-timer’s guide to visiting the Atacama Desert? Let us know below!