Chile: 5 things to do in the Atacama Desert

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A week in the Atacama desert in 2 minutes of video: a challenge considering all there is to do there! It happens right here!

After the hectic pace of our first weeks of world touring in Peru and Bolivia, we decided to put our bags down for a week in the Atacama desert, in the north of Chile.

Our base camp: San Pedro de Atacama, a small town whose sandy streets are full of travellers who settle there for a few days to discover the region. Between September and the end of October, the temperatures are already high during the day (up to 30 degrees) even if the nights are cool. You can enjoy the city and its surroundings in peace before the beginning of the Chilean summer, which is synonymous with high temperatures and a lot of tourists: this is the ideal season!

We rent a car to enjoy the region independently... And to continue our trip, as we will only return it 3 weeks later in Santiago after having travelled through the North-West of Argentina (see our article " Rent a car in South America").

Practical information
Where to sleep?

San Pedro de Atacama is a major tourist destination and has many hotels of all kinds, from the most simple to the most luxurious. For a whole week, we stay at the T'ika Wasi hotel, an apartment-hotel a little bit far from the centre (10 minutes walk).

The most

In a city that lives mainly on tourism, accommodation and restaurant prices can rise quickly! Moving away from the centre can reduce the hotel budget (58 USD or about 50 Euros per night for two, without breakfast), and having a kitchen avoids having three meals a day outside... Always useful!


In a desert area like San Pedro, moving away from the centre also means taking the risk of limiting access to certain "services". Hot water is only guaranteed by solar heating (which, by the way, seems to us to be quite good): cold shower guaranteed in the morning! The hotel does not offer an internet connection, which is not very problematic on holiday but more complicated when you have to work... Fortunately, most of the cafés / restaurants in the city offer a connection, of more or less good quality.

Please note: this hotel does not accept credit cards for payment!

Good to know

In Chile, a non-resident foreigner does not pay VAT on accommodation (i.e. 19% of the nightly price), if the following conditions are met:

  1. Payment is made in USD,
  2. The hotel is entitled to issue invoices without VAT (hotels with less than ten rooms are rarely entitled to do so, ask your guests when they arrive).

In a wheelchair 

It is very difficult to find accessible accommodation in San Pedro! Ours has the advantage of having a ramp at the entrance (most of the hotels in the city centre have a step), but we have to deal with the bathroom, its too narrow door, its restricted space and its step in the shower... Not necessarily simple, but nothing insurmountable compared to our experiences in Peru and Bolivia... We deal with it!

Where to eat?

There is no shortage of restaurants in San Pedro... In fact, you will find almost nothing else in the city, along with hotels and tourist agencies! But we find some very good surprises in terms of quality and welcome...

  • Ckunna: for outdoor dining by the fire and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. From starters to desserts, excellent Chilean dishes (the meat plates to share are particularly excellent),

  • Franchuteria: because it is hot in San Pedro, we particularly appreciate its garden in the shade of trees and its fresh fruit juices. Founded by a Frenchman, this improved bakery offers the best croissants and pains au chocolat (chocolatines?) in the region as well as sandwiches and excellent coffees... A perfect address for working in the afternoon or for a Sunday brunch...
Where to withdraw money?

In South America, most banks charge a commission on withdrawals, regardless of your bank card. In Chile, this commission varies between 2,000 and 6,000 Chilean Pesos (CLP) depending on the bank, which is not insignificant considering that withdrawals are limited to 200,000 CLP (about 260€ at the time we were there, but exchange rates vary a lot over time).

As many things are paid for in cash in the region (notably the entrance to the parks and a certain number of restaurants and even hotels), it is better to look for the cheapest ATMs... In San Pedro, the Scotiabank ATM located in the Cruz Verde pharmacy at the crossroads of Caracoles and Toconao does not take any commission! Ideal when you want to limit costs...

You will also find many exchange agencies in the centre. While most agree on the rates to be applied, some offer more attractive rates than others. The only way to find out is to go from agency to agency, crossing your fingers that they still have enough of the change you want to get back at the end of your search...

Atacama Desert: our favourites

The surroundings of San Pedro are rich in landscapes and allow varied discoveries! We've put together a top 5 list of what we think is a must-see in the region: here it is!

1. dive in the clear water of the Laguna Cejar (1/2 day)

Distance from San Pedro: 20km of which 15km is a passable track; 30 minutes approx.

Park entrance: 10,000 CLP per person before 2pm; 15,000 CLP afterwards (free for people with reduced mobility on presentation of a disability card)

Lost in the middle of the desert, the Laguna Cejar park is in fact a collection of three salt lakes between which you can walk in a fabulous setting You can observe various birds, including pink flamingos... And you can even swim there! The particularity of this lagoon: its salt concentration will allow you to float effortlessly, a very special feeling usually found only in the Dead Sea!

Through the clear water, you can see underwater cliffs: a bath in these waters with changing temperature (due to the geological activity of the region) is a delight! There are cabins where you can leave your belongings at the water's edge and a shower (cold water) and WC are available on site.

In a wheelchair

While the paths around the lagoons and the viewpoints are well laid out (wooden walkways or hard ground), the access to the swimming area of Laguna Cejar is not particularly accessible. The area is rather muddy and you sometimes have to cross (shallow) water. To go swimming, no specific means are provided: you will have to leave your wheelchair and go back up by your own means to access the water. Note that if you are not in a wheelchair but you might need one, a loan chair is available from the park on request at the visitors' centre...

2 See a sunrise over the Geysers of El Tatio (1/2 day)

Distance from San Pedro: 90km of which 20km is a track (variable condition); approx. 1h45

Park entrance fee: 10,000 CLP per person

An early morning wake-up call that is well worth it! The geysers of El Tatio are among the most extensive in the world and the spectacle at sunrise is worth the diversions (from about 9:30 am onwards, the outside temperature is no longer low enough for the steam to be created: you can't see anything anymore!)

After this cold stage, it is a real pleasure to take a hot bath in the thermal springs!

If you don't have your own car, there are many agencies offering this tour in the centre. Departure time is around 4.30 am!

In a wheelchair

The access roads to the geysers are well laid out and easy to get around from the car parks provided at the various points of interest in the park.

3. an evening under the stars (4 hours)

The San Pedro region is known as one of the best places in the world to see the stars!

In this desert expanse, the purity of the sky allows us to fully appreciate the Milky Way. To make the most of it, we decide to spend an evening observing the starry sky through a telescope with Time Travel Atacama: a passionate guide, clear and educational explanations accessible to the uninitiated... And a breathtaking beauty!

Price: CLP 30,000 per person

4. 2 to 3 hours horseback riding in Death Valley

The ideal way to enjoy the landscape!

If several agencies offer it, we choose Rancho Cactus for its professionalism, its attention to the needs of riders and horses and its warm welcome: an incredible experience!

Price: CLP 28,000 per person for 3 hours

In a wheelchair 

Riding a horse in a wheelchair? It's done!

We inform the office the day before of what we want to do, we tell them about our riding level (close to 0, we admit...). When we arrived on the spot, the two supervisors helped Pierre to settle on the saddle by carrying him (they had no particular device): and we left!

Good to know, however: depending on your degree of mobility, riding a horse is not an easy exercise! On a classic saddle, the upper body is particularly mobilised to keep your balance! We are a bit shaken by a spectacular fall of Pierre during the ride (his horse stumbled, impossible to straighten his head without the abs...). More fear than harm, fortunately, but even if most handi-riding experiences go well, it is not completely without risk!

5 Admire the Valley of the Moon (1/2 to 1 day)

Distance from San Pedro: 6km; approx. 10 minutes

Entrance to the park: 10,000 CLP per person (free for people with reduced mobility on presentation of a disability card)

The Valley of the Moon is aptly named! As you can guess, it is a place where you can find landscapes... Lunar, of course. You can walk between sand dunes and sharp rocks, by car, on foot or by bike! Be careful with the last two options: the temperatures rise quickly and there is no water! Choose the cooler hours of the day (the park opens at 8am).

In a wheelchair

The whole park is accessible by car and we already enjoy the landscapes from the road! On the other hand, between sand and rocks, it is difficult to reach the viewpoints which are on average 2.5 or 3km from the car parks... Despite all our efforts, we could not go to the end of any path...

As a bonus

We had already done sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru, and did not want to repeat the experience in San Pedro. So we took advantage of being with friends to let them try it out and give you some information about this very popular activity in the region!

They loved their half-day experience (20,000 CLP per person) with Sandboard San Pedro: good equipment, an available teacher... In short, a really good time!

Unlike Huacachina where buggies pick you up at the bottom of the dunes to take you back up, everything is done on foot... Be prepared, it's quite physical!

In our next article

After a week rich in discoveries, we cross the mountains and the border and arrive in Argentina for our first passage in this magical country (we will then make several return trips between Chile and Argentina to reach Ushuaïa, the southernmost point of the continent). From Tilcara to Mendoza, we will take endless roads through deserts, lush valleys and prosperous vineyards...

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