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How to Visit the Driest Place on Earth & What to Do There

January 02, 2014
by CEA CAPA Content Creator

  The Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth. There are some large stretches of land where rain has never been recorded (for at least for as long as is has been measured by humans). Fun Fact: around a decade ago, because of the lack of rain and water shortages, the people of this small northern town began to gather water using a system of nets that catch the fog as it rolls over the mountains. The Atacama was also a huge setting for border disputes in the 19th century, Bolivia, Peru and Chile fought over who would control the dry land and its abundant deposits of sodium nitrate.

After Chile captured the land, copper mines began to come about during the 1950s, some which are still in operation today. In fact, Calama, Chile is home to the largest copper mine in the world, known as Chuquicamata, which is open to the public for tours if interested. We didn't make a reservation early enough to visit the mine but if interested tours can be arranged with five days notice for a small donation. More information can be found at: Chuquicamata Mine Tour Reservations

What's the best way to get to the Atacama?

“One, if by land, and two, if by sea” - Henry W. Longfellow 

  We flew on LAN Airlines at a current special rate of 55,000 CLP round trip. The distances are vast in Chile and unless you want to take a 24-hour bus ride to San Pedro for 60,000 CLP round trip, then here are my suggestions. I personally prefer flying with LAN because they are one-world partners with American Airlines so I can earn reward miles for my travels and they have fantastic customer service! The trick to finding better deals on LAN is to change your country to Chile in the upper left hand corner. Don't worry this is allowed and by paying in Chilean pesos instead of dollars you will save around $200 per flight. I have no idea why there is a $200 flight difference but just book flights in pesos and you'll save money. But be careful because you can't book flights in Peruvian money or Argentinean money, those special flight prices are reserved for citizens. Despegar is also a good website to use if you don't have a preference to LAN.  

Once you're in Calama you have two options to get to San Pedro:

  1. Find a van service to take you straight to Calama (10,000 CLP one way)
  2. Take a taxi to the bus terminal ($6000 CLP one way) and then take a bus to the bus terminal in San Pedro ($3000 CLP one way). Taxis are charged at a rate of per ride and not per person so keep this in mind when deciding what's the most cost effective way for you to get to San Pedro! 

What's is there to do in the Atacama? 

Everything in San Pedro can be seen in a weekend! You need mid-Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning to see Valle de la Luna, Salar Laguna, Laguna Tebinquinche, Reserva Nacional de Flamencos, Altiplanic Lagoons, and Geyser de Tatio. It's easiest to book all these tours at the current flat rate of 55,00 CLP ($110 USD). Please note that this only includes a guided tour (in English or Spanish) and transportation, this DOES NOT include entrance fees. In total we spent around $150 USD on tours. Check out our photos of the place in northern Chile that captured my heart. 
Valle de la Luna

Salar Laguna 

Laguna Tebinquinche

Reserva de Nacional de Flamencos

Altiplanic Lagoons

Geysers del Tatio

What's a good budget to have?

In total, I spent around $400 USD on tours, sleeping accommodations, food, and transportation. A HUGE portion of that was spent on transportation alone...

  • $140 Round trip plane ticket from Santiago to Calama (after taxes)
  • $10 Round trip Bus from Vina to Santiago
  • $20 Taxi to the airport- A bus is available from the terminal of buses to the airport we just arrived to late to the terminal to take this bus its around $1500 CLP ($3 USD)
  • $40 Round trip Bus from Calama to San Pedro- we did the more expensive van transport instead of sharing a taxi to the bus terminal.

A huge way to save money is to go grocery shopping before you arrive in San Pedro. It's a small town, emphasis on small, where you're not going to find a Walmart. If you fly with a major airline, you should get two free checked bags. We went shopping the day before we left and simply checked a large suitcase full of food! In fact, we barely made the weight limit requirement... whoops. In total we spent around $35 each on food for the weekend (only eating out once).

A hostel I would personally suggest Hostel Atacama Tatai's... we didn't actually stay there, we stayed at Hostel Laskar Cabur, but we booked all of our tours with Tatai's and absolutely LOVED the tour guides. We spent a lot of time at their hostel hanging out around the camp fire and listening to music! In total I would budget around $35 to spend on a hostel depending on how many nights you decide to stay. We spent $45 each but we stayed 3 nights!

Tours were also a huge portion of our budget. $110 USD may seem like a like a lot of money but the distances in the Atacama are ridiculous. We spent around thirty minutes driving one stop to the next! You have two options to find a tour agency, either your hostel will offer tours or you can walk around to the main square and find an agency. They all offer the same tour for the same price it's really just group size that differs, so do whatever is easier. My suggestion would be book ALL of your tours at once because tours will be full ANY weekend you decide to go and you don't want the disappointment of not getting to see something because it was full. 

Of course you don't have to book with a tour agency, renting bikes is also SUPER popular in the Atacama. If you only want to see a few things and save a couple dollars bikes can be rented for $12 USD for a day and all you will be required to pay for are the entrance fees and maybe a map.
Total: around $400 USD... sleeping in the airport priceless :) 

¡Salud! Danielle Banks is the Fall 2013 CEA MOJO in Viña Del Mar, Chile. She is currently a senior at Texas A&M University.

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