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San Pedro de Atacama: first impressions




Updated November 20, 2021 by Thiago Khoury

I am passionate about Chile, now more than ever, because for the first time I went beyond Santiago: three friends and I went up to the north of the country and arrived in San Pedro de Atacamathe place that everyone calls Atacama Desertthe driest in the world, where almost nothing survives.

Well, minus the tourists, those have been doing really well, thank you!

San Pedro de Atacama: first impressions

The Atacama Desert goes far beyond the city of San Pedro de Atacama, it even passes through Calama which is the city where we arrive through the local airport that has several daily flights from Santiago.

It is in San Pedro de Atacama that Caracoles Street is located, the main street of the city and the urban center of the desert, where accommodation, food and tourism agencies are concentrated.

I’m going to talk a little bit about this microcosm that is the desert, but first I want to leave two essential posts for those who are planning a trip to Chile:

+ What is the best travel insurance for Chile?

+ What is the best travel chip for Chile?

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Desert landscapes near Salar de Tara

Traffic and public transport in San Pedro de Atacama

Neither exist. San Pedro de Atacama is extremely small, it is restricted to the surroundings of the snailsthe main street, and three or four blocks from the streets that cross it.

Only those who are in an excursion vehicle on their way to one of the most famous walks in the desert can leave those closest surroundings.

Those who also leave that little brain where everything happens are those who choose a lodging option that is not exactly there: those who leave the planning of the trip for the 45 of the second half end up being reasonably farther from Caracoles, but the whole distance is resolved in ten minutes or less than walking.

+ Arriving in the Atacama Desert via Calama Airport

Enjoying the blue sky days in Atacama

San Pedro is a mixture of shades of red, a city the color of beaten earth, which in the rainy season must turn into the most muddy of clays. And as Camila said so well, San Pedro and rain don’t mixit is a lost trip.

Prepare to do everything on foot, or, as the guides indicate, by bicycle, but no one needs them. Most of the time you just walk towards the transport that will take you to the tour of the day, because that’s how we calculate a trip to San Pedro de Atacama: in number of tours.

+ How to choose tours and agencies in San Pedro de Atacama

Money and shopping in San Pedro de Atacama

You can spend much more than you expect without making any effort. It is possible to eat cheaply, but remember that in the desert even the basics can cost small fortunes: water is a precious item that increases the value of all kinds of services, from meals to hotels.

I had no problem with my credit card: everywhere accepted our Visas, Masters and Americans without a headache.

Our biggest fear, the lack of money, went unnoticed on the first day.

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Strolling through Caracoles…

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…and eating the typical Atacama dish

Food and Drink in the Atacama Desert

I wasn’t preparing for one of my biggest food trips ever! San Pedro de Atacama is a temptation, something completely unexpected and unplanned.

I programmed myself with the basics, but I found delicious fish, steaks of all shapes and unforgettable Chilean barbecues with beef, pork and chicken.

There were two meals a day in style, after all, I only had three days there and, it is worth remembering, I was taken by surprise: I had to optimize my time and try everything I could!

My food expenses were around 50 dollars per meal, all paid by credit card.

+ Where to eat in San Pedro de Atacama

I ate a lot more than I expected, but I drank a lot less than I planned: the walks take up a lot of our time and our physical availability. We face extreme temperatures and altitudes that can trigger instant migraines.

Think twice before getting into alcohol, as a good friend of mine says: never belittle the desert.

When people arrive in San Pedro de Atacama and find that horde of gringos walking the streets, they tend to relax. In the hour-long journey between the airport and the hotel, our breath seems to adapt to the local climate, it is common not to remember all the advice – but, once again, remember: never belittle the desert.

Never travel without a pharmacy with everything you might need. You don’t want to need medical attention in a place an hour away from the nearest civilization – but if you do, be sure to claim your travel insurance!

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I found a shop walking around San Pedro de Atacama…

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… and I passed through the limits of the municipality

Nightlife in the Atacama Desert

There are parties banned by the government called clandestine carts. They are horrible, but I tell you that it was interesting to participate in one: to know where they happen, just be close to the largest number of tourists around one or two in the morning, when all the bars in Caracoles must close their doors.

It’s funny to see someone riding a bicycle announcing clandestine cart!, just follow him to a vacant lot nearby where someone will be at the door charging a thousand pesos for the entrance. It’s safe, don’t worry.

Inside, some fool with the stereo on and colorful flashlights will try to cheer you up while the people dance around a bonfire. There’s beer and soda for 5,000 pesos each.

And the best thing is that whoever is prepared for a clandestine cart you will also be used to the idea that, in the desert, all vanity will be punished: there is no bath, cream or perfume that makes you feel clean after half an hour in the desert, because it is very easy to get seasick – I felt sick every day, without exception.

Tourism and Hospitality in the Atacama Desert

Like every place that survives on tourism, the people there can no longer be used to understand how interesting they really are.

Well, they are Chileans, and I love Chileans: I wish I had known San Pedro de Atacama before the city was what it is now, but with so many gringo tourists arriving there every day they are a filtered version of the real locals.

There are wonderful all-inclusive hotels (including all possible tours) and there are less pompous hotels for every budget. I promise to talk more about it.

+ 5 great tips to book a good hotel in Atacama

You know what’s curious? As such a favorable place, the lack of complete structure can surprise so much! It is even more curious how even after two or three days in paradise we still have glimpses of what San Pedro de Atacama really is: the Atacama, the driest desert in the world, the place where almost nothing survives.

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Making fun of the Três Marias monument

Read more about the top tours in the Atacam Desert and the best ways to do them:

+ Monjes de la Pacana and Salar de Tara in the Atacama Desert

+ Geyser del Tatio and Machuca in the Atacama Desert

+ Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte in the Atacama Desert

+ Laguna Cejar and Tebinquinche in the Atacama Desert

Other blog tips for planning your trip:

Do you already know where to stay in the Atacama Desert? I stayed at Sumaj Jallpa, but I wish I had stayed at Quinta Adela, which has a better infrastructure.

Have you already purchased travel insurance? Insurance is essential especially in times of covid! The Insurance Promo comparator offers at least 10% off for blog readers and even pay on the card!

Can you travel without a cell phone? Do not forget to leave Brazil with your international SIM card with real unlimited internet – and through the blog link you will take at least 15% off!

For rent a car in chile for the lowest price search all rental companies at once on Rentcars. They have an office in Brazil with service in Portuguese!

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