Chile, first stop, man we had been dreading this. Every traveller we had met coming from south to north told us how nice it was to finally be in Bolivia as Chile and Argentina were soooo expensive.
Secretly, I held out hope that they were exaggerating. They were not. Going from Bolivia to Chile is enough of a culture shock, but to San Pedro is even worse as it’s one of the most expensive cities in Chile (so far).
Still, the Ungraceful duo arrived with smiles on our faces, a newly acquired tent on our backs, our notorious “sure look, we’ll figure it out” attitude and a slightly tighter grip on our wallet.
We wandered the fancy restaurant-riddled streets and gringo haunted alleys scouring for the best deals to make this a bit easier on the budget, and by extension, my heart.
If you too are on a budget, read on my frugal comrades, to see how we made the most of San Pedro on a pittance.
Table of Contents
- Getting to San Pedro de Atacama:
- Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama:
- Tours in San Pedro de Atacama:
- Rent a Bike:
- Cycle The Valle de La Luna (free):
- Avoid Salt Lakes:
- Stargazing Tours:
- Extra Cheap Cheats in San Pedro de Atacama:
Getting to San Pedro de Atacama:
Visit Bookaway.com for updated schedules, transport options and current prices.
Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama:
Although our plan was to ‘rough it’ on a campsite, we thought we’d dig up some hostel prices for you our beloved readers just in case…hey, don’t say we never do anything for you!
For the cheaper hostels, avoid the centre of town. Stay around the bus terminal or head over towards the cementerio.
One of the cheaper hostels we found on Calle Las Parinas, pays $7,000CP (€9.50) for a bed in a 6-bed dorm with a shared bathroom or $10,000CP (€13.50) for a bed in a 4-bed dorm with a private bathroom. There’s a kitchen and an open-air common room with hammocks, couches and beanbags. Nice vibe about the place too.
On Calle Toconao, close to the Plaza, Mattys Hostel wasn’t too bad at $8,000CP (€11.40) per person for a dorm room with 5 beds. The hostel facilities include a kitchen, lockers, Wi-Fi, and hot showers from 9 am-9.30 pm. The cheapest private room with a shared bathroom is $29,000CP (€40) per night though. No. Thanks.
This hostel also has the cheapest bike rental available, more on that later…
Camping has become our new thing. It was one of the most recommended budget-saving tips, especially as Chile and Argentina have lots of campsites and places to wild camp. Our only regret is that we didn’t buy our tent in Bolivia, where it is so much cheaper.
A nice cheap campsite we found in San Pedro de Atacama was Camping Los Perales on Calle Palpana just off the main Gringo street, Caracoles. at $6,000CHP (€8.15) per person, it’s equipped with a kitchen, charging points and hot showers, but no Wi-Fi.
Camping Buenas Peras:
Is the cheapest place to camp but the facilities are really basic, bearing in mind the owner was still building the place.
Buenas Peras is located on the corner of Lascar and Ckilapana. They charge $5,000 (€6.70) per person with kitchen, showers, bathroom, self-laundry service and electricity but no Wi-Fi, also they charge for any extras, for example, in high season if you want to cook you have to contribute to gas.
We suggest visiting and negotiating, the owners are elderly and don’t seem to know what they’re doing. We got this vibe they thought they were running a hostel, not a campsite but hey, anywhere with a kitchen helps.
Tours in San Pedro de Atacama:
We are not huge tour people but having a look around for you guys we noticed that all major tour agencies charge roughly the same, with Chileans being a little hard to haggle with. For the best price, it is a case of knocking door to door, and most definitely popping into hostels for recommendations and promotional deals.
To the extreme budget-conscious travellers (we hear ya buddy!) our honest opinion is to screw the tours here. We felt there was nothing in San Pedro de Atacama that you could not do elsewhere for cheaper or free! Sorry that is probably not what you want to hear but every Chileano will admit that, although a “must-see”, San Pedro de Atacama is the most expensive and overpriced location in Chile.
Rent a Bike:
To discover the desert DIY, rent a bike and get lost in one of the hottest places on earth. There are many stunning locations including Valle de Luna, Valle de la Muerte and more to visit and all routes are clearly marked.
Bike rentals average about $3,500CP for 6 hours. For an extra $1,000CP, from the majority of the rental places along Caracoles Street, you can pick up the bike the night before to ensure an early start the following morning. The bike rental includes a helmet, torch and map. If it doesn’t, steer clear from the rental company.
The cheapest bike rental place we found was Mattys Hostel in Toconao. You can pick up the bike as early as 6 am, and for 6 hours it costs 3,000CP (€4.30).
Cycle The Valle de La Luna (free):
We collected our bikes at 7 a.m. and hit the road just as the sun burst over the nearby mountains. The cold morning turned warm as we took it easy effortlessly cycling for an hour to the Valle de la Luna gates. It was closed, but we knew that. It was all part of our plan. You see, the gates don’t open until 9 a.m. so if you arrive before then, you can just cycle your way around the barrier and enjoy the pink peaks and the brown swirls of the valley at no charge. It’s a straight road, from the entrance through the valley, up and over hills, down descents and past the many attractions.
Cavena del Sal
Lock your bike at the nearby rack and wander through the salt caves, following the red arrows, crawling through the narrowed corridors and up the edgy rockface. It is a quick walk, crawl and climb through, being completely on our own was somewhat of an eerie bonus.
Another 20 minutes or so is the Duna Mayora. Again, strap the bike to the nearby benches and follow the path to wander at some incredible views of picture-perfect, smooth sand dunes, Vienetta-like (yes, the ice cream) mountain ranges and salt-capped landscapes, the trail will bring you to the very top, then the very edge and right back down again. You will spend at least 40 minutes hiking up and back.
Jumping back on the bike, follow the road to find more miradors (offering the same views) and onwards to Mina Victoria, a small and intriguing mine. There is another mine before the exit which we think was called Mina Cristina, Next to the three large self-standing rocks known as the ‘Tres Marias’. If you have the time, visit at least one of them.
As the day, thankfully, drags on, the sun floats higher so be sun-safe and drink plenty of water. The roads are touch and go, some smooth with fun hills to fly down and others filled with loose gravel sure to hurt the bum. Or in our case, the barse, the part between your arse and balls. Farce, for women.
If you’re not too cycling savvy, we definitely recommend giving yourself at least an hour and a half to return back to San Pedro de Atacama. We continued on until the Valley de la Luna road turned into the B 241 highway that passes the Valley de la Marta and Valle de la Muerte.
Be warned, if you are at all tired after cycling through the Luna, you will hate the two-wheel jaunt back into town. Along the B241 that is. From the exit, it is a good 40-minute cycle just to reach the nearby highway, a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. And once you reach it, it is a further 13km (doesn’t sound too bad) to the San Pedro Plaza.
Originally, this was fine until we realised the first 5km or so is sneakily uphill. Totally doable, as we did eventually make it despite the cursing, many stops and the fact we had to push our bikes instead of cycling. With the hard part over, feeling slightly winded due to swallowing too much air during our panting, the final few KM is a thrilling “weeeeeee” all the way down. I was hitting incredible speeds while Katie, a little too scared due to the fast passing traffic, kept my hand on the back brake and ungracefully skidded my way to meet him.
So if you feel a little turned off by the 13km trip back home, don’t be deterred from visiting the Valle de la Luna as its sheer beauty (and the fact you can visit for free, while having the place all to yourself) is so worthwhile. Simply visit all you want to see, keep an eye on the time and U-turn back to the front gates and back home the way you came, and know.
Due to the insane price tags attached to San Pedro de Atacama, this was the only attraction we managed to visit but left feeling extremely content with our ride with nature.
If you have what it takes, and have rented the bike for the full day, take off as early as you can; visit the Luna and then take the road we did home. That way you could also fit in the Valle de la Muerte, however, we don’t think you’ll make it before the gates open, meaning you will need to pay the 3,000CP (€4.30) entry fee.
Alternatively, if you have a flashlight handy, try to get to one of the Valleys for sunrise, we imagine it would be stellar viewing.
Don’t forget to wear layers. It will be cold in the morning, yet once the sun hits, so will the sweat outbreak. Bring sun cream, water, and a lunch or snack to keep up the energy. Wear a helmet and watch the road for potholes etc. Pretty obvious shit, we know. And we hate to condescend but since you’re a little remote and you most likely won’t see a passing vehicle or fellow traveller, stay safe and be mindful of all your surroundings. The roads can be patchy, the sun can be sickening, and you won’t even notice your own sweat absorbed, not to mention the sunburn! Sneaky fecker.
Once again, we highly recommend Matty’s Hostel for bike rental, who allowed us to pick up the bike at 6 a.m. (we arrived an hour late – surprise, surprise!). We also didn’t return until 2 p.m. and the guys were very understanding with our (lack of) timekeeping. We think once they saw our red, tired faces they allowed the extra hour to slip by and didn’t even comment, never mind charge us.
Let it be known that 6 hours is possible to travel to and visit the Luna including all its attractions, and then cycle home the “long way” once you keep an eye on the time. It may feel rushed, and you might want to explore more but you can always return or rent the bikes for longer at a higher price.
For us, this trip saved San Pedro de Atacama and certainly made it worthwhile.
Avoid Salt Lakes:
For tours to the nearby Salt Lakes, geysers Laguna Colorado etc. you are better off holding off and taking the three-day tour from Bolivia’s Uyuni as it works out far cheaper, if you’re not American that is! Due to the costly visa entry fee for Americans, Israelis and Australians, the tour is probably cheaper from Chile.
You are going to hate us but hey, we have to be honest with you.
Please avoid the stargazing tours! Don’t even bother with them. Instead, head to the Elqui Valley near La Serena in Chile. Not only is it voted the second best location for stargazing (in the world!) but it is far more beautiful and you do not even need to book a tour to make the most of one of the clearest skies with sparkling, starry nights.
Extra Cheap Cheats in San Pedro de Atacama:
If you are reading this ahead of your arrival to San Pedro de Atacama, whether you are travelling from Uyuni in Bolivia, from any of Chile’s coastal cities or its capital, Santiago, we suggest you stock up on whatever you might need beforehand. NOTHING is cheap in the desert, this is Chile’s ultimate tourist trap.
The cheapest menu deals which include two courses; soup and a segundo (mains) are beside the football pitches near Calle Las Parinas.
Here menus start from 3,000CP (€4.30). Whereas everywhere else (on and near the main gringo street) menus start from 8,000CP (€11.40) *ouch*.
If you do want to eat out, it’s always best to choose one main meal a day and cook other times. The majority of hostels and camping sites have kitchens, so your best bet is to hit the market, buy cheap and cook in the hostel. There is one small market, in a large open area between the football pitches and bus terminal, but it is a local farmers market and prices are still not as cheap as you may be used to.
Of course, to really save money, from whatever destination you are travelling from, stock up as it’s way cheaper to buy staples and fresh produce than in San Pedro de Atacama.
We travelled from Bolivia, and instead of taking a Salar tour or booking a direct bus to San Pedro de Atacama, we took a public bus from Uyuni to Calama, the nearest city to San Pedro de Atacama and stocked up on as much as we could there. Definitely a huge money saver.
For more info on our Bolivia to Chile border crossing click on over, folks.
For excellent Wi-Fi (and we truly mean that!) although we did travel from Bolivia which wins for worst Wi-Fi in Latin America.
Head to the main Plaza just off Gringo Street or to the skate park across from the Bus Terminal. This is a handy tip for anyone camping, as there is no Wi-Fi available. The only downfall is that you need to sign in every 30-40 minutes. We managed to make Skype calls and everything on this public Wi-Fi, dead handy!
There is a bus terminal in San Pedro de Atacama, with services running all over Chile and even Argentina!
Yet, we decided to head back towards Calama and go to our next destination from there. And again, being as honest as we can, while we are not 100% if this saved us a huge amount we certainly found prices from Calama and Antofagasta cheaper as there were more bus companies and choices to choose from. So this is worth bearing in mind.
Buses back to Calama cost 3,000CP (€4.30).
Look, we will admit this may not seem like the most exciting blog. But we genuinely struggled to find anything major to do in San Pedro de Atacama without the fear of going over our weekly budget.
There are times when you need to pick and choose what to do, being selective and making the decision to miss out on certain attractions. We always say that you cannot see everything, no matter what your budget and time.
Considering we have flown across the Colombian desert in a 4×4 and shot down the Peruvian desert on a sandboard, we decided we would be strict here, and we left feeling content with that decision.
Don’t feel the pressure to do everything or listen to the words spoken by others who claim to have seen it all. Some tours are underwhelming and unless there is a huge personal love or it has been something on your bucket list, missing a geyser and deciding against visiting a large colourful lake won’t leave you without any travel experience.
Go with your gut, do what you want and just enjoy the fact that you are in the Chilean desert. That alone is something that so many will never get the chance to see.
Enjoy the moment and happy travelling!