Tips to travel to northern Chile
San Pedro de Atacama is an oasis in the Atacama desert. Seen from far, it can be located near the triple custom between Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, in Chile. It has been inhabited since thousands of years by the atacamenian indians (Likan Antay people). It is bordered by the Andes Cordillera to the East, and the salar (salt lake) de Atacama in the south.
Here is a map obtained from http://maps.google.com/ :
Cute, no ?
Because of the natural beauty of the town and its surrounding, it is now one of the three most visited places in Chile, together with the Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia and the Easter Island. It is also one of the stop in a tour which usually brings people from Santiago de Chile, to San Pedro, then to the Salar de Uyuni, the Titicaca lake and finally the Machu Pichu in Peru (several possible variations).
Assembled here are a few informations and links in order for you to prepare your visit to San Pedro. These are mine, and is a personal point of view. You may have different informations or opinions. Fine with me.
Links for San Pedro de Atacama:
One site on San Pedro with many links of hotels.
Another important site here :
There are several book/ tourism guides related to tourism in Chile. Chilean guides are usually in spanish and english. They are usually well up to date, their authors coming to San Pedro once per year. You will find them in libraries, but also in Santiago's airport. Two well known are the Turistel guides and the Puelche guide. The maps from the Turistel guide are a reference in Chile.
For the international guides, the situation is more random... In a boiling place like San Pedro, a guide which has not been updated for a few years is basically useless. Many more hotels, and better ones than in 2000, restaurants which have changed owners, different and worthwhile travel agencies, etc... Since we have been here, we have seen the Footprint guide author twice, the Moon travel Handbook once. And unfortunately not many other people from other guides, unless very anonymously, and without updating their guides anyway :) Lonely Planet has nice commentary about us.
Travelling in Chile:
Chile, which I have travelled a bit, is a beautiful country. San Pedro welcomes about 120000 visitors per year, and for this reason is slightly more expensive than the rest of Chile. I know, I have had to purchase a house and rent an agency here :)
Calama is still not an international airplane, therefore it is necessary to arrive to Santiago and travel north either in airplane or in bus.
LanChile : The national airplane company. Best quality overall.
Sky : Another company, usually cheaper.
PAL : Another company.
While travel in airplane is by far preferable on long distances, it is also possible to travel in confortable buses for much less money and much more time (it takes 24 hours of bus from Santiago to San Pedro)... In Chile, there are 4 types of buses : Ordinary (ejecutivo), Semi cama (reclining seats), Cama (reclining seats, but large seats like in 1st class airplanes, 3 seats across the bus width, recommended for long trips), and more recently Super cama (double story buses, the lower story containing only 6 seats, which can recline completely, like a bed). The prices of course vary from one type to the other, but the price difference is worth the money. The super cama prices are not too far from the cheapest airplane tickets. For the super cama, reservation in advance is important. There are only 6 such seats in these buses, and few of them. If you arrive in Santiago by air and continue by bus, there are Turbus shuttle from the airport to their bus terminal in downtown Santiago.
It is also possible to come to San Pedro via Salta in Argentina (Pullman buses), or via Peru, eventhough it is a bit complicated, taking into account the very good relations between the two countries :). It is sometimes easier to fly from Lima to Santiago, then to Calama, than to fly to Talca, take a taxi to Arica, then an airplane to Calama...
Bus companies serving Calama:
Each large city in Chile has a bus terminal with all the different companies serving the different destinations.
Tur Bus which we prefer for the quality of the service.
Pullmann bus but does not travel to San Pedro, but transfert to Frontera del norte possible.
Frontera del Norte (between Calama and San Pedro) No web site, but most frequent connections from and to Calama and San Pedro. also have buses to Toconao and Socaire (which is an economical way to see these two pittoresque cities). Quality of the buses by far inferior to Turbus for example.
An advice : Try to avoid the seats in the back of the bus. Further away from the toilets, less smell, less people waking you up in the middle of the night, passing near to you.
Take also care of the holidays, which are different for some of the European/US holidays. These days, everybody travelling to their families, the buses are more than full, and you may have to wait a week end the following monday to get a seat.
There are a shuttle services between Calama airport and San Pedro. A bit more expensive than taking the bus to Calama and then the taxi from the bus stop to the airport, but much easier. One of them is Transfer Licancabur which you can reach at transferlicancabur-@-terra.cl (remove the - on each side of the @ ). I don't know if they speak english, but you can always try a simple message in english with a few keywords (transfer Calama San Pedro, 2 persons (your name), such date, such airplane ). Normally it should work.
We recommend renting only from a reputable company. Sometimes some people from San Pedro rent their truck. If everything is OK... everything is OK. When problems arise, then... problems arise. Do they have an insurance, can you help you and provide another vehicle for you to continue your vacations ??? Aren't they going to charge you for the repair of their car which _you_ broke, etc... All the large car rental companies are represented in Calama's airport. Since a few years Europcar has an agency in San Pedro. This is very practical in case you want to rent for a while, then continue on to Bolivia, while not having to go to Calama to give your vehicle back (there is a charge for this, but it really helps). Then of course, if you have a problem in San Pedro, they can help you directly.
In San Pedro:
There are different taxis, normally located in the parking lot near the parking at the exit of the "feria artesanal". You can also rent bikes in many places, horses...
In San Pedro there is a first aid hospital on Le Paige street, higher than the museum - Tel : 85 10 10.
There are now several ATM machines in San Pedro. Some of them normally work, except during some high demand week ends where the machines may run out of cash. In this opportunity, a simple solution to get cash in San Pedro, rather than to loose a day going to Calama, is to stay at the Tur Bus agency and to offer to pay their trips to the tourists leaving San Pedro with your credit card, while they give you their cash.
There are several public phones in San Pedro. You can purchase a chilean telephone with minutes of communication for about 10000 pesos (first prices).
There is a very large selection in San Pedro, from quite expensive deluxe hotels (above 1000 dollars per night per person), to rooms at 10000 pesos per night (20 USD, or 7? ), and several (snoaring :) ) persons in the same room. It is therefore difficult to be exhaustive. If you arrive by bus, there will be several persons jumping on you :) and offering you a stay in their hostals. Normally, they are quite far from the center of the village. Knowing a little bit, you can find several hostals, quite near to the center, with a bathroom for two bedrooms, kitchenette, for 10000 pesos per night.
Around 25000-30000 pesos per night, one can find hotels with private bathrooms. Make sure in the winter the rooms have a heater otherwise it can be quite cold. There are many hotels in the same price range, and you will find informations about them in the two San Pedro sites above. I haven't slept in a hotel in San Pedro in the last ten years, so can not give honestly good recommendations, find information on the forums or on travel sites.
In more "luxury hotels", Terrantaï, Kimal, the Hosteria San Pedro, Altiplanico, Casa de Don Tomas and more recently (2008) Alto Atacama, Tierra Atacama, Kunzha, Awasi, Lorana Tolache. The restaurant of the Kimal is also opened to the public. Most of them are very beautiful with a personal service (many in this price range include the food and tours).
Our own Atacama Lodge is meant to receive amateur astronomers, or persons who prefer autonomy and the calm of a lonely place far from town. But if you are motorized, you will find it a very good spot.
Before reserving an hotel or going to a restaurant, take a quick check to sites like tripadvisor to read what other think of the place where you would like to go. Of course, tripadvisor reports must be read between the lines. The 3 main reasons people write in sites like tripadvisor is first because they didn't like the service (but then again, there are people who spend their time being unhappy), sometimes you see places which have a vast majority of excellent reports, and then nothing in between then a couple of very bad reviews, which you can basically ignore. The second reason is because they have been very satistied with the service and the third one is because the owner of the service has asked his clients to write positive reports, or has written them him or herself using fake names. When you read a lot of positive reports, mostly by people who only wrote that report, you can start questioning. Having a good publicity on a web page is easier to have than a good service and places like tripadvisors need to have their reviews interpreted correctly.
There is no local gastronomy in the atacamenian meaning of the world. Chilean food is soups, fried chicken and fish. While there is fantastic wine and meat (parilladas) I don' t believe one come to Chile only for the food. Most restaurants in San Pedro serve an international food, with a quality which can vary in quality from year to year depending of the chef. Generally, all restaurants in Caracoles Street are good and without surprises.
There are a few minimarkets in Caracoles street, when we shop in San Pedro (most of the time we shop in Calama's commercial center), we shop at ECA, on Pachamama street, quite off from the center, but best selection and slightly lower prices than in the center. On Domingo Attienza, you'll find "the sol" which has also a good selection of products. On Le Paige street (a parallel to Caracoles), Carmen has a good "pasteleria", and a place where you can take a good breakfast. She has very good pastries, even to european standards. Arthur now has "la franchuteria" which is a french bakery in upper calle Le Paige (going toward the aduana).
There are several internet cafés in San Pedro. Some still have a slow modem connexions, but today more and more internet café have an almost decent connexion.
Agencies and guides :
Since we have been here, we have seen several agencies open and close. There is everything in San Pedro, from good and serious agencies, to joints which don't make any difference between a tour and a transportation to the place. You must decide if you need a tour with a guide in english or in spanish. Very often the difference between the average tour and a good tour is a few thousand pesos. Eventhough it looks a lot (2000 whatever) we are talking a few bucks or euros of difference.
The agency which normally can be recommended with closed eyes is Cosmo Andino.
The best, if not most economical solution to visit San Pedro and around is to contract a private guide. While this is not very economical for one person, but for a group of four, the difference is not that much.
You can also rent a 2x4 vehicle. While you can come to San Pedro with a normal car, don't think you will get to most destinations without at least a 2x4 pick up truck. I don't recommend renting in Santiago and driving to here. It is much better to come by airplane or bus, then rent locally in Calama for example (most rental companies have agencies in Calama). The majority of the classical tours ( Valle de la Luna, Tatio geysers, Altiplanic lagunas, salr de Atacama) can be done alone in a 4x4 vehicle and a good map. I have been to the Tatio geysers alone several times without any problems. At worst, following the flow of buses which go there every morning. Of course it is more secure to take a tour, and if you feel tired, have problems in the altitude or have a tendency to drive wrecklessly, don't try your luck.
Avoid systematically agencies offering volcano climbing to the Laskar volcano. They are clearly irresponsible amateurs. This is indeed an active volcano, they advertise it as maybe an extra interest, and most of the time it means you can see fumerolles in the crater. But it does explode from time to time or release nocive gas. You really don't want to be there when it happens and it tends to happen on average like every few years. Let's say every 1000 days, so most of the case, 99.9% of the cases it is a nice trip. Serious agencies in San Pedro don't offer this tour, only amateurish joints do. Again, things can go OK, or they don't, then you risk your life, and apparently they don't care. I had a friend who does not work in San Pedro anymore which has the world record of going down from the Laskar, they made the ascencion with clients, started going down, and 5 minutes later the volcano exploded. Of course you also have the case of the people bringing you to the foot of the volcano, decide there is too many fumerolles, decide to cancel the tour, for your security of course (who could be against ?) bring you back to San Pedro, and charge you the full tour anyway (it happened to some friends of mine).
You have to realize that most sites here are extreme sites and that Nature has no tendency to forgive. At 4 or 5000 meters of altitude, snow can fall very quickly and what started as a nice trip can end in a nightmare. If you ever tried to change a tire at 5000 meters, you will understand me. At these altitudes, there is half the quantity of oxygen at sea level. Whatever efforts costs much more. Spending a night at -20° is also not a pleasure. Before leaving for your expeditions, a little bit of preparation never hurts. Rent a car with 2 spare tires (to be asked before renting the car). Check that they can be dismounted. There are very often tires which are locked with pneumatic wrenches, and which can not be dismounted with the small wrench given with the car. Even less at 5000 meters. Check the jack before leaving. If you travel alone (I mean only one car) to a destination where the agencies do not go, tell the carabineros of your trip, when you are planning to come back. Take ample supplies of water and gas. There is a gas station near the Hosteria San Pedro.
In the visits you can ignore is the Chuquicamata copper mine. If you arrive at the right time, you are shown a promotionnal video, then you are brought above the mine ( a very large hole, where the huge trucks look small), you can take a picture near one of these giants trucks, and that's it. One day lost.
The bolivian tours:
To be politically correct, Bolivia is a wonderful country, but also much less developed than Chile. Only bolivians agencies have the right to bring you to Bolivia. There are 4 or 5 in San Pedro. Going to Bolivia is a little bit going to the adventure. Sometimes, it is going a lot. Uyuni, the 6th largest town in Bolivia still does not have any paved access road. The 4x4 of the San Pedro agencies look as if they have done several trips around the world. Most have gone back and forth to the Moon... :) Normally the tours leave early in the morning in a chilean bus, then go to the custom to make all the paperwork, then bring you to Bolivia, let you go through the Bolivian customs, then bring you to the White lagoon. There the groups coming back from Uyuni go down to San Pedro climb in your bus, while you take their Landcruisers. My personal experience ( I went 3 times to Uyuni) is that the quality of these tours is extremely variable. First you are going to be 3 days in a small place with people you have never met before. One time I was with other tourists which were not exactly very friendly (I am still talking politically correct). They took the best seats and kept them during the whole trip, refusing to rotate, leaving us in the crummy back seats. It was of course not the responsability of the agency. Another time, the driver didn't talk at all during the whole tour (well, guy if you don't like tourists, change job). Another time I took the tour in February and could not visit the Uyuni lake. This is the rain season and the salar is full of water. Of course, they don't tell you unless you ask. The 3 trips, I was still enchanted by the trip. The views are incredible. Generally the tours are quite good, but some people have reported nightmares, related to the state of the roads, the state of the vehicles, the state of the passengers (when you spend the first day vomitting, it ain't fun...). Another thing to double check when you purchase the tour is that you have been sold what you wanted, i.e. a round trip ticket if you want to go back to San Pedro. I felt it would be nice to pay a little bit more, and have a a little higher quality : an english speaking guide, better food (tuna mayo sandwiches, OK, but there has to be better things to eat...), less people in the truck, and better lodging. In the winter, the lodging near the colored lagoon ( laguna Colorada) is very military. In the winter (July August) expect barely above freezing temperatures in the rooms at the end of the night. No hot water to wash (may have evolved...?) and no electricity in the wall plugs. The second time, I came with a small screwdriver and a tester, and reconnected the plugs in order to recharge my camera batteries. Other than that, these are wonderful places.
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