Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama: 4 Days On a Budget
One of the most visited destinations in Chile is the Atacama desert and the town of San Pedro de Atacama. We were lucky enough to have four full days here during our tour across South America. San Pedro de Atacama was our first ever experience of being at altitude. The altitude is something we needed to get used to as we moved north through the Andes mountains.
Because San Pedro de Atacama is very touristy, it can also get quite expensive. Hotels charge a premium and so do all of the tours. With this in mind, we booked our accommodation well in advance and researched the possible tour options. We wanted to cycle to some of the sights because we are keen cyclists and it would be much cheaper. Our goal was to stick to a budget!
Day One: Valle de la Luna by Bike
One of the top things to see in San Pedro de Atacama is the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The landscape is surprisingly moon-like with jagged rocks, arid landscapes full of small craters, and also sand dunes. It’s a real feast for the eyes.
Most trips head out from the town at around 4pm to catch the sunset, so we knew the park would be busy from then on. We decided to avoid the crowds and hire bikes to go to the park in the morning. This meant a cheaper entrance fee and we practically had the park to ourselves.
We thought our plan was foolproof until the wind came and completely whipped us with whirling sand! It was so much fun trying to make a mask out of our hi-vis jackets though. We didn’t quite make it all the way to the end but we did stop in a shelter for our picnic before heading back to town. I highly recommend doing this rather than sitting on a bus – sandstorm or no sandstorm.
The ride out to the Valle de la Luna entrance is around 30 or so minutes from the town. It’s a fairly steady uphill stretch of road and dirt track. Once inside the park you can easily spend 4 or more hours cycling the main route whilst stopping at viewpoints. Most of the viewpoints have a short walk involved but there are bicycle ‘parking’ spaces at all viewing points. You will get a map from the visitor centre on arrival. We also used an app on our phones called Maps.Me to help guide us to the viewpoints.
Bike hire: £5 each for 6 hours
Park entrance: £3 each
Day Two: Exploring the Town of San Pedro de Atacama
We had a fairly relaxing day checking out the town, had a spot of lunch and acclimatised more to the altitude. The town has a couple of museums and a square with little markets off it and is nice to wander around.
We got sucked into lots of tour shops on the main street. Nearly every other shop offers tours so you need to choose wisely and do some research before booking anything. It was good to hear about all the tour options though.
The timing of our visit to San Pedro de Atacama couldn’t have been worse because some of the tours weren’t running. The tour of the Red Rocks and some of the lagoons were closed due to snow blocking the roads. There was also a full moon, so the stargazing tours weren’t running either. It’s best to check ahead if these are a must-see on your itinerary! We visited in winter so it’s entirely possible that snow will be blocking road access.
We booked a tour for the following day – to the El Tatio Geysers. AND we booked our Salar de Uyuni trip into Bolivia from here too. We used a company called Cruz Andina who were excellent from start to finish.
Day Three: El Tatio Geysers
Our day started ridiculously early at 4:30am, after a night of bad sleep. We had been mostly worrying about the impending altitude. The geysers are most active on a morning so all trips leave before sunrise. It takes around 2-3 hours to reach the site.
The altitude rises fast as the road winds uphill. It was our first real test of how we would fair with the even higher altitude. We definitely felt out of breath when we got off the bus. It was much harder to move around quickly, better to take it slow! It’s no surprise though because we were at 4,320 metres!
The geysers were absolutely marvellous. So many of them creating plumes of steam whilst surrounded by the most spectacular scenery. It was so pretty, especially when the sun was rising. The smells were sometimes a little stinky, but what can you expect from a geothermal landscape?
We definitely needed our big coats because we could really feel the cold at this altitude. We literally packed all the warm clothes we had. Gloves, hat, scarf, and warm socks. It was cold, especially before sunrise.
After a short tour around the geysers and the opportunity to swim in a thermal bath (which we chickened out of!), breakfast was served. We were grateful for a cup of hot coffee!
On the way back to San Pedro de Atacama we stopped at a lagoon which was full of birds and even some flamingos. We saw an abundance of alpacas, llamas, and vicunas wandering around too.
This trip was so worth the money to do it. We did see some people who had driven up there, I wouldn’t recommend driving because the roads are very winding and dangerous. Make sure to go with a tour instead and enjoy it to the maximum.
Tour cost: £34 each
Day Four: Cycling into the Devil’s Throat
We saved the best day until last!
My favourite day in San Pedro de Atacama – MORE cycling and this time to Catarpe Valley. This valley used to be the entrance into San Pedro de Atacama from the hills on the other side. It is absolutely spectacular. The whole valley was surrounded by amazing rock formations and fabulous views.
We cycled up the old road and into the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). This huge gorge winds along and it’s a dream for cyclists. It has some little ‘off-road’ bits along it for the extra thrill. At the end of the gorge is a hill with a viewpoint on top of it. We fastened up our bikes and set off for the hike to the top. The views were unbelievable, we enjoyed them whilst having our picnic lunch.
Next stop was a tiny church in the even tinier village along the old road. A pretty white building perched on the hillside.
The valley was getting hot with the afternoon heat (so different from El Tatio Geysers the day before). We turned back after visiting the church and headed down the valley. Decision time came when we were faced with a big climb on the bikes up to the tunnel. It was hot, we were tired, but we didn’t want to miss out, so we decided to do it! In for a penny in for a pound!
It was pretty scary going because of the holes in the road (this road came into disrepair and it is no longer used). Trust me, the hike or ride up to the tunnel is worth all the effort because the view is one of the most amazing views I have seen.
You can go through the tunnel to the other side. The views aren’t quite as rewarding though but the tunnel is long and a bit of an adrenaline rush when in the dark so it’s worth the effort.
We loved the Catarpe Valley. All in all, it’s a day I’ll always remember.
Bike hire: £6pp for 6 hours
Catarpe Valley entrance: £3.50 each
So, Would I Go Back to San Pedro de Atacama and Chile?
San Pedro de Atacama was so much better than we could ever have imagined it to be. In all honesty, four days just wasn’t enough. There is so much to do and see and if you have a bigger budget than we did, I’d say go for longer.
Personally, I would definitely go back to Chile in a heartbeat. The parts of it that I have seen have only left me wanting more!
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