For the past several days I've been sharing some of my experiences of traveling in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, both here and at Gadling.com. I gave a bit of an overview of the place and even talked about climbing an 18,000+ foot volcano there. This has obviously sparked some interest from readers, who have e-mailed me inquiring about how they could go to the Atacama themselves and where they can stay while they are there. Today, I thought I'd share a few travel tips for those interested in visiting the desert for their own adventures.
First off, in terms of getting to the Atacama, there are a number of airlines that fly to Chile and you'll have to book a flight into Santiago. I flew LAN on an overnight flight from Miami, and arrived early in the morning of the following day. This isn't a bad option provided you can sleep on a plane, but if you're like me, who doesn't catch much sleep in transit, it can make for a long trip and leave you exhausted on your arrival. If you're lucky, you may find other options to get you to Santiago sooner, but it seems the over night flight to South America is a popular approach. Fortunately, flying from the U.S., I only crossed one time zone, so there was no jet lag to deal with.
Once you're in Santiago, the capital of Chile, you still need to hop a domestic flight to Calama, located on the edge of the Atacama to the north. I flew LAN domestically as well, and there were regular flights to the city by at least one other airline as well. Calama is quite small and their regional airport is tiny, but it allows access to the region without any issues.
Before making that domestic flight however, you'll need to get your visa so that you can clear customs. Coming from the U.S., the visa cost $140, which seems rather high compared to other destinations. But, that visa is good for the life of your passport, so you can come and go from Chile in the future without having to buy another one. Considering the wealth of travel options that the country has to offer, such as a visit to Patagonia or even Antarctica, it could end up being a very good deal. Unfortunately for me, the "life of my passport" is just another three months, so I'll most likely need another visa on my next visit.
Once you're in Calama, it is a short one hour drive to San Pedro, which is where you'll likely want to stay while visiting the Atacama. You can rent vehicles at the Calama airport, and it is easy to navigate to San Pedro on well paved and marked roads. Along the way, you'll catch a glimpse of what you've come to the desert for as well, as you'll pass along the edge of the Valle de la Luna on your way into town, and the snow capped peaks that ring the area are on prominent display.
Where to stay while in San Pedro is a bit of a trickier question to answer. I was fortunate enough to stay at the Tierra Atacama resort (Gadling review here!), which is on the luxury end of the spectrum, but there are plenty of other options for other budgets as well. While strolling around the town I spotted numerous hostels, and there were plenty of nicer hotels and resorts along the edge of San Pedro, not far from my resort.
If you've rented your own vehicle, it is easy enough to drive around the Atacama and see many of the sites on your own. But much of the region is a protected area, which means you'll need proper permits before you can enter. Because of this, I'd recommend higher local guides to help usher you around. In the long run, it'll probably save you time and money, and you'll get a richer experience during your stay. Guides and tour operators are easily found in San Pedro and they are more than willing to show you the wonders of the Atacama.
Traveling in the region can be as active or as relaxed as you'd like. A good portion of the natural wonders there are easily visited by motorized vehicle, but you can also explore many of them on horseback or by mountain bike as well. Day hikes are popular options as well, and high altitude climbs of varying degrees of difficulty are always an option for the fit and truly adventurous. I did my climb near the end of my stay to help with the acclimatization and allow myself time to adapt to the altitude.
Speaking of altitude, it should be pointed out that even San Pedro sits at about 8000 feet (2438 meters). That means that unless you already live or spend time at altitude, you'll likely notice the thinner air. Give yourself a day or two to adapt before doing anything too physical, and perhaps even longer if you're planning on going even higher. Staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest also helps immensely.
Other than that, travel in the Atacama is a fantastic, rewarding experience, and one that I highly recommend to those who have the inclination to go. Obviously it isn't a place for everyone, but the beautiful landscapes will leave a dramatic and lasting impression on anyone who visits the region, and that alone is reason to go.
If you have any specific questions, be sure to let me know. I'll do my best to answer any and all that come my way. Thanks and happy traveling!
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