So you have decided that you want to visit the driest desert in the world? The Atacama Desert is a place like no other. The closest city that will give you access to everything you want to see in the Atacama Desert is in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. It’s built around a rare oasis, which is perfectly located between volcanoes, salt flats, sand dunes, lagoons, and geysers.
So how do you get there? Depending on where you are coming from you have several options. You can also use this information in the case you’re already in San Pedro and want to continue your journey to these locations. Here is what you need to know:
Here you have lots of options.
The fastest will be via air. LATAM or Sky Airlines are a few major national airlines that fly into El Loa Airport in Calama, Chile. You can usually find good deals if you plan ahead of time. Don’t expect anything free besides a glass of water, as it’s only a 2-hour flight.
You can also take a bus from Santiago to Calama and then from there a bus to San Pedro. This may be your cheapest option as there are prices starting at $35 USD but it will set you back about 27 hours since you driving over 1.500 KM in a bus. There are several bus companies who offer this service like Pullman, Turbus, and Condor Bus. There are two bus stations you can take from Santiago to Calama:
- Terminal Los Heroes: Tucapel Jimenez and Alameda, right around the subway station Los Heroes (Red Line 1 or Yellow line 5)
- Terminal San Borja: San Borja and Alameda, right outside from the subway station Estacion Central.
Rent a Car:
This might be the most fun as you can stop anytime you want. Road trip anyone? Renting a car can cost you approx. $50 USD per day plus gas and tolls you’re looking at another $200 USD for a one-way trip. Most rental car places will make you return the car in the same place you rented it from so make sure you read the fine print before accepting anything.
Once you’re at the Airport/Bus station you can do 3 things:
- Rent a car and drive yourself to San Pedro. Cost $50 USD per day approx. Honestly, the price depends on the season. I would suggest you look into this one more
- Take a Transfer to your Hotel/Hostel in San Pedro. They offer round trips for approx. $30 USD round trip. You can haggle a bit. I got mine down to $24 USD round trip. This was my best option as my flight back to Santiago was really late and I didn’t want to deal with bus/taxi/airport all in one day.
- Take a Bus to San Pedro. First, you need to take a taxi from the airport to the bus terminal, which will cost you around $10 USD. From there, you can find buses that leave frequently for approx. $5 USD.
If you are traveling to Salta, San Salvador de Jujuy, Purmanarca or Susques there are several buses such as Pullman and Geminis that offer a bus service three times a week from each location to Calama. The bus ride will take approximately 10 hours, plus however long it can take to go through immigration at the border. Sometimes it can just take 30 minutes, most times longer. From Calama, you would take another bus to San Pedro de Atacama.
If you visited the Salt Flats of Uyuni, San Pedro is most likely just a continuation of heading south or to the Pacific coast. Stay a while and check out. From Uyuni, you have several options.:
Hire a Guide
that will take you in a 4×4 Jeep. This might be the easiest, as there are so many operators who offer the same 1, 2 and up to 4-day trip between San Pedro and Uyuni. It might be the safest option too.
to Calama and then another bus to San Pedro. The buses have different hours of departure depending on the season so make sure you check at the bus station a couple of days before you’re going to travel so you can plan accordingly.
Information on the Internet about the bus transportation is very limited but you have a lot of options. The most northern city in Chile is called Arica, which you can get there directly overnight from San Pedro and costs about $38-45 USD one-way. It sits just about 30 minutes from Tacna, Peru which is the city that is used most to cross into Chile. To cross the border you have two options: Colectivos or Bus. The colectivo taxi man will try and group together 5 people to cross the border together and the bus will have more people trying to cross the border at the same time which will usually mean more time spent waiting. Honestly, I can’t remember what the prices were but I do remember that you can shop around until you find a price that seems fair for both parties.
Other things to know:
- Don’t leave your thing unattended. This might be a no-brainer for most people but be aware of scammers. People dressing up as bus attendants saying that they will watch your bag is a huge no-no. It’s like taking candy away from a baby. It’s just too easy.
- English will be limited. Be patient. Remember you’re in South America. Even though the continent has had a major improvement on basic things such as transportation, the internet (trust me, 5 years ago there was no wifi anywhere), hot water, drinkable water, take into consideration that it’s still very much a third-world in these areas.
- Be Kind. A please and thank you go a long way. These people want to help you, more if you’re nice to them. They will naturally be nice to you.
I hope this information was helpful in your planning to this beautiful part of the world. Don’t forget to check out my other posts about the area here and here. Let me know if you have any questions, need to know how to move around to another location, or just want to say hello!
Remember, when you give good you get good.