Essential Things I Wish I Knew About Choosing Tours in Atacama
I went to Atacama Desert without very much preparation. I found it hard to get a good overview of all the things you could do in Atacama from online resources. But I had a rough idea that San Pedro was a tourist town, and that tours to Atacama attractions were readily obtained there. So I figured, that was enough to wing it.
My rationale was, if a town is geared around tourism, these choices should be more apparent in person. And it was. But there were certainly a few essential things that would've been nice to know beforehand. It would have saved some time, or it could have led me to pack differently, or time my tours differently.
So this article is about all of those things I wish I knew beforehand, that would have helped me choose the perfect tours for my Atacama trip. (Not that I can think how I'd choose better than I did, though!).
- Why go for tours in Atacama?
- Choosing Between the Atacama Tours
- Other Useful Things to Know About Choosing Tours in San Pedro
- Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
Why go for tours in Atacama?
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Why not do the self-drive option? Renting a car, or other options such as cycling, would give you more itinerary flexibility. The roads are very clear and look easy to drive.
Normally I myself would favour a more unstructured, open approach. But there are a few reasons why you might want to go with guided tours in Atacama, instead of doing that. Here were some of mine:
∴I was travelling solo in Atacama
Travelling solo means that a car hire would be very expensive, since I wouldn't be splitting it with anyone else. Not to mention having to work out road signs and other driving related stuff in a foreign language, all on your own.
Sure, you could meet up with others in your hostel and share a trip together. However, that comes up to my next reason.
∴I was only in Atacama for 5 days
Unfortunately, since Atacama was only my #2 target destination in Chile, logistically I could only give it 5 days. With that short amount of time, I didn't really want to risk wasting it looking for a group with a car to join. As an introvert, this isn't even a naturally enjoyable process. Simply looking for suitable tours seemed a lot more convenient for me to explore Atacama.
∴I was not sure I could manage the altitude
San Pedro is at altitude, and while it is not that bad (~2,400 m ASL), some locations could be far higher than that. Even though I've been to a similar altitude location before, this would only be my second time, and for a coastal (i.e. sea-level) creature, I thought it best to be prudent. After all, what was I gonna do if I had altitude sickness driving by myself somewhere in the desert?
Choosing Between the Atacama Tours
One of the immediate things I realised when I first looked around in San Pedro, was that there were a lot of tour providers to choose from. Tour agencies were everywhere in San Pedro.
The second thing was, there were also many different tours available with which to explore the Atacama region. However, after a while, you start to notice some tours or tour combinations being common across the agencies.
But that still doesn't really narrow it down. You could easily spend a couple weeks in Atacama! Where do you even start to prioritise?
I ended up defaulting to the advice of my hostel, which had an affiliated tour agency. I did later try out two other agencies, and can confirm that actually the one with my hostel was pretty good. But this is a good starter option if you're overwhelmed by choice.
However, if I were to advise someone planning to come to Atacama, the first thing I would tell them to help break it down, is that there are basically three kinds of tours.
The altiplanic lagoons/salar (salt flat)
These are tours that take you to visit at least one of the high altitude lagoons in the area, typically within the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Some of the lagoons are relatively nearby, and others take a day trip just to get to one lagoon. These lagoons are fantastically beautiful, and you must see at least one.
The popular lagunas altiplanicas tour is perfectly satisfactory, and takes you to four locations. The tour should take most of the day (~14 hours); this will give you enough time to enjoy each one. I took only one from this category, but here are some things I learned.
! Essential Things to Know about the Altiplanic Lagoons tour
- The highest lagoon (Miscanti and Miñiques), is at 4,200m ASL, which you will reach within a few hours from San Pedro at 2,400m ASL. This is a significant ascent, and altitude effects are very possible. If you have not yet acclimatised to altitude on arrival to San Pedro, don't do this tour first.
- The high lagoons can be pretty cold, no matter how hot it feels in San Pedro. Layer clothes as if dressing for windy autumn weather. I don't have much cold resistance; in hindsight I probably should have worn a sweater underneath my windbreaker, plus a warm hat under the hood.
? Other considerations for touring the altiplanic lagoons
- You can't swim in any of the lagoons, except Laguna Cejar. Some lagoons are probably unsafe for swimming in, and others are protected habitat (I suppose some could be both). So take Laguna Cejar as the second lagoon tour if you want to swim in an altiplanic lagoon.
- I learned too late that it is actually possible to get a tour from San Pedro into Bolivia, to Salar de Uyuni. It is a multiple day tour, though. Had I known this beforehand, I might have seriously re-engineered my travel itinerary to add that segment in!
- However, some of the salt flat lagoons are almost all the way to the border with Bolivia. That means some are said to be good alternatives to the famous Salar de Uyuni. Perhaps it isn't actually necessary to add to the tourism crowd of Uyuni?
The valley/geology tours
These are the tours that take you to see the interesting geological features of the Atacama landscape. They're more different from each other, than the altiplanic lagoons tour category. I would say that the one you must do, is the Valley of the Moon.
This tour is typically an afternoon one, since you're aiming to end it with the sunset over the valley. Check the itinerary and see what it contains. Depending on your tour style, you may want more stops along the tour, or you may want to see if there are tours that focus only on the key attractions so that you can have more time. Check out my earlier article for more Valley of the Moon guidance.
! Essential Things to Know about the Valley of the Moon tour
- This tour is generally at a similar altitude to San Pedro, so it is an ideal starter tour in your acclimatisation period.
- There is no shelter at any of the stops on this tour (except inside the salt cavern, if the tour includes this). It will be very hot, so bring sunscreen and a hat. And water.
? Other geology tours in Atacama
- A very different valley can be seen in the Rainbow Valley tour. This valley is more moist, and so has more life (including bird life, for the birders who might come across this article). This tour usually combines with an Atacameña rock art segment at Yerbas Buenas, giving it a bit of culture as well.
- If you're interested to see the El Tatio geysers, this is a very early morning tour and it will be very cold. It is also among the highest altitude locations, so not a good choice for one of your earlier tours.
- Another common geo-themed tour is very different again: the hot springs of Puritama. So if you really insist on taking a dip in some kind of natural Atacama water body, you have a choice between Laguna Cejar or Puritama, or you can do both!
The activity tours
You can simplify matters by considering all the remaining tours as being about some kind of niche activity. This is the category with the most variety, but actually if you think about it this way, it's the easiest. Essentially, it's about what you are into. You don't have to do stuff that you're not into!
If you're into climbing, then go for those tours. If you're into camping, there's that too. Biking? Trekking? Just pick the activities that you're already into. Otherwise, you can just do more of the first two categories.
? Astronomy tours
I'd like to especially note the astronomy sub-category, because of Atacama's position as an amazing stargazing location, and host of the ALMA observatory.
- You can visit ALMA itself, although I didn't do that (I might have, if I'd known how to do it beforehand). This is a tour by the ALMA Visitor Centre itself, and not by a tour agency.
- If you want to go on a stargazing tour in Atacama, then make sure your trip timing is not on a full moon. The darker the moon, the better. Don't be a muppet like me, and come exactly around the full moon.
- If you are a muppet like me, and have already booked your trip at the worst possible time, all is not lost. Moonrise from behind Licancabur volcano is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. See if you are lucky enough to get a spot to witness an indigenous Lickanantai full moon ceremony. This is a tour that I found by accident and turned out to be a highlight of my trip.
- There is also a meteorite museum at the north end of Tocopilla street in San Pedro. This is not a tour, but an interesting attraction for astronomy buffs.
I can't repeat this often enough. The nights get cold in the desert, no matter how hot it is in the daytime. If you're on a tour at night, dress as if it's autumn - trust me on this. I think I would've appreciated thermals during the full moon tour. And it was the southern hemisphere summer.
Other Useful Things to Know About Choosing Tours in San Pedro
I think there are two essential things you'll want to keep in mind if you intend to explore Atacama primarily through guided tours.
It's best to have a healthy cash supply
I actually already knew this beforehand. But, I ran out of Chilean pesos more quickly than I expected in Easter Island, and didn't get around to getting more at the airport on the way to Atacama. The tours were also more expensive than I expected. Or maybe it's because I ended up wanting to go on more tours than I expected...
I've seen a couple of blog articles from more recent trips, and it seems like the prices have increased even more (or perhaps they visited at peak periods and I didn't).
While you can use a credit card (not always), the tour prices are quite a bit more expensive than if you paid in cash. If you didn't correctly budget, you might have to forego tours you wanted, just because of the cost. It's best to check out prices online beforehand, just for benchmarking purposes. Longer duration tours are typically more expensive, because it would usually include a meal.
I also read beforehand that the ATM in San Pedro could run out of money, so you can't always be assured of more cash, when you want it. I did find this to be true when I was there in 2017. Although I used my pesos more quickly than expected, I still had enough backup amounts to buy tours with, because I had prepared for this possibility.
(Bear in mind, you will want to shop the markets as well.)
Double and triple check what language the tours will be in
This advice is for those who are not Spanish speakers. The primary language in Chile is Spanish, so the default language for tours is Spanish.
A lot of tours are also offered in English, but if you're tour shopping around in San Pedro, I advise you to triple check this. Just because the particular tour guide can do it in English, doesn't mean the tour you were sold will be in English.
It's not a great experience to be the one the tour guide always has to come back to and repeat himself for, because the salesperson didn't tell him he's suddenly running a bilingual tour. Worse still, if the tour is heavy on cultural aspects! This is more difficult for the guide to translate, and more difficult to pick up if your Spanish is just basic!
Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
I went to Atacama Desert as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Atacama Desert specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Calama via Sydney and Santiago, produces carbon emissions of approximately 15,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $77 to offset this.
There you go! I hope my simple wisdom helped to prepare you to choose the best tours to explore Atacama desert according to your own style! Pin it as a reminder!