I went to Atacama Desert without very much preparation. I found it hard to get a good overview of all the tours you could do in Atacama from online resources. But I had a rough idea that San Pedro was a tourist town. So I figured, that was enough to wing it.
My rationale was, if a town is geared around tourism, tourism choices should be more apparent when you’re there. And they were. But there were certainly a few essential things that would’ve been nice to know beforehand. It would have saved me time, led me to pack differently, or do things in the best order for me.
So this article is about all of those things I wish I knew beforehand, that would have helped me choose the best Atacama tours for me. Maybe it will help you choose the best Atacama tours for you!
- Why should you get tours in Atacama?
- What are the best tours in Atacama?
- 1. Tours to the altiplanic lagoons/salar (salt flat)
- 2. The valley/geology tours
- 3. Tours about activities & niche interests
- How to get the best out of tours in Atacama
- Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
Why should you get tours in Atacama?
When planning a trip to the Atacama desert, you’d have to choose between doing it as a road trip, and taking tours. Renting a car, or cycling, gives you more freedom in your itinerary. The roads are very clear and look easy to drive.
Normally I myself would favour this more unstructured, open approach. But there are a few reasons why I went with guided tours in Atacama, instead of road tripping. Here are three:
1. I was travelling solo in Atacama
Travelling solo means that car rental is very expensive, since I wouldn’t be splitting it with anyone else. Not to mention having to work out road signs and other driving rules in a foreign language, all on your own.
Sure, I could meet up with others in my hostel and share a trip together. However, that brings me to my next reason.
2. I was only in Atacama for 5 days
Since Atacama was only my #2 destination in Chile, I only had 5 days for it – shorter than my slow travel rule of thumb of a week. I didn’t really want to risk wasting it looking for a group with a car to join. As an introvert, I wouldn’t even find it fun. Simply looking for suitable tours was more convenient in this amount of time.
3. 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 must-see locations are a lot higher. Even though I’ve been to similar altitudes before, this would only be my second time going beyond that, and for a coastal (i.e. sea-level) creature, I thought it best to be prudent. What was I gonna do if I had altitude sickness driving by myself somewhere in the desert?
What are the best tours in Atacama?
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 you can take. However, after a while, you start to notice some tours or tour combinations being common across tour providers.
But that still doesn’t really narrow it down. You could easily spend a couple weeks if you took all of the tours in Atacama! How do you even start to prioritise?
I ended up defaulting to the advice of my hostel, which had an affiliated tour provider. I did later try out two other agencies, and can confirm that the one I booked with my hostel was pretty good. Booking from your accommodation 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.
1. Tours to the altiplanic lagoons/salar (salt flat)
These are tours that take you to at least one of the high altitude lagoons in the area, typically within the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Some of the lagoons are relatively near, 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 lagoons (Miscanti and Miñiques) are at 4,200m ASL, which will be reached 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, do these tours later.
- The altiplano 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.
- You can’t swim in any of the lagoons, except Laguna Cejar. Some lagoons are unsafe for swimming in (i.e. toxic water), and others are protected habitat (I suppose some could be both). So take Laguna Cejar if you want to swim in an altiplanic lagoon.
Atacama’s altiplanic lagoons are just across the border from Bolivia
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!
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 flock to Uyuni.
2. 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 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 view. Check the itinerary and see what it contains; how many stops are included can vary. Depending on your tour style, you may want more stops along the tour, or you may want tours that focus only on the key attractions so that you can have more time.
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 a water bottle.
Other geology tours in Atacama
- You can see a very different valley with 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 comes together with an Atacameña rock art segment at Yerbas Buenas, giving you a bit of culture and history 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!
3. Tours about activities & niche interests
All the remaining tours are actually about some kind of niche activity. This is the category with the most variety, but if you think about them this way, choosing the tour that’s best for you becomes easy. Essentially, it’s about your personal interests. The rest of it, you can ignore.
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.
However, a specific niche interest deserves special mention. I’d like to especially recognise the astronomy sub-category, because of Atacama’s position as an amazing stargazing location, and host of the ALMA observatory. Here are the things I learned:
- You can visit ALMA itself, although I didn’t do that (I might have, if I’d known how to do it beforehand). This would be a tour by the ALMA Visitor Centre, 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.
How to get the best out of tours in Atacama
I think there are essentially two things you’ll want to keep in mind if you intend to explore Atacama primarily through guided tours.
1. 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’d seen a couple of blog articles from more recent trips than mine, 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 significantly 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 extra 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 getting more cash when you want it. I did find this to be true when I was there in 2017.
And bear in mind, you will want to shop the markets as well.
2. 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 for your planning!