visiting the atacama desert on south american travel

1. Tours booked on-location are less expensive than tours booked on travel sites

Unlike visiting a large city (which are generally walkable) when you visit the Atacama Desert you WILL need to choose between booking a rental jeep or taking small group tours. Although it can be tempting to book everything ahead- tours in San Pedro de Atacama (and most popular tourist spots in the world) are usually discounted when booked on location.

a landscape of mountains, salt flat, and flamingos in the Atacama region
Weaving studio in Toconao, Chile, near San Pedro

 

In really popular locations with a lot of obviously scammy tours (like San Pedro de Atacama) start by checking online for the best-reviewed tour companies and then stop by their office on day 1 of your trip. Usually, the locally booked tour is 15-20% cheaper than the online sites (but in Patagonia my Torres del Paine tour book through my hotel’s front desk was the exact tour sold online for more than double what I paid!)

2. Although there are many tour operators, many of the tours are identical

There’s actually not a lot of variation in tours. On the plus side, this makes it easier to compare tour operators. On the downside, many of the tours leave the town at the same time and arrive at major points of interest simultaneously- creating huge groups of people all vying for the same perfectly Instagram-able photo angle. As an example, a tour titled, “Sunset in the Valley of the Moon,” which was promised to be a surreal and otherworldly experience, was mostly remarkable for the literally hundreds of amateur models crowded onto one rocky ridge. Avoid this by getting a custom tour for your group, renting a jeep, finding a private guide, or by asking around at tour companies until you find unique tours.

A typical scenic overlook near San Pedro in the Atacama desert

3. Be Prepared to get Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness affects individuals randomly, without regard to age or fitness level. Lots of travelers will assure you that you’ll “probably” be okay in the Atacama Desert and that if you feel ill you can make tea from the widely available coca leaves (which are often offered freely with hotel rooms and hostel lobby hospitality). The truth is, by the time you begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness, fluid is already collecting on your brain and lungs. While coca leaves can help the symptoms (while tricking you into a headache-coca leaf, headache-cocoa leaf cycle) there’s a readily available prescription that’s easy and cheap to get in the USA prior to your trip and can prevent the onset of symptoms in the first place.

Coca leaves on a breakfast buffet in San Pedro de Atacama

Diamox (generic name: Acetazolamide) is both a preventative and a treatment to have on hand in case severe symptoms hit. If you’re planning on visiting the Atacama Desert, mention it to your doctor or just use your clinic’s online messaging system to request a prescription for altitude sickness preventative. It’s a cheap way to make sure altitude sickness doesn’t ruin your trip. (Seriously, the tea may work for you, but it’s much easier to prevent symptoms before they start with a 1x a day tablet)

 

My Recommended San Pedro de Atacama Packing List:

🔲 Lifestraw with Heavy-Metal Removing Capabilities (not all life-straws remove lead and heavy metals. Because of mining in the Atacama Desert, all tap water should be filtered for mineral contaminates)
🔲 Travel Size Broad Spectrum Sunscreen
🔲 Hand Lotion (with SPF protection)
🔲 SPF 30 Lip Balm (I LOVE these individual packets for traveling)
🔲 Diamox
🔲 Pepto Bismol Packets (travelers who take a dose daily suffer lower rates of traveler’s diarrhea)
🔲 Electrolyte Travel Packets

4. Drink more water than you can imagine drinking- and get moisture anywhere you can.

It goes without saying that in this, one of the driest places on earth, you need to drink lots and LOTS of water, but you may find yourself dehydrating even with your best efforts.

TIPS:

  • Chug 8oz glasses of water lined up like shots morning, noon, and night.
  • Use body lotion day and night
  • When showering, use conditioner all over your body to help dry skin.
  • Keep alcoholic drinks to a minimum during this leg of your trip.
  • Bring extra contact solution if you wear contacts.
In San Pedro especially, always pace your alcoholic drinks with water.

5. Expect strange things to happen to your body.

Creatures that thrive in the Atacama have had generations- sometimes millennia- to adapt to the environment. Your brief stay is very likely to wreak havoc on your body despite how well you prevent altitude sickness or dehydration.

If you usually stay places with shared bathroom, you might want to upgrade to a private bathroom in San Pedro De Atacama. The initial adjustment to altitude causes water retention, and when your body beings to acclimate you’ll need to pee very frequently. To compensate for this need to pee, and the fact that many of the tours do not include stops for restrooms, you’ll be tempted to limit water intake- which can be a recipe for really unpleasant digestive issues. All in all, it’s more-than-nice to have access to a private bath in San Pedro.

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