Today I’m going to be talking about a major South America bucket list item that I finally checked off with my friend Nick- visiting the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile! We had a limited amount of time, so I’ll be covering how to tour San Pedro de Atacama in just a weekend in the following post.
Before we jump into tour logistics and details, let’s talk about some fun facts about San Pedro!
The Atacama desert is the driest non-polar desert on Earth receiving well under an inch of precipitation per year! The parched land is almost completely lacking in moisture and can be found on a plateau stretching over 100,000 square km in the north of Chile.
Bound by the Pacific in the west and the Andes Mountain Range in the east, this area is made up of other-worldly landscapes only comparable to planets like Mars. Boasting picturesque canyons, caves, volcanoes, Atacama salt flats and lagoons, the Atacama desert is a nature-lover’s dream come true.
The main hub of the area, the little village of San Pedro, was once a mining town, but long ago capitalized on its surroundings, becoming a base for travelers who want to explore the area. Today, the town itself, is extremely tourist driven and its narrow streets are completely lined with tourist offices, hostels, hotels and mini-markets catering to the many incoming starry-eyed travelers.
While San Pedro now unfortunately lacks any kind of authentic appeal, good food and service are plentiful and it’s an extremely convenient starting point for an introduction to tours within the Atacama desert.
So, I know that this post is titled “How to Tour San Pedro de Atacama in a Weekend,” but let me start by saying that one weekend is NOT enough time to spend in this region of Chile. If you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend more time here, do it! You could very easily fill a week with sights, trips, tours and activities. Ideally, I’d suggest 4 days.
That being said, will everyone realistically have an entire 4 days of their lives to dedicate to this spectacular destination? The chances are- probably not. Many people stop at San Pedro on their way to The Uyuni Salt Flat, or some other park or attraction, and that’s why I created this guide…
Just because you may not have as much time as you would like to tour San Pedro de Atacama, does not mean that you should avoid it all together! While it may not be the ideal situation, you can accomplish a lot in a weekend.
A little planning and a lot of ambition will take you far in San Pedro.
In this post I will outline exactly how I fit 4 tours, that’s right 4, into only one weekend in the region of San Pedro. There’s also a video recap at the end of this post to give you an inside look, and hopefully persuade you to get there yourself!
*Heads up: This post is a doozy- pretty long and informational, so if you don’t have plans to head to the Atacama Desert anytime soon, I’ll give you a free pass to skip through some of the logistical text, and enjoy the photos while scrolling down to the video at the bottom! 😀
So, first off, why did I only have one weekend to tour San Pedro? Surely, I could have budgeted my time a little better.
Funny story. I did plan a longer stay in San Pedro, but, thanks to Chile’s low cost airline- SKY, my plans, well, they didn’t go as planned.
Despite many Chileans advising against my booking a flight with SKY, my budget mindset took over my better sense and it was done. We planned weeks ahead of time, booked tours, had everything setup and figured all would be fine. Then, less than 24 hours before our trip, we were informed that all flights through SKY, for the next 4 days, had been cancelled because of a strike.
Anyway, long story short, my friend Nick was heading back to the States on the following Thursday, so there was no time to reschedule and wait for SKY to get their sh** together. We booked a new flight with LAN, moved around a few tours, swallowed the extra fees and set off.
Again, not the ideal situation, but hey, we were determined to make the most of it!
How tour San Pedro de Atacama in a Weekend
In San Pedro, the times that tours are scheduled will allow you to plan more than one tour per day. Half-day tours last for about 4-5 hours and either leave super early in the morning, returning before lunch, or later in the afternoon returning before dinner. Most of the tour companies that we encountered had their tours set up this way, so you could even mix and match companies!
- First round of tours in San Pedro for the day: ~ 6-6:30AM – 2-3PM
- Second round of tours for the day: ~ 4PM-8PM
- Night Tours / Stargazing Tours: Beginning at 10PM or 12PM
We had two nights to sleep with a day and a half in between. Our schedule looked as follows:
Day 1 of tours in San Pedro de Atacama
- 3PM Arrive at Hostel
- 4-8PM Tour 1: Laguna Cejar with On Safari Atacama
- Dinner in San Pedro
Day 2 in San Pedro de Atacama
- 6:30AM-2:30PM Tour 2: Lagunas Altiplánicas with Whipala Expeditions
- 2:45-3:45 Lunch in San Pedro
- 4-8PM Tour 3: Valle de La Luna with Whipala Expeditions
- 8:30PM Dinner and rest in San Pedro
- 11PM-1AM Tour 4: Stargazing Tour with Space
I know what you’re thinking, 4 tours in less than 2 days is A LOT! But, we didn’t really have a choice. If you’re short on time and want to see it all, sometimes you just have to pack it in. Plus, most tours have a nice lengthy bus ride where you can take a nap and recharge!
Tour #1: Laguna Cejar- On Safari Atacama
Day 1: 4-8PM
After a long morning of travel and almost immediately after arriving at our hostel, we were picked up for our first tour! We had originally booked the Valle de La Luna tour with On Safari Atacama, but realizing we already had plans to see this on a different tour the following day, we changed our minds last minute to fit in some other attractions.
On this tour: Laguna Cejar, Ojos del Salar & Laguna Tebinquinche
On Safari offers tours on the pricier side in San Pedro, but it was definitely worth it! My friend Nick and I had a private tour and each had a chance to drive our own 4×4 quads through the desert, following our guide, Juan Pablo. We buzzed by sardine packed tour buses filled with camera happy tourists enviously starring down at us. Our off-road ride took us quite literally off the beaten path to places that the big tour buses can’t get to.
Nick and I both agree that this tour, especially swimming in Laguna Cejar was the highlight of our trip! We effortlessly bobbed about like corks in the salt concentrated lagoon and later rode off into a dreamy pastel sunset. We couldn’t stop laughing. We couldn’t stop smiling. This tour was so exhilarating and I really felt to be one with the desert! It was truly an experience unlike any other!
*If you are on a budget, there are many group tours available at a discounted price that take this same route and visit the same 3 attractions.
Disclaimer: I received a discounted tour from On Safari Atacama for purposes of this review. As always though, all opinions expressed are my own.
Tour #2- Lagunas Altiplánicas- Whipala Excursions
Day 2: 6:30AM-2:30PM
On this tour: Lagunas Miscanti and Meñiques, Laguna Chaxa, Toconao
Our second tour of the trip picked us up at the crack of dawn. No that’s wrong, it was actually still dark out. Thankfully, we had a long relaxing ride up through the Andean mountains to the Lagunas Altiplánicas (highland lagoons), so I got to hit snooze.
After about an hour’s journey, we finally arrived at our first stop, over 4,000 meters above sea level. We got to the curious Lagoons, Lagunas Miscanti and Meñiques just in time to catch the sun at the perfect angle, awarding us a spectacular view. The crystal clear bodies of water reflected the sky’s deep blue hues intensifying their magnificent mountainous backdrop. A sight to be seen.
After some time gawking, exploring and snapping way too many photos, we returned to the tour van to find breakfast waiting for us. We loaded up on hot coffee, fresh avocado, cheese, meat and bread and then head off once again to our next stop!
After a few small pit stops in between, our next memorable stop of the tour was Laguna Chaxa, yet another part of San Pedro’s Salar de Atacama. San Pedro’s Salar de Atacama is the third largest salt flat in the world by the way!
The flat covers over 3,000 square kilometers and is completely enclosed by the Andes Mountains. Laguna Chaxa is also part of Chile’s National Flamingo Reserve ( Flamencos National Reserve) and is a popular place to observe the pretty pink creatures in the wild. The area is extremely dry and really reflective, so it is not recommended to spend more than 20-30 minutes wandering about. Otherwise you risk leaving looking like a lobster.
Despite the extreme conditions of the area, you can observe many species of wildlife as you follow the path around the colorful oasis, stretching as far as the eye can see.
Lastly, on our journey back to San Pedro we made a quick stop in the small town of Toconao. Toconao is a peaceful colonial village dominated by Atacama artisans and agriculturalists. We were given time to grab a snack, wander around the town’s quaint narrow streets, and browse through local shops selling handcrafts such as knit goods made of alpaca wool.
Tour #3- Valle de La Luna- Whipala Expeditions
Day 2: 4-8PM
On this Tour: Cavernas de Sal, Duna Mayor, Valle de la Muerte, Las Tres Marías, Mirador Piedra del Coyote
After a quick lunch break back at our hotel, we head off on yet another tour of San Pedro! Many people had told us that Valle de La Luna ( Atacama’s “moon valley” )was an absolute must see in San Pedro and it’s pretty easy to see why! The valley is named after its otherworldly, lunar landscapes and is known for its mysterious rock formations and large velvety san dunes. The absence of moisture in this area also makes it one of the most inhospitable places on Earth! AKA no wildlife to observe here!
Once again we ventured out with Whipala Expeditions and weren’t at all disappointed! The tour was awesome, well planned and covered all of the main attractions throughout the Valley! We even got to climb into some very narrow salt caves!
After lots of hiking, walking and exploring, we were given time to post up at Death Valley and watch the sunset. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, the wind-swept canyon constantly changed colors, staining the sky with pastel hues. No two minutes stayed the same. We bid the sun goodbye, took in one last breath of the landscape before us and head back to the bus once more.
Tour #4- Stargazing with Space
A long relaxing dinner and a catnap later, we forced our eyelids open at the sound of our alarm and head to our third tour of the day. It was a bit of a stretch, but we persevered and got our exhausted little buts on the next tour bus.
Thankfully, upon arrival to the designated stargazing spot, we were provided with blankets, a glass of wine and a warm cup of coffee, which definitely helped perk us up. Now I was ready to sit back, relax and gaze away!
If you can muster the energy after a long day of touring, I highly suggest you try to take an astronomical tour. The Atacama Desert is one of the top destinations in the world to view the night sky.
Outside of the small village, away from all light pollution in the expanse of Atacama darkness, the vision is truly incredible. Crisp, clean air and unadulterated, white, bright galaxies. We were able to see a number of astronomical formations, only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, several planets including Jupiter, Saturn and Mars and lose ourselves among the cloudy Milky Way. I’ve never, in my life, seen anything like it.
*I recommend booking stargazing tours ahead of time, as they do seem to sell out very quickly. The most popular and reputable company for stargazing in San Pedro is Space, but there are a few other options as well if Space is already booked.
Still want more activities and tours in San Pedro de Atacama? I have an Atacama Highlights post coming soon with dining suggestions, must dos, where to stay and more!
After a day and a half of packed-in Atacama tours, I have to admit I returned back to Santiago a bit zombie-fied. Still, I have zero regrets and stand my statement that I would do it all over again! Every last minute was worth it!