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Backpacking Chile: Things to do in the Atacama desert

Sunset in the Moon Valley

This post is also available in: German

Exactly one year ago i traveled to South America to backpack Chile for around 4 Weeks. During that time i saw how different this country can be: deserts in the north, snow covered mountains in the centre, volcanoes in the north and the south, beaches, street art in the streets of Valparaiso, the lake area with primeval forest around in the south – but: Pisco Sour everywhere ;)
With this and the upcoming parts about my time over there i try to give you a short overview about backpacking the amazing country of Chile. At the beginning i'll focus on the area around San Pedro de Atacama in the far north of Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama – this little Desert village is the Mekka for all tourists, backpackers and explorers who want to discover the Atacama Region in the North of Chile. The Atacama Dessert is, according to National Geographic, the driest dessert on the planet – therefore you should plan to bring Sunglasses, T-Shirts and enough suncream to be prepared!

If you landed in Santiago, the capital of Chile, you have two options to get to San Pedro: the most comfortable (but also expensive) one is to fly to Calama (e.g. with LAN or Sky) and then take the bus for the last 100km; the most popular option is to take one of the very comfortable long distance buses to the north – for around 30€ you can book a seat in semi cama (= half bed) – to cover a distance of around 1700km in a journey time of 23 hours (you'll have 30min stops every 5hrs). Due to my small budget i chose the bus option for my trip to the north, in the end it was not that hard if you have a good book and like-minded people with you (i met a few in that bus and had really good talks that made time fly like an arrow).

1) San Pedro de Atacama

The village is the touristic centre of the region, therefore you'll find a lot of hostels, restaurants and touragencies around. I chose “Hostal Vilacoyo” for my stay – it was clean, cheap and the staff was friendly and helpful, at the inner courtyard there was a kitchen where you could cook and meet other travelers or just hang around in the hammock ;)
I decided to book all my tours in the office of “Cactus” (at the mainstreet) and highly recommend you to do this, too. They have really good guides with the right sense of humor, serve delicious food on long tours and usally have small groups – but: the tours are a little bit more expensive (for me it was worth it). Because i made a tour nearly every day i had not to spend a lot of money on restaurants in San Pedro, sometimes i just bought one of the very delicious empanadas.
Due to the fact that San Pedro is located in the Atacama Desert you should consider that the temperatures in the night are dropping extremly (in september i had around 30 degrees at daytime and around -5 in the night).



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2) Valle de la Luna and Observation of the Night Sky

The Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) is an really impressive natural rock formation in the desert of Atacama – we went there with a minibus and made a little walk through the formations and enjoyed a beautiful sunset at the end of the tour. A few hours later i made the next tour: it was about the observation of the night sky with telescopes – i never saw Stars and Planets that clearly (the Atacama desert is famous for those observations, a lot of observatories are located in that area).



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3) Flamingos and Lagoons

The area around the salt flat is full of contrasts: on that tour i saw three different kinds of flamingos, blue lagoons and of course the huge salt flat itself:

4) Tatio Geysers and Cactus Valley

Definetly a MUST do: you start very early in the morning (4 a.m.) to arrive at the highest geothermical field in the world right on time for the sunrise. At the beginning it is freezing cold (we had around -10 degrees) but the whole area is stunning: due to the low temperatures you see the smoke coming out of the geysers. After the sunrise it gets warm really quick – use your chance to jump in one of the hot springs (the water temperature is around 30 degrees).



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5) Sandboarding

In search of some action? Then you have to book the Sandboarding trip directly at the office of the guys organizing that adventure (just watch out for Sandboarding Pictures and don't book in one of the offices of the big touragencies). You'll drive to a big sanddune with a group of mostly young people and slide down that dune for a few hours – bring enough water and suncream with you (there is no lift/elevator, you have to walk up the dune).

6) Pictures from the North

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You've been there, too?

Share your expreriences and recommendations with the readers by adding a comment!

You want to read more?

No problem: i wrote a post about every day and with this every tour in Chile – just go to the Blogarchive (enter “chile” in the search box, or click on “Chile” in the section “Tagged Countries” in the right sidebar) and read the related articles for more information, recommendations, pictures and videos.
The Posts about my time in the north of Chile start with the entry named “Semi Cama a San Pedro(onTour #005)” and end with onTour #011.

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