Atacama Desert Ultimate Survival Guide
o be at the Atacama Desert region is a one of kind experience. In the extreme wilderness, seeing unique landscapes, the sensation of walk trough those lands is that you have been sent to another planet. Leaving room for no questions, once on the Atacama Desert, you are on another dimension.
But don’t get yourself comfortable with the awesome pictures and the promises a trip to the driest place on earth can offer. Survive on the Atacama Desert is not an easy task. You can easily get yourself lost, skin burn with the high ultra-violet radiation, get introduced to the “soroche”, run out of money and worst.
With the goal to get yourself prepared for an upcoming adventure on the Atacama Desert, we prepared this survival guide with the main topics to make your trip awesome, worthy and without many sacrifices.
You might already know by this time. But in case not, let me tell you that the Atacama Desert is not cheap. Despite the lack of infrastructure and the remote region where you will be, keep in mind that this is a very touristic destination. Everything have its prices increased (but therea are some bargain margin) and you should also consider:
There are just a few ATMs at the San Pedro de Atacama, main city for everyone going to the Atacama Desert. It is not rare for the machines run out off money. Even with some places accepting credit cards, the overall rule is cash payment. Do not count with the ATMs and bring enough cash to cover your basic needs and the tours you are planning to take.
If there aren’t much ATMs the same rule applies to the currency exchange offices in the Atacama Desert. Some place might accept dollars/euros. However, the local currency (Chilean Pesos) is what you need for almost everything. Rates here are not very good, so its better to have your money exchanged before arrival. On the Chile’s capital, Santiago, you will find great rates by the offices outside airport. If you don’t have that chance, withdraw from your checking/savings accounts on an ATM.
Currency exchange offices may also run out of money (I am serious) and you don’t need that problem. If you are planning to take the tour trough the Bolivia region, you will also need Bolivianos (their currency). And once in the Atacama Desert, there is no other way to get it than on the exchange offices.
Have you eve checked how much zeros the Chileans currency has? And what is the exchange rate from Chilean Pesos to Bolivianos? These are the sort of thing you have to know, it is easy to get confused even to me that have been in Chile for more times than I can remember. If you are not a native, get yourself an app before go to the Atacama Desert.
After testing several options, I recommend the XE Currency. It allows you have a list of several currencies and easily alternate between them. It works offline, which is a must on the Atacama Desert. The free version covers all your travel needs. iOS and Android version are quite similar and there are offers for other devices.
Get prepared to spend a load of money for a bed and a roof. Hotels in the Atacama Desert have high prices. A double bedroom can easily cost US$200 average. Hostels will charge around US$35 for a dorm with shared bathroom and US$90 for private rooms, but in general there is no exclusive toilet.
Best place to stay at the Atacama Desert
We were close to our Atacama trip, with no hotel reservation, almost paying lots of money when we discover one of the best cost/benefit accommodations in the Atacama Desert on Airbnb. We had a private bedroom with our own bathroom and a very good shower. All of this “luxury” cost us $40 a night, up to 4 guests. If you are looking for a place to sleep after a day full of activities, that is THE DEAL!
Update 2019: Unfortunately, the host is not listing her property anymore :(
We can give you this coupon of $25 discount on your first Airbnb booking that will make this great option even cheaper.
Atacama Desert Tours
There are several things to do once you are in the desert. On or off the beaten path, whatever the kind of traveler you are, I really recommend that you do not go anywhere, far from the city, on your own.
There is a lack of signs and indications on the roads, cellphone reception is very bad, and temperature can vary widely. Is easy to get in trouble. Currently there is a missing man and reports of people getting lost in the Atacama Desert are not rare. To avoid that:
Hire a Local Travel Agency
Once you arrive in San Pedro de Atacama you will find tons of travel agencies everywhere you look. For the main tours, there are not pretty much differences between one agency or another. Go for the one you feel more comfortable with. Ask for the vehicle, the food and how many people are going with you.
Hire the tours before arrive in Atacama Desert?
Definitely not! First, it will cost you a lot more than it should. Second, surfing on Internet you take the risk of hire an agency that not even exist. To save you sometime, check out the price comparison we did Atacama Desert agencies. Besides the up to 200% difference between them, the fares on site are way better.
After all, this is a survival guide! You can trust me when I say that your body will feel the Atacama Desert acting on you. The extremely dry air, the heat and ultraviolet radiation, the salt lakes, temperature variations, high altitude and others will hit hard. Luckily I had my wife and her remedies bag to save us. Here is what you will need if you don’t want scars from this trip:
- Body: Keep it hydrated with water on the inside and with a body cream from the outside. For the ladies this is mandatory. Dudes, might complain about it. But after dive on a salt pool, you will ask for it. ALWAYS have a good sun blocker with you and double protection on your face. There is a UV danger semaphore in San Pedro de Atacama and on the 10 days we spent there, it didn’t change from the “skin cancer” position not even once.
- Mouth: I was walking in the middle of the Atacama Desert, when all of the sudden my lips started to bleed. You can check the video. That came out of nowhere. To solve it, I used Bephantol that work as a bomb of hydration. It is also good to protect tattoos, in case you have some.
- Eyes: Occasionally they might get (very) dry. Have an eye drop you trust with you.
- Nose: Brace yourself. You will have nosebleed! But its not for a while. At the end of the day, you will be surprised with how much blood your nose can produce. We could not find anything to avoid that. Let us know if you heard something!
“Soroche”, the Altitude Sickness
Let me introduce your new friend, “Soroche”. If your travels plans to the Atacama Desert are limited to Chile, you will meet him by change, but once you decided to take the tours in Bolivia, this guy will grab on your head and nothing will tear your friendship apart!
What is Soroche?
There is a whole article about Altitude Sickness. In general, this is your body reacting the lack of oxygen on altitudes above 2000 meters. Once in the Atacama Desert, you are above that limit most of the time. The Geyser del Tatio are on 4300m and several spots in Bolivia reach closely the 5000m.
The symptoms came in assorted flavours and colours depending of each person. Breathlessness, fatigue, nausea, headache, the sensation of being drunk, nosebleed. To mention a few we’ve been trough.
Take it easy
I know, there are several things to do and see, right? But do not rush! Get yourself used the new conditions. Do not drink too much alcohol, nor eat viking style and avoid the extreme altitudes on your first days. It will be easier if you get comfortable with the thin air before going to the next level. Breath deep and calm.
Meet your arsenal against the Altitude Sickness
Sooner or later the enemy will strike and you better get your guns loaded or your travel could turn into a bad and uncomfortable memory:
- Coca Leaves: Your main ally. You can buy them on every small town for a decent price. Keep a little bit in the mouth while you chew it like a gum. There are also coca leafs drops, more convenient but less effective, and don’t miss any chance to drink the tea made of it. They are legal, natural, won’t get you (more) high and you already had something similar trough your regular Coke
- Water: Drink regularly in small doses. We also recommend you to put a bunch of coca leaves in a bottle of water and have your “tea” on the go.
- Medicines: Paracetamol was a huge help against my headaches while an antiemetic saved Andrea from her nauseas.
- Heavy weapon: If things get really bad, try one of those oxygen shots. We did not use them, but got one with us most part of the time, just in case.
Eating in Atacama Desert
I’ve already mentioned that everything in the Atacama Desert is expensive, but there are some ways to you save some money. If you are going for restaurants, search for the ones with menu options. Starter main course and dessert will cost you around US$10 + tip. The Barros restaurant is a good option with big portions.
But you can save a lot more money preparing your own food. Use the mini markets around the city and don’t forget to buy a big water gallon.
No, this is not a stylish blog but indeed it is important to check the clothes you will bring to the Atacama Desert. Despite the heat and sun most part of the day, have your body uncovered is a choice you will regret. Due to the high concentration of ultraviolet rays your skin heat very fast and burn painfully.
When the day is over, there comes the night with a huge temperature variation. Some places can go from 40 °C to -10 °C what makes you think that you need to back your whole wardrobe to go on this trip.
Fortunately, this was the best opportunity we had to test our set of second skins. They were great for everyday use on those conditions, lightweight, easy to pack, UV protected at a very good price. That is something definitely we will carry on our backpacks from now on.
Atacama Desert Do’s, Don’ts and Maybes
We are reaching the end of this survival guide and you might still have some specific questions. Here is our opinion regarding several topics that may contribute for your travel.
- Rent a bike? Maybe, if you have an athlete profile, that should no be a problem. But if you are a casual biker, the heat, dry weather, thin air and dust could make things harsh. There aren’t many places to go by bike, so we decided to not rent. I was grateful after see some people almost dying in two wheels on 40 °C.
- Stay in Chile or go to Bolivia? It definitely worths, we will give more details about it in another article. For now we can say that the most outstanding landscapes of the Atacama Desert were seen in Bolivia. Despite all suffering you go trough on the trip this country should be on your bucket list.
- Rent a car? Self Explore? Are you out of your mind? Read the tours section and find out why!
- Laundry? We did our laundry at night and the clothes got dry even inside the bedroom. Dry air has some advantages,
- Buying handcrafts? Only purchase it in Chile if you are not going to Bolivia. This last one is way cheaper! Watch out for the “Made in China” stuff.
- Sleeping bags. Convenient but not mandatory. If you don’t have one, do not buying for this trip. If you already have, bring it!
- Weather Forecast: Don’t trust your weather app. Everyday in the Atacama Desert is perfect for a walk in the park according to weather agencies. But that is not the case when you are living the “25°C” burning you.
So now you are a bit more prepared to face the amazing Atacama Desert. I hope those information were useful and could make your trip awesome!
A review of what we did at the Atacama Desert!
*Amazon and Airbnb links are affiliates. Needless to say we only endorse products that we use and approve.