Self-Drive Or Atacama Desert Tours: Which is Better?
Thinking about visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile and not quite sure how to move around? There are many Atacama Desert Tours but renting a car and self-driving is also a brilliant option. Find out which is better in this detailed guide.
The Atacama desert is one of Chile’s must-see places and should be added to any South America or Chile travel itinerary. Characterized by otherworldly rock formations and landscapes, crusty salt flats and sun-baked altiplano peaks and volcanoes, it leaves any visitor captivated and speechless.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Atacama desert twice now, once doing the desert tours by agencies found in San Pedro de Atacama- the main tourist hub in the area and also by renting a car and self-driving.
I’ve been asked by many of you guys which I would recommend so I thought I’d outline the pros and cons of each here so you can decide for yourselves.
Keep reading to find out which is better for you, Atacama desert tours or self-driving the iconic Atacama desert.
Things to Know Before You Book an Atacama Desert Tour
↠ There is no public transportation in San Pedro de Atacama and the most famous sites such as Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna and Laguna Chaxa can only be reached by private transportation.
Cycling is an option, but only for nearby sights such as Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna. Cycling is no easy feat due to the sun and altitude, however, so come prepared, both mentally and physically.
↠ San Pedro de Atacama isn’t a budget-friendly trip and whatever your budget might be you will be spending on tours or car rental. Prices change throughout the year so if you’re on a budget, don’t visit during the high season which runs from November to March. Luckily Atacama is a year-round destination.
↠ If you’re renting a car make sure it has a spare tire or a puncture repair kit. Punctures are common on the roads in the desert. Make sure to know how to change a tire too.
Atacama Desert Tours
Atacama Desert tours are a great, inexpensive way to see the surrounding landscapes and sights. Tours can be booked in San Pedro de Atacama where there are numerous operators, their offices are found on the main street in town. There is no need to book in advance outside of Jan-Feb and even then most people arrive and reserve.
Atacama Desert tours don’t vary much from company to company- most of the time the same things are included such as a guide and entrance fees and often, during quiet times tour companies will pool together to reduce costs.
Prices are very competitive too. Make sure to check if the tour price includes lunch (for a full-day tour) and entrance fees. If it doesn’t then be prepared to add CLP$5,000-15,000 for each entrance fee on top of the tour price.
Pros of Taking Atacama Desert Tours
↠ If you are travelling solo it is the cheapest way to see the area. Paying for single seats on tours is a little cheaper than renting a car plus the cost of fuel and insurance. It’s also the way to go if you’re alone and not very car-confident.
↠ You have a guide with you that explains everything. For me, what’s best about Atacama desert tours is the fact that you learn so much about the area from the local guides.
They are really passionate and approachable and are more than happy to answer all your questions. The guides also know the area very well so they often know the best places to go for sunset or to spot certain animals etc.
↠You don’t have to worry about driving, whether you’re going the right way or how to get to places. You just arrive and there is no planning whatsoever on your part. It’s easy, just find, pay and go.
↠ You contribute more to the local economy.
Cons of Taking Atacama Desert Tours
↠ Less flexibility. I think this is the biggest dampener about tours. The schedule is set and that’s that. You can’t stop at the side of the road to take pictures when you want. That being said when there is a cool animal sighting or something interesting on the road the driver will stop.
↠Lunchtimes and stops are fixed. Again if you get hungry and don’t have snacks you just have to wait. (Do bring snacks though!) At the same time, you can’t decide for yourself where to go for lunch.
↠ Atacama Desert tours often lead you to where everyone else is going. The guides and drivers here know all the best spots for sunsets etc but so does every other tour group.
Due to this, you’ll be sharing locations with many other tour groups, some of which can get extremely busy, especially at sunset. On a tour, you have virtually zero chance of exploring and finding your spots.
↠ If arriving by plane you have to pay for a transfer from Calama Airport to San Pedro de Atacama from which you can start looking for excursions and this does take time and also cost money.
The transfer to San Pedro de Atacama from the airport cost about CLP$26,000 return. The airport transfer can be booked with Transfer Pampa.
Some of my favourite, tried and tested Atacama Desert Tours are:
Atacama Salt Flat Day Trip from San Pedro de Atacama including Los Flamencos National Reserve and Socaire Village – A well-rounded day trip tour.
Piedras Rojas + Altiplanic Lagoons and Salar de Atacama – An absolute must of an area to visit.
Small-Group Tour to Moon Valley from San Pedro de Atacama – Ideal for sunset
Half Day Tour to Geysers del Tatio – The top trip in the area, done at sunrise
Stargazing Tour with Astronomer in San Pedro de Atacama – a must one evening.
With all of the above tours, you’ve pretty much seen all of the Atacama Desert highlights. Our self-drive itinerary for the Atacama Desert also combines all these locations and more.
Driving the Atacama Desert Yourself
Renting a car in Chile is a simple and easy process, all you need is your booking confirmation, your passport and your driving license. Both your driving license and passport or ID documentation have to be from the same country. (I didn’t know this and found out the hard way).
The best (and only) place to rent a car is at Calama Airport. This way you can drive to San Pedro without needing to pay for a minivan transfer. At the time of writing, there is no car rental in San Pedro de Atacama, but if you’re staying at one of the luxury hotels in San Pedro, they’ll be able to organise one for you.
Exploring more of Northern Chile? Check out 11 Off-The-Beaten Track Places to See in Northern Chile.
Pros of Self-Driving
↠ Waste little time with transfers and finding tours. You can rent a car at Calama airport or in the town centre after arriving by bus, which means that very quickly you’re on the road and on your way to your first amazing point of interest. If you only have 3 or 4 days this can be vital!
↠ Flexibility- this is probably the biggest advantage of renting a car. You can go where you want, when you want and explore at your own pace.
For example, all tours head to the Tatio Geysers at the same unsociable hour of 4 am to arrive at sunrise. We opted to go later to have the place to ourselves and while the geyser fumes weren’t as strong, it was magical. Such an experience couldn’t have been possible on a tour.
↠ It’s cheaper for 3+ people. If you’re a small group or family then renting a car will, without doubt, be cheaper, and that includes having extra car insurance and all fuel. For a couple, the price looks about the same but we opted for daily extra insurance and a 4 x 4.
If you skip the insurance and rent a cheaper car the cost will be less. Also, technically renting a car is cheaper as we saw much more than what I did on the Atacama desert tours previously. See the table below for how the cost compares exactly.
Cons of Self-Driving
↠ You have to drive a lot- if you are on a trip looking for complete rest then driving may seem like too much. I know plenty of people who don’t like to drive when they’re on vacation. Distances in the Atacama Desert are big also, our average distance per day was about 230km (140 miles).
↠ You’re going to be driving off-road occasionally. This means potential punctures. Make sure someone in your group knows how to change a tire and knows basic mechanics. As some spots in the Atacama desert are off the beaten path, you might not be able to flag down help right away.
↠ Getting lost- as you don’t have a local driver or guide, you’ll spend a bit of time using Google Maps and occasionally getting lost, however, I believe this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and comes with the magic of exploring new places.
Phone signal isn’t always available in Atacama so make sure to download Google Maps for offline use as well as Maps.me as a backup.
We booked through ACE Rent a Car but the service was carried about by Econorent at Calama airport and I’m happy to recommend them. We always find the best car rental deals via RentalCars.com or Discover Cars.
Do you Need a 4×4?
One of the questions I continually get asked about San Pedro de Atacama is whether you need a 4×4. You do not need a 4×4 to enjoy the Atacama desert and it’s perfectly doable in a small, compact car, however, a 4×4 is nice to have.
Saying that it depends on where you’re driving. Many of the roads are paved, but others aren’t notably the road to El Tatio Geysers and the road to Lagunas del Baltinache. In a small car, you’ll need to watch your speed.
While you don’t need a 4×4, having a larger SUV with a higher clearance is a good idea and it’s more comfortable on all the bumps in the road.
Considering the fact this is a remote desert area, the roads around San Pedro de Atacama are in pretty good shape.
Note that the below prices are from 2021 when we did our last trip to San Pedro de Atacama. As this was during the pandemic, we scored an incredible deal on a rental car. Today, expect to pay double or triple on a rental car (of the same car category) and about 25% more for tours.
Atacama Desert Tours vs Renting a Car: The Verdict
Personally, I had a better experience seeing the Atacama Desert by car.
I love exploring new places for myself, getting lost and finding magical spots all to myself so the flexibility that renting a car gives, for me is a no-brainer.
Given my job and traveling with a lot of photography gear, I like to be able to throw that on the back seat and choose what I need at the moment.
When visiting the Atacama Desert again, I would rent a car.
That doesn’t mean tours aren’t good. If you’re on a budget and want to see just a few spots in the area, tours make sense. If you want to meet people, tours are a better option.
If you want to see more and have flexibility in your Atacama itinerary, rent a car.
Check out our exact self-driving itinerary for San Pedro de Atacama/Atacama Desert here.
If you have any comments or questions on Atacama Desert tours, then please leave them below- I’d be happy to answer them!
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Planning a trip right now? These are just some of my favourite websites I use to book everything from hotels to rental cars!
Rentalcars.com for quick and easy car rentals worldwide
Booking.com for great deals on hotels
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