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. Keep reading to find out which is better for you, Atacama desert tours or self-driving the desert.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Atacama desert twice now, once doing tours by agencies found in San Pedro de Atacama- the main tourist hub in the area and also through 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 make a decision for yourselves.
There is no public transportation in San Pedro de Atacama and the most famous sites such has 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. If you are a budget backpacker tours or car rental will no doubt have you spending a little more than you might be used to but it’s well worth it to see one of the world’ most beautiful deserts.
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 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$5,000-10,000 for entrance fees on top of the tour price.
PROS OF TAKING 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.
↠ You have a guide with you that explains everything. For me, what’s best about a tour 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 welcome 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 TOURS
↠Less flexibility. 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!)
↠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 for exploring and finding your own 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$20,000 return.
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 has to be from the same country. (I didn’t know this and found out the hard way).
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 cheaper. See the table below for how the cost compares exactly.
CONS OF SELF-DRIVING
↠ You have to drive and a lot- if you are on a trip looking for complete rest and relaxation then driving may seem like too much. I personally know plenty of people who don’t like to drive when they’re on holiday. Distances in the Atacama Desert are big also, our average distance per day was about 230km (140miles).
↠ 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.
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. Click here for the latest rates.
COST OUTLINES ( all prices are in CLP)
For me 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. I also travel with a lot of photography gear so being able to throw that on the back seat and choose what I needed at the moment made life very easy indeed.
Check out our exact self-driving itinerary for San Pedro de Atacama/Atacama Desert here.
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If you have any comments or questions, then please leave them below- I’d be happy to answer them!
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