When visiting South America's Atacama Desert -- considered to be the driest place on earth -- you have little choice but to make the small village of San Pedro de Atacama your home base. Such isolation typically leads to high costs of living (and visiting). Still, San Pedro has an impressive range of lodging options, from hostels costing a few bucks a night to luxury resorts with thousand-dollar price tags. And with a surprising amount of competition among tour companies, there are affordable options for all budgets. With that in mind, here's a look at how you might want to allocate your dollars.
Where to Stay
While many of the upper-tier hotels are significantly expensive, it's essential to realize that they typically provide far more value than just a place to sleep. At Tierra Atacama, for example, guests who book the all-inclusive package enjoy beautiful accommodations, as well as airport transfers (a 1.5-hour drive each way), gourmet dining, guided tours, excursions, and much more. Be sure to consider that when comparing prices. The money you might "save" on a lower-rate option may go towards transportation, food, and entertainment in the end anyway. With that in mind, here are a few budget hotel options that offer private rooms but are not inclusive of food or activities (except where noted):
Hotel Don Raul: Located on the main street in San Pedro, Don Raul has 35 rooms, each with its own private bath. Your room rate also includes wifi and daily breakfast.
Hotel Altiplanico: Hotel Altiplanico is a 15-minute walk from San Pedro. The hotel consists of simply decorated casitas with adobe construction and straw roofs. You'll also enjoy dramatic views of the surrounding Andes Mountains.
Elqui Domos: For a truly unique experience, consider the stargazing concept put forth by Elqui Domos. The lower level accommodations here are more like nice tents than rooms, but the newish "Observatories" are actually wooden houses built with glass-pane ceilings, meaning you can stargaze as you lie in bed at night.
The A La Carte Approach: What You Need to know
Because of the extreme remoteness of the area and the vast distances between attractions (not to mention the town and the airport), many hotels take an "inclusive" approach to make things easier on visitors. But those who like to plan it all themselves can certainly reduce the overall cost of their trip by taking an a la carte approach -- that is, staying at a budget property, arranging their own meals, and working with individual operators to set up excursions.
The decision about whether to rent a car or hop on an organized tour is a common one throughout world travel. In the case of the Atacama, I would recommend using organized tours. There are two reasons for this, the first being the extreme conditions and great distances between the sites. Much appreciation for the natural features of the region comes from understanding the geology, something a guide can really help with. But the main reason tours make sense is because they are usually reasonably priced thanks to a large amount of competition.
For example, a tour to see the Tatio Geysers -- about a two-hour drive each way -- can be as low as $30. That price is a bargain compared to the effort of navigating on your own (and you'll want to arrive right at sunrise), not to mention the cost of renting a car, filling it with gas, etc. So the best line of attack is to compare prices once you're on the ground in San Pedro. Here, you'll find many companies offering similar excursions.
What to See & Do
Stargazing: While you can take a stargazing tour for cheap on one of your first nights to understand what you're looking at, after that, all you have to do is walk outside and look up. The Atacama is regarded as one of the top places in the world to stargaze, as evidenced by the fact that countries from four continents recently constructed a $1.4 billion telescope just outside of San Pedro.
Valley of the Moon: Tours are also pretty affordable, but you can also rent mountain bikes and explore the park on your own. There are a series of moderate trails that runs throughout the park and can be self-guided.
El Salar de Atacama: The largest salt flat in Chile is located in the Atacama. Elevating the already stunning natural scenery is its role as a huge nesting ground for the Andean flamingos.