Given it was one of my "bucket list" destinations, I'd done surprisingly little research in advance of our arrival at Calama airport, springboard to the extraordinary otherness of Chile's vast Atacama Desert. The plan was simple: get the one-hour transfer along the desert highway to San Pedro de Atacama, get settled in and then sort out the four-day itinerary from there. Everything written about this dusty tourist centre in far northern Chile painted it as a town solely dedicated to tour operators. They literally line the streets and aggressively tout for business.
Friends who had done the trip said "you don't need to book in advance, you'll get the best deals on the ground there". In hindsight, I'd probably still give that advice to independent travellers who choose to experience this magnificent region freestyle, but I do have some important tips to pass on.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL
Research your tour hit list before you arrive. Geysers, salt flats, desert excursions, lakes with flocks of flamingos, rainbow-coloured rock formations, salt baths, some of the best stargazing in the world … the trouble with a place with such an abundance of natural wonders, which are spread out over thousands of square kilometres, is you'd need a week or more to truly do it justice. Your average traveller on a longer circuit doesn't have that luxury.
In addition, once you get to the insanely busy town of San Pedro, the proliferation of offerings, belted out in breakneck Spanish/English, and (call me cynical) with an emphasis on the tours that need filling next day … let's say we spent an entire afternoon on the case and were still confused about what we'd actually committed to. There were assorted maps with notes and arrows in every direction, prices listed then crossed out, for a vast place we had only been in for a few hours and didn't yet have our head around. .
BEWARE THE "NO SHOW" OPERATOR
Maybe it's different in peak season, but in shoulder season when visitors drop off, operators clearly work together to fill tours. Fair enough, but it creates last-minute chaos. We were there in April, when San Pedro was definitely still bustling, and popular restaurants and bars were full every night, but it was touch and go when it came to the reliability of tours. We realised no-shows from operators were not uncommon. The driver simply doesn't show up at your lodgings at the appointed time and calls to the operator go unanswered (it's generally outside of office hours). We copped it on one of our tours and heard the same from others. A million apologies don't make up for the fact your opportunity to see that amazing sight is gone.
The other thing to check is what kind of vehicle they're using and how many people they plan to cram in. I had an awful experience, squashed into the back seat of a 4WD for a full day tour, with zero leg room, no ventilation, and not enough head clearance to comfortably see out.
DO A CRASH COURSE IN SPANISH
You won't believe how useful it will be if you can bring just a smattering of Spanish to the table, from numbers, to days of the week, to common phrases, menu items and everyday words. It's all very well to rely on a translator app, but it's no substitute for quickly grasping what the taxi fare is, understanding the menu at a glance or just managing basic exchanges with the hotel owner or local beside you on the bus. You'll also find a lot of the tours are 80 per cent in Spanish, with a token explanation in English, so it certainly helps with getting the gist. I did a six-week crash course before I left and it proved invaluable.
When booking tours and negotiating prices, cash is king, whether it's US dollars or Chilean pesos. And you'll probably find some of the smaller tour operators only take cash, so your plastic is no good anyway. When you've settled on all the tours you want to do, buying them in a bundle from the one place will get you a sizeable discount. The other benefit of bringing a cash stash is that you avoid the $5-$10 ATM fee you'll be charged for withdrawals; some ATMs have a withdrawal limit, which makes it even worse value. Paying in US dollars at hotels in Chile also voids the 19 per cent tax for foreigners, which seems to be arbitrarily applied. It will be specified in the booking.com fine print or on the website of the accommodation provider.
YOU CAN DO THE DESERT CROSSING IN ONE DAY
If you want to go overland to or from the salt flats of Uyuni (a very common passage), which are about 300 kilometres due north across the border in Bolivia, the traditional route is to take the three-day desert crossing, where accommodation is dorm-style in remote lodgings. Fine if you're used to backpacking with a sleeping bag and don't mind roughing it. Keen to find a quicker, easier alternative that still crossed the desert jeep-style (you can take a 10-hour bus via the main road) I found this gem: Pamela Tours (Calle Tocopilla 420). They're one of the only operators in San Pedro to offer jeep transport across the desert in one day, leaving at 7am, arriving around 3pm; cost $50. They fill the empty seats of tours arriving at the Bolivian border for the quick return leg to get back to their Uyuni base. You'll still see amazing scenery – just not as much of it. Be sure to get some Bolivian currency before you leave San Pedro as you need to pay the 30 Bolivianos national park entrance fee in cash shortly after you cross the border.
DO NOT MISPLACE THE PDI TOURIST CARD!
Talking of border crossings, DO NOT lose that insignificant strip of shiny paper that looks like a shopper docket that was handed to you by immigration when you arrived in Chile. I admit it, I turfed mine. I probably thought it was a luggage tag. It was lucky that I was at a desert border crossing – typically full of young backpackers – and things were pretty informal, so I got away with a slap on the wrist. It was only when I arrived back at Santiago airport for my flight back to Australia (with a freshly issued PDI) that I realised how serious it would have been if I didn't have that piece of paper. PDI stands for Policia de Investigaciones and, trust me, it's a big deal if you can't present that tourist card on departure.
WHEN TO VISIT
As many visitors take in both the Bolivian salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) and the Atacama highlights, it's a juggling act to pick the perfect time to visit. High season in the Atacama Desert is December to February, when it's warmer, but more crowded and expensive. Shoulder season coincides with our spring and autumn months, so pleasant temperatures and fewer crowds.
In Salar de Uyuni, the dry months run from late April/early May to the end of October. The wet or rainy season generally begins in November and runs until the end of March or mid-April. While the rainy season produces the surreal "mirror effect" produced by the flooded salt flats, it limits access, so my pick would be the dry months.
LATAM flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Santiago. From there it's a two-hour connecting flight to Calama, then a one-hour transfer by paved highway to San Pedro de Atacama. See latam.com