How to make it from the capital of Santiago up to northern Chile and the Atacama Desert
Getting from Santiago to Calama is actually very simple, but I thought I’d go into it anyway to help those who don’t know what they’re doing or those who need a little push in the right direction.
The journey to Calama and San Pedro de Atacama (the major tourist town for northern Chile and the one everyone bases themselves from for the Atacama Desert) is either long and arduous or quick and easy; it all depends on what type of traveller you are and whether you want to splash out on a flight.
The bus from Santiago to Calama takes approximately 22 hours and will set you back $40,000 (US$60). Compare that to an hour and a half flight for approximately $90,000 (US$134) and it’s a pretty simple decision, at least for me anyway.
Also, with flying, you’re afforded some of the best views of the mountains and desert which you just wouldn’t get from a bus window.
Anyway, I’ll talk about the bus first.
Taking the bus to Calama
Also, there are some buses that take you directly to San Pedro de Atacama. If you can, make sure you get this one so you don’t have to get a taxi once you get to Calama.
San Pedro de Atacama is a tiny little town, so it doesn’t matter which bus station you get dropped off at, you’ll be able to walk to wherever you need to be within five minutes.
Now, sitting on a bus for 25 hours might not sound like the most fun, but pretty much all buses in South America are quite classy and comfortable, so sleeping isn’t really a problem; it’s just the rest of the time you need to fill!
Cost – If you book in advanced, you can get a return ticket for as cheap as $38,000 (US$56) for a semi-cama. However, during high season the price increases dramatically up to $72,000 (US$107), so make sure you research it beforehand and book your tickets online.
Flying to Calama
The airport you fly into is the mining town of Calama, 90 kms from San Pedro de Atacama, and it is a further hour and a half to get to the tourist town by taxi (this will set you back $10,000 one-way, $20,000 return, which seems quite steep but there’s not a lot you can do about it).
There are some cheaper buses from the airport to San Pedro de Atacama, but these are quite infrequent and didn’t work with our early flight times.
If you’re booking in advanced you can actually pick up some really really cheap return tickets (I just looked on Sky Airlines and found a return for as cheap at US$80!), but you do need to book about two months in advanced to get the best promotions.
On the flip side, if you book last minute, tickets can sky rocket up to approximately $200,000 (US$296) a ticket so if you’re heading to the Atacama Desert it really is worthwhile thinking about how you’re going to get there way beforehand.
Cost – Anywhere between US$80 to US$300.
Obviously you can drive, but this isn’t that much quicker than the bus, and Google Maps puts it down to approximately 17 and a half hours to drive from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama.
Another option would be to hitchhike and break up the journey with a couple of overnights staying in places such as La Serana and Copiapo. Please note: hitchhiking is legal in Chile but always consider your safety at all times.
Being a backpacker myself, I always try and keep the cost of travel down as much as possible, especially on things like transport, but in this case I would always recommend flying.
For a round trip you save yourself 41 hours (and that’s in journey time alone), and personally I think that’s worth spending a little extra money on. And if you’re organised and book everything in advanced flying isn’t actually that much more expensive! As I said, it’s all down to what type of traveller you are, but hopefully that’s cleared up how you get from Santiago to Calama!