SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA - CHILE - What you must know

Toconao 441, San Pedro de Atacama
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San Pedro de Atacama Chile Mietwagen

Ancient cultures and travelers from all over the world intermingle in this age-old town with dirt roads and adobe homes. In this starting point for an unforgettable trip you will discover the most stunning views on the planet amidst its endless beauty. Tour San Pedro de Atacama, the land of indigenous peoples!

Visit the old plaza and learn about the customs of its residents. Give in to the slow pace of life here where it seems as if no one were in any hurry. Make sure to visit the old church. Take in all of the local art, and take a stroll through the workshops of the Craft Village to find out how they keep their traditions alive.

Fascinating tours will allow you to explore the region’s plentiful attractions: active geysers, lagoons renowned for their intense colors, and breathtaking salt flats that will astound you. If you are looking for a good adventure, travel through the desert on bike, slide down the dunes on a sandboard, or enjoy a superb view of the region from a hot-air balloon.

Finish out this trip full of sensations by allowing yourself to get carried away by the local and international cuisine of the area’s restaurants, and enjoying the massages and hot springs of the recreational complexes. Once night falls, there is nothing better than to enjoy gazing at the endless amounts of stars twinkling across the sky of the driest desert in the world.

Car Rental

You can rent a car in San Pedro or at the Calama airport.
An international driving permit is not required, although if your license is not in English or Spanish, it would not hurt to have one. Rentals are cheaper in Antofagasta, but the drive to San Pedro is long (about four hours).
Most popular destinations are fairly easy to reach with a good map, though be careful with altitude sickness as many of the roads out of San Pedro de Atacama quickly climb up to above 4000 meters.
The main roads between towns are all in good paved condition. Some expeditions around San Pedro de Atacama have poor quality roads, and you will at the very least want a car with high clearance if you want to drive south of Socaire (e.g. to Laguna Miscanti). The road to the Argentine border at Paseo Jama is paved and modern, as is the road to the Valley of the Moon. The road to the Geysers del Tatio is paved but in poor condition (but it is no trouble to drive in a small 2 wheel drive with poor clearance).

Driving offroads, e.g. to Salar de Tara, is ill-advised unless you have a good 4x4 and know how to use it. Cell phone reception is generally good, but you don't want to be caught out of reception with a flat tire and no water.

Always travel with a full tank, since the only gas station in the area is in San Pedro. You may find unlicensed fuel vendors in some of the smaller towns, like Toconao, but they charge outrageous prices. Check the condition of all tires, even the spare; flat tires aren't at all unusual on the many dirt roads that lead to points of interest.



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Stay healthy

Altitude

First of all, always remember that the the altitude of San Pedro de Atacama is 2400m (about 8000 feet) above sea level. Many of the tourist attractions are well above 4000m (12000 feet). This especially includes tours to Salar De Uyuni, as it is a multi-day trip where you will be above 3500 meters the entire time, including the first night sleeping at around 4300 meters. Symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness) are very common, especially if you only spend a day or two in San Pedro before going on to Uyuni. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite and shortness of breath.
In particular, sleeping at high altitudes is difficult for most people and you may wake up gasping for breath with a racing pulse. This is normal, albeit unpleasant. Treatment such as oxygen is not readily available, and the guides and drivers have no medical expertise in AMS aside from local remedies. Alcohol exacerbates the headaches caused by altitude sickness, so if you are feeling bad (or feeling fine, in fact) do not drink alcohol! If you are feeling especially bad, ask around if other travelers have acetazolamide (brand name: Diamox). Be aware that this will make you need to pee constantly for hours, but it will take away your headache. Serious side effects of either acetazolmide or for altitude sickness at 4000 meters are rare, but if you take other medications please take care and ask a doctor before you go.

Solar radiation

The sun in San Pedro can often emit dangerous levels of UV rays! Especially in summer, using sunblock, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and long sleeves is essential. In winter, the radiation levels are more tolerable, and you can actually sunbathe. In summer, however, don't attempt it at all! Especially if your skin's white. The bare minimum UPF for sunblock lotion is 45, 60 and upwards being much better. Always remember to reapply it after an hour or so.

Other health concerns

San Pedro only has a Posta, a small medical facility with an ER and some assorted doctors. There are no pharmacies in the area, only a tiny shop that sells the essentials: sunblock, aspirin, condoms, anti-allergics, etc. (La Botica, located on Le Paige street, close to the police station) If you become seriously ill, or suffer a major lesion, expect to be transferred to Calama, or even Antofagasta, at great expense! While there are no major hazards in the area (such as lethal diseases, poisonous animals, and so on), take twice the care you normally would when hiking, cycling, and doing any other activity outdoors. This applies even more to the geysers, where burn-related injuries aren't that uncommon; the place is virtually disconnected from the world, so be extremely cautious when visiting!

San Pedro de Atacama Geyser del Tatio Chile Mietwagen

Money

Despite rumors to the contrary, exchange rates in town are decent, but watch out for wild price swings in the currency of your interest-the money exchanges in town usually are lagging behind this info, which can play in your favor... or otherwise. The dollar's very appreciated, and you can routinely get better rates there than in banks. Be mindful, though, that one-dollar and damaged bills won't be accepted. The euro rates are terrible, though, while other currencies' can be found somewhere in the middle. Again, they only accept larger euro bills, and only in mint condition. There's four places with ATM's in town: Banco Estado, in front of the museum (only accepts international MasterCards), Banco Bci (Caracoles-Vilama streets intersection, close to the plaza), Atacama Connection (they have two offices; the one with the ATM is on the intersection of Caracoles and Calama streets), and a last one at the western end of Caracoles, which only accepts international Visas. Until a few months ago, the operation of these ATMs was sketchy, due to frequent money shortages; now, with greater variety, this has somewhat improved. A tip: if an ATM refuses to give you money, it could be because its supply of a certain denomination is spent. Try with a different amount. For instance, if you wanted 35.000 pesos, round it down to thirty-thousand, or even twenty-thousand, and withdraw money twice (or a higher amount, which actually makes more sense).

Be aware that the ATM money supply is limited. On busy weekends it is not uncommon for all of the ATMs to be empty by Sunday and they are not refilled until Thursday. It is advisable not to show up in San Pedro without cash of some form.