I have one week in Chile, should I go north to the Atacama Desert or south to Patagonia?

This is the dilemma a lot of travelers face when planning a one week vacation in Chile. Of course, both are obviously worth seeing, but offer very different experiences. Atacama is a high altitude desert and Patagonia is a combination of mountains, glaciers, and forests. Both have appeal, though one because you are so close to the sky, and the other because you are at the end of the world.

To help you make the most informed and best decision for your Chile itinerary, we put together an overview of each destination including what you can expect to do, budget comparisons, timing considerations, and travel tips.

Atacama or patagonia

 

One Week in the Atacama Desert

The most popular destination in the north of Chile is San Pedro de Atacama – a small village surrounded entirely by the largest desert in the world. Between the dusty streets and the adobe-walled buildings, you’ll feel like you are strolling through a Moroccan desert village, rather than an Andean Chilean town.

The experiences around San Pedro revolve around the spectacular Mars-like formations. Some of the most popular include seeing the vast salt flats, high altitude lagoons, the massive Tatio Gesyers, and the Rainbow, Death, and Moon Valleys. Atacama is also home to the world’s best stargazing, hence why the ALMA Observatory was built here.

If you’re considering spending your one week in Chile in the Atacama Desert, expect to fill your days up with tours – either full day packages or two half-day trips. The attractions are located far from town and with plenty of tour agencies in town and online, group tours are the most convenient and cost-effective way to explore Atacama. You can use your downtime to eat delicious Tres-Leches and drink Pisco Sours. A fully-booked itinerary is a great use of time while in San Pedro as there is little to do in the desert village itself.

Traveler Tip: If you’re still not convinced tours are the way to go, rent a car from the Calama Airport and arrange a DIY vacation in Atacama. There is only one car rental agency in San Pedro de Atacama with a very limited fleet of cars.

Atacama activities

 

One Week in Patagonia

In stark contrast to the mars-like landscapes of the north comes the lush mountainous scenes of Chile’s beloved southern region. The most popular destination in Chilean Patagonia is Torres del Paine National Park. The park not only offers extremely photogenic landscapes but also contains amazing hiking paths perfect for a multi-day trip surrounded by mother nature.

If you only have one week in Chile, you might consider trying the famous ‘W’ trek of Torres del Paine which can be done in four or five days. This is a challenging but rewarding route to explore the park. If a multi-day hike is not your cup of tea, you can also explore the park by booking day trips with local guides.

Other than trekking, we highly recommend Patagonia’s glacial lake boat trips or sea kayaking. The boat will take you along the most stunning shorelines outlined by colossal glaciers and waterfalls as well as where you can go whale-sighting and see the penguins! While the price for a boat tour might seem a bit much, take note that they are usually all-inclusive and hassle free logistically – a good way to maximize your time in Patagonia.

patagonia trips

 

Price Comparison of Atacama and Patagonia

When deciding between the Atacama and Patagonia, you may want to take into consideration your budget. As with any destination, prices will be highly dependant on the season that you travel in and what type of accomodations you’re looking for. Overall, Atacama is a more affordable option than spending a week in Patagonia.

One Week in Atacama One Week in Patagonia
Activities & Excursions $300 – $400 $300 – $3,000
Flight from Santiago $50 – $100 $100 – $150
Accomodations (per night) $15 – $200 $15 – $300
Food (per day) $20 – $60 $20 – $60

Activities & Excursions:
You can expect to spend around $300 to $400 on five days of activities around San Pedro de Atacama. This will include days filled with sightseeing to nearby parks, tours to the lagoons or salt flats, and a stargazing tour one of the nights.

For Patagonia, the price will depend on the type of experience you want. For a completely DIY multi-day trek, including carrying and making all of your own food, you can probably get away with spending less than $300. A boat tour, on the other hand, can be upwards of $3,000 for one week but is includes everything from food, lodging and multiple activities.

Sandboarding in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Flights:
Flight prices vary quite a bit depending on the season. To get competitive prices, we recommend booking your flights at least one month in advance. Also, keep in mind that domestic flights with Sky Airlines or Latam usually only include only 1 carry-on bag.

Take note that the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is located in Calama. Once you arrive at El Loa Airport, you’ll need to rent a car or pay for a bus ticket to go to San Pedro de Atacama (about a 2 hour drive).

The flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas is 4 hours long and a bit more expensive. Once you land in Punta Arenas you can buy an inexpensive bus ticket to head to the Puerto Natales or book a (more expensive) direct transfer to Torres del Paine National Park.

Accomodations:
There are great hostel options as well as luxury hotel options for both destinations. Hostels range from $15 – $20 per night. Where mid-range accomodations cost closer to $100 -$150 USD per night.

It costs about $12 per night to rent a camping spot in Torres del Paine and about $60 per night to stay in a dorm bed in one of the Refugios. The meals at the refugios are about $20. Most travelers stay in the nearby town of Puerto Natales but there are a limited number of hotels inside the park, with prices starting at $200/night.

Food:
In San Pedro de Atacama, food prices depend on where you plan to dine. In general, restaurants in the center of town are expensive but there are some good local spots with essentially the same food near the soccer field (check out our blog post about San Pedro for a useful map).

While you can bring your own food into Torres del Paine, take note that it will weigh you down (as you’ll have to carry it with you everyday). Meals at the refugios start at around $20/meal and remember to bring cash to pay for your food. The boat trips include food and if you are staying at a hotel outside the park, food can also be.

Traveler Tip: Checkout our comprehensive post on things to do in San Pedro de Atacama with a useful map. If you’re looking for accomodations in town we’ve also compiled a list of our top recommendations for lodging.

 

Timing & Weather Considerations

High season for tourism in Chile runs from December to February, which is Chilean summer. For Patagonia, we recommend visiting between the months of November and March. If you’re travelling outside of these months, the Atacama Desert might be a better choice. This is because  a large section of the park and a lot of hotels, restaurants, and other services are closed in the winter. On the other hand, San Pedro is a great destination to visit year-round.

Also, consider the number of days you’re looking to spend at either of these destinations (plus the transit time needed). For San Pedro, you won’t need a full week to explore the area. We normally recommend 3 to 4 full days to enjoy all the sights. On the flip side, we recommend a full week in Patagonia and a minimum of 4 days.

Weather can also play a factor. In San Pedro, there are rarely any rainy days. Temperatures are moderate year round though on winter nights it can get quite frigid due to the high altitude. In Patagonia you can expect unpredictable and often extreme weather. In fact, it’s common to experience strong winds, rain, and even hail all in one day.

 

So, Atacama or Patagonia?

By now, the answer should be clear – you can’t go wrong with either Atacama or Patagonia. With both destinations, you’re bound to have an amazing experience. When making your decision, consider your travelling style, your personal interests, timing, and budget. If you have any further questions, need additional guidance, or would like us to plan your next trip to Chile for you, contact us and we’d be happy to help