*This blog post is essentially a collection of Tripadvisor reviews & a private message response to user Andrew F. Click here for more Tripadvisor advice.
I was stationed in Buenos Aires for most of December 2016. I had to work a lot of the time, but a four-day-long weekend happened to cross my path from the 8th to the 12th, allowing me to spend 6 wonderful days in the north of Argentina and the Atacama Desert in Chile, driest in the world.
My friend Sergio and I arrived in Salta, Argentina on Wednesday night, December 7th, after booking an expensive last-minute flight through Aerolineas Argentinas from Buenos Aires. We chose Paso Jama as our route to cross the boarder because online hearsay accurately claims its a great and uncomplicated drive with very cool views.
As a traveling knave, you do have to take various things into account. On our way there we left Salta at 9:00 am and arrived at the boarder around 2 pm – it took TWO HOURS to cross the actual boarder line thanks to the car line, lines inside the crowded office, and the car revision part of the process. On the way back we left San Pedro at 5:30 am, arrived at Paso Jama around 7:20, waited a while for the boarder to open and then crossed very very quickly. You can actually leave later from San Pedro de Atacama- say 6:30 am and get there in time for the border to be opening and uncrowded. The boarder opens from 8 am to 11 pm according to their website, but I have no idea if that closing time is accurate, in Salta people told us it closed at 5 pm. I recommend exploring Purmamarca and other sights in Argentina on the way back, since you can cross the boarder early and then start arriving at the sights near 12 pm with a day of exploring ahead of you. If you do this the other way around, on the way from Argentina to Chile, you risk having to spend hours at the boarder, cutting into your exploring time.
An important thing to take into account: When we crossed from Salta to San Pedro we had two French friends with us who were very affected by the altitude, one practically fainted and both were incapacitated to drive or do pretty much anything for around an hour to an hour and a half, with severe headaches and dizziness. I normally live at a high altitude and thankfully had no problems, but if it affects you, you might have to park and wait for it to pass. If you can buy candies made from coca leaves or have some sort of altitude sickness medicine on you I highly recommend it. Or also take the drive really easy if you start to get a headache.
We arrived and then went to the car rental which was a terrible way to go. Our driving permits for Chile took longer than promised, and they took a while to find a car that could cross the boarder. Whatever company you choose, make sure to contact them to book a car a long time in advance, and let them know you´re going to Chile and need the permits, then make sure they have them a day before you leave if you are able to do this. I do recommend a 4×4 or at least a car with a good/large engine. We got a Fiat van that annoyingly slowed down on steep hills and every time we hit very high altitudes.
Another set of important recommendations: Check the spare tire and download a chart with similar tire sizes to whatever tires your car model comes with. We had a car that´s not common in Chile, and it was veeery hard to find a tire in Calama after our tire exploded on the second day ( it literally blew out beyond repair). Apparently some car models that you find in Argentina are rare in Chile and vice-versa.
Also, ask what gas you should put in your car in both Argentina and Chile, as types of gasoline are different between the two.
We stayed in Juriques hostel which was great and really cheap, also full of very nice people. But it only has basic amenities for people who are looking for a more hotel-type place to stay.
There’s a sightseeing stop on the road to Calama from San Pedro that offers stunning views(the exact one pictured above) of Valle de la Luna and is totally free. A perfect spot to catch the sunset and also a good alternative to booking the tour if you’re short on funds. It’s a quick drive or cab ride away from the city center, about 10-20 km.
TOURS & PLACES
We did lagunas Miscanti y Miniques(pictured above) and then Piedras Rojas in a single day – they´re on the same road so I highly recommend doing this. Just make sure to check at what time the park opens for the Lagunas and be there as early as you can so you can visit the whole place. I cant recommend Piedras Rojas enough, its just a natural space with no charge for visiting but it is indescribably amazing. The wind is quite strong so make sure to bring jackets & good clothes for hot & cold weather.
Salar de Tara
Another great tour is Salar de Tara – we used Inca North ( I wrote a review about them )and we were sooo happy with the tour – our tour guide & driver (Miguel & Roberto, pictured above) were hilarious and took really good care of us. Going here involves a really long time of off-road driving so you have to know the way & have a car for really rough terrain. This is also the only tour that the Chilean tourism office recommends you don’t do on your own. The tour ends in a salt flat/lagoon full of flamingos really deep in the desert. This and Piedras Rojas(pictured below) were my favorite spots.
Another great tour we did was astronomical tour with telescopes for stargazing, I booked it through this email: email@example.com, they have tours in English, Spanish, and possibly French.
The Chilean tourism office is in the little square off of calle caracoles – they gave us free maps and very patiently explained what roads we needed to take to get everywhere and had some great recommendations – make sure to stop by and pick up some maps.
Also, if you can make some extra time to go to Salar de Uyuni, everyone says its incredible, and there are various tours that leave from San Pedro.
We stepped out of the car between Calama & San Pedro because we wanted to take some pictures, and when I opened the car door the wind was so strong that it pushed it back and broke it ( I don’t know how to explain what happened but essentially the door got displaced and was impossible to close) – a mechanic sort of fixed it in San Pedro but apparently this isn’t that uncommon a problem in the area. Always open the window and check how strong the wind is before stepping out of the car. Open car doors carefully and also, be mindful of strong winds when walking. Also, it can be really hard to get back to your car sometimes, if you walk really far away from it. Its not unbearable but always have a jacket and be careful if you have any injuries.
Some friends told us that they went to a “party in the desert” but nobody picked them up afterwards. They ended up having to walk over 6 km back to San Pedro de Atacama with over 40 people who were also stranded there. Other people said it was super fun, but its better to be careful and get contact info for whoever is picking you up & is responsible for safety.
Last bit of advice: we invited people we met in the hostel to go to the Lagunas and salares with us and then split the cost of renting the car for the day and/or gasoline for the trip. It ended up being much cheaper for us & for them. For example – we could fit 6 people in the car – and when we went to the Lagunas and Piedras Rojas , we ended up paying 20,000 Chilean pesos each for both of these places plus dinner which we cooked together at the hostel, normally the tour to the Lagunas costs around 40,000. Its a great way to save money & meet nice people, just be very upfront about the price before you go.
If you need to fly, the cheapest airlines I found in Argentina are Aerolíneas Argentinas & LATAM.