Travel to northern Chile: from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama

How to get around Chile

All of South America has a really well developed bus network and, in my opinion, the bus remains the best way to get around and to visit like-a-local countries. There are buses of all classes, from basic, super cheap, to VIP. I tend to always use the medium-high range tourist buses, and I book i "semi-room" seats (with 45 ° reclining seat) oi "bed" (with 90 ° reclining seat, perfect for night journeys). In all tourist buses there is always a bathroom (even the bus makes several stops for the bathroom) and they always provide a snack and a drink; in “cama” trips a hot meal and various snacks + drinks are often included. Tickets can be purchased at bus stations; Unfortunately you can't buy them online because the sites require a document from Chile, Argentina, etc. depending on the company. There are many bus companies, but just enter the route you are interested in on Google and you will easily find the website of the company you are interested in with all the timetables. Another site that I find very useful, especially in the planning phase, is the site of Rome2Rio, where there are all the options to get to a certain place.

In Chile there are also low-cost airlines (Sky, Jet Smart for example) covering the whole country. If you have little time available, consider taking some flights by plane.

Health Insurance is required

Before we get down to business, let me remind you that in Chile our health coverage is not valid. My advice is to always take out medical-luggage insurance that can cover you during the trip. I am very happy with many insurance companies, a site that compares the policies of different companies and proposes the most convenient policy for that particular trip. To do this you will have to enter the data relating to your trip (country, duration, etc.) and they will send you an email with the best proposal that you can then buy directly online (!!!).

Security: Is Chile Dangerous?

(updated December 2019)

I decided to add this paragraph after my second trip to northern Chile (November 2019) because since 18 October 2019 the whole country has been involved in protests almost everywhere that, at the moment (December 2019) have not stopped yet. The straw that broke the camel's back was the increase in the price of means of transport, but it was obviously only a pretext to start the revolt that concerns, instead, the profound inequalities that have always existed in the country. After the first 2 weeks of demonstrations and protests (complete with a military curfew, dead and wounded) that completely blocked the country, the situation has changed a bit. To date, the protests continue daily only in Santiago and Valparaiso (seat of Parliament), but to a lesser extent and only in the evening, and can be safely avoided. In Santiago they usually take place in the center, near the University and Piazza Italia, and in Valparaiso in front of the Parliament. If you see crowds, avoid getting too close because the police continuously throw tear gas and they remain for several hours in the air, burning the throat and eyes. I slept in Bellavista (therefore 2 steps from Piazza Italia) and the events did not create too much discomfort for me. Obviously there is a bit of discomfort because the traffic is blocked, but nothing dramatic. Another thing are the general strikes, which are often and willingly called and can compromise transport and tours (even in San Pedro di Atacama for example): try to get information from the locals to find out when and if they were called. 

Having said that, at least at this moment, this instability, from my point of view, does not compromise the success of a trip to Chile so .. do not worry! If your trip also includes Bolivia, the situation becomes complicated and you may have to change your itinerary. In this regard, you can find my considerations in the article on the Salar de Uyuni. 

But let's get to the highlights of the trip:

Santiago de Chile

Find everything in the article What to see in Santiago de Chile


Valparaiso is by far the most fascinating city in Chile. This decadent and poetic port city has a charm that goes far beyond its monuments. Like all large ports, it is a busy and somewhat dirty city, inhabited by sailors, poets, painters, prostitutes and immigrants who come here in search of fortune. It immediately reminded me of my beloved Lisbon, with its cerros (hills), its funiculars, its alleys, its colonial buildings and one of the most famous and active street art in South America. The only way to visit it is to get lost in the streets with colorful buildings admiring the murals and enjoying the views that suddenly open out of the alleys of the Cerci Conception, Alegre and Miraflores

The cerros can be reached from the seafront with several stairways, but above all with the shaky funiculars (ascensores) dating back to the end of the 800th century: an experience to do absolutely!

I recommend you go up from Plaza Justicia or Plaza Annibal Pinto to explore the Cerro Conception where the most panoramic points of the city are located: the Yugoslavian walk (in front of the Palacio Baburizza Museum), the Gervasoni walk and Paseo Atkinson. The alleys here are overflowing with cafes, bars, panoramic restaurants and craft and souvenir shops. After that go up again towards the Cerro Carcel and reach the Valparaiso Cultural Park (a cultural center created inside a former prison) and the monumental cemeteries (Cemeterios 1 and 2) from which you can enjoy a magnificent view of the bay. 

If you are a Neruda fan be sure to visit too “La Sebastiana”, his home in Cerro Bellavista.

In reality, it only takes a few hours to visit the center of Valparaiso, but I doubt you will get bored by staying here several days and getting lost in its colorful and relaxed mood.

Vina del Mar and the dunes of Concon

The village of Viña del Mar it is located about 10 km north of Valparaiso and is called the “garden city” for its manicured gardens and for the palm trees that line the streets and the promenade. Vina is the preferred holiday resort for the inhabitants of Santiago that flock here on weekends during the summer season. There is nothing really unmissable in Vina del Mar, but it is a nice and quiet place to use as a base to see Valparaiso (which in the evening, above all, is not exactly a safe city), or to relax on the beach at the end of the trip. . To see nearby there are certainly the Concon dunes, high sand dunes that drop into the Pacific where kids come to sandboard. The landscape is surreal and very beautiful. 

The Elqui Valley between pisco and astronomical observatories

Wanting to make an intermediate stop on the climb to San Pedro de Atacama, reading and asking around my interest fell on this region of Chile that I did not know at all. From Valparaiso then I took a bus to La Serena, the capital of the region of Norte Chico and then continue towards the mystical Elqui Valley. This valley is famous for pisco production (the most famous distillate of Chile with which pisco sour is made), gli astronomical observatories, the UFO sightings and seekers of cosmic energy. As you can imagine, I was particularly interested in the first 2: pisco and stargazing (which has always been a great passion of mine). 

Since 2006 this region has been called "Region Estrella" (Region of the Stars) thanks to its 300 starry nights a year and its sky which is the clearest on the planet; since then the whole area has become a huge pole of international scientific research and astronomical tourism. To date, there are 15 astronomical observatories here, including 5 dedicated only to research and 10 built specifically for the tourist circuit. 

For convenience I went toCerro Mamalluca Observatory: it is the closest to Vicuna and there is a transfer from the village center. The guided tours last 2h (also in English) and include the observation of the stars and planets both from the telescope and with the naked eye. What can I tell you, it was a unique emotion! The night I was there the sky was really clear and we had 5 planets well aligned right in front of us, which happens very rarely from what I understand. I had seen the moon through a telescope once before, but certainly not with that magnification. There was just a short time before I started screaming for joy! Not to mention the Saturn rings, which seem to be drawn by a compass. It is really difficult to have those conditions of visibility and darkness in other parts of the world and the carpet of stars that I found above my head was incredible, it is an experience not to be missed. 

From Vicuna I continued on to Pisco Elqui, a sleepy mountain village popular with backpackers. As the name implies, the production of Pisco is the main attraction of the village, but there is no shortage of activities to do in the surrounding area. Do not miss a visit to the Pisco Mistral Distillery (with tasting of course!) And a walk / horse / mountain bike ride in the surrounding mountains (you can also visit the astronomical observatories from here). 

San Pedro de Atacama: the Valley of the Moon and the altiplanic lagoons

After 18h by bus from Pisco Elqui I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama (2438 mt), another big dream was coming true and I could finally cross out another box of my long Travel-Wishlist!

Find all the detailed info on San Pedro de Atacama in this article






Throughout the journey I almost always slept in the hostel. In most cases they were double rooms without ensuite bathroom, sometimes in dormitories. The average price (2016) has always been between 15 and 20 euros per person (10-15 in dormitory) with breakfast included.

  • Somni Hotel Boutique (Vina del Mar). Very nice boutique hotel in an Art Deco villa (reminded me of Miami!). Very nice rooms, nice garden and great breakfast.  
  • Hostal El Arbol (La Serena). Small family hostel in a small villa a few steps from the Japanese garden. Nice and with a great breakfast.
  • Hostal Las Delicias (Vicuna). Very nice little hostel close to the town center. Very nice owner and super breakfast.
  • Hotel Elqui (Pisco Elqui).This hostel is just attached to the square, right where the bus stops. Bucolic situation (if you are a crazy animal lover, there are at least 4/5 dogs and as many cats), nice room and very nice common areas. It has a swimming pool and a large garden (which you will not use if you go there in winter, in July / August). Good breakfast.
  • Hostal Lackuntur (San Pedro de Atacama). Very nice and clean hostel with swimming pool, deck chairs for the descanso and common room / kitchen with a crazy view of the desert and the Licancabur volcano. The owner is super nice and you can buy excursions from her at great prices. The only flaw: there is no breakfast. But there is a minimarket just around the corner, 50 meters away. Slightly out of the way from the center, but convenient (in 10 'walk you are in the center or at the bus station).

Where to eat in Santiago, San Pedro de Atacama and in the Elqui Valley

Premise: in Chile you eat very well! You will find more or less everywhere excellent ceviche (mainly based on tuna, salmon, octopus and shrimp), many good ocean fish (e.g. Reineta) cooked in a thousand ways, dishes based on quinoa (Chile is one of the largest worldwide producers) and the famous empanadas (which here, unlike the Argentine ones, are much larger .. they resemble a calzone).

This good food is accompanied by excellent wines; above all I fell in love with Carménère, but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir are not bad at all!

  • Paraiso del Elqui (Vicuna): restaurant specializing in empanadas, there are more than 300 on the menu! You eat in a beautiful inner courtyard with a retro atmosphere and the elderly chef is the perfect host (he cooks and serves everything himself!)
  • La Estaka (San Pedro): my favorite restaurant in San Pedro. The environment is very nice, soft lights and a large fireplace to warm the atmosphere. The cuisine is Chilean / Peruvian fusion, there is an extensive wine list and the manager knows how to make you feel at home. The prices are (around 35-40 euros) but it is worth it.
  • La Casona (San Pedro): classic restaurant of the same ownership as La Estaka and Blanco. Fireplace in the center and dark wood furniture make it perfect for eating excellent parillade for dinner, but it is also open for lunch and you can eat on the outdoor patio.
  • Barros Cafe (San Pedro): a tavern that looks like a mountain cabin. The tables are very close together and the atmosphere is lively. There is live music almost every night: if you don't like confusion… try to be put away from the stage. Wide menu of typical dishes at an excellent quality / price ratio. You can't book so go early.
  • Cafè Peregrino (San Pedro): This cafe overlooks the main square and is one of the prettiest in San Pedro. It has a few tables on a raised balcony perfect for people watching. Great for breakfast / brunch: plentiful and fixed price.

PS in San Pedro they often organize clandestine parties in locations that are located on the outskirts of the town, in the desert. Make friends with someone locally and you won't have a hard time knowing when and where the holidays are.

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