Visiting San Pedro de Atacama Independently – No Need to Join Tours!

When I first heard about San Pedro de Atacama, I immediately thought back to all the road trips I’ve done in Australia where being totally free in all that open space is what it’s all about. And I knew I wanted that freedom when visiting San Pedro de Atacama which essentially meant I didn’t want to take tours.

Most blog posts I read spoke of how you can take this tour and that and it’s all relatively cheap and easy. And that’s true. But if you’re a person who values freedom and tries to avoid crowds, you simply have to try and visit the Atacama in a different way.san pedro de atacama vicuna on the roadI hired a car for 4 days and it was the best decision, but not everything went as planned and I would have done a couple of things differently if I knew what was going to happen.

Hiring a Car in San Pedro de Atacama

The first thing you need to know is that people tend to hire their cars in the large town of Calama rather than San Pedro de Atacama. Calama is 100km and 1hr from San Pedro and it’s where you’ll arrive by bus or plane as it’s fairly major hub.

I checked quite a few rental car companies as well as Holiday Autos (they’re usually really cool as all terms and conditions are laid out and they usually include insurance) and ended up booking with Budget at Calama airport via Holiday Autos because it was cheaper that going directly with Budget. I purposely chose not to purchase extra insurance as I always do, but I kind of regret that now as I’ll explain later.san pedro de atacama car rentalA lot of forums I read stated that you absolutely have to get a 4wd vehicle as 2wd sedans just can’t do these roads. I got a small 2wd car and it was perfect for visiting Laguna Tebinquiche, Laguna Chaxa and Lagunas Miscanti & Miñiques. I also tried to visit Salar de Tara, but was driven back by an immense sand storm which threatened to sandblast the paint on the car to bare metal. At an altitude of about 4800m, I decided to turn the car around as the wind was moving faster than the car and the car was travelling at 100km/h.

It was scary, intense and something even a 4wd wouldn’t cope with. If the weather had been better, a 4wd would probably have been a wise choice because this particular route requires off road travel, even though it’s mild.san pedro de atacama flamingoes flyingThe other place I wanted to visit was the geyser, but I just didn’t think I should put the small car through the pain of travelling along that treacherous road. Again, if you must visit the geyser independently, hire a 4wd. If you don’t have enough money for a 4wd, that’s ok. Just visit the lagunas I visited and you will love it.

The Incident

After visiting Lagunas Tebinquiche & Chaxa, I decided to make a loop around the Salar. Why? Because up until that point the dirt roads had been really quite good. So I commenced the massive journey around the Salar and it was a poor poor decision. The first problem was that the road deteriorated quite a lot when I got to the other side of the Salar. The road was filled with larger rocks and even though I was driving fast, the car was burning through petrol. This was probably due in part to me having a flat tyre for about 100km that I didn’t know about. Eep!

After I got onto the main road, I smashed into a large pot hole (pictured: more like a crater — seriously) and the wheel with the flat tyre buckled. So that night and the next day were stress filled days of trying to get either a replacement wheel (really expensive because it was a custom alloy wheel) or get the wheel repaired.massive pot hole san pedro de atacamaAfter visiting about 5 shops, I finally found someone who said he would attempt to repair the wheel. 20,000 pesos later and I was on my way. That day was wasted and Budget refused to help fix the wheel. They just insisted it was my responsibility which sucks really… I would have appreciated them facilitating the repair and me paying for it, but that didn’t happen.

If I had insurance with them, I’m not sure they would have treated me any differently. The only thing different would be that they wouldn’t charge me for the replacement wheel if I brought the car back with the wheel broken AT THE END OF THE RENTAL. Which is no help when you need the car fixed.san pedro de atacama milky wayWhatever the case, I kind of wished I had insurance at that time because the potential cost for me was massive. Also, the sand storm incident was scary and insurance would have eased my mind a little. I’m not a big advocate for car insurance generally, but I think the conditions in the Atacama can be so extreme that it’s wise to get insurance even though it’s expensive.

Check the current price of rentals on Holiday Autos.

Cost of Petrol/Gasoline in San Pedro de Atacama

We had read that the price of petrol in San Pedro de Atacama was ridiculously high because there is only one petrol station. Not true! The price of petrol in San Pedro de Atacama is the same as anywhere else.san pedro de atacama vicunas

How to know where to go

So how did I know where to go in the Atacama? Well, everything is signposted so well and the tourists maps are actually quite good. On top of that, most of the roads are paved and very good and most of the dirt roads are quite flat. There were a few dirt roads which were really rutted, but they were no problem for any car – just take it really of san pedro de atacama

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

We stayed at a lovely place called Hostal Desert. Some of the complaints I read online talked about how far from the centre of town it is — a 15 minute walk. But the hostal was so amazing that we didn’t care about the distance from town particularly because we cooked most of our meals in their fully equipped kitchen.san pedro de atacama flamingoes flyingThe one night we ate pizza in town we drove. No problem! In fact, I didn’t really like the vibe in the centre of town and I’m glad we stayed a little bit out of the centre. Too many hippies, overly confident guide types and touristy shops and restaurants where prices are exorbitant.san pedro de atacama lagunaI paid $65 per night at Hostal Desert which included a pretty good breakfast –> Check the current price on Agoda or

I really enjoyed my time in San Pedro de Atacama. It’s such an otherworldly place and it’s this uniqueness that makes a trip so incredible. I really loved travelling there independently and renting a car. Made the whole place that much more special.

Any questions? Let me know!


Trekking Torres del Paine in winter: the good, the bad, the bizarre

What an incredible experience we’ve just had in Torres del Paine National Park. We just completed the W trek in June/July and just had to share our experience.


In preparation for the 5 day trek in Torres del Paine National Park, we did some shopping, booked our campsite and rented our camping gear.torres-del-paine-mapWe bought a lot of food for this trek and it ended up being way way too much. For some unknown reason, we just didn’t eat as much as we normally would and we brought too much emergency food. This weighed us down a lot!

We had heard that you get a discount on your camping if you book in advance rather than just showing up, so we found the Vertice office in Puerto Natales and booked our Paine Grande campsite there for a 50% discount.

Finding the right place to rent camping gear is a bit of a challenge. Who do you trust? What is a good price? We just didn’t know. Luckily, we attended the awesome 3 o’clock briefing which happens daily at the Erratic Rock hostel. From our discussions with them, it became clear that we trusted them and would be happy to rent from them despite them being a little more expensive than others. Here is a list of what we rented:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bags
  • Cooking pot
  • Portable stove
  • Cups
  • Plates
  • Cutlery
  • Trekking poles (one each)
  • Sleeping mats

All up, it cost a whopping 105,000 CLP for 5 days. But you can’t go there with the appropriate camping gear. So you have no choice.torres-del-paine-in-winter-near-italiano

Day 1

The bus to Torres del Paine leaves at 7am from the bus terminal in Peurto Natales. We used Maria Jose bus company because there were no other companies running services due to winter. At other times of year there are lots of different bus companies operating the route and you must not choose Maria Jose for reasons which we list on day 5 below.We arrived at Administration because the catamaran wasn’t operating due to the winter close down. This means you have to trek 5 hours from Administration to Paine Grande instead of catching the boat.  This effectively means that day one has to be as we did it whereas in summer you can choose between catamaran and walking. We registered in administration and set off walking.torres-del-paine-in-winter-lago-los-patosWithin 10 minutes it started raining lightly. Within half an hour it was really windy. Actually windier than I’ve ever experienced before so we could guess it was gusting well over 100km/h. This wind combined with the rain combined with a temperature of about 2°C was awful. Our pants were immediately soaked and our legs like blocks of ice. But we had to keep walking in that incredible headwind even as it almost blew us over numerous times.

We finally made it to Camp Las Carretas and had a sandwich. We knew time was tight so we headed off after about 15 minutes back into the awful weather. We were lucky to have about an hour of no rain and because it was so windy, our clothes dried out. Unlucky for me, my shoes were complete waterlogged despite them being water proof. Nothing is going to stop rain like that.

3km out of Paine Grande there is a sign describing the lake and how far you have to go. From this point on, the weather got worse and as the wind grew stronger, the the temperature dropped and it started snowing. It was awful. I love extreme weather, but the conditions were so much worse than I expected. We also didn’t have clothes which were suitable for those conditions. You really do need water proof, wind proof pants. And you need a good warm water proof jacket instead of raincoats. I felt likes Scott of the Antarctic. It is so so so much worse than any other weather I have been in.

It was pretty dark as we clambered over the rocks into Paine Grande. We were supposed to camp there that night, but we immediately upgraded to a dorm room. Best decision ever.

The fires were lit in Paine Grande and the 10 or so other people there kept us company. Only a few others had actually been out in that weather and all agreed it was just incredible.

Day 2

At this point, I wanted to go home. Day 1 was so extremely difficult that I truly believed it was impossible for us to carry on. But the weather cleared on day 2 and the sky was blue.torres-del-paine-in-winter-mirador-greyWe decided to walk up to Mirador Glacier Grey, a 4 hour round trip. The wind was strong again, but because there was no rain and we weren’t carrying our big packs, it was really easy to do and a perfect tonic for the previous day’s misery.

Day 3

We set off a good hour before sunrise just as it was light enough to see the ground without a headlamp. I used the headlamp anyway and we made good progress with our heavy packs towards Italiano. We reached Italiano within about 2 hours and left our main packs there. Our plan was to visit the mirador in the French Valley. We didn’t know it at the time, but the mirador is only 500m from Italiano. We actually walked for an hour up the valley and got a better view of the glaciers. We saw lots of mini avalanches and one massive one that boomed through the valley. Simply awe-inspiring.torres-del-paine-in-winter-french-valleyFrom there we headed back to Italiano, ate some lunch and progressed onto Cuernos. I’d never set up a tent on a wooden platform before, so that was a learning experience. I just did what everyone else before me had done and placed big rocks inside the tent in the corners to keep it from flying away. It wasn’t that windy there anyway.

Going to the toilet in the bush was a bit awkward. You could see that people had just been crapping everywhere and of course we had to do the same. When it’s dark, it’s not a pleasant experience.

That night it got bitterly cold. Susan slept like a champion for most of the night but I woke up at 2am and couldn’t sleep much after that because I was so cold. The best advice we received before doing the trek was to fill a Nalgene bottle with boiling water before going to bed. I didn’t do that and suffered because of it. My feet had two pairs of thick woollen socks on them and they were still cold. I think a decent thick sleeping bag liner is absolutely necessary for those cold nights as well as a hot bottle of water. Our -9ºC sleeping bags just weren’t good enough on their own.torres-del-paine-in-winter-near-italiano

Day 4

The next day we started our hike up to camping Las Torres. It was a long, but pretty uneventful walk as we passed Chileno and into the snow. The path became quite icy and there was snow everywhere.torres-del-paine-in-winter-into-the-snow-at-camping-las-torresAt this point we stopped and talked about our plan. It seemed that we wouldn’t have enough time that day to reach the towers because we were running out of light. We also knew we wouldn’t be able to wake up the next morning, hike to the towers and then all the way back down to Amarga to catch the bus. In the end, we decided to descend out of the snow and back to Chileno.

And that’s when the weather turned sour again. The wind whipped right up, the temperature dropped and it started raining. It was absolutely freezing as we set up the tent on one of those wooden platforms. Luckily for us, we spied a locked up toilet attached to the closed accommodation block, removed the grill and went inside to the toilet. After 5 minutes in there out of the wind, we knew we had to move the tent into the toilet.

After we had set up the tent in the toilet, the lights suddenly came on. We knew that meant someone else was there. We were scared we’d get into trouble for being in the toilet, but we had no choice to announce ourselves. I found the chef who was for some reason sleeping there and asked if it was ok to be in the toilet. He was fine with it!

After we’d cooked dinner in the toilet block, it began to get colder and colder. It almost felt colder in there than outside because of all the tin everywhere.torres-del-paine-in-winter-sleeping-in-the-kitchen-at-chilenoSusan hunted down the chef again and asked if we could come inside. He instead opened up his kitchen for us, turned on the gas stove and gave us access to water. Within a couple of hours it was reasonably warm in there to the point we could take our jackets off. Big thanks to the chef at Chileno.

Day 5

We were bummed at having missed out on seeing Torres del Paine. It’s what everyone goes to see. But the weather was bad the next morning and for the next few days after that and the towers were not observable. And that’s the way it is there. The weather can change in a second and your dream of seeing the towers can be taken away from you. Be prepared for that.torres-del-paine-in-winterWe commenced our trek down from Chileno to Laguna Amarga which was quite muddy by this time.

Still, we kept a good pace, ruined our knees and arrived at the ranger station at Laguna Amarga with half an hour to spare. When all of a sudden a ranger appeared with bad news.

The bus company Maria Jose had decided to cancel their bus service for the rest of winter and anyone left in the park would have to find their own way home. With no public buses, we were going to have to hitchhike. And with hardly anyone in the park, that was going to be almost impossible.

The ranger was so so awesome and sympathetic and offered to flag down every vehicle which passed which was about 2 in 2 hours and one of those was stopping because he had a flat tyre.

But miraculously a bus full of off-season resort workers were heading back to Puerto Natales. So we jumped on that and were back in a warm hotel in no time. The ranger had anticipated we would have to camp their for a few days before anyone came past on their way to Puerto Natales.

Day 6

This is a post script to the issue with Maria Jose. In the morning I went to get my money back from them because I’d already bought a return ticket. I’d paid an extraordinary 30,000 CLP per person for return tickets and wanted half the money back. It was the least they could do for leaving us stranded out there, right?


I tracked the owner of the bus down in her hostel in town. I walked into the kitchen area and she was immediately hostile telling me to get out. It was a poor start, so I waved my ticket around and demanded a refund. After much shouting, she came back to me with 20,000. She’d short changed me by 10,000. So I followed her back to the kitchen and demanded the full 50% refund and she wasn’t having it.

She was trying to get back into the kitchen to lock me out so I couldn’t talk to her. So I stood in the doorway and she called the police. And then locked me inside the kitchen while we waited for them. She called the police twice and put on this fake cry, as if she were being robbed or assaulted! It was outrageous!

Anyway, the police arrive, Susan was bewildered and we were escorted outside to the police car. They took us downtown to another hostel (thank god) where a hostel owner with great English explained everything.

He explained that Maria Jose is a hostel popular with young Israelis who are on a cheap holiday. It’s extremely cheap, it has a terrible reputation and you should never use their bus service as there are always problems. Everyone shook hands and the police left and we went and had pizza. We never did get our half-refund.

An awesome winter Torres del Paine experience. It’s totally doable, but you must be prepared for hardship.

Here is a little video of the expedition (minus the hard parts):