It is a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) trip one-way from Santiago across the long, thin nation of Chile to the northern desert of Atacama. The Atacama, Northern Chile's most popular draw for travelers, is a vast desert scattered with volcanoes, sand dunes, weirdly sculpted rock formations, geysers, and lakes, with a huge variety of outdoor activities from hiking to horse-riding and dune boarding. Not so far away, in neighboring Bolivia, there are also the otherworldly salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni, the world's biggest salt desert.
Travel here is either by air, which can save you over a dozen hours of travel time, or by road. San Pedro de Atacama is the main base from which activities in the Atacama region are arranged.
Find out more about the Atacama region with this sample 4-day Atacama Desert itinerary.
By Plane and Bus or Private Transfer
Duration: 3.5 hours
This is the most convenient option if you are coming north from Santiago specifically to see the Atacama. You can fly all the way from Santiago to Calama, an hour away from San Pedro de Atacama. There is a dazzling variety of flights, departing throughout the day (at least every 1.5 hours) from Santiago Airport from 4:30 am to 10 pm. The main operators are Sky Airline and Latam. Flight time is two hours.
From Calama Airport, 4.5 miles south of the city center, it is a quick 15-minute drive to the main bus terminal where bus companies like Buses Frontera del Norte and Turbus have regular buses to San Pedro de Atacama. Travel time is one hour. Equally, from outside the terminal or airport, taxis will offer the same journey to San Pedro de Atacama in marginally quicker time for a more expensive price.
Overall, this is the most efficient and expensive way to get from Santiago to the Atacama.
By Private Transfer or Car
Duration: 2-4 days
Travel is long but straightforward with your own wheels between Santiago and San Pedro de Atacama, and en route you can see almost half of Chile! Bear in mind that you will need far longer than the quickest A2B travel times because of stops. Above travel time is based on the fact you will have to stop off at least one night on this very long journey.
Good overnight stops include the peaceful, leafy city of La Serena and nearby Valle del Elqui, famed for its Pisco distillery, astronomical observatories and outdoor activities. Ideally, allow a couple of days along the way to linger in these places.
Duration: 22 hours
It is a long, long run up through the north of Chile from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama. Companies including Turbus make the journey north from Terminal Alameda in Santiago to Calama in 20-21 hours. Whilst travel time is slightly quicker than that, the distance necessitates a rest en route for drivers. In Calama, change buses at the main bus terminal for the one-hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama, as per the previous option.