9 Useful Tips for Driving around Atacama Desert, Chile

Driving around Atacama Desert was one of the highlights of our 6 months South America trip. Besides the out-worldly landscape, volcanoes and wildlife , Chile has some of the best roads in South America. Navigating them is an adventure like no other, and we would encourage you to try it if you can.  

Take a peek at these 9 useful tips for driving around Atacama Desert.

Managing petrol

You may have already read elsewhere that there is only one petrol station within a 100km radius of San Pedro. Depending on your itinerary you may want to take note of how much petrol you are carrying on a given journey. As a rule of thumb, the full tank on Hyundai Creta lasts on average 700km. However, this may be less if you consider the steep elevation change from 2400m to 4300m in Geysers El Tatio or Laguna Miscanti at 4100m (of course you can recuperate some of the petrol on the way down!). In general, we made sure to have the tank filled at 75% for some of the open ended journeys.

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Police checks

After driving in Chile & Argentina, we soon learnt to be extremely efficient in keeping and producing all of the required documents at surprise police roadblocks. While driving on Route 23 in San Pedro, we got pulled over twice for a routine check. Documents to have on hand: Passport, Driving License, Vehicle Registration.

Tip | Say Hola, smile and you will be on your way in less than 5 minutes!

Choosing a rental company

This was a tough one for us, and will likely depend on your itinerary in Chile. As we were coming from Argentina (Salta), the most logical place to rent would have been San Pedro. However, Europcar, is currently the only rental company available in San Pedro and we have read negative reviews about their service.

We were also continuing onto Iquique after Atacama and so decided on making the extra trip to Calama for a better selection of cars. After reading countless reviews, we settled on Econorent. Their selection of cars, insurance (they provide full damage waiver) and service proved to be a good choice. We booked our Hyundai Creta AT online, and had to navigate through the booking page in Spanish. Pick up and drop off were flawless.

Road conditions

Below are the type of roads you will drive on when in Atacama:

  • Ruta 23 and 27 – are well maintained, paved two-lane highways i.e. one lane for each direction. Averaged 100kmph. Used to reach Valle de la Luna/Marte, Lagunas Cejar, Altiplanicas, Piedras Rojas, Pacana Caldera & Salar de Tara
  • B-245 – combination of sealed (70%) and gravel (30%) road in good condition, dramatic elevation change and sharp curves. Averaged 60kmph. Used to reach El Tatio Geysers, Terms de Puritana
  • B-241 – 100% gravel road. Averaged 40-60 kmph. Used to reach Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache.
  • B-355 – 100% sealed. Averaged 80 kmph. Used to reach Laguna Chaxa, Salar de Atacama
  • Last mile off-road tracks – some places mentioned will involve last mile off road driving to reach/explore them. Except for Salar de Tara (which we didn’t visit) we navigated all of them in 4×2 with absolutely no problem. All of these surfaces (sand, gravel) are driven over 100 times a day by tour vans, cars and trucks and are well packed, with occasional ripples.

Road conditions in Atacama Desert Chile

Hiring a 4×4 vs 4×2

Okay, this really depends on how adventurous you are going to get with your itinerary. We chose 4×2 and visited most of San Pedro’s highlights with no issue whatsoever. The only area where we were told 4×4 was a must is Salar de Tara which is located about 30min off-road from Ruta 27. Unfortunately, I have no way of confirming this as we didn’t attempt it.

What we did do however is go for a compact SUV to have a better ground clearance for an occasional mini off-road adventure. Having said this, we saw locals and tourists alike driving on gravel roads in sedans with what seemed like a total lack of concern! It also seems that there is not much difference in tyre durability. In other words, it really comes down to your itinerary and comfort levels.

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Driving and Parking in San Pedro de Atacama

There is very limited parking allowed in central part of San Pedro. Make sure to check the parking availability with your hotel. We found a very convenient spot where we parked free of charge and within a short walking distance of all the action: corner of Caracoles & Ignacio Carrera Pinto.

The narrow streets of San Pedro’s central area are full of pedestrians, cyclists and dogs. We tried to avoid driving through here and when we did we had to drive at 10kmph and constantly watch out of dogs trying to run under the car. At one point, a pack of 5 dogs with a very old owner basically blocked our way barking at us and refusing to let us through. Luckily other cars arrived from an opposite direction and dispersed the chaos!

Driving etiquette: drivers, speed limits etc.

There are some quirks that you should be aware off:

Drivers – first of all, you will notice that there aren’t many cars on the road. Those that you will see are mostly tour buses/vans and pick up trucks driven by locals. The tour buses generally drove responsibly with a few exceptions. The locals on the other hand, raced passed at every possible opportunity. Unlike in the UK and US however, we did not encounter a habit of persistent tailgating in Chile. Instead, you will notice that the cars will tailgate you to let you know they are about to overtake. Move slightly to the right and let them on their way.

Headlights – You must have your headlights on on highways at all times, by law.

Speed limits – The highest speed limit we have encountered was 100kmph.

Animal crossing – on a number of occasions we had wild animals crossing or blocking the road. The most dangerous episode was on Ruta 27 sharp descend, when a drove of wild donkeys blocked traffic both ways. Watch out!

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Maps 

For navigation, we used a combination of Google Maps and MapsMe. With both, make sure to download offline maps for the area prior to your arrival. We ended up using Google Maps for 80% of the trips, and MapsMe for reference as it seems to have a more accurate data for off-road destinations.

Altitude

Although we were very lucky not to experience severe effects of the altitude sickness, at times we definitely felt shortness of breath and minor headaches. However, at no time have these affected our driving ability. It’s worth noting that we have spent 10 days in Jujuy, Argentina at 3000m prior to arrival in San Pedro and our bodies have already accustomed to the altitude. We have also used coca leaves to reduce the effects of lower barometric pressure.

Take this seriously and allow your body to adjust to the altitude by avoiding higher elevation destinations (e.g. El Tatio) in the early part of the trip.

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Hope you found these driving tips helpful. If you liked it, share it with your friends!


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9 Tips for Driving in Atacama Desert

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