Traveling has a bad rap for being expensive. This is especially the case for tourist traps with economies that ride on the waves of visitors who flood in every season. Tour agencies, restaurants, and accommodation companies are expected to charge a premium to the wealthy foreigners with their wallets in vacation mode.
However, despite these common markups, vacations do not have to cost an arm and a leg. While spending some amount of money is a prerequisite for travel, some of my favorite experiences cost a fraction of the prices of mainstream tourists activities. As an active person who would rather have an adventure over systematically checking off items on the “Top 10 Things to Do in This Place” list, I’ve been fortunate to find savings just by following my nature.
My trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile is a prime example of this. From landing in the Calama airport to my last night in San Pedro de Atacama, I had unwittingly managed to save money just by pursuing the types of activities I prefer to do.
Last Minute Transfer
My trip began with a late night arrival in the El Loa airport in the city of Calama, about a 1.5 hour drive from my accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama. Because of the late arrival time, I had tried to book in advance a private transport to my hostel, only to encounter an error at the payment part of the booking. A few failed attempts and a bit of exasperation later, I decided to roll the dice and left the transfer search for future Jenny after she lands in Calama. Worst case scenario, I get a taxi and try to find someone to split it with.
It turned out, I was concerned for nothing. Upon setting foot in the public arrival section of the airport, I was immediately bombarded with solicitations for ride shares by representatives of three different companies, all waiting for their passengers. Because of the competition, the prices of the three companies were the same and I just went with the first person who asked nicely. Had I booked in advance, I would have gone through a third party company charging marked up prices for the same ride.
My ride share dropped me off directly in front of my accommodations, another expense that I managed to save on. Aside from airfare and other transportation, accommodations tend to be the biggest expense for travelers. However, if you are okay with a no frills experience (I am only using it as a place to sleep and store my stuff, after all), then hostels are the best way to go. Not only are they cheap – under $20 a night in San Pedro de Atacama – they are also a great way to meet other travelers and potentially save by splitting the cost of a trip together (more on that later).
Why Book a Tour When I Can Mountain Bike It?
After checking around for tour options, I was disappointed to find that the majority of tours involved spending the day on a bus, driving from scenic point to scenic point. So I searched for more active alternatives and found that mountain biking to some of the major tour destinations was a possibility. At 4000 CLP ($6) for 6 hours (the worker actually let me slide at 7 hours), it certainly beat the tour price to just Valle de Luna for 10000 CLP ($15). I happily rented a mountain bike, which came fully loaded with a helmet, lock, repair kit, pump, and reflective vest for night time biking, and set off to one of the 5 destinations the cashier pointed out to me. I started the morning closer at Pukará de Quitor, 3 km from town, and the Tunel, 9 km from town, and planned to conclude the day with a ride to Valle de Luna, 15 km from town, for sunset.
At this point, you might be thinking, sure that is more economical, but won’t you get lonely doing this trip by yourself? At least, that was one of my concerns. However, almost immediately after I started my ride, I found myself riding alongside a couple on the one road. We talked for the rest of the ride and shared an enjoyable hour long trek at Pukará de Quitor, a pre-Columbian archaeological site. After exchanging contact information with loose plans to meet up in Valparaiso, Chile, I continued on my own to the Tunel 6km away.
The subsequent ride was one of my favorite parts of the trip despite being low or non-existent on the lists of “Things to Do in Atacama.” I found myself biking with an incredible desert landscape all to myself; it was unlike anything I had ever seen. At the top of the hill by the Túnel, I was rewarded with a gorgeous view of endless desert landscape interrupted only by a patch of green oasis. After riding through the pitch black tunnel and back, it was time for the best part of the trip – the downhill portion. The combination of the steep angle and the beds of rock jutting out of the dirt road made the descent both exhilarating and terrifying. The level of incline meant I couldn’t brake once I started and I was left to cling to the bike for dear life while enjoying the rollercoaster of a ride. I loved it!
Strangers in a Strange Land
Around mid-afternoon, I returned to the hostel with my bike for a quick lunch with the intention of continuing my ride afterwards to watch sunset in Valle de Luna. However, the luck of hostel life rained upon me as I struck up conversation with two fellow lodgers. They turned out to be the two guys I had passed earlier that day mountain biking. After I mentioned my plan to see Valle de Luna for sunset, they told me they were renting a car to see some sights the next day, including Valle de Luna for sunset, and invited me to join. After a bit of thought, I decided it would be more fun and economical to go with them and agreed.
The next day turned out to be amazing, with a great mix of off-the-beaten-trail and tourist destination fun. Our first stop was to a hike at Cerro Toco, which started at torturous 5200m (17,000ft). The humans were not the only ones phased by the altitude – several times, the passengers had to vacate the car, which we named Sapphire because naming an object obviously helps it perform better, in order for it to make it up a hill. Battling the altitude and an icy cold that we were thoroughly unprepared for, we hiked away and were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the desert seen by very few. Because this hike is not covered by tours and difficult to get to without a car, we were able enjoy an off the beaten path view that rivaled or even surpassed the common tourist sights. And we got it all to ourselves.
After our scenic hike, we made our way down to Valle de Luna. In contrast to the previous segment, this time, we did all the activities of a popular tour, but without having to pay for the tour. Then, for sunset, one of my companions guided us to a less popular but equally beautiful location to avoid the crowds at the designated sunset area (and what a crowd it was). For the hour leading up to sunset, we enjoyed the views as one of only 2 groups on the ledge overlooking the valley. Then, as the sun began its descent behind the horizon, a guard approached our group instructing us to leave before the sun finished its descent – the ledge was dangerous in the dark. Luckily, we were able to convince her to let us stay a bit longer to take pictures before taking the scenic route down with her towards the sunset.
By the end of the day, we had had both an off the beaten path and a typical tourist experience for a fraction of the cost of a full day tour in Atacama, at 17,000 CLP ($24 USD). What’s more, the day of road tripping and shenanigans converted five strangers into a tight-knit group of friends, an adventure that was in itself invaluable.
My time in the Atacama Desert far exceeded my expectations. I witnessed mindblowing landscapes, had an exhilarating mountain bike ride, and walked away with new friends. All without even scratching the bank.