On our very last night in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, Lavi and I heard a compelling traveler’s tale. A honeymooning Irish couple had a friend of a friend who’d stayed in an inexpensive “pod” style hotel with clear ceilings for seeing the stars. It was located just across the border from us in San Pedro de Atacama Chile.
San Pedro de Atacama was said to be a beautiful little Chilean desert town, known throughout the world for its amazing night sky views. In fact, some of the planet’s biggest and most important telescopes were located there (thank you for the information, Kindle Unlimited Lonely Planet Guide to South America!)
We were pretty remote and without wifi access for the rest of the tour (and the Lonely Planet didn’t mention this ridiculously cool pod hotel), but our new friends were making their way across the border as well to book this amazing star-watching suite on arrival. We took a leap of faith, and decided to do the same (it was also a REALLY welcome excuse for Lavi and I to hang out together bit longer and not part ways as soon as we’d originally planned).
We changed our plans with only about 12 hours to spare, our guide confirming that we could be dropped off at the Chilean border instead of continuing back to Uyuni. We’d be watching stars and sipping wine under the vast night sky in no time!
Unfortunately, the dreamy stories about San Pedro de Atacama turned out to be just that – dreams.
Let me recount the 6 ways that my misunderstandings about San Pedro de Atacama let me down…
I Didn’t Love San Pedro De Atacama Chile BECAUSE… there wasn’t a star gazing hotel!
this was seen through a telescope, not the ceiling of an amazing star gazing pod
By far the biggest and most soul-crushing disappointment was that this beautiful traveler’s tale about the cheap stargazing hotel was nothing more than a fairytale.
The whole catalyst for changing our plans didn’t even exist.
The closest thing we found to the fabled stargazing hotel was Explora. But, Explora was $1000 per night, closed until further notice, and doesn’t even have stargazing rooms – just an on-site observatory.
I Didn’t Love San Pedro De Atacama Chile BECAUSE… it was super overpriced!
by far the cheapest restaurant we found
While I’ll concede we were there the week of Easter holidays, which could understandably increase the prices, the value for money was ridiculously bad. Accommodation and food were especially pricey.
Hotels ranged from $70 to over $100 for a simple double room with a private bathroom. For this price, you’ll get a breakfast of bread and cookies, spotty wifi, no AC, and an okay location.
A simple vegetarian meal with one drink at a casual restaurant will run you between $15USD to $25USD (around 10,000-17,500 Pesos), not including tip.
I Didn’t Love San Pedro De Atacama Chile BECAUSE… pushy salespeople constantly hassled us!
the only chill tour salesman in the whole town
Everywhere we walked, guys constantly called out suggestions, asking us to buy a tour. The guys wouldn’t even bother to glance at who they were yelling at – so we’d get shouted at by the same vendors every time we walked from our hotel to the main square, or to restaurants, or out for a drink. They were very persistent, and loud, and annoying.
I Didn’t Love San Pedro De Atacama Chile BECAUSE… there was dust and dirt everywhere!
the only bigger no-no than wearing flip flops in SPA is the disgusting state of my blue nail polish
Whether you’re stepping out for a quick bit to eat, or even to just grab something from the store, all of your skin and clothing will get covered in dust. If you like to wear sandals or open-sided shoes, you will NOT like the look of your feet after even a few minutes in the street. They get caked in dirt and dust.
ESPECIALLY don’t wear flip-flops on any tour, even if the guy selling it to you promises you’ll be fine.
I Didn’t Love San Pedro De Atacama Chile BECAUSE… an awful bus station company really messed up our plans!
finally leaving San Pedro de Atacama
Gemini bus companies employees were absolutely, ridiculously bad.
We were trying to get to Argentina a few days after the law requiring Americans to pay the reciprocity fee was canceled.
The bus company providing service to Argentina wouldn’t recognize the changes (even though it was publicized and all bus companies informed), and still insisted that we show proof that we’d pay the reciprocity fee (which we couldn’t anymore, it doesn’t exist). They wouldn’t even consider the letters that the Argentinian consulate wrote for us to them. Because of their willful ignorance, we got stuck in San Pedro de Atacama for twice as long as we would’ve wanted.
At first, the bus company wouldn’t allow us to buy tickets. And after they finally allowed us to actually buy tickets, they then tried to prevent us from boarding the bus the next day! Luckily, a slightly more informed manager was there, and she allowed us to board. Jeesh!
I Didn’t Love San Pedro De Atacama Chile BECAUSE… the wifi was unusable!
Adobe stopped providing wifi AT ALL
We couldn’t find good wifi anywhere. Hotels promised to have it, and didn’t. Restaurant wifi would work sometimes (if it was even provided), and then cut out suddenly. We started getting desperate and googling suggestions for okay wifi (I’d recommend the Globetrotter Girls article here), but even the Globetrotter Girls’ suggestions didn’t always pan out, like in the section about Adobe quoted above.
I realize this is a super spoiled, bitchy thing to complain about. For goodness sakes, I’m on a trip in Chile! Truth. But as working bloggers, we NEED wifi to keep our jobs going. And with the high prices we were paying for everything, I’d expect at least a little wifi, somewhere. ANYWHERE.
Everything about San Pedro de Atacama wasn’t all bad.
The stars at night were still really beautiful, even though it would’ve been WAY cooler watching them from the comfort of our own glass-ceilinged pod. Even if the whole reason we changed our plans was nothing more than a tall tale, I’m honestly still grateful for believing in it because I got to spend more time hanging out with Lavi.
Pin it For Later!
Have you ever been let down by a destination?
The wine-filled stargazing and Valle de la Luna was fun! Let’s save our money and go to one of those dome pods in Norway or wherever next 😉
OMG yes! Next girl’s trip, I’m in!
Rough one! Sometimes we just aren’t matches with a place. Even if the place seems cool. We had a similar experience with a trip to Granada, Nicaragua last year. Things improved toward the end but the people just weren’t warm like their Tico neighbors, and the house sit we did wound up being a dud. Oh well….all part of travel! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Thanks! I’ve actually heard similar things about Nicaragua as compared to Costa Rica. I found Costa Rica very friendly but haven’t made it to Nicaragua – yet.
Gotta take the “bad” or mediocre in order to get the good, I suppose 🙂
I’m here cause was researching some info about San Pedro and your post is really hilarious I mean I do agree with some things but complaining about dust and unstable wifi if you’re on a desert? You can’t be for real
Hi Aggie! I’m definitely for real. If a place advertises as having wifi (and uses it as a selling point) – they should provide wifi… or not advertise that they have it. Also as I stated in the article “I realize this is a super spoiled, bitchy thing to complain about. For goodness sakes, I’m on a trip in Chile! Truth. But as working bloggers, we NEED wifi to keep our jobs going. And with the high prices we were paying for everything, I’d expect at least a little wifi, somewhere. ANYWHERE.”
I love the desert, but I don’t like dusty dirty streets – just like I enjoy the jungle and don’t like mosquitos. Or like the beach but don’t like jellyfish.
San Pedro de Atacama definitely wasn’t for me, and I’ll continue sharing both the positives and the negatives of every place I visit, honestly and without censoring for what others might think of my opinions.
I hope, if you go, that you love it.
What do you mean by: “for goodness sake, I ‘m in Chile”
Are you saying that CHILE is all like San Pedro or are you saying that you shouldn’t expect more because Chile is not USA?
If you travel through Chile, you will see that some places are as modern as any city in USA and if you go to smaller towns, that are very remote and you have to travel MILES to get to bigger towns that are closer to what you expect?
Did you do any research regarding where you were going? Do you know that such hotel (dome to see the stars room) exist, but is very far away from San Pedro, in valle del elqui that is also part of the dessert, is not a stone’s throw away.
The problem with the way you put it is that you went to a very remote location and expected to have a 5 star experience at a regular price. If it is 5 stars in a remote place it WILL be very pricey!
Hi Mariela, thanks for your comment!
By “For goodness sakes, I’m in Chile!” I meant exactly what I wrote immediately before it: “I realize this is a super spoiled, bitchy thing to complain about.” In other words, “For goodness sakes, I’m in an incredible place like Chile, I shouldn’t be complaining!” but at the same time, I needed internet to work, and it’s rare for me to be anywhere in the world and unable to access internet in 2018, especially popular tourist towns, even fairly remote ones. In my experience, honesty applies in all countries, whether the USA (where I was born, but it’s not where I live, nor have I for years and years, and also not where I make comparisons to) or Chile or anywhere else. If a hotel says they have wifi (and I’m paying $100+ a night), I expect that the hotel has wifi. I don’t think that makes me presumptuous or naive.
As stated, when we made the decision to go to San Pedro de Atacama, we were without internet access. So, no, I did not do any research on where I was going (as I said in the third paragraph of this post).
I definitely didn’t expect to have a 5-star experience (nor did I want to!), I was just surprised when my last-minute expectations didn’t meet reality, and was sharing honestly about my experience. When I pay $100 a night for a hotel, I do expect basic services, especially when the hotel has stated that they provide them (AC, wifi, etc).
While I didn’t love San Pedro de Atacama, which I’m okay with, you can’t LOVE everywhere you travel to, I really do want to go back to Chile someday and experience a different location. I’ve heard wonderful things about Santiago, for example.
Complaining about the dust in the dessert… hahhaha this is hilarious
Not complaining! Just sharing my honest opinions and reflections – which includes negatives and positives. If I only wrote about sunshines and rainbows, that certainly wouldn’t be very honest.
Personally, I don’t enjoy dust, and I’ve never been to another desert town as dusty as this one.
I think what hurt you was the last minute nature of your visit thus preventing you from researching what SPA has to offer. First, I totally agree about the dusty streets. How weird that the roads leading into town are all paved, but the roads in town aren’t! I stayed a ten minute walk away at Hotel Alti Planico, loved it, and was away from the dust except for walking into town. Also, it’s best to visit there when there is a new moon. The stars are unbelievable! The day trips are also amazing – Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte, Lagunas Miscanti y Miniques, Piedras Rojas, and Valle Arcoiris – all great! Give it another shot!
Hi Adam! I agree, I think you’re totally right. I’m a bit of a type-A, obsessive planner and I love to
overresearch before going anywhere… which I didn’t get to do in this case.
I did go to Valle de la Luna, which was beautiful. While I didn’t love the town itself, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try it again if the stars aligned 🙂
Thanks for the recommendations!
Absolutely ridiculous your detailed post about San Pedro de Atacama seems to me. Typical comments from superficial people who look for luxuries everywhere. I regret that you had a stay full of dust, but if you have problems with this then you should not visit the desert (I can not think of another idea).
4,500 CLP for a plate of added food and drink did you find it expensive? What is your budget to travel then?
And about the Wifi, did you check really where you where travelling? you didn´t notice how poor and basic the little town is? the is not optic fiber like in your city i guess ! (OMG)
I appreciate that you have felt uncomfortable in the place, .. for lost souls like you there is no place in the desert.
Thanks for sharing your opinion, like I did mine!
I live in Mexico, so I do find “A simple vegetarian meal with one drink at a casual restaurant will run you between $15USD to $25USD (around 10,000-17,500 Pesos” quite expensive.
As I said, regarding my wifi, the issue is when places say they have it, and then don’t: “Hotels promised to have it, and didn’t.” I don’t want to be sold something that doesn’t exist.
And, as I also said: “I realize this is a super spoiled, bitchy thing to complain about. For goodness sakes, I’m on a trip in Chile!”
BUT I think the downsides of a destination should be discussed just as the positives (of which I have another post about San Pedro de Atacama).
I get it. Like someone said in comments, sometimes a place connects and sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the stuff you didn’t like, I love about the Atacama. I had read a NYTimes article about it and put it on a travel must- do list. It took me 6 years to finally do it but well worth it. We rented a house so the hotel thing didn’t affect us. We had a guide and driver for the last part of a 9 day trip. The driver and one of the hotels on the road we stayed in was our only low and I lost SD drive with all of my pictures. Yet, I will never forget this trip. Not to criticize the sand and dirt complaint in a desert is a little odd. I did enjoy reading a different take on the Atacama.
I’ve spent a lot of time in deserts (especially in Israel, Bolivia, the Southern US, and Mexico), and maybe it was the season I went to San Pedro de Atacama, but the town itself was dusty and dirty like nowhere else I’ve been, and nope I didn’t enjoy it but I can appreciate other perspectives on it 🙂
Sorry to hear you lost your SD drive – that is so awful!
Hi! I’m chilean, I am sorry that you didn’t had a good time in San Pedro. It is certainly an outstanding place unique in the world… if you are here for the right reasons. I suppouse that not everyone is “tuned up in the frequency” to come here. Chile is a special destination for people with special interests.
Almost everything you tell about is (dis)comfort and facilities things. Pricy? Yes, very, I agree. And there is dust, and unfortunately lite to do about it because it is in the middle of the desert, there is almost no rain and since the whole town is to be preserved it is very unlikely that they will pave the streets. That’s why pavement ends in the edge of the town. Instead of flip flops (Jesus!) someone who comes to Chile as a turist (for the right reasons) should wear, and pack, and think like if they where going to some safari in Namibia or trekking in Canada but without the dangerous things you might find in those deserts and woods. Chile is actually a very safe place in outdoors matters. No beasts! I’m sure you saw many with really good trekking shoes and nearly prepared for war. Those read about what kind of place they are going.
Dreamy hotels, perfect transportation, wifi, dust… you don’t care (to much) for these if coming to Chile. We actually have one of the best internet connection in latinamerica (inlaces with reasonable population. If you have been in Argentina you will notice that they are much more…artisan type about technology. But still it isn’t important, it isn’t the goal, the aim of this. I didn’t read any impression of nature, Tatio, Tara Salt lake or moon valley. Maybe you didn’t like any of those. About the skies.. they are a bit more than beautiful. If astronomers came here it is because they are the best skies in the world with about 300 clear nights per year and almost no artificial light since no one lives there. You will never in your life again see so many stars because northern hemisphere doesn’t have them. I hope you have had dark night without moon, because full moon and its light is very romantic but it mess it all. And even NASA test their Mars equipment there before sending it. Those two things should tell you that this in not an everydays place. You were at the closest possible to the feeling of being in Mars.
Chile is for those who really love nature, the vastness of the desert, lakes of the south, Patagonia, to look at the sunset by death valley today, and tomorrow maybe, and the next day too… you understand. Every evening will be different.
Those who know what they want to take back home find it in this lands.
If anyone else is reading and thinking if should travel to Chile or not I give you a list to search in google images:
Moon valley and Death valley, Chungara lake, Huerquehue National park, Conguillio, Huilo Huilo, Queulat National park, Carretera Austral, Torres del Paine National park, Lakes district.. that will do. If this things set your heart free then you belong here!
About Santiago… stay the least you can. 10+ hours flight don’t pay for it. Two days is enough if you insist in staying. Three days… I think you might be losing time you could spend somewhere else out there! “Museo de la Memoria” is maybe the most remarkable there.
Ok! sorry for the endless white. Regards!
Yes, as I said, multiple times, the decision to go to San Pedro de Atacama was made very last minute, during a trip to Salar de Uyuni, without internet. So, no, unfortunately, I had not packed for “some safari in Namibia or trekking in Canada” but for a month-long trip in South America and wasn’t quite aware of what I was getting into.
Thanks for your thoughts!
Wow. So many touchy critics. Thanks for your entertaining post, I found it funny, and I expect to share your experience having set my expectations way too high!
Haha thanks Tom! You can’t love every destination, and I’d rather just be honest about it.
Perhaps your blog should have been entitled, “What I Didn’t Love About Travelling Unprepared To Atacama” or “What to Expect in Atacama For High Maintenance Bloggers”. I’m being sincere. It would have been an intentionally humorous yet educational article. I’m sorry to hear you had a crappy time but as it stands, your article sounds very ethnocentric.
Thanks so much for sharing your opinion and blog post title suggestions!
For future reference, ethnocentric means “evaluating other peoples and cultures according to the standards of one’s own culture.” I did not evaluate the culture of San Pedro de Atacama, or Chile (which I love!), but rather shared my experience in the city and what I didn’t like about it.
Hi there! I’m from Chile and love spend my holidays in San Pedro… I do really love the vibes and desconnection feeling from the world in there, the amazing sunsets, the fact they shut down areas so we can all enjoy the stars in the night, the colors in the distance of what people think ‘is just a dessert’ is stunning for me…I have done several tours as well and it has really nice attraction to keep you busy. I love SPA, so to be honest when I read the tittleof your blog I took a bit personal.
But then reading… well, no trip is perfect and unfortunatly I also had bad experiences;
– FIrst time I went to SPA I took a bus from Calama which was meant to departured at 3pm, not until 10pm it showed up (meanwhile we were complaining and buses later than us were taking people but not us), the excuses was or bus was late with some malfunction and we have to wait for it. Reccomendation: there’s feedbacks about this bus station as they normal run extremly late, there’s a second bus station really small and that one runs on time.
– Second time we paid for a tour pack with an agency, I can’t remember their name… on our second day of tour to the Gaysers they didn’t show up… for that tour you prepare yourself as is really high on the mountains so wake up at 3am, they said someone forgot to write our names (excuses)… then an other trip problem there was with missing and no existent bus so we get pissed off and ask for money return, we spend abour 3h in the office and they were taking ages (they were avoiding to paid us back) at the end we had our money but we decided to go to report the agency (there’s an office to do that next to the plaza, and all complaints they received are take in count as at some point they will have to close off the agency). Reccommendation: Be careful with whom you book as there’s a lot of lack of experience in some agencies, better to pay a few more pesos than loose a day complaining.
About all the things you didn’t like it, tbh I can’t deny them… San Pedro is full of dust (like that redish soil dust) but there’s not much to do about it as their soil is like that. Is also an expensive place, specially if your coming from Bolivia (the difference will be significant) but Chile is more expensive (if you go southest is even worst). I don’t remember much about internet connection but it must be really bad, as is a really small town (2.000 habitant) and far away from big cities really lost in the mountains and dessert (btw once I get lost in the dessert and absolutely no signal at all). I can imagine how overprice you thought it was, I normally go to camping and eat beans to save some money as well, but is a touristic place and that’s the only reason (not even close with prices you can find in Peru, Bolivia or SEA).
I’m really sorry to hear your experience, I really whish you could have enjoy it more.
Travel safeand sound! 🙂 😉
I really appreciate all the time you took to share practical advice! Thank you and I really look forward to spending more time in Chile 🙂
Every person doesn’t connect with every place, and that’s okay! I didn’t mean to make it personal against Chile or against anyone, it’s just a town that was not my favorite. I also don’t like New York City haha but I love Bangkok, so personal preferences are strange 🙂