desert walk

Last week I was in Bolivia and it was dirt cheap. (See this post with prices.) This week I’ve been in Chile and I’m paying more than I would at home. As soon as I crossed the border, most prices went up by a factor of four.

It’s kind of hard to get your head around this fact sometimes, but countries that are right next to each other can charge drastically different prices for travelers. Right now I’m talking about southern Bolivia and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. But you can see this strange effect play out in the U.S and Mexico, Austria and Hungary, Singapore and Malaysia, Jordan and Israel, Belize and Guatemala. Step across a line and you go from poor to rich in a hurry. Or vice-versa.

I’ll go on record as saying there’s no such thing as doing “Atacama on the cheap.” San Pedro de Atacama is a cool little tourist town in the middle of a whole bunch of interesting things to see. It’s a great place to come on vacation, especially if you can stay in one of the fantastic all-inclusive places I did for a while (on a writing assignment) where everything is bundled together and you don’t have to think about it. If you’re on a long-term backpacking trip, however, and are watching the budget, look out!

Atacama

This is an area where it makes no sense to come here if you can’t go on adventure excursions. Those cost $15 to $50 per person, so even doing two or three is going to cost you bigtime. On top of that you’ll pay as much for a coffee as you would at a Starbucks at home, you’ll pay as much for a fruit shake as you would at Smoothie King, and you’ll pay more for a beer than you would in your local pub.

expensive Chile

Even at happy hour, a cocktail is more than 9 dollars.

When I went from Bolivia to Chile, ice cream went up by a factor of five, meals by a factor of four, taxi rides by a factor or four, drinks by a factor of four, and hostel/hotels by a factor of three. Same with souvenirs. You could plausiby argue that the food is much better, but the other things are the same—they just cost more. One country is poor, the other is not. Prices reflect this—even the public toilet prices.

Here are the very few pieces of advice I could conjure for saving a few bucks in the Atacama Desert:

1) Rent a bike.
You can rent a bicycle here, with lock and helmet, for around $6.50 for a half day, $12 a full day. There are a few attractions you can reach by bike on your own if you get good directions, including the Cejar salt lagoon. Plus if you follow the main Caracoles street a few blocks to the west you’ll find an awesome area for mountain biking.

2) Take a local bus to Calama.
Lots of agencies sell expensive transfers to the airport in Calama. But the local bus is a shade over $5 and is comfortable. You’ll have to catch a cab on the other end though, which will cost more than the bus.

3) Bring a water purifier.
Bottled water is more expensive than in your home country and you’ll go through gallons of it in this dry, high-altitude weather. Locals drink the tap water and though that’s probably not a great idea for you, a UV filter will render it fine for even the most sensitive stomachs.

4) Pick your excursions carefully.
It costs $15 to $40 per person to do most any excursion from San Pedro, so obviously you can’t do everything on the long list of menu items. If you’ve been to geysers elsewhere, the ones here probably won’t give you much of a thrill, especially when sharing them with 200 other tourists. Same for the flamingos. If you live in Arizona, a cactus hike is probably a huge waste of money. If you live in Utah or Israel, salt lagoons are probably not a big thrill. Decide which options truly get you excited and sign up for those.

5) Go see the stars.
It’s free to see more constellations that you may have ever seen in your life. And from a different southern viewpoint. The middle of town won’t cut it though, so head out to a darker place, then look up to see a thousand twinkling suns.