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If you are looking for a cheaper way to get to San Pedro de Atacama than plane then bus is the other option. Distances are far but it is possible to take overnight buses.
The most common route to take is between Calama (where the closest airport is) and San Pedro de Atacama which is 1 1/2 hours.
I took a bus from San Pedro de Atacama to La Serena on Tur Bus which I booked the same day I travelled at the office in town and cost 23,000 pesos. We had to take one bus to Calama and wait an hour for another bus which was a semi cama bus leaving at 10pm. We were woken at about 2am by people checking everyone´s ID in Antofagasta. The bus also made stops in Copiapo and Vallenar before arriving in La Serena for lunch the following day.
Updated Apr 4, 2011
Bus: From Santiago, the only direct buses are TUR BUS, which take about 24 hours to cover the 1667 overland kilometres (1035 miles); buses are either sleepers or semi-sleepers (both excellent and punctual) with onboard service (meals included, refreshments extra). Fares are around US$ 30 (double that in high season).
Other bus lines, such as Pullman Bus, Flota Barrios, Libac, reach to Calama only (21-24 hours), from where you should take another bus to San Pedro (US$ 2). Fares are between US$ 23 and US$ 42 (double that in high season), and may include, or not, onboard meals and other services. All of the buses have toilets, air-con, video and have fully (or almost) stretching seats. Those that don’t include meals, make enroute stops to have them.
For the 1 ½ hour Calama-San Pedro trip, there is Frontera del Norte, Atacama 2000 and Tur Bus services, at US$ 2 (try to arrive in Calama around 11 AM, so you can take the 1230 AM bus).
The cheapest service from Santiago is Flota Barrios (it arrives to its own terminal, 3 blocks from the Atacama 2000 terminal)
Updated Apr 4, 2011
San Pedro lies very far away from Santiago - a bus trip would take a minimum of 20 hours. So the best way to get there from Santiago is by air to Calama and then take a bus or shuttle bus to San Pedro itself. The flight is around 2 hours long and LAN and Sky both offer flights.
Quite a few buses operate from San Pedro or Calama to and from many other different places eg Iquique, Antofagasta, Serena and Arica in Chile. There are also buses to and from Salta and Jujuy in Northern Argentina. If you want to get to Bolivia, the best way is to take the Salar de Uyuni tour, have them frop you off in Uyuni and then get a bus from Uyuni to continue the journey.
Car rental is to be done in Calama, as there are no car rental agencies in San Pedro. Car rental can be quite expensive, so the other option for seeing the sights around San Pedro are organized tours. Some places can also be reached by bike like for example Valle de la Luna, valle de la Muerte and Toconao. You can also visit the immediate surroundings of San Pedro on horseback. The town itself is tiny, so to reach any places in town you go on foot or by bike.
Written Dec 7, 2009
I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama from Bolivia where I took a 4 day jeep tour that departed in Uyunii. Included in the tour was our bus tickets which were from the Bolivia/Chile border to San Pedro de Atacama with a company called Colque Tours. From the Bolivian side it took an hour to get to the Chilean border control point where we had to take our packs off the bus and have them inspected by the SAG border control people who were mostly looking for biological contraband.
Written Jan 27, 2009
The Paso de Jama is a complete stretch of Asphalt, I may even say the Argentinan side is in a better condition than the Chilean Roads.
3x a week busses leave to and from Salta. Both Pullmann and Geminis offer an equally good service. From Salta busses leave on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, one day later the busses do the stretch from San Pedro de Atacama back to Salta. The same bus also stops at Jujuy in Argentina and continues in Chile to Calama and Antofagasta.
The ride is stunningly beautifull as you cross the Andes over a pass over more than 4100meters. Make sure your batteries are loaded and get yourself a windowseat!
Written Oct 16, 2007
There is only one company that provides an airport transfer from Calama to San Pedro and their kiosk is in the Calama airport. There is no schedule; the bus just leaves after a flight comes in. It costs 7000 pesos one way, and you must keep the ticket to call them to pick you up. They will pick you up at any time, but if they already have a request for a pick-up within an hour or so of your request, you will have to adjust to that. It's not really a problem since everyone taking the transfer to Calama is usually on the same flight. If you're traveling outside of regular hours, the cost is 10,000 pesos instead.
The cheaper alternative is to take a taxi to Calama city and then a TurBus to San Pedro. One way on TurBus is 1400 pesos, and schedules are available on their website.
All prices as of September 2007.
Written Sep 21, 2007
Para ir a Calama tomamos el autobús que tarda casi una hora y cuesta menos de 3$ Compañía : Tour Bus
To go to Calama we took the bus that takes nearly one hour and cost less than 3$
Company : Tour Bus
Very good .
Updated Mar 17, 2007
Lan Chile and SKY Airline serve Calama at least 3 times a day from Santiago and other destinations in the north.
Flights are either via Antofagasta (2:35 hours), or direct (2:05 hours), and the lowest fare is US$ 190 for a round-trip ticket on LAN.
Avant is cheaper, and service and aircraft (both use B-737’s, and A-320/319 Airbuses) are as good as in LAN.
There are no commercial flights to San Pedro, but if you're really hurried, you may hire a 4 or 6-seater single engine aircraft and fly into the local airstrip (5 km. from town) for about US$ 200, or an helicopter for US$ 700 (this latter requires prior arrangement).
Updated Sep 4, 2006
The best way to know this beautiful little town is walking because this way you can see and check everything that you want, the other way to do it is in in bicycle, you can rent one in some stores around and is not expensive,
1.5 dollar an hour and 9 dollars a day.
Anyway are the only ways to be around because there are not public buses or taxis.
Written May 17, 2005
It is not difficult to get an direct airport van from the Calama airport to San Pedro (just ask at the airport counter), but you should remember to retain the receipt so that you can call for an airport van back to the airport for your departure. (I almost didn't get one.)
It appears that only the tour agency "Desert Adventure" in San Pedro offers an airport van service, but they don't run every day. I arrived in San Pedro from Calama airport via an independent (?) airport transfer service called "Transfer Licancabur" that, as I later found out, has no physical location in San Pedro. If not for my receipt, I would not have been able to call them. The alternative would have been taking a Tur-bus to Calama downtown then catching a taxi to the airport, which would be much more of a hassle.
Cost = 6000 pesos (~ US$12) each way
Time taken = 1.25 hours
Written Dec 25, 2004