Atacama Desert is one of the three most famous places in Chile. It is located at a very high altitude and there is almost no rain here. In some places there was no rain for hundreds of years.
The reason is simple. Rain clouds can not overcome the Andes, so all moisture remains in the eastern part of South America. Moreover the flow of Humbolt, brings cold water from Antarctica. The air above the ocean near the coast of Chile becomes cold and can not deliver moisture to the desert.
The desert is quite large, but if you want to see the most interesting places, go to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Back in the early 1990s it was a little-known place, which could be reached in 24 hours by bus from Santiago, with a transfer in Calama. There were no asphalted roads, no television, no electricity.
Now everything is much easier. From Santiago there are daily, fairly inexpensive, flights to Calama, the nearest major city. We flew on the airplane of the largest LATAM airline, bought tickets 4 months in advance (~$110 for return ticket), but you can also check prices of PAL or lowcost Sky Airline.
From the airport of Calama, Transvip or Licancabur offers delivery to the hotel by minibus, tickets are bought at the airport counter (~$20). From Calama you can also travel by bus (~$5, information is here), but the city is so chaotic that you better go from the airport.
The best transport is a car. Atacama is an ideal place to rent a car. The roads here are absolutely empty, it's easy to drive.
We rented a diesel pickup Toyota Hilux, 3 days for $200 + $74 insurance. Check expedia, there were the cheapest prices. Take into account, that renting a car can cheaper than taking excursions on the spot, even taking into account gasoline.
This is a standard car for Atacama, many tourists take it, since half of the roads are unpaved. The pickup is quite large, but there will be no problems with parking, you are in the middle of the desert. The transmission is mechanical, the tank capacity is 80 liters.
Since in San Pedro de Atacama we booked a hotel with a kitchen, next we went to the supermarket and bought food for three days. Large supermarkets are located in Calama around this spot S 22 27.215 W 68 55.322.
100 kilometers to San Pedro de Atacama you will drive on a deserted road.
In San Pedro de Atacama we lived in Parina Atacama Apart Hotel (booking.com). It was important for us to have a kitchen to cook by ourselves, and the possibility to park near the hotel. The streets in the city are narrow, you can not park everywhere.
Do not worry about safety. Everything here is very quiet and peaceful.
As of 2017, there was only one gas station in San Pedro De Atacama. It is very well hidden and difficult to find. Turn here S 22 54.739 W 68 11.980.
What to see in the Atacama Desert
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is located at an altitude of 2400 meters. This height is OK for almost everyone. Some of the sights can be seen at the same altitude, but all the most interesting are located over the 4300 meters. For an unprepared tourist such heights are critical, the head will hurt. Prepare for this, at least take diacarb take with (other names are diamox or acetazolamide). And, of course, no alcohol, it intensifies the headache.
If you travel without a car, then go to the town center abd buy tours. Center is located around the Caracoles street (S 22 54.695 W 68 12.089). There is also a bike rental Kilometro 0, they have new bikes (2017).
There are about 50 travel agencies in the city. Please note that the prices on the internet are much higher than on the streets, where you can also bargain.
The rainbow valley (Valle Arcoiris, 5 hours, 3000 meters) Archaeological tour (Pukará de Quitor, $15-20, 2 hours, 2500 meters) Thermal pools of Puritama (Puritama Hot Springs, $25 + $25 entrance, 4 hours, 3400 meters) Various volcanoes and mountains: Cerro Toco (5604m), Volcano Lascar (5510m), Cerro Pili (6064m), Sairecabur (5971m), Volcano Licancabur 5916).
Not far from San Pedro de Atacama located the world's largest observatory ALMA (S 23 04.385 W 67 58.854). It was built by 20 countries and is the most expensive astronomical project on Earth. If you want to visit it, then register here.