If you're heading to Chile, chances are that you'll be spending at least a couple of days in San Pedro de Atacama - the gateway to the Atacama desert and a major tourist hotspot. The sheer number of travellers that visit this isolated spot year-round mean that it really isn't terribly well set up for those backpacking on a shoe-string.
However, do not fear! We're here to show you that even with only a small pot of cash, you can still enjoy the best this unique part of the world has to offer.
#1 stay in a dorm
Despite being on quite a tight budget, we've been able to find cheapish doubles in almost every country we've visited. Chile was one of the few exceptions to this.
After balking at the prices listed on the usual hostel booking sites for San Pedro, we decided we might have better luck hunting down a bargain on our arrival to town. Unfortunately, it became clear pretty quickly that basic doubles were still waaaay out of our budget (expect to pay at least 25,000 Chilean pesos a night).
Thankfully, for those willing to look, there are a few places that offer dorm beds from around 8,000 per person. Sure, they're not the fanciest, but more than adequate for us!
After an hour trudging around town with our backpacks, we ended up crashing at Hostal Matty, a small hostel run by a young group of friends. They had a good kitchen, lots of outdoor space, lockers, and most importantly, if you're here in the winter, lots of blankets on the bed and hot showers. It's basic but a good budget choice and the one that we most happy to give our money to.
#2 avoid tours
Yeah, we know - coming from us, this is hardly surprising. However, sometimes, when tours are the ONLY way to see something, we have no choice but to say sod it, and join the masses.
Unfortunately, in San Pedro some of the biggest attractions can only be reached with a tour company or your own car (i.e. the geysers , the lakes or star-gazing). Yet, we still didn't take any.
The reason? They were simply too darn expensive relative to other tours we've taken in South America! And the kicker? A lot don't include entry fees which, depending on the attraction, can be anywhere up to £15 GBP / $23USD per person.
Of course, if your dream has always been to see the geysers erupt at dawn, don't miss out. However, every budget traveller arriving in town will have to carefully pick and choose which tours they can afford and which they might have to miss out on.
#3 ....rent bikes instead!
So, if you don't have enough money to go on tours, does this mean you'll miss out on everything that is cool about the driest place in the world? Absolutely not! The good news its headline attractions can still be reached on two wheels.
We spent two days cycling through sand storms, along deserted highways, exploring Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte, and climbing to the most astounding lookout points. And the best thing? Because you can pick any time of day to do it, you can avoid the tours and thus the massive selfie-stick crowds.
We heard a number of tourists bemoaning the fact that they had to share the most splendid views with hundred of others (with sunset tours in particular being massively oversubscribed), but when we went to the same places during the day, we had them all to ourselves!
We asked around pretty much every bike rental place in town, but it turned out the cheapest place was our very own hostel where you can get 6 hours rental for just 3,000 pesos. They provide you with a very roughly hand-drawn map but thankfully the routes and roads are all pretty straightforward. We'd recommend one day each for Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte - then you can brag that you cycled through the driest place in the world all by yourself!
#4 shop at the market
Considering you are in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the desert and just over a hundred kilometres away from the next largest city, it is not surprising that your nightly hostel cooked meal is going to cost a little more than in Santiago. However, you can save a few pesos here and there by avoiding the local shops when purchasing fresh produce.
On the outskirts of town (around a 5 minute walk from the main square) you will find the local fruit and veg market. Little more than a handful of stalls in a dirt carpark, they sell the cheapest (and freshest) produce in town.
Also, if you want to enjoy some booze, wine by the litre is cheaper than beer in Chile. And bloody good!
#5 find a cheap almuerzo
Almuerzos (a cheap set lunch available in much of South America) have saved the day, and our budget, a number of times in the last year; it was no different in San Pedro.
Whilst there are plenty of restaurants charging a premium up and down that main streets (8,000+ per person), we did find one excellent little place that we visited a few times during our stay - La Estrella Negra.
We have bemoaned the lack of excellent vegetarian food on this trip a number of times, so finding somewhere which was not only cheap but also producing amazing food is awesome.
For 3,500 pesos, you will get a starter AND main course, being served from around midday until, well, the food runs out. The soup was always particularly excellent (and therefore very popular!) so was often ran out of quickly, so make sure you don't leave it too late! Not a vegetarian? Neither is Andrew, and he loved it!
To help you find these budget hotspots,we've put together this little map: