If your schedule allows it (and your budget, who am I kidding? Chile is surprisingly pricey) I strongly recommend spending a few fewer days in Santiago, and heading up to San Pedro de Atacama. Two days is all you need for a fantastic desert adventure!
It’s easier to get to than you think
Although San Pedro is a bit further north from Santiago and Valpo, don’t let that deter you!
The long route: A 30 hour bus from Santiago to Atacama will run you about $80. You can stop along the way at La Serena for a few days, if you have the time.
The short route: A 2 ½ hour flight for less than $150 (I personally love LAN airlines because their snack boxes are ON POINT and I have chubby girl priorities, but they can be more expensive than Sky, so do check both companies prices). Once you arrive at the airport in Calama, take the Lincancabur shuttle. The shuttle will offer you a roundtrip ticket which will save you a bit of dough.
Things to do
Valle de la luna - This was my main reason for going to Atacama. This valley has various sand and rock formations, but it is most well known for its stunning sunsets. I loved sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a canyon, and watching the moon rise. (I'm also from Arizona so desert over beach forever)
Sandboarding - For adventure seekers, give sandboarding a try! I did not have the time to go while I was in Chile, but I had two wonderful experiences in Namibia and Peru, and would highly recommend this fun and safe sport! It’ll also be great if you’re into kinky shit because you will have sand in your ass crack for weeks.
El Tatio Geysers - This half day tour is a solid one for the time-constrained traveler, as long as you don't mind waking up early and being really really really cold. At 4am, a van will pick you up and take you to the geysers. Watching the sun rise here is definitely a beautiful sight, and I greatly enjoyed swimming in the geysers. Was it completely necessary to stay as long as we did? Nope. If you have a car and can do it on your own time, that would be ideal, especially if you bring along a nice thermos of coffee (and by coffee I mean tequila because you only die once) to keep you warm.
The ride back is absolutely stunning, and guides are great about stopping the van so you can get out for pictures.
Don't forget to check out the main square!
Although the Atacama Desert is gorgeous, make sure you spend a bit of time in the main town, as well. There are beautiful adobe buildings, excellent restaurants, and fun shops to pick up souvenirs, if you need them. On weekends there is often live music down by the Church of San Pedro.
Where to stay
Heads up that Atacama can be pretty expensive. I stayed in a 6-bed mixed room at Hostel Campo Base which was very clean and centrally located. My best advice for choosing accommodation is to find a place that is in town so you are close to the action. Otherwise, you'll be trying to navigate for 15-20 minutes in the dark as there are few streetlights in the desert :)