The Atacama desert is one of the most beautiful places in Chile, if not the world. With backdrops of spiked red terrain, undulating sand dunes, and blush-colored valleys, there are so many things to do in the Atacama desert that is can be overwhelming to choose. To make things easier for you, we have put together a comprehensive Atacama desert travel guide to help you have an unforgettable bucket list trip.
Soundless salt flats and expansive cerulean lagoons bestow an eerie silence; and if it wasn’t for the resident flamingos, guanacos, and vicuñas making their presence known, you might mistake yourself for being the only human alive in this Mars-like world.
But as darkness comes, the sky unfurls a dome of scintillating stars, and you’ll want to get your telescope and partake in the world’s best stargazing. Is it possible to do all this in one place? Yes! And that place is Atacama Desert, Chile.
If you’re planning a Chilean trip or want an adventure like no other, then follow our Atacama Desert travel guide to make the most out of your travels.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT THE ATACAMA DESERT
Atacama Desert’s location is unique because it lies between two mountain ranges, meaning the Atacama Desert weather is changeable. There’s always severe aridness and sometimes Pacific winds. The months of June to August are less ideal for visitors, as the winter brings storms and lower temperatures.
Still, the high season (December through February) has pleasant day temperatures and warmer evenings. Be aware that the high season is popular among tourists.
If you’re hoping to avoid the crowds, then head here during spring (September to November) or fall (March to May), as the temperature is reasonably good.
GETTING TO AND AROUND ATACAMA DESERT
On the minds of all travellers is how to make getting around a new place easy. Well, our Atacama Desert travel guide has done this research for you, though there’s no straightforward way to reach it.
The first step is to fly into Santiago Airport. From here, you can rent a car and drive to San Pedro de Atacama or get there by bus. However, it’s a distance of nearly 1,000 miles, which will take roughly 18-20 hours.
An easier option is to catch a plane from Santiago to Calama Airport and then drive from there to San Pedro de Atacama. Most hotels in San Pedro de Atacama can arrange an airport transport from Calama for you. Make sure to request this when booking your room!
WHERE TO STAY IN THE ATACAMA DESERT
Most tourists in this region stay in San Pedro de Atacama, as it has many options to suit all types of travelers, from budget hostels to luxury hotels.
Among the best hostels in San Pedro de Atacama is Hostal Rural, with its vibrant technicolor walls, bohemian artwork, and laid-back atmosphere. It’s only one minute from many of the things you can do in the city, but its relaxed furnishings are what really stand out. Spend an afternoon in one of their hammocks, play ping-pong, or make use of their barbecue facilities.
For solo travelers, try the ChillOut Backpackers Hostel, as its shared kitchen, lounge, and cushioned outdoor seating area is excellent for meeting other travelers. Their onsite bar or weekly events are also great ice breakers, and a lot of fun.
For a more luxurious stay, with excellent service, spa, and swimming facilities, try Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa. When you arrive here, you’ll realize just how unique this hotel is. The spa offers volcanic-mud treatments and desert-herb facials. There’s a map room, a medicinal herb garden, alfalfa fields, and two pools with up-close views of the volcanoes.
The hotel’s restaurant makes traditional Chilean cuisine using fresh, seasonal ingredients. For this reason, the three-course set menus change every day, but you can expect to taste Chilean beef, seafood, quinoa, fish, and delicacies like crab-filled pastry or ostrich fillet with a side of thyme and sage fettuccini and cabernet sauce.
Our Atacama Desert travel guide wouldn’t be complete without an exclusive, memorable, and unusual accommodation option. Our selection is the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, built with local materials that blend seamlessly into the dramatic, mountainous backdrop. This is one of the most sought-after all-inclusive hotels in San Pedro de Atacama, as it combines sleek, modern interior design and furnishings with traditional artworks.
All the bedrooms have a private terrace and are adorned with local textiles and crafts. Attention to detail is key at this lodge. As a result, they offer 35 excursions for you to try, including photography safaris and hiking the Moon Valley; and they have their own observatory and stargazing platform. This is the place to say if you’re looking for the ultimate adventure, and a tranquil space to relax in.
ATACAMA DESERT TRAVEL GUIDE – BEST THINGS TO DO AND THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACES IN ATACAMA
Atacama Desert Stargazing
It’s hard to believe, but some regions of the Atacama desert haven’t had rain for 400 years. This makes it one of the best places on Earth to observe the stars, and stargazing is one of the best things to do in the Atacama Desert. On weekends, travelers can visit the ALMA Observatory, where 66 radio telescopes tower around 5,000 meters above sea level.
Aside from ALMA, there are plenty of Atacama Desert stargazing tours that can be organized from your hotel. The Tierra Atacama offers stargazing tours run by local Atacameño. With this tour, you can locate the moon, watch Saturn’s rings, and spot distant galaxies. If you’d like to arrange your own tour, spend three hours discovering planets invisible to the naked eye, capture photos of the moon’s surface, and end the evening with a warming cup of cocoa.
Quebrada del Diablo (Devil’s Canyon)
For those of you looking for an adrenaline-packed bike excursion, look no further than Quebrada del Diablo. Similar to the Grand Canyon National Park in appearance, Quebrada del Diablo is a small canyon that allows cyclists to navigate the twists and turns of the glacier-formed cliff, the ‘Broken Devil’ gorge and sand hills.
Salar de Atacama, Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks), and Salar de Talar
One of the top day trips from San Pedro de Atacama is exploring Chile’s largest salt flat, known as Salar de Atacama. This is a 3000 sq. km basin that was formed by waters flowing from the Andes. This water couldn’t escape and was forced to evaporate, leaving salt deposits on the earth. It is now covered by an extensive amount of crust made of saline minerals.
In Salar de Atacama, you can walk across the red rocks of Piedras Rojas while gazing down on the salt flat, Salar de Talar. It is by far one of the most beautiful places in Atacama. Other attractions in this region include Laguna Chaxa and the peaceful Laguna Salada.
The former is a part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve (also worth a visit), where you’ll witness dozens of flamingos going about their day. It’s a surreal location, with countless natural wonders and unbelievable beauty. For this reason, it’s on our – and definitely should be on your – bucket list for the Atacama Desert.
While in this area, many tours will take you to Laguna Cejar. This is a unique desert sinkhole, often referred to as the ‘floating lake’, where you can take a quick dip or drift across the glassy surface.
Laguna Miñiques and Laguna Miscanti
Within the Los Flamencos National Reserve are two pristine lagoons, Miñiques and Miscanti. Much like Laguna Chaxa and Laguna Salada, both these lakes are salt-rimmed and flanked by rippling hills. It’s a picture-perfect location, so get your camera ready!
Valle del Arocoíris (Rainbow Valley) and the Petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas
Red, orange, green, blue, grey, and white hues look as if they’ve been painted onto the undulating tapestry of the Rainbow Valley, Atacama. These rocks are multi-colored because of their rich mineral content, and weave their way around the Río Grande river basin. Its extravagant rock formations are just 90km from San Pedro de Atacama. They were created over millions of years by wind and occasional rain, which has carved fascinating small canyons and rocky spires into the landscape.
While here, head to Yerbas Buenas to see thousands of petroglyphs carved into stone by ancient Atacama dwellers some 11,000 years ago. Then, embark on one of the well-maintained trails. Both Yerbas Buenas and Rainbow Valley, Atacama are remote locations with no tourist facilities, other than a few bathrooms at the former site.
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Just eight miles from San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de la Luna has earned its name as ‘The Valley of the Moon’, owing to its moon-like appearance. For this reason, it’s included in our Atacama Desert travel guide and is considered one of the most beautiful places in the Atacama desert, especially since its sand and stone formations are insanely strange and fascinating. They’ve been shaped by thousands of years of wind and water erosion; and, when you’re walking here, you’ll be walking over what remains of prehistoric seas.
The Mirador de Kari, Piedra del Coyote, is a rock promontory that is the tourist hotspot for photos, as it has a sweeping view of the landscape below. Sunrise and sunset tend to attract many visitors as the rock colors change from pink to red to purple, and then black, so I’d recommend going at an alternative time. You can also go on a private Valle de la Luna tour, where your guide will show you quieter spots to capture the sunset.
The Tatio Geysers
One of the best things to do in the Atacama Desert is to visit the Tatio geysers. The 80 Tatio geysers sit at 4,300m above sea level and are the highest geothermal field in the world. At first glance, you might mistake this area for flat land, but there are numerous blowholes bursting with bubbling water that send hissing clouds of steam into the air at around 6am and 8am each day.
At these exact moments, the spray forms pools of water, which are streaked with silver as they catch the first rays of the sun. If you want to see this incredible phenomenon, you’ll have to leave your accommodation at around 4am. If the early morning sounds daunting, there’s a nearby swimming pool that’ll make up for it.
Termas de Puritama
Positioned within the Chilean plateau, the Puritama Hot Springs are 3,500m above sea level. With minerals like calcium, sodium and magnesium, these eight springs are excellent for refreshing your mind and body – perfect after long hours in the desert. There are changing rooms and restrooms, so you won’t need to come already dressed for bathing, and the waterfalls connecting the pools are fun for all ages.
ATACAMA DESERT TRAVEL GUIDE HONORABLE MENTIONS
- San Pedro Church: If you’re staying in San Pedro, make sure to check out its church, situated on the central plaza. The San Pedro Church was built in 1744 and is known for its sloping roof made from cactus wood and vibrant, iconic images on the altar.
- The Guatin and Gatchi Hike: Many of the activities in the Atacama Desert require vehicles (and a lot of time spent in them), but the Guatin and Gatchi hike allows for plenty of physical activity and is only 20 minutes from San Pedro.
- Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley): The Death Valley is only a short drive from the Moon Valley and is one of the best places to go for horse riding, hiking, and sandboarding.
A trip to the Atacama desert is a must-do on any visit to South America and can be easily combined with a trek through Chilean Patagonia. This Atacama Desert travel guide offers advice on the very best locations and hotels in the Atacama Desert, Chile. All you have to do now is book your tickets and have the time of your life!