The Atacama Desert is one of South America’s most famous destinations. Located in northern Chile, the Atacama desert is a must-see during your trip! Exploring the Atacama Desert is like experiencing another style of life. Being expert of the destination, we created the Ultimate guide to plan the perfect trip to Atacama Desert !
We’ve compiled plenty of information to help you plan your trip to the Atacama Desert. More information on our favorite tours and tips for family trips to Atacama are also available on our Chile travel blog.
Although the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, it is a place of rich diversity. Don’t worry about getting bored spending 4 days in this desert. In fact, there are so many things to see that 4 days feels too short to fully enjoy Atacama! The power and beauty of nature will never cease to amaze you. Where is the Atacama Desert located? All the must-sees of Atacama are located within a few hours of San Pedro de Atacama, which is the base town for exploring the desert. To properly plan your trip and estimate the distances, start by locating San Pedro de Atacama on the map.
The Atacama Desert, which is the driest area in the world, is also one of the biggest lithium mining sites in the world. But, more importantly, Atacama is a destination filled with unique and mesmerizing landscapes. Let’s take a quick look at Atacama’s unmissable sights.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small, traditional town where you will stay and start all your tours. The town may have lost a bit of authenticity because of tourists, but on closer look you can discover Atacama culture and people, and some traces of indigenous heritage.
This oasis was populated by native peoples (referred to as los Atacameños) before being conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. For more on that topic, we recommend visiting Pukara de Quitor. In the main square, you can still observe the remains of the traditional Incan architecture. We also recommend stopping by the San Pedro church, with its wooden roof.
This is one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the area. This fortress dominates the landscape of San Pedro and was built in the 12th century by the Atacameños and Likan Antay people. The importance of the Pukara was diminished by the arrival of the Incan empire in the 15th century, and then completely wiped out by the Spaniard Francisco de Aguirre in 1540. From the top of the fortress you will enjoy a view of the valley.
Get ready to feel like you’ve landed on another planet! This magical place is a large stretch of sand dotted with salty white areas, located at the foot of the salt mountain range. The must-sees include the big dune, the salt cave, and the amphitheater.
World-famous for offering the opportunity to sandboard down enormous dunes, this valley is on the edge of the Moon Valley. Death Valley in the Atacama Desert is definitely worth a visit. Its landscape is very sandy, with pink colors painting the rocks eroded by wind, salt, and minerals. It’s an ideal place for horseback riding or trekking, and an escape from the crowds.
Located 50 miles from San Pedro de Atacama, the landscape offers an incredible palette of colors! Visitors can explore on foot, visit caves, and learn why the rocks show off those unusual colors and unexpected shapes. If you’re lucky, you’ll even be able to see some llamas!
Commonly referred to as the altiplanic lagoons, the lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques are named after the mountains (cerros) that overlook them, Miscanti (more than 18,000 feet above sea level) and Miñiques (more than 19,000 feet above sea level). Get ready for some breathtaking views! These deep blue lagoons are surrounded by paja brava, an endemic yellow plant that adds a wonderful contrast. The Miñiques lagoon is home to flamingos and all kinds of birds (don’t forget to take your binoculars with you!).
This is definitely one of the most exceptional tours of the entire Atacama Desert. Because it is located at 14,000 feet above sea level, you should not go without getting acclimatized beforehand! This place, 50 miles from San Pedro de Atacama, isone of the largest geyser fields in the world. You will get to appreciate the large fumaroles, particularly impressive at sunrise, the best time of the day for visiting. You may not be the only one to admire the show, however. That’s why, to avoid the crowds, our guides also take you to the white geysers and the mud geysers so you can admire exclusive boiling water vapor far from the throngs of other tourists.
Similar to the Uyuni Salt Flats, the Atacama Desert is a salt basin of more than 1,000 square miles, and the third largest salt desert in the world. It is located about six miles south of San Pedro, at 7,500 feet above sea level. This area, exploited for its soil rich in lithium, is actually a dry lake, whose evaporated water left a thin crust of white salt. The landscape alternates between different colors, such as white and brown, and is dotted with lagoons including the Chaxa, Cejar, and Tebenquiche.
This lagoon, managed by CONAF, is an ideal place for watching flamingos. You will be able to observe them and watch their graceful flight. Of the five species of flamingos found in the world, three are found in Chile: the Andean flamingo, the Chilean flamingo, and the James flamingo.
Access to the site is currently denied by the communities, but you can still enjoy a great view from the designated lookout point.
Does a half day relaxing and swimming in natural hot springs sound heavenly to you? Then you’ll love the thermal baths of Puritama. These crystal clear waters, located in the middle of the desert, come directly from the Andes mountain range and reach their pleasant temperature thanks to the presence of volcanic springs nearby. The infrastructure consists of 8 pools connected by brigdes. The temperature of the pools is about 91 degrees Fahrenheit. The site also includes lockers and changing rooms.
Majestic volcanoes and mountains surround the small village of San Pedro de Atacama. Many of them, including the Licancabur (19,500 feet), were considered sacred by the Incas living in the Atacama region. For example, many myths and legends are related to the sun god. If you would like to know more, our guides would be more than happy to explain them to you… For less experienced climbers we recommend Toco Hill (18,000 feet) or the ascent of Lascar Volcano (17,900 feet).
These volcanoes, some of which are still active, promise a challenging yet rewarding experience. We invite you to leave your comfort zone and challenge yourself during an ascent!
Lejia Lagoon, located 60 miles from San Pedro de Atacama, is accessible only by a sandy path in poor condition, so it is a well-kept secret. It used to be reserved for those who embarked on a hike up Lascar Volcano, but nowadays it is accessible for a day trip. We recommend this tour for people who want to be far from the crowds and who have been previously acclimatized, because most of the places are over 13,000 feet in elevation. The lagoon, which transform into a mirror at the base of mountains and volcanoes, offers a magical and stunning show.
This site, currently closed to the public, is particularly renowned for the Monjes de la Pacana, large sculptures of vertical stones naturally formed by the erosion of the wind. These overlook the Aguas Calientes Salt Flats and are part of the National Flamingo Reserve. The road leads you straight to Argentina (be careful, we climb above 15,000 feet). You will pass by a beautiful watchtower on the Licancabur Volcano, which dominates the entire region from its nearly 20,000-foot peak. On the Tara Salt Flat, there is an impressive lagoon where hundreds of flamingos gracefully stroll through shallow waters in search of food. It is a magical and unforgettable landscape, the favorite of any guide to the region.
Now that you have been able to review all the places to see in the Atacama Desert, let’s discover tours that can turn your trip to Atacama into an extraordinary life experience.
We have prepared a selection of our favorite tours in the Atacama Desert.
Can you say unique? We are 100% convinced by the experience of spending a night in a tent in the Atacama Desert.This experience will give you the chance to be as close as possible to nature while enjoying a stargazing session of the purest sky in the world around a campfire. To add another unforgettable experience to your special tour, we suggest horseback riding! No need to have experience–you will reach the camp site in 3 hours and take a tour of the traditional villages of the region while crossing an oasis. It is a unique opportunity to share a romantic night or an unforgettable moment as a family… Get in touch with us for more details!
In our itineraries, we propose discovering the traditions and ancestral culture of the Atacama people through food tasting and short lessons on the history of the Andes region. You will find an abundance of new flavors on your plate!
We offer a walk with llamas on the ancestral Lickan Antay route. The guide’s explanations of ancestral and local traditions, as well as the cosmo vision, will bring a cultural dimension to your journey. It is a pleasant cultural exchange to add to your itinerary. We particularly recommend it for children or for people who speak Spanish.
As a day trip, you can climb Toco Hill and its 18,000-foot summit.
Visiting the ALMA Observatory
Why not take advantage of your visit to the Atacama and join a tour to an observatory? The ALMA Observatory is one of the most important astronomical observatories in the world. It is a fantastic technological tool installed at an altitude of more than 16,000 feet! You can discover the most powerful radio telescope in the world surrounded by the mythical volcano of Chile, the Licancabur, but also by Toco Hill, Chajnantor Hill, Chascon Hill, or the Lascar. The excursion is a visit to the work site, which can only be done on weekends, and does not include a visit to the antennae.
Visiting Pukara de Quitor and Aldea de Tulor. Al already mentionned, Pukara de Quitor is an old fortress surrounded by terrace and the semi-circular houses. The Aldea de Tulor, located just before entering the Valley of the Moon, offers the remains of a city whose foundations are buried in the sand. It is a very photogenic place.
And we offer much more… Such as cycling tours, sandboarding, hikes of all kinds, ornithological tours, weaving, and even visiting the crater left by a meteorite.
San Pedro de Atacama does not have an airport, so the closest city nearby with a flight connection is Calama. From there, you can take a 2-hour flight to Santiago de Chile; the flights leave a couple of times per day. Calama is a mining town with little interest in tourism.
From the Calama airport to San Pedro de Atacama, you can take transfers whose schedules are aligned with the arrivals of the flights. The journey is about an hour and a half long. It is also possible to travel between Calama and San Pedro by bus. To do so, you will have to take a taxi from the airport to the bus station and then take the first bus to San Pedro de Atacama (about 2 hours).
You can also make the journey from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama by bus. This takes about 24 hours.
By car, it takes about 22 hours to drive from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama.
All tourist attractions are accessible as day trips from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. This allows you to organize your stay with a different tour every day, all while enjoying comfortable nights in the town. Take care to arrange your tours respecting the timing of the natural acclimatization process. The more adventurous travelers might be thrilled to enjoy a night of camping in the desert!
As you will soon see, the town of San Pedro de Atacama is full of agencies offering discounts for a full package and organizing exactly the same visits. Some of these agencies are not legal, and they hire freelance guides without any training (neither in history nor in safety). For tight budgets, this is still a good alternative to reach the tourist sites of the Atacama Desert at a lower cost, without a car. However, be aware that these agencies take the same excursions at the same time, which means that you will probably find yourself with a hundred tourists (or more in high season) at the same time on the site.
TravelCoachChile does not encourage mass tourism. That’s why we work with local partners who organize visits to these sites at times when other agencies don’t go. We offer “semi-private” tours in English with small groups of no more than 6 people, where we aim to target places off the beaten track accompanied by high-quality guides. Every feature is carefully considered, and the tours include special details such as an aperitif at sunset in the middle of the salt desert!
It is also possible to choose a private format with an English-speaking guide to enjoy visits at your own pace. This option is also recommended if you are afraid of suffering from altitude sickness. Going with a private tour means that at the slightest sign of altitude sickness, you can ask your guide to turn back, without having to disturb the group. Our private guides are also concerned with avoiding the crowds and showing you the secluded locations and hidden gems of the Atacama Desert.
Finally, we strongly recommend adding uniques activities and experiences to your itinerary. Hiking, cycling, horseback riding, ancestral tours… All of these experiences allow you to discover the region from another angle, in a more authentic way.
If you choose to visit by car, you will have to take into account the following constraints: the car should be rented from Calama, so you will have to return it to the same place, or pay a drop-off fee for the company to come and pick up the car in San Pedro de Atacama.
Most of the sites accessible by car do not require a 4×4. However, in winter it is recommended to rent a 4×4; otherwise, you will not be able to reach all the points of interest, especially in the case of snowfall.
The most popular tourist attractions are accessible by car without too much difficulty, provided you have no trouble driving at high altitude for long distances (you will likely drive more than 300 miles per day).
All the less touristic sites (such as the white geysers, the mud geysers, access to the Rainbow hike, Lejia Lagoon, Tara Salt Flat, most volcanoes …) are not accessible by car because the roads to access them are in very poor condition and poorly marked. To go there without solid knowledge of the area would be risky and you may get stuck, without logistical support to help you. Keep in mind that there is no phone signal outside San Pedro de Atacama.
Are you waiting to buy plane tickets to visit northern Chile because you are unsure of the best time to visit the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama has the advantage of being accessible all year round. Sunshine is excellent year-round and temperatures range from 64 to 77 degrees during the day. At night it can easily be 0 degrees or negative temperatures in winter. The best months to visit are September, October, November, early December, mid-March, April, and early May. During the southern summer, from mid-December to mid-March, there is the phenomenon called the altiplanic winter.
At this time, the sun approaches the tropics of Capricorn. The high evaporation generates violent rains that pour over northern Chile. So, even the most arid desert in the world, in the middle of the summer, has its rainy days, which often results in flooded roads and closed sites! In general, our guides can always arrange a change in the order of visits and adapt so that you can still enjoy the trip.
In the early spring, during the years that find the perfect blend in the levels of temperature and precipitation, we can observe a phenomenon called the flowering desert in the region of Copiapo (12 hours south of Atacama). If the land has been irrigated by the winter rain, then in early September millions of flowers bloom and invade the desert. Massive carpets of flowers of all colors spread out as far as the eye can see! We were lucky enough to go there the last time it happened (in 2017) and it was truly magical!