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Atacama Desert

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Everything you need to know to plan your trip to Atacama

The Atacama Desert is one of South America’s most famous destinations. Located in northern Chile,Atacama desert is a must-see during your trip! Exploring Atacama Desert is like experiencing another kind 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. Further information on our favourites tours and tips for a family trip to Atacama is also available on our travel blog about Chile.

If you are interested in other destinations in northern Chile, visit our interactive map. Don’t forget that you can also combine your trip to the Atacama Desert with Uyuni salt flats.

Map
Atacama Desert tours and must sees
Our favorite tours
How do I get there and arrange tours ?
When to go?

Although Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, it is a place of great diversity. Do not worry about being bored in you spend 4 days in the desert. In fact, there are so many things to see that 4 days is too short to fully enjoy Atacama! The power and beauty of nature will never cease to amaze you. Where is Atacama Desert located? All the must sees of Atacama are located around few hours from San Pedro de Atacama, which is the base town for exploring the desert. To correctly plan you trip and estimates the distances, start by locating San Pedro de Atacama on the map.

Map of Atacama Desert in Chile

The Atacama Desert,which is the driest area in the world, is also one of the biggest lithium mining sites of the world. But more importantly Atacama is a place full of unique and mesmerizing landscapes. Let’s have a quick overview of the atacama’s must-see places.

Atacama desert what to see?

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is a small and typical the town where you will stay and start all your tours from. 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 has been populated by native peoples (which are referred to as los Atacameños), before being conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. On that matter, we recommend visiting Pukara de Quitor. In the main square, you can still observe the remains of the typical Inca architecture. We also recommend to check San Pedro church,with its wooden roof.

Pukara de Quitor

It is one of the best preserved archaeological sites in the area. This fortress dominates the oasis of San Pedro and was built in the 12th century by the Atacameños and Likan Antay people. The importance of the Pukara has been decreased by the arrival of the Inca 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.

Pukara de Quitor San Pedro Atacama

Moon valley

A real experience on another planet! This magical place is a large stretch of sand dotted with salt white area, located at the foot of the salt mountain range. The must sees are:the big dune, the salt cave, and the amphitheater.

Atacama

Death Valley

World famous for offering the opportunity to sandboard down enormous dunes, this valley is on the edge of the Moon Valley. Death Valley of Atacama Desert definitely is worth a visit. Its landscape is very sandy, with pink colors on the rocks eroded by wind, salt and minerals. The place is ideal for horse riding or trekking, and to avoid the crowds.

CHile Atacama death valley

Rainbow Valley

Located 80 km from San Pedro de Atacama, the landscape offers an incredible palette of colors! It is possible to walk around, visit caves and learn why the rocks took those curious colors and unexpected shapes. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to even see llamas!

rainbow valley Atacama Chile

Altiplanic Lagoons

Commonly referred to as the altiplanic lagoons,the lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques are named after the mountains (cerros) that overlook them, Miscanti (5,622 m above sea level) and Miñiques (5,910 m). Be ready for a perfect scenery. 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!).

The El Tatio Geysers field

This is definitely one of the most exceptional tour of the entire Atacama Desert. Because it is located at 4,300 meters above sea level, you should not go without being acclimatized beforehand! This place, 50 miles from San Pedro de Atacama, is‘one of the largest geyser field in the world. You will have the chance to appreciate the large fumaroles,particularly impressive at sunrise,the best time of the day for visiting. You may not be the only ones to admire the show. That’s why, to avoid the crowds, our guides also take you to the white Geysers and the mud geysers,to allow you to admire exclusive boiling water vapours unspoiled from tourism.

The Salt flat of Atacama

Similar to the Uyuni salt flats, Atacama desert is a salt basin of 300,000 hectares, and the third largest salt desert in the world. It is located about six miles south from San Pedro, at 2300m above sea level. This area, exploited for its basement very rich in lithium, is actually a dry lake, whose evaporated water left a thin crust of white salt. The landscape alternates different colors such as white and brown, dotted with lagoons including the Laguna Chaxa, Cejar,and Tebenquiche.

Chaxa Lagoon

This lagoon managed by CONAF, is an ideal place for watching flamingos. You will have the chance to observe them and watch their graceful flight. Of the five species of flamingos found in the world, three are found in Chile: the Andeanflamingo, the Chilean flamingo and the Jamesflamingo.

Ojos del Salar, Tebenquiche Lagoon and Cejar Lagoon

It is possible in one day to discover by bike the Ojos del Salar, the Tebenquiche lagoon and the Cejar lagoon.
Ojos del Salar: These two craters, filled with fresh water,have been named this way, because from an aerial view they look like eyes wide open. For those who like to dive,or who simply want to escape the heat, this is a great place to enjoy a swim and taste the sweet sensation of fresh water while being in the middle of the Atacama desert.
Ojos del Salar Atacama
Tebinquiche lagoon: Some biologists consider this lagoon as the breeding ground of the oldest existing species. For a photographer, this is the chance to capture the perfect photo of the landscapes of the Atacama desert. For the hikers, this is also the opportunity to walk along this stretch of water and its surprising salt formations, facing the majestic Andean Cordillera. This landscape is full of surprises is a perfect mix between lagoons, salt flats , and mountains.
Cejar and Piedra lagoons are surrounded by small pieces of vegetation, which reinforces the turquoise color of the water. Stunning scenery:turquoise waters against a backdrop of snow-covered volcanoes! In the Piedra Lagoon, you will have the opportunity to swim and appreciate a flotation effect due to the very high salt level, same effect as in the Dead Sea.

The Red Stones viewpoint

Access to the site is currently denied by the communities, but you can still enjoy a great view from the view point.

red stones atacama

Puritama hot springs

Would you fancy a half day relaxing and swimming in natural hot springs? 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 with brigdes, of a temperature of about 33 degrees Celsius. The site also includes lockers and changing rooms. Relaxing in an idyllic setting, what else?

Many volcanoes: Licancabur, Lascar…

Majestic volcanoes and mountains surround the small village of San Pedro de Atacama. Many of them, including the Licancabur (5950m), were considered sacred by the Incas living in theAtacamaregion. For example, many myths and legends are related to the sun god. If you are interested in the matter, our guides would be more than happy to explain it to you… For less experienced climbers we recommend the Cerro Toco (5600m) or the ascent of the volcan Lascar (5450m).

These volcanoes,some of which are still active, promise a challenging and fascinating experience. We invite you to leave your comfort zone and challenge yourself for the time of an ascent!

Lejia Lagoon

Laguna Lejia, located 60 miles from San Pedro de Atacama, is accessible by a sandy track in poor condition and is a well-kept secret place. It used to be reserved for those who embarked on the ascent of the volcano Lascar, but is nowadays accessible for a day-trip. We recommend this tour for people who want to be away from the crowds, and who have been previously acclimatized,because most of the places are over 4000m. The lagoon transforming into a real mirror at the base of mountains and volcanoes, is magical and stunning show.

Laguna Lejia Atacama Chile

Salar de Tara

This site, currently closed to the public, is particularly renowned for the Monjes de la Pacana, kinds of large sculptures of vertical stones,naturally formed by the erosion of the wind. These overlook the Salar de Aguas Calientes and are part of the National Flamingo Reserve. The road leads you straight to Argentina (be careful we climb above 4500m). You will pass by a beautiful watchtower on the Licancabur Volcano, which dominates the entire region from the top of its almost 6000 meters. On the Salar de Tara, there is an impressive lagoon where hundreds of flamingos elegantly stroll through shallow waters in search of food. A magical and unforgettable landscape which is the favorite of any guide to the region.

Salar de Tara Atacama Chile

Now that you’ve 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 favorites tour in Atacama Desert.

Our tours to make the most of your experience to the Atacama Desert

Stargazing: Admire the Milky Way and the purest sky in the world

We work with a passionate astronomer, who loves sharing his passion for the universe and teaching the basics principles of star gazing.
The observation site is located outside San Pedro,away from the lights of the town.
You will have the chance to have a small astronomy course during your trip to Atacama and to stargaze, with the explanations of a professional. You will learn constellations (how to recognize them)… Then you will have the chance to stargaze the purest sky of the world through telescopes!
Depending on the time of year, the visibility of the moon and the planets, the content of the tour varies, but the idea is to show a number of objects and of course to teach and explain what you see. One of the best moment of the tour is the hot drink, when you will have the chance to end the night with a discussion about how astronomers see the universe today. A fantastic experience that is accessible to all!
star gazing atacama

Camp in the Atacama Desert

Did 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 and while enjoying a stargazing session of the purest sky of the world around a camp fire. To add an unforgettable experience to this unique tour, we suggest to do this horse back riding! No need to have experience, you will reach the camp site in 3 hours and take a tour to the typical villages of the region, while crossing an oasis. An unique experience, to live for a romantic night or for an unforgettable time as a family… Reach us for more details !

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Culinary walking tour

We propose in our itineraries to discover the traditions and ancestral culture of the Atacama people through food tasting and short lessons on the history of the Andes region. Let’s dare to taste new flavors ! You will no doubt appreciate the culinary treasures from the region’s unique products.

A tour for family: ancestral caravan with llamas

We offer going for 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. A nice cultural exchange to be added to your journey. Particularly recommended for children, or for people who speak Spanish.

The ascent of a volcano

As a day trip, you can climb Cerro Toco and its 5604-meter summit.

This ascent is one of the most accessible volcano in the area, provides from the top a 360 degrees view on the surrounding landscapes! It’s a very good effort/reward ratio!
From the top you can admire both the Salar d’Atacama and the Sur Lipez in Bolivia and the splendid and well-known Laguna Verde.
The Cerro Toco, or the Lascar, still active, are one of the many volcanoes we offer as day trip… Contact us to find out more! Don’t forget to review our page on itinerant hikes for our trekking programs in the Atacama Desert.

Visiting the ALMA Observatory

Why not take advantage of your visit to the Atacama to take a tour to an observatory? TheALMA Observatory is one of the most important astronomical observatories in the world. It is a great technological tool installed at an altitude of more than 5000 meters! You can discover the most powerful radio telescope in the world surrounded by the mythical volcano of Chile,the Licancabur,but also by the Cerro Toco,the Cerro Chajnantor, the Cerro Chascon 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.

Archaeological tours

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, presents the remains of a city whose foundations are buried in the sand. A very photogenic place.

And we offer much more… Like cycling tours, sandboarding, hikes of all kinds, ornithological tours, weaving, but also visiting the crater left by a meteorite,…

Desert bike atacama moon valley

How to get to San Pedro de Atacama?

San Pedro de Atacama does not have an airport, so the closest city nearby to have a flight connection is Calama. From there you can fly to Santiago de Chile on a 2-hour-journey, couple of times per day. Calama is a mining town with little tourist interest.

From 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 half long. It is also possible to connect the city of Calama with San Pedro by bus. For this 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).

It is also possible to make the journeyfrom Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama by bus. It takes about 24 hours.

By car,it takes about 22 hours driving from Santiago with to Pedro de Atacama.

How to arrange tours to visit Atacama Desert?

All tourist attractions are accessible as a day trip from the village of San Pedro de Atacama. This allows you to organize your stay with a different visit every day, while enjoying comfortable nights in the village. Take care to choose your visits respecting the natural acclimatization process. The more adventurous ones will be happy to enjoy a night in a bivouac in the desert!

Desert Car Laguna Lejia Atacama

Should you travel by car or book with an agency?

Which agency to choose for booking tours to Atacama Desert?

As you will soon see, the village 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 hire freelance guides without any training (neither on history nor on security). For tight budgets, this remains 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 make the same excursions at the same time, which means that you will probably be a hundred (or more in high season) tourists 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. Therefore, we offer “semi-private” tours in english, i.e. with groups of up to 6 people, where we aim to target places off the beaten track, with high quality guides. Everything is thought out in every detail, and includes unique details such as an aperitif at sunset in the middle of the salt desert!

It is also possible to choose a private formula with english-speaking guide, to enjoy visits at your own pace. This option is also recommended if you are afraid of suffering from altitude. Going with a private tour means that at the slightest sign of mountain sickness, you can ask your guide to go down , without having to disturb the group. Our private guides are also concerned by avoiding the crowds, and showing you the secrets and hidden treasures of the Atacama Desert.

On top of that, we strongly recommend adding to your itinerary uniques activities and experiences. Hiking, cycling, horseback riding, ancestral tour… All these experiences allow you to discover the region in a different way, in a more authentic way.

How to prepare for your trip to Atacama by car?

If you choose to make your visits by car , you will have to take into account the following constraints: the cars should be are rented from Calama, so you will have to return it to the same place, or then pay a drop off fee for the company to come and pick up the car in San Pedro de Atacama.

With or without 4×4?

Most of the sites are 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 connect all the points of interest, especially in case of snowfall.

salar de tara car atacama chile

Can you visit everything by car?

The very tourist attractions are accessible by car without too much difficulty. Providing you manage driving at altitude, and long distances (you will do more than 300 miles per day).

All the less touristic sites (such as the white Geysers, the mud geysers, the access to Rainbow hike, the Laguna Lejia, the Salar de Tara, most volcanoes …) are not accessible by car because the track to access it is in very poor condition and poorly indicated. To go there without a good knowledge of the area would be risky and you may get stuck, without logistical support to help you. Remember that there is no telephone network outside san Pedro de Atacama.

Best time to go to Atacama Desert

You haven’t taken your plane tickets to visit northern Chile yet, and you want to choose the best time to visit the Atacama Desert?

The Atacama has the advantage of being accessible all year round. Sunshine is excellent all year round and temperatures range from 18 to 25 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 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 summer, knows rainy days, which often has consequences on the state of the roads and the opening of the 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.

The blooming desert

blooming desert Atacama Chile

In the early spring, during the years that brought together the right conditions of temperatures and precipitation, we can observe a phenomenon called blooming 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 desertic areas. Huge 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 magical!

Check out our atacama trips

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