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Atacama Desert Itinerary

The Atacama Desert in Chile, lying just to the west of the Andes, in the northern part of this amazingly long country, is the world’s driest desert. It has some stunningly beautiful landscapes. Here’s our guide to an Atacama Desert itinerary which took three days.

Getting To The Atacama Desert

The nearest airport to the Atacama is Calama and we flew in from Chile’s capital Santiago. You can catch a bus from there but it’s a long journey so flying may be the better option if you are short on time.

You stay in the small oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. We chose the lovely Hotel la Casa de Don Tomas, which was a short walk from the town centre (and hence a bit quieter). They were able to arrange a transfer from the airport for an agreed fee – we made an email reservation stating our flight number and arrival time and they picked us up. They were also available to return us to the airport at the end of our visit. The journey from the airport took around 1 hour 45 minutes. Some hotels will offer pick-ups but, if not, there are a number of shuttle bus companies at the airport of varying reliability, so it’s worth checking the most recent reviews.

We spent three nights in the Atacama which, based on an early morning flight in and a late afternoon flight out, was nearly four days for us. There were plenty of things to do.

San Pedro is totally geared towards tourism. Its main high street, unpaved, is lined with adobe buildings that largely comprise bars and restaurants as well as a plethora of tour companies with whom you can book excursions. The tours are very easy to book. Some may be available on the day, others, such as a trip to the spectacular El Tatio geysers, are definitely worth booking a couple of days in advance. These are usually group tours, a minibus-sized bunch of tourists accompanied by a local guide who will speak both Spanish and English. Many tour companies are able to arrange a hotel pick-up, which can be especially useful if you have an early start, otherwise they will let you know the pick-up point, which won’t be far away as it’s a small town.

San Pedro is located at 2500m above sea level. We didn’t feel as though we needed to acclimatise to the altitude (although some of the excursions go much higher) but you may find that you need to take things easy for a day or so if you are not accustomed to the elevation. It is also very sunny, so sun protection is essential.

San Pedro de Atacama

Atacama Desert Itinerary – Walking Through Dramatic Landscapes

We completed a number of walks in the Atacama. Death Valley (Valle de la Muerte) was stark and dramatic. Its location lies inside a salt mountain range and was originally the bottom of a lake, the sediment of which was forced from a horizontal to a vertical position through the movement of the earth’s crust over the years. This has resulted in huge dunes surrounded by sand and salt structures.

Visit the Atacama Desert

Walking down a sand dune in bare feet was wonderful – the sun was hot but the sand was cool.

Atacama Desert sand dune

It is possible to do activities such as sandboarding there. There will be plenty of tour operators who will have the necessary equipment.

Moon Valley’s (Valle de la Luna) name is entirely appropriate. It is stark and strange and highly reminiscent of a lunar landscape.

Visit the Atacama Desert

It is covered with structures composed of salt, gypsum and clay, eroded and shaped by the wind over several thousands of years.

After exploring these dramatic landscapes we also took the chance to watch the sun set and the moon rise behind the Licancabur volcano. It’s worth arriving early in order to find the best viewing spot, as the area will slowly and surely fill with tourists as the sun goes down. It’s a beautiful sight, with the colours changing every minute.

Atacama Desert itinerary

Atacama Desert itinerary  Licanbur

Atacama Licanbur as sun sets

Atacama Licanbur as sun sets

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Full Day Trip To Salt Flats And Altiplanic Lakes

The Atacama also has salt flats located around 55km from San Pedro. At around 3000 square km they are the third largest salt flats in the world, after Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina. Because it virtually never rains in the Atacama, the salt is crusty – unlike Uyuni which has a totally smooth surface.

If you get up early you can go on a tour which takes you to the salt flats in the morning. It was good to see the volcano at sunrise.

Visit the Atacama Desert

It’s possible to go walking on the salt flats and view the flamingos on the laguna before the other tourists arrive and scare them off. (It is definitely worth taking the early morning option for a visit.) The desert is really cold in the morning, about 0ºC, but warms up to over 30ºC by noon.

Atacama Desert itinerary

Atacama Desert itinerary

After a walk across the the salt flat we travelled across the altiplano.

Atacama Desert Altiplano

There are also altiplanic lagoons to visit – these lakes were completely beautiful and utterly serene. They are, respectively, Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques.

Atacama Desert itinerary Laguna Miscanti

Atacama Desert itinerary  Laguna Miñiques

Day Trip To The El Tatio Geysers

We could class these as an essential excursion when on a visit to the Atacama Desert. This tour was the one that we booked a few days in advance, on arrival at San Pedro. We were picked up from our hotel at 4am to embark on a dark, bumpy 95km minibus ride for three hours. This was another trip where appropriate clothing was important: it was  –9ºC on arrival but the temperature had reached above 30ºC by mid-morning. Wearing lots of layers and discarding them as necessary is the best approach.

The El Tatio geysers in the Atacama Desert are the world’s highest altitude geysers. It was absolutely worth getting up so early. We arrived at sunrise to see the geysers at golden hour. They were spectacular.

The trip also included a more leisurely journey back to San Pedro, viewing some lovely scenery and visiting a cactus forest.

We have a more detailed account of this trip and more photos here.

San Pedro

Back at San Pedro there are plenty of bars and restaurants to keep you entertained. Some have live music in the evening. It also had a cute museum, with a lovely geodesic design, that displayed local artefacts, although apparently it has sadly closed. Since we visited further museums have opened up. One activity that would definitely be worth investigation would be the astronomy observatory. The Atacama has some of the clearest night skies in the world and it is possible to do a tour – at an observatory that is open to the public – to look at the skies.

Visiting the El Tatio Geysers in the Atacama
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  1. What a fascinating place so vast and so almost lonely but yet beautiful. Would love to get to the El Tatio Geyshers and the sandboarding sounds fun. I would never of imagined this vast a landscape in Chile little did I know obviously

    • Thank you so much. The geysers were fantastic – definitely worth getting up early to see them. The landscape really is strangely beautiful.

  2. Great photos here! I especially loved the ones of the sun setting behind the volcano and of the vertical sedimentary layers in the sand. It’s always so crazy to think of the time it took and the processes involved to form these geologic features.

    • Thank you! I studied geography at school and loved learning about the process of how the geographical features formed over the years. (I know, I need to get out more!)

  3. Wow! That is definitely going on the list! I remember as a kid seeing one of David Attenborough’s documentaries about the flamingos getting salt stuck to their legs and I was fascinated at such an alien looking landscape! Only now finding out where this is, really cool, thanks for the inspiration!

    • Thank you so much. It’s a wonderfully stark but beautiful landscape. The flamingos were brilliant- we loved seeing them, although we didn’t get as close as David Attenborough to check out any salt on their legs!

  4. Your photos are amazing especially the ones showing how the colors change at sunset. It does look like a lunar landscape, and the presence of lakes is astounding for such a dry area. Looks like you all had fun!

    • Thank you so much. It was brilliant, we would definitely recommend a visit. The landscapes are simply stunning.

  5. Keeping notes for my Atacama trip! It seems like I won’t be able to go on this trip as I packed to light for the temperatures. All your excursions look like bucketlist items – I didn’t know about the salt flats and now I really want to see them.

    • Thank you. It’s really a remarkable place and definitely worth a visit. Colin really doesn’t feel the cold, so he did visit the salt flats wearing just a t-shirt. Some other people on the trip started offering him their clothes because they couldn’t believe he wasn’t cold! It really warms up later.

    • Thank you so much. We’re big fans of Chilean wine as well. We visited the Concha y Toro vineyard and discovered Carmenere there – absolutely love it!

  6. Now this would be a dream trip! I’ve never seen a bad photo of the Atacama Desert and I don’t think it’s possible. The astronomy observatory would be fascinating!

    • Thanks so much, Stefan. We found the desert to be absolutely fascinating with so many interesting geographical features, as well as starkly beautiful.

  7. Such an otherworldly place in the Atacama. Didn’t realise you could go sandblasting there although perhaps should have! One for the list next time I visit.

    • Thank you so much. It’s a remarkable place – we loved our visit. And it was brilliant to see the flamingos!

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