The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is known to be the driest place on earth and is a truly unworldly place (Moon Valley living up to it’s name). We posted up in the remote town of San Pedro De Atacama for three nights and had some of the best travel moments of our lives. Since there is an overwhelming amount of tours and different ways to see the desert, we are going to break down for you how we spent our time, what was worth seeing and some pieces of advice for visiting.
We flew into Calama from Santiago, Chile. It is a SMALL airport… probably one of the smallest we’ve been to, so plan to fly into another city in South America first. It was a fairly long drive to the town of San Pedro De Atacama and we booked a shuttle in advance (it’s about $20 per person round trip, you can book it here).
There are a few reasons you should take a full day to stay in town:
- The elevation of San Pedro De Atacama is a little under 8,000 feet and the tours go much higher. Give yourself a day to acclimate before going on any excursions (the tour companies will advise you to do this as well), unless of course you are coming from Peru or Bolivia.
- Booking tours is much cheaper and easier to do once you get to town. I am such a planner and this absolutely killed me but it was worth the wait. You’ll be able to compare tour company pricing and what they have to offer, and they’ll be able to help you map out everything you want to see in the time that you have.
- This town is very unique. It is small, so you’ll be able to see it all in one day, but it is worth walking around to explore. We immediately felt like we were on a different planet, and although many of the businesses are designed for tourists, it has a special desert charm.
We were up before the sun for a tour of the Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons and Salar De Atacama (incredible salt flats and home to the National Flamingo Reserve). This was our favorite tour of the trip and in our opinions a must do when visiting the Atacama Desert. Many tour companies offer a tour of all three for a half day tour (we were home by lunch time).
Pro tip: we made sure our tours were all in smaller groups (we found that 8-10 people was the magic number to both make friends but also have an personal experience).
You will climb into high altitude pretty quickly on your way to the first lagoon to almost 14,000 ft. Be careful and take it slow. Trust me, it isn’t easy to hike in these conditions (for the majority of people at least). But once we arrived right as the sun had risen and were the ONLY group as far as we could see or hear, it was truly unbelievable (I’ll admit… I may have shed a tear or two).
The mornings are frigid in the desert and afternoons are hot so be sure to bring layers. This morning hike around the two lagoons can be very cold.
Many tour companies will provide breakfast (and coca tea which helps with the altitude tremendously). I highly recommend you find a tour that includes this because we needed it after walking around the lagoons. One of my favorite memories was drinking tea with Chris sitting near the silent lagoon and watching the vicuñas roam.
After the lagoons, there are a few small desert villages your tour may take you to that give a real glimpse into life in these extreme conditions.
The drives through the desert may have been one of my favorite parts about our whole experience here. Most of the roads are dirt and you’ll just keep climbing into higher altitudes where there is no life in sight… it is an errie, strange feeling but so beautiful to see.
Salar De Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile and truly a wonder to visit. The salt (which looks like snow) goes on as far as you can see in every direction with towering volcanoes on the horizon. To top it off, this is also the National Reserve of Flamingos and these birds were EVERYWHERE. I never thought I would be as interested in watching flamingos in their natural habitat than I was. The water on the salt reflects in a rainbow of colors and paired with the bright pink flamingos looked like a painting. Don’t skip taking some time walking through these flats. They are unbelievable.
Pro tip: Wear sunglasses here. I took mine off for a few photos and I literally burnt my eyeball and it took two days to fully heal (watery and burning eyes for two days is not fun). Also, my lips turned white from the salt so don’t panic if that happens to you.
If you decide to just do this tour alone one day, then you have a half a day to relax in San Pedro once you return (we chose a hotel with a pool to escape the desert heat).
One of the main reasons we decided to come to the Atacama Desert was to see the stars. This desert is known to have the clearest skies on earth. Be sure not to skip out on a stargazing tour! We chose to do the stargazing tour this night since we had two tours booked the next day.
Pro tip: Do not book a stargazing tour when you have an early tour the next morning. These get you home LATE and we only ended up getting about 3 hours of sleep this night which made the next day very hard to get through. Plan accordingly!
These star tours will take you far out into the desert where you can see a completely clear night sky with no surrounding light or pollution- just stars. Coming from the northern hemisphere it was surreal to see the opposite side of the night sky. Instead of looking at the north star we were looking at the south cross and we could even see Jupiter. I couldn’t even tell you the amount of shooting stars we saw. It seemed like every time you look for one you would see one- but then- we saw a huge purple ball slowly move across the sky- our tour guide yelled to us and explained this rarely happens, but it was a fireball we saw. Absolutely incredible and something we may never see again. I can’t promise you you’ll see a fireball going on a star tour in the Atacama but I assure you you’ll never look at the night sky the same.
Another tour we highly recommend is to see the El Tatio Geysers. Being the third largest geyser field in the world, in the middle of an astounding desert makes you feel like you are living a dream.
The geyser tour will start earlier than any other tour because due to the contrast between the cold pre-sunrise temperatures and the hot geothermal field, there is beautiful steam that ascends from the geysers.
Pro tip: Be ready for a serious altitude change here. This tour will take you up around 15,000 feet. We had already been acclimating for two days by the time we went and I still felt very sick and hardly able to move around and enjoy myself here. Also, make sure to dress warm in the early mornings in the desert!
After watching the marvelous show of the geysers, your tour will likely take you to the Puritama hot springs to take a dip. Although it felt wonderful to dip into the hot springs from the cold temperatures, the only downfall is how crowded this can get.
This tour took us to one more desert village which was stunning. With a quaint church overlooking the village and locals cooking up some goat cheese empanadas and lamb kebabs it was worth the stop.
The best part about this tour is that it reaches the highest, most isolated, parts of the desert. The roads are seemingly endless with nothing around. It is really something special. Our guides were great at pulling over to allow us to marvel at the beauty whenever we requested.
You’ll get back to San Pedro around lunch time once again for this tour. This leaves your entire afternoon open for an additional tour if you’d like. We decided to go on a tour of Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the evening right before sunrise. This gave us about four hours in between tours to rest and get some lunch.
The reason Valle de la Luna got it’s name is because of the sand dunes that quite literally look like the landscape of the moon.
The best sunsets in the Atacama Desert can be seen from a viewpoint at Valle de la Luna. The tour companies plan strategically to do the guided hikes around the sand dunes and salt flats right before sunset so you will be able to watch the sun set before heading back to town.
The other benefit of going during this time is that the weather was perfect for hiking. We felt either too hot or too cold on the rest of our tours and this was the sweet spot for hiking and fully enjoying the unique landscapes in the Moon Valley.
This is the perfect way to cap off your time in the Atacama. For more information on visiting Moon Valley click here.
We had quite a packed schedule on our time in the desert but the experiences were worth the exhaustion. Tours are designed to be able to do two in a day if you should choose. Even with limited time you are able to pack a lot in to your time here.
If you have any questions for us about visiting, please let us know in the comments. We would also love to hear your favorite part about the Atacama Desert if you’ve visited.
Emilie & Chris