The Atacama Desert covers about 1,000 km of land and it is located between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is not consensual which places are part of this desert, but according to National Geographic it includes the north of Chile, the coastal area of Southern Peru, the southwest of Bolivia and the northwest of Argentina (Puna).
It is the driest place on Earth! Some places in Atacama have never received rain (at least since they have installed weather stations)! This desert is so arid that many mountains higher than 6,000 m above sea level are completely free of glaciers. NASA is also using it to test instruments for future Mars missions. And it is probably the oldest desert on Earth!
The Atacama Desert is also a very touristic place, especially around San Pedro de Atacama, a Chilean town in the Antofagasta region. This town was actually part of Bolivia until Chile claimed ownership during the Pacific War (1879-1883). Currently it is the base for several touristic activities and it is full of tour excursions, coffees/restaurants and handcraft shops. Unfortunately we felt that this town was too touristic and because of that, hotels were too expensive for the quality and even handcraft stores had higher prices than in other similar places (like the north of Argentina). On the top of that it is full of people all over the world but almost no locals…
Anyway it is a beautiful place and at least once in your life you should visit it. And we made a list of the best places to go.
1. Salar de Atacama: Laguna Chaxa
Laguna Chaxa is part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Salar de Atacama and pink flamingos inhabit it. We also enjoyed some of the best views we saw with volcanoes, desert, lakes and salt – all together in a perfect harmony. If we only had one day to visit the Atacama Desert this would be one of the places we wouldn’t miss for sure!
2. El Tatio
El Tatio is a geyser field at 4,320 m of altitude and 80 km from San Pedro de Atacama (approximately 2 hours driving due to the roads and altitude). It is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world and due to its 80 active geysers it is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the 3rd largest in the world! Well, after saying this, of course you have to go there!
The only controversial thing here is: How should you visit this place? Everyone will recommend you to go through an organized tour for two reasons: first, it is incomparable better to see the geysers and its eruptions at sunrise; second, the roads are very bad and it is dangerous for you to drive… We listened everyone very carefully and we actually went to a tour agency to know more about the tour, the schedules and the price. It was not expensive (18,000 $CH/person) and it was available but then we started to think that we have a car, we have experience driving in very bad roads and, more important than that, we always run away from tours and places completely full of tourists…
So we decided to do it ourselves and instead of leaving San Pedro de Atacama at 5am we left at 7:30am (a 2h delay to avoid the mass tourism!). And that was the best decision we made! The 80 km driving took us around 2 hours due to the altitude (you go uphill about 2,000 m), the zig-zag road and the non-paved roads we also found on the way. We drunk some coca tea to help us with altitude sickness but we were more or less acclimatized since we just crossed the border from Argentina with an higher altitude than this one.
When we arrived at the craters of El Tatio (around 9:30am) all the tours were leaving or finishing the visits, so we had the entire place for us! And contrary to what most people said to us, the place had several eruptions and still some columns of steam that were condensing in the cold air.
The park is well delimited so we could walk around all kind of geysers, exploring, taking pictures and making a few videos. We walked for more than 2 hours and we also saw the famous hot springs where people usually go after the geysers visit.
Another great thing of having done this visit independently (and two hours after the tours!) was that without people and confusion, we could appreciate better its beauty, the geysers’ noise and the wildlife (vicuñas visited us too)!
The road between El Tatio and San Pedro de Atacama is another highlight of this visit. We saw absolutely gorgeous landscapes on the way! Volcanoes, mountains, green fields, lakes, salt flats... and on top of that: vicuñas, flamingos, ducks and other birds! Don’t miss this place!
Licancabur is an active highly symmetrical volcano part of the border between Chile and Bolivia. It is one of the most famous landscapes in San Pedro de Atacama and you can see it even in Chile and Atacama postcards. It is also know for containing the world’s highest lake inside its 400m wide summit crater at 5,913m.
We had great views of the Licancabur volcano (and other volcanoes!) after crossing the border from Argentina to Chile and about 50 km from San Pedro de Atacama.
4. Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna (“Moon Valley”) is one of the closest places you can visit in San Pedro de Atacama (approximately 15 km from the town). This place was declared sanctuary of the nature in 1982 due to its landscapes, rocks formations and colours.
We visited this park on the late afternoon so we had time to watch the sunset even after hiking for about 45m through a huge dune where it was possible to appreciate the wonderful surroundings of this area. It is a beautiful place, but not a reason itself to visit the Atacama region. We also felt that the Valle de la Luna we visited in Argentina was more gorgeous than this one (read more here).
5. The Altiplanic Lagoons: Miscanti and Miñique
The Altiplanic Lagoons, located above the 4,000m, are originated from the ice melting in the Miscanti and Miñique volcanoes. They are beautiful but we didn’t visit them only for one reason: we saw similar landscapes when visiting the northwest of Argentina and also while crossing the border to Chile. So we decided to use our time in things we haven’t seen before. But if you are planning to visit the Atacama region only include them in your itinerary.
The Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) is the world largest astronomical project (currently!) and it is located right in the middle of the Atacama Desert. It works in a partnership between several countries in the world, including the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
It is possible to visit the ALMA operations but only on the weekends and you need to complete your registration in advance and online. Unfortunately we couldn’t visit this place because we didn’t know the exact dates we were visiting the Atacama region, but if you have everything planned this is a must see!
Next stop: Chuquicamata (Calama, Chile)!
- If you have a car you can do EVERYTHING by yourself and you don’t need to hire any kind of tour. If you don't have a car you can hire all the tours near the Caracoles street in San Pedro de Atacama town
- Main costs: Laguna Chaxa (1,500$CH/person), Valle de la Luna (3,000$CG/person), El Tatio (5,000$CH/person). You have to pay these entrance fees always, even if you are visiting these places through an organized tour
- Make sure you have dinner at one of the best restaurants in town: La Pica del Indio. They have a daily menu for 4,400$/person that includes a first plate, a second plate and a desert.