A Travelers Guide to Visiting the Atacama Desert
Welcome to the Atacama Desert in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile! This region is a haven for adventure seekers and nature lovers alike. With its diverse landscapes, geological formations, and unique wildlife, the Atacama Desert is truly a one-of-a-kind destination.
Here is your adventure travel guide to visiting this amazing place:
The Atacama Desert is located in northern Chile, about 1,000 km north of Santiago. The closest airport is Calama Airport (CJC), which is about an hour's drive from San Pedro de Atacama. You can take a taxi or arrange for a shuttle to take you to your hotel in San Pedro.
Where to Stay:
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town with plenty of accommodation options, from budget-friendly hostels to luxurious resorts. We suggest a 3-4 day tour when visiting the Atacama region to explore the best of what the region as to offer the adventrous traveler.
Things to Do:
- Stargazing: The Atacama Desert has some of the clearest skies in the world, making it a perfect place for stargazing. Many tour companies offer night-time stargazing tours, which can be a truly breathtaking experience.
- Visit the Salt Flats: The Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile and one of the driest places on Earth. The flat stretches over 3,000 sq km and is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. Make sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat.
- Explore Valle de la Luna: The Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is a unique landscape that resembles the surface of the moon. The valley is full of strange rock formations, deep canyons, and sandy dunes. It's a great place to hike, bike or take a guided tour.
- Visit El Tatio Geysers: El Tatio is the third-largest geyser field in the world and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Atacama Desert. The geysers are located at an altitude of over 4,000 meters above sea level, so make sure to acclimatize yourself before visiting.
- Go Sandboarding: Sandboarding is a popular activity in the Atacama Desert, and there are plenty of dunes to choose from. You can rent a sandboard from one of the many tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama.
- Visit Lagunas Altiplánicas: The Altiplano lakes are a series of high-altitude lakes that offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. The lakes are home to a variety of bird species, including flamingos.
- Explore the Atacama Desert on Horseback: Many tour companies offer horseback riding tours that allow you to explore the desert at a slower pace. This is a great way to see the desert's unique flora and fauna up close.
- Take a Dip in the Hot Springs: There are several hot springs in the Atacama Desert, including the Puritama Hot Springs. These natural hot springs are a great place to relax and unwind after a long day of exploring.
Best Time to Visit the Atacama:
The best time to visit the Atacama Desert in San Pedro de Atacama is during the shoulder seasons of spring (September-November) and fall (March-May). During these months, the weather is generally mild with comfortable temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night. Additionally, there are fewer tourists during these months, which means you can avoid the crowds and have a more peaceful experience.
During the summer months (December-February), the temperatures can get very hot during the day, which can make exploring the desert uncomfortable. However, if you're planning on stargazing, the summer months are the best time to visit as the skies are the clearest during this time.
During the winter months (June-August), temperatures can drop below freezing at night, which can make camping and hiking more challenging. However, the winter months are a great time to visit if you're interested in seeing the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains in the distance.
The best time to visit the Atacama Desert depends on your interests and preferences. If you're looking for milder weather and fewer crowds, the shoulder seasons are your best bet. However, if stargazing or winter sports are on your agenda, you may want to consider visiting during the summer or winter months.
How many days are needed to explore the Atacama?
The ideal duration for a visit to the Atacama Desert can vary depending on your interests and the activities you want to do. However, most travelers typically spend between 3 to 5 days exploring the Atacama Desert.
During this time, you can visit the most popular attractions, such as the Valle de la Luna, El Tatio Geysers, and the Atacama Salt Flats, and also have time for some additional activities, such as hiking, stargazing, or visiting indigenous villages.
If you have more time available, you can consider extending your stay to 7-10 days, which will allow you to explore more remote areas and take part in additional activities such as multi-day hikes, horseback riding, or sandboarding.
Overall, the duration of your stay in the Atacama Desert will depend on your interests, budget, and availability. We recommend planning your itinerary in advance and booking activities and tours ahead of time to ensure you make the most of your visit.
Why is the Atacama A Popular Destination?
The Atacama Desert is popular for several reasons, including:
- Unique Landscapes: The Atacama Desert is home to some of the most unique and stunning landscapes in the world, including the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), Atacama Salt Flats, and El Tatio Geysers. These otherworldly landscapes are a big draw for visitors who want to experience the natural beauty of the region.
- Stargazing: The Atacama Desert is known for having some of the clearest and darkest skies in the world, making it an ideal location for stargazing. Visitors can take guided tours to observe the stars and planets, or visit one of the many observatories in the region.
- Culture and History: The Atacama Desert has a rich cultural history that spans back thousands of years. Visitors can learn about the indigenous cultures of the region, visit ancient ruins and petroglyphs, and explore the colonial architecture of San Pedro de Atacama.
- Adventure Activities: The Atacama Desert offers a range of adventure activities for visitors, including hiking, sandboarding, mountain biking, and horseback riding. The diverse terrain of the region provides endless opportunities for exploration and adventure.
- Accessibility: The Atacama Desert is relatively easy to reach, with regular flights from Santiago to Calama, which is just an hour's drive from San Pedro de Atacama. This makes it a convenient destination for travelers who want to experience the beauty and adventure of the region without having to travel too far.
What Kind of Wildlife exists in the Atacama?
The Atacama Desert is known for its unique and diverse wildlife, despite the harsh and arid conditions. Here are some of the animals you may be able to see during a visit to the Atacama:
- Vicuñas: These are wild members of the camel family and are the smallest of the South American camelids. They are found in the high Andean regions and are known for their soft and valuable wool.
- Flamingos: The Atacama Salt Flats are home to several species of flamingos, including the Andean, Chilean, and James's flamingos. These birds feed on the algae and plankton found in the salty waters of the flats.
- Vizcacha: This rodent looks like a cross between a rabbit and a chinchilla and is known for its long, bushy tail. They are found in rocky areas and are often seen perched on rocks or scampering across the desert.
- Andean fox: This small fox is found in the high Andean regions and has a thick, bushy tail and reddish-brown fur. They are scavengers and feed on small animals, insects, and plant material.
- Armadillos: The three-banded armadillo is found in the Atacama Desert and is known for its hard, protective shell. They feed on insects and small animals and are mostly active at night.
- Reptiles: The Atacama Desert is home to several species of lizards, including the horned lizard, sand lizard, and the iguana. Additionally, the region is home to several species of snakes, including the Andean cat-eyed snake and the Chilean long-tailed snake.
The wildlife in the Atacama Desert is diverse and fascinating, and visitors may be able to spot some of these unique creatures during their visit. However, it's important to remember that many of these animals are wild and should be observed from a distance to avoid disturbing their natural behaviors.
Off the Beaten Path things to do in the Atacama:
There are many off-the-beaten-path adventures to be had in the Atacama Desert, beyond the popular attractions and activities. Here are some ideas for adventurous travelers looking to explore the lesser-known areas of the region:
Laguna Verde: Located in the southern part of the Atacama Desert, Laguna Verde is a stunning saltwater lake that sits at the base of the Licancabur Volcano. Visitors can hike to the lake and take in the views of the turquoise water and surrounding mountains.
Puritama Hot Springs: Located in a hidden canyon, the Puritama Hot Springs are a series of eight natural pools fed by thermal springs. The pools are surrounded by lush vegetation and provide a relaxing and peaceful escape from the desert heat.
Rainbow Valley: This colorful valley is located near San Pedro de Atacama and is known for its vibrant red, orange, and yellow rock formations. Visitors can hike through the valley and take in the stunning views of the surrounding desert landscape.
Tatio Wetlands: This little-known area is located near the El Tatio Geysers and is home to a variety of bird species, including flamingos, ducks, and Andean geese. Visitors can take guided tours of the wetlands and observe the diverse wildlife.
Quebrada de Guatin: This narrow canyon is located near San Pedro de Atacama and is home to a variety of desert plants and wildlife, including cacti, lizards, and birds. Visitors can hike through the canyon and take in the stunning views of the desert landscape.
Visit the 7 hidden blue lagoons of Baltinache: The Baltinache lagoons are a stunning series of seven saltwater lagoons located in the Atacama Desert, near the town of San Pedro de Atacama. These hidden gems offer visitors a unique and secluded experience, unlike some of the more popular attractions in the region.
The lagoons are renowned for their scenic beauty, with their turquoise waters contrasting against the arid desert landscape and the dramatic Andes Mountains in the distance. Visitors can enjoy a day of swimming, sunbathing, and taking in the stunning views of the surrounding desert landscape. The water in the lagoons is rich in salt and minerals, which make it incredibly buoyant and relaxing to swim in.
Access to the lagoons is restricted to protect the fragile ecosystem, and visitors must book a guided tour to visit. Many local tour operators offer guided tours of the Baltinache lagoons, which typically include transportation, entrance fees, and a knowledgeable guide who can provide insights into the region's history and ecology. Overall, a visit to the Baltinache lagoons is a unique and unforgettable experience that offers a glimpse into the natural beauty and diversity of the Atacama Desert.
Overall, the Atacama Desert offers many opportunities for off-the-beaten-path adventures, and adventurous travelers are sure to find something unique and exciting to explore during their visit.
- Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated, especially if you're visiting during the summer months.
- Wear sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the sun.
- The Atacama Desert can get very cold at night, so make sure to bring warm clothes.
- If you're hiking or exploring on your own, make sure to bring a map, plenty of water, and a first aid kit.
- Altitude sickness is a real risk in the Atacama Desert, especially if you're visiting the El Tatio Geysers. Make sure to acclimatize yourself before
Check out our Best of the Atacama Desert - 4 Day tour or the Salta, Atacama Desert & Uyuni Salt Flats 9 Days Tour. Or contact our travel specialists to design a custom trip to the Atacama.