The Atacama Desert is the driest nonpolar place on earth and is one of the best places in the world for stargazing and astronomy. It’s probably the closest experience to visiting Mars or the Moon that you can find on this planet and has lots of interesting rock formations, lakes and amazing views. The highlight of the Atacama Desert is the opportunity to see the stars so clearly with your own eyes, which believe me, you’ve probably never experienced before!
This article is based on my visit to the Atacama Desert in the month of May. This isn’t a step by step guide… the fun, frustration and surprise of finding your own way is what makes an adventure and I wouldn’t want to ruin the best part of travel for you. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!
What to Do in the Atacama Desert
Rent a 4x4 & Explore the Desert
There are lots of organised tours to take you to the sites around the desert however I recommend seeing the desert yourself without a tour operator. All you need is a car and a map. Renting a car would be very expensive to do on your own but it’s actually cheaper than doing a guided tour if you are travelling with friends or if you are lucky enough to find 4 other like minded travellers like I did! You can also rent a bicycle but the weather is quite extreme so unless you are a serious cyclist, this option will limit you to the sights immediately surrounding the town.
The cost to rent a car (including the cost of gas/petrol) is about 25,000 CLP (€30 / $34) per person per day with 5 people. We saw (or at least drove by) most of the sights in the area around San Pedro de Atacama and this took us 2 full days and only 1 refill of petrol.
We planned our route out on the map and went South to Piedras Rojas on the first day and North to Geysers del Tatio on the second day. We were able to see several places each day and these are marked with a pen on the map above. It was really amazing to have the freedom to plan our own route and spend as much time as we wanted at each place.
The main roads around San Pedro de Atacama are very good but if you want to go off road you will need a 4×4! We went off road a few times and it’s pretty rough terrain. We thought we were stuck at one point when we couldn’t get enough traction to get over a bit of a rough patch… but luckily my friend Kim who had served in the Swedish Armed Forces had the experience and technical know how to think of switching on the 4WD button! So step 1; rent a 4×4 and step 2; turn on 4WD!
Watch the Flamingos at Salar de Atacama
Our route for the first day was to go from the town to Piedras Rojas and back, with a few stops in between. So the first stop on our Atacama Desert road trip was Laguna Chaxa which is one of 2 lakes that you can visit in Salar de Atacama. This is a salt lake with strange rock and salt formations around it.
It is home to hundreds of flamingos and some other bird species, the residents of Los Flamencos National Reserve, and you can see them loitering around the lake. We planned to visit the other lake, Laguna Tebinquinche, for sunset as our last stop on the way back to the town but didn’t have time as it was already dark at that stage. The altitude of Salar de Atacama is 2,300 meters which is slightly lower than the town.
Climb Up to the View of Lagunas Miscanti & Miñiques
To get an amazing view of Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques, you need to go to the top of the hill between the main road and the 2 lakes. We drove off road for a while and then left the car when the hill started to get really steep. It took about 15 minutes to walk up to the top of the hill but remember to take your time because you can really feel the altitude here! On the hill, you are looking over the lakes which sit at 4,120 meters, so at the top of the hill you are at about 4,150 meters.
Drive Out to Piedras Rojas
As the day neared its end we arrived at Piedras Rojas at Salar de Talar. We only spent a few moments here but it was really nice to drive out to and the experience of driving along roads winding around the mountains was actually just as good as seeing the destination at the end.
You can walk out to the red rocks right where they meet the water but we didn’t do this because without a tour guide we weren’t exactly sure where we were going! However, even at a distance, it was great to get a view of the salt lake with red rocks and landscape around it.
Even better than the drive out to Piedras Rojas was the drive back as the sun was setting. The mountains cast their shadows over the desert and coming from higher to lower ground, we had incredible views over the desert flats.
Get Up Early to See Geyser del Tatio
On the morning of the second day, we got up early to make it to Geysers del Tatio for Sunrise as recommended by locals. This is the main attraction in the Atacama area and is really cool to see, especially if you’ve never seen an active geyser before.
Mornings in the desert are very cold so make sure to wrap up!
Bathe in the Hot Springs of El Tatio
Although its cold, don’t forget your swimming shorts! There’s a Hot Springs at El Tatio geyser field that you can basque in if you can handle getting in and out in the near zero temperatures! Changing rooms are right beside the pool.
We then drove towards our next stop while taking in the views of more stunning landscapes, and even herds of llamas, from the road.
Navigate Valle del Arcoiris
Valle del Arcoiris translates to English as Rainbow Valley. The valley has strange rock formations with different shades of colour and the terrain feels almost moon-like. We were the only visitors in the valley, apart from the local llamas, so it was incredibly quiet and it felt somewhat surreal in a way.
Watch the Sunset over Valle de Marte
One of the best places to see the sunset over the desert is at Valle de Marte. This translates to English as Mars Valley due to its resemblance of the faraway planet. It isn’t easy to spot the dirt road to get up to the viewpoint so you’ll have to ask for directions or follow tour busses to the top.
Do a Walking Tour of the Town
The town is small but has an interesting history which you can learn about by doing a walking tour. There are several operators offering walking tours of San Pedro de Atacama and you can find these via your hostel or TripAdvisor.
There are lots of tour operators in the town that offer stargazing tours. I did a tour with ‘Una Noche con Las Estrellas’ and it was amazing! They took us by bus to a location on just a few minutes outside the town where we were given an introduction to astronomy to educate us about what we were going to be seeing. After that, we went outside (with blankets provided!) and the guide pointed out stars and even planets that we could see with the naked eye!
There as also a variety of telescopes set up so that we could view specific planets with a bit more focus. However, the overall view of the clear night sky full of stars and the Milky Way galaxy was the most impressive part. It was one of the highlights of Chile and my whole trip in South America… the photos really don’t do it justice!
You can also visit ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), an array of 66 radio telescopes laid out across the desert on the Chajnantor plateau. It is the largest space observatory in the world and is the result of scientific collaboration across 3 continents (Aisa, Europe & North America), and the host country of Chile.
I would have liked to have visited this if there was more time and it’s only about an hour and a half’s drive from San Pedro de Atacama. The radio telescopes are very large at 7-12 meters in diameter and can be moved closer together or be as far as 16 kilometers apart! They resemble satellites and you can view them from the road.
How to Get to the Atacama Desert
Where is the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama Desert is located in the Antofagasta region in the North of Chile. It covers an area of 105,000 km2 and is in a territory that’s ownership has been long disputed between Bolivia and Chile.
Getting Between San Pedro de Atacama and Santiago, Uyuni (Bolivia)
Busses run from the bus terminal in Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama, the city of Antofagasta and Calama. Coming from Santiago, the best route to take is direct to San Pedro de Atacama, which takes about 20 hours and is relatively cheap at around 8,000 CLP (€10 / $11) . If you are travelling between Bolivia and Chile, you can get a bus from Uyuni direct to San Pedro de Atacama. There are also tours that operate between San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Uyuni in Bolivia where you can see the sights along the way including Bolivia’s famous Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats).
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Atacama Desert
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is most likely where you will be staying in the Atacama Desert. This is a small town but is the main hub for tourism in the desert so there are lots of accommodation options from value hostels to more upmarket hotels.
I stayed at Hostel Atacama Tatais, a value hostel with a cool (I mean this in both senses of the word) outdoor courtyard to chill out in (again, a double meaning here). It’s a basic hostel and is good value for money but at night it gets very cold (in the desert) and the hostel doesn’t have heating, or many showers with much hot water. This is however, part of life in the desert and is to be expected, especially for the price.
Seasons: When to Visit the Atacama Desert
If you visit during the Summer (December – February), the temperatures will be a bit warmer which means that you won’t need as many layers in bed at night. However, this is high season and there might be more tourists at this time. September – November and March – May are good times to visit because temperatures are ok and there will be less tourists.
Things to Watch out For in the Atacama Desert
Be careful with the altitude. Walking up a hill in the Atacama Desert was the first time that I felt slightly light headed from the altitude and you just need to be conscious of this and slow down if you feel tired. The effect of the sun is also very strong at high altitude so remember to use sun protection.
There can also be extreme variations in temperature in deserts, especially this one. Temperatures can go from 40 degrees celsius in the day to close to 0 degrees celsius at night. You might also want to bring some chapstick or moisturizer because the Atacama Desert is dry, really dry… to put this in context, the Atacama Desert is fifty, yes… fifty, times drier than Death Valley. If your skin starts to crack on your hands, face and lips, this is completely normal… so drink lots of water!
Because San Pedro de Atacama is a relatively small and isolated town, there aren’t many ATMs. Make sure to bring cash just in case the few ATMs that are there are out of service.