Surrounded by lunar landscapes and framed by the majestic Andes, you’ll find the town of San Pedro de Atacama. This quaint locality is the gateway to exploring the otherworldly Atacama Desert. With giant geyser fields, turquoise lagoons and rainbow mountains, there is so much to enjoy.
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The Atacama Desert | 3 Day Guide
We spent 3 days exploring the driest place on Earth and here’s our guide to get you started.
- Day 1: Valle de la Muerte & Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache
- Day 2: El Tatio & Valle de la Luna
- Day 3: Rainbow Valley & Yerbas Buenas
DAY ONE- Death Valley & Baltinache Lagoons
It’s important to note not all attractions require tours to get to. The ever popular Valle de la Luna & Valle de la Muerte ( Moon & Death Valley) are accessible by bicycle if you’re feeling a little more adventurous. Bikes are hired from numerous vendors in town for around $4.000CLP/6 hrs ($4.50USD). We found our Airbnb host was willing to do a slightly better deal, so went with them. We used the Maps.me app to get around.
Valle De La Muerte (Death Valley)
Our first morning saw us cycle the relatively quick and straightforward 30 minutes to Death Valley. It turns out cycling in the morning is a much more pleasant experience than any other time of day. This is due to the desert’s high altitude leading to cooler nights and ergo mornings. Afternoons can be a different story altogether and are often extremely hot. The entrance is set just off the road and is impossible to miss. There is a fee of $3.000CLP ($4USD). From here you sign in, and then continue another kilometre by bike, before dismounting and enjoying the remainder by foot.
Atacama Desert Tours usually operate to Moon and Death Valley in the afternoons. Mornings are the perfect time to beat the crowds, have the place to yourself and really soak up the alien landscape. There is one mirador at the end of the trail with views down over the valley; however we found the best exploration to be in and amongst the jagged, red rocks. Sand boarding is a popular activity to undertake in Death Valley and we saw a couple of tour groups setting up, although we did not book this to try ourselves. We spent a couple of hours in the valley before returning to town in time for lunch.
Hidden Lagoons of Baltinache
If you’ve been avidly stalking instagram in the planning of your trip, you won’t fail to have noticed images of this jaw dropping site. Clear turquoise pools dropped within crystal white salt platforms, slap bang in the middle of the desert. Wow. Baltinache is the site of 7 hidden lagoons, of which it is permitted to bathe in the first and the last. Of all the lagoons available to visit in the Atacama Desert, Baltinache should definitely be on your itinerary.
Your tour, should you choose to take this option, will run from 2.30-8pm. However, so will everyone else’s. We headed straight to the final pool, in the hope we could try for the ‘classic insta shot’ of looking like you have the place to yourself. Quickly we realised this was going to be easier said than done. Droves of visitors all with the same arrival time, quite rightly having fun enjoying the weightless feeling of floating in the pools, will leave your dream shot looking more like a nightmare.
However, the same arrival time also means the same departure time, and this piece of knowledge is where you really need to bide your time. Leading up to 5pm, the pool starts to clear as the masses take the walk back to join the shower queues so as to be ready to re join their tour buses. If you hold on till the end, you’ll have a window long enough to get those snaps. Let’s face it, they’ll be a queue for those showers whatever time you turn up. DO leave enough time to rinse down though, the salt coverage is quite something!
Moon Valley Sunset
Soon after leaving the lagoons we stopped for a lovely buffet spread. Next we headed on to the Cordillera de La Sal lookout point at Moon Valley for an epic sunset. The minibus then returns promptly to town. The tour, with Pukarumi, cost us $24.000CLP/person ($28USD) but again I have no doubt you will find this cheaper booking directly in town, even directly with Pukarumi themselves. Additionally there is a fee of $5.000CLP ($8USD) to enter the lagoons which you pay on arrival.
Tour guide address: Agencia Pukarumi. Carcoles 419-E (+56 9 5194 0900)
DAY TWO- El Tatio Geyser Field & Moon Valley
El Tatio Geysers
Exploring El Tatio Geysers in the Atacama Desert was a real treat! The Geyser field is the third largest in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. The minibus picks up before sunrise for the 1.5hr drive up to the field. The cold temperature is optimal for viewing the steam rising from the ground and so pre sunrise is the best time to arrive. The name ‘el Tatio’, loosely translated as ‘the Grandfather’, is due to the shape of one of one of the mountains resembling that of a sleeping grandad. It makes a wonderful silhouette as the sun begins to rise. The warm breakfast included is most welcome.
At 4,300m above sea level, not only is it extremely cold, but altitude sickness can be a real problem. It is recommended, if you haven’t fully acclimatised yet, to leave this excursion to the end of your trip.
STORY TIME: Somehow we’d managed to miss the memo on just how cold it would be- yeah we’re not sure how either, common sense had eluded us that morning. You can imagine our tour guides face when he turned up in the dead of night and we’re stood in our shorts! After a gentle suggestion to change, he very kindly waited as we rushed back to get trousers on and bring some extra layers. Boy we’re glad we did too. Layer up guys!
The tour, run by Tourismo Layana, cost us $19,000CLP ($22USD) and lasts from 4.30am-12pm, dropping us back off into town where we walked back to our accommodation.
Tour guide details: Turismo Layana (+56 9 9089 3109)
Valle de La Luna
As one of the first destinations that come to mind when taking a trip to the Atacama, we were keen to visit this place. To roll down the Duna Mayor, explore the salt caverns, stand with the Three Maria’s rock formation and stare across the lunar expanse from the Piedra del Coyote Mirador – we were ready to go.
However, imagine our disappointment on learning, after an arduous afternoon cycle to get there, that the valley can only be viewed by bike in the morning. Only tour groups allowed in the afternoon! Therefore Piedra del Coyote is the only part we are permitted to enter. Granted it is the star mirador of the valley, we still came away disappointed without having experienced the nooks and crannies of the valley. If you are keen on exploring this part of the Atacama Desert without a guide, GO IN THE MORNING! The Piedra Del Coyote overhang can no longer be accessed due to safety issues, but the views are still just as spectacular. This mirador is also the most popular spot for sunset.
DAY THREE- Rainbow Valley
Rainbow Valley was the surprise hero of our Atacama Desert stay. We highly rate our trip to these colourful peaks in the Domeyko Mountain range. Of course, Rainbow Mountain in Peru may be, or may have been on your travel itinerary, but that’s no reason to skip this tour. Running from 8am-1.30pm it cost us $25,000CLP/person ($28USD). We are picked up from our accommodation and driven the 1.5hrs to the range. A good breakfast is included and, like our previous tours, is very well organised. Our guide, Carolina, is rather excellent, has very good English, and explains perfectly the phenomenon of the mountains. You also have opportunity to play Petrologist when handed a tiny magnifying glass!
There’s a stop at Yerbas Buenas on the journey back to San Pedro- the sight of some wonderfully preserved petroglphs. A small entrance fee of $3,000CLP ($3.50USD) is paid and then it’s back to town. The top altitude reached at Rainbow Valley is 3,500m above sea level, so again it is recommended to fully acclimatise before embarking on this trip. We toured with Tourismo Layana again.
The Atacama is vast and there’s much to explore. I’m sure this guide only scratches the surface on all there is to do, however, it ticks so many boxes of enjoying the varied delights this area has to offer. Having your own wheels would afford a little more freedom in roaming the desert, having said that, the organised tours are top notch and cater to many needs. A trip to South America just wouldn’t be the same without a stop in at this otherworldly plain. We hope you’ll go see for yourselves.
Acclimatisation Guide to the Atacama Desert
Take precautions to reduce the risk of altitude sickness. Sitting at 2400m above sea level, San Pedro de Atacama teeters on the threshold by which most professionals believe you start to feel the effects of altitude. Put simply, altitude sickness can occur when the body has not had enough time to adjust to reduced oxygen levels in the air. This of course happens the higher above sea level you go. Age, physical fitness and gender make no difference, anyone can be affected. That said, it is always good to be mindful before booking trips in and around the Atacama, as many attractions reach heights of over 4000m. Good practice would be to give yourself at least 24 hours rest upon arrival.
Getting to & from the Atacama Desert
If you want ease, book a flight. One of the easiest ways to reach the Atacama is to take a flight from Santiago direct to El Loa Airport in Calama. We booked our flights with lastminute.com using SkyScanner. Our SKY Airline flight cost $44USD per person inc. checked in baggage. From the airport there is bus or taxi options for the one hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama. We found, at $12,000CLP ($13USD) each, it was more straightforward to book a private transfer straight to our accommodation, for little extra cost. We booked in advance with Transfer Pampa, one of 3 companies that operate out of the airport. They are the company we found easiest to book with online. Alternatively it looked possible to book these transfers on arrival as they seem to coordinate with the incoming flights.
From the Atacama Desert we were headed to the Uyuni salt flats. Again we booked a 3 day tour with denomades.com. This commenced from our accommodation in San Pedro and so everything was taken care of. The tour cost $129.000CLP/person ($149 USD) and includes all transportation, food and accommodation.
Alternatively, re book the the airport transfer and head back to Calama airport.
Where to Stay in San Pedro de Atacama
We spent 3 days exploring the Atacama desert’s natural wonders, choosing a quiet little hostel on the outskirts of town as our base. Through Airbnb we found Hostel Don Antonio. It offers the most incredible views of Volcan Licancabur, whilst having the added bonus of being slightly cheaper. It cost $34,328CLP/person($45USD) for a 4 night stay.
Atacama Desert Tours
Don’t book online, book on arrival. If you’re looking into the Atacama then chances are you’re looking into Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia also. Questions such as ‘Should you do both?’ ‘Is it worth choosing one over the other?’ ’ Is one better than the other etc?’ may be filling your mind. Quite frankly there is no right or wrong answer to those questions; we just knew that we wanted to visit both. In order to ensure we maximised what could be seen, and minimised the chance of seeing similar things twice, we purposefully planned the trips at the same time. We would highly recommend doing this as yes, lakes of 30,000 flamingos is mega cool, but do you need to spend time and money exploring that in Uyuni and the Atacama desert?
We pre booked our Atacama tours through www.denomades.com. The service they offer is quite frankly excellent, and they are by far the most reasonably priced online. If you want to be organised and have everything planned for your arrival, definitely look these guys up. HOWEVER, on arrival in San Pedro we quickly realised there are so many tour companies offering exactly the same thing that it really is unnecessary to pre book. By actually booking in town itself you will get a significantly better deal! There’s practically guaranteed zero risk, you will be able to book on arrival. Denomades use the local tour companies anyway.
Some of the tours start early in the morning and will very helpfully pick you up from your accommodation. Just make sure that your lodgings fall within the town perimeter, otherwise you will be required to walk to a point from where they are willing to get you.
Five Travel Accessories for the Atacama Desert
If you’re planning on visiting San Pedro de Atacama, which we hope you are, then here are a few essentials we recommend and you may want to consider. For a more comprehensive packing list, please check out the Ultimate Packing Checklist. It’s a great general summary of everything you’d need for a trip. For even more information check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack – you’ll need a good, sturdy rucksack when out exploring for the day. This Osprey is comfortable and distributes the load perfectly. Great for walking and cycling, plus doesn’t take up too much space on the tour buses.
- Karrimor 1L Clear Water Bottle x 2 – it’s a desert after all, so it’s a good idea to be well equipped with plenty of water. These bottles fit perfectly into the Osprey Scarab side pockets.
- Nikon D3400 Digital SLR Camera – you’ll be wanting to return home with lots of snaps of this place.
- Ray-Ban Polarised Clubmaster Square Sunglasses – sunglasses. Sun. No brainer.
- Hat– it’s always a good idea to cover your head during the middle of the day, especially in the open expanse of the desert. Pack a good hat!
- Cycle: Do hire bikes. It’s a popular and efficient way for exploring the Atacama Desert. The closer attractions are easily reached and you’ll save money on not having to book a tour.
- Layer up: Nights can be extremely cold, whilst the days can be unbearably hot. You’ll need layers for all eventualities. And remember to wrap up warm for any early or high altitude excursions.
- Extras: There’s an abudance of other things to see and do around San Pedro de Atacama. They include Chaxas Lagoon and the flamingos, Laguna Miscanti & Laguna Miniques, Licancabur Volcano, Pukara de Quitor- an ancient fortification, Puritama Hot Springs, Llano de Chjnantor Observatory for stargazing and Sand Boarding.
Let us know if you visit the Atacama Desert and how you get on with the sights, including any extras you may see. We love hearing from you.