The Atacama desert is an incredible place the offers the breathtaking scenery, bizarre landscape, unique ecosystem and amazing opportunities for adventure enthusiasts to explore some of the desert’s hidden gems in a unique way. In this post, we tried to divide things to do in the Atacama desert according to their type and the way they can be done – with a tour (rental car) or independently.
When planning a visit to the Atacama desert it’s important to decide what you want to see and to do there. Most of the attractions are not accessible by public transport and are too far to walk or cycle there from San Pedro. To get the best out of your Atacama visit and not to spend a lot we’d suggest to combine independent activities and tours. All nearby natural wonders like the Moon Valley or the Death Valley can be visited independently by bike or even walking from the town. Most of the lagoons and volcanoes are quite far from San Pedro de Atacama you’ll need a vehicle to get there.
Another important thing to keep in mind is where you’re coming from or going to after the Atacama. If you’re heading to/coming from Uyuni Salt flats in Bolivia you don’t want to see similar attractions, rather something different that you don’t see in Uyuni. For example, we came from Uyuni and during our 3-day tour got to see many colorful lakes, salt flats, many flamingoes and a couple of geysers though those are smaller than the ones in the Atacama. Out of many attractions in the Atacama, we were not too interested in visiting lakes (except those where you can float in salt water) and flamingos but we did want to see more volcanoes, geysers, and archeological sites. If you’re not going to Uyuni after the Atacama then try to diversify the attractions you visit and the activities you do as much as you can and go to the main ones in each category; lakes, volcanoes, valleys, etc.
Suggested Chile & South America tours
Best time to visit the Atacama
Despite being a desert there are three seasons in the Atacama; May to September – winter when the days are nice and pleasant but the nights are cold, the night temperature sometimes goes below 0°C. Summer months (December to March) are hot, day temperatures are around 30°C, at night it cools down to 20°C. The most rainfalls occur between January and March and sometimes if it rains a lot it can result in the attractions being closed. At the beginning of February 2019, most of the tours in the Atacama were canceled due to heavy rainfall (yeh, how crazy it is!). Maybe February is not the best time to visit the Atacama, check the discussions in TripAdvisor. In shoulder season (April, October, and November) the days are not as hot as in the summer and the nights are not as cold as in the winter.
We were in the Atacama in December, just before Christmas, it was very hot and busy if you decide to come here at the end of the year make sure to book accommodation and transport beforehand. We hitchhiked out of San Pedro all the way to La Serena but we heard from other travelers that it was difficult to buy a bus ticket as everything was sold out. December and January is the busiest time for traveling Chile.
Where to stay in San Pedro
There are plenty of accommodation options in the town from camping and staying in a dormitory to luxury hotels and cabins.
- Camping Quilarcay, CLP 6500/US$9,5 per person
- Bosque Los Perales, CLP 5500-8500/US$8-12 per person (price varies depending on the season)
- Camping Los Chañares, CLP5000/US$7 per person
We decided to divide the things to do in the Atacama first, according to if they can be done independently and without renting a car or only with a tour (car option).
Let’s start with the activities and attractions that don’t need a tour which means you can do them independently (activities) or get to them (attractions) walking or cycling from San Pedro de Atacama. These are the most budget things in the area.
Luckily there are quite a few of them so if you’re on a really tight budget you still will be able to see some amazing things in the Atacama.
Things to do without a tour
Cycling. It’s important to remember that it gets very hot out there in the afternoon so the best time for cycling is early morning and evening. Don’t forget to take enough water, to put on sunscreen and to wear a cap or a hat. Renting a bicycle is the most budget way to do sightseeing around San Pedro de Atacama this way you can get to the Moon Valley, the Death Valley, Devil’s Throat, etc. There are several places in the town where you can rent a bicycle just make sure you get a bicycle lock and a light (in case you’ll decide to stay in the Valley for the sunset and will cycle back in the dark).
We loved cycling through the desert stopping on the way to take photos and to enjoy the scenery. To rent a bike in San Pedro costs CLP 3000/US$4,5 for half of a day.
Hiking in the desert. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?! It might be obvious but you’ll have to carry a lot of water you get really thirsty out there. As for the hiking route we went through the Death Valley we actually combined two activities; hiking and camping so it took us a while to find the right spot for pitching a tent. The next morning on the way back we walked through the Devil’s Throat and actually got a bit lost in the maze. In general, the hiking experience was great, there were very few people we saw mostly locals walking past small villages. If you’re not planning to camp and just want to go for a walk in the desert the Death Valley is probably the best option.
Camping in the desert. If you decide to experience camping in the driest place on Earth make sure to take enough water that will last you for the way to and back. We walked around in the desert for quite a while before we found a suitable place for pitching our tent. The ground is very rocky and it’s difficult to find a flat sandy spot. We pitched the tent and didn’t see a persons around but sometime in the middle of the night we started hearing people’s voices and music as we found out later there was a party in one of the local villages and after it finished locals went back home and our tent was on the way to another village. We didn’t have any problem nobody bothered us it was just uncomfortable to sit in the tent and hear strangers passing by in the dark.
The night (before the night’s hustle) in the desert was amazing, we brought a camping cooking set, made dinner and were sitting outside eating and looking at the sky, it gets quite chilly at night make sure to have sleeping bags or blankets with. The next morning was wonderful as well we woke up early just before the sunrise, made coffee, packed our stuff and started heading back before it got too hot, visiting on the way the Devil’s Throat gorge. We arrived in the town before midday.
Two highlights and the most accessible natural attractions in the Atacama are the Death Valley (Valle de la Muerte) and the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). Both valleys are located just km from the town you can basically walk there but I’d suggest going by bicycle (as we did) the area inside is quite big and to get a chance to see it you’ll need some kind of transport. If you’re really on a tight budget these two definitely are should be in your bucket list.
As we suggest in our 3-day itinerary it’s best to go visit the valleys in the morning or in the evening because of the heat. The bizarre landscape of the Moon Valley does give you a feeling of being on another planet. If you have time we’d suggest to explore it extensively and to cycle all the way to Tres Marias (Three Marys) – natural rock formations that stand out on the plain. The sunset from Piedra del Coyote in the Moon Valley is stunning but prepare to see many people in the valley this time of the day. If you want to visit the Valley without crowds, the morning is a better time. The entrance to the Valley is about 6km away from San Pedro de Atacama town, cycling it’s nothing. Entrance price CLP3000/US$4,5.
The Death Valley has even more bizarre landscape with less sand and salt and more clay formations that were shaped by the wind and the water for thousands of years. The landscape reminds a labyrinth it’s nice to walk around and explore the area. We visited the place in the morning and there were very few people, plus it was nice and cool. The entrance is only 3km from the town you can basically walk there. Entrance fee CLP1000/US$1,5.
Devil’s Throat & El Túnel. Both places are located close to each other, about 500 m away. The best way to visit them is to rent a bicycle in San Pedro de Atacama, it’s about 6-7 km one way. It’s possible to reach both places walking but you’ll have to walk along the road for most of the time but the road is not very busy, mainly tourist cars driving by. We visited both as a part of our hiking/camping adventure in the Atacama but cycling would be definitely better.
After the Devil’s Throat, you can cycle/walk for 500m to get to El Túnel, a tunnel in the mountain built in the 30th, you can cycle through it.
Pukará de Quitor, an archeological site of the Pre-Colombian period located just 3 km outside of San Pedro on the gravel road. Here you can see the remains of an ancient fortress built by local tribes in the 12th century. We highly recommend to walk to the viewpoint, about 700m and a steep ascent to the top, from there you’ll get one of the best views of Death Valley. Entrance fee CLP 5000/US$7. You can walk here and back from the town or go by bike which is faster and gives you a chance to visit more sights located nearby.
Tulor – another archeological site in the Atacama accessible by bike. Tulor is located about 9 km south of the town on the gravel road. Tulor is an ancient village that consists of more than 20 constructions from houses to boreholes and even human remains. The origins of the settlement date back 2500 years. Entrance fee CLP 5000/US$7 per person.
If you think cycling to both places is too much of a mission you can join a tour San Pedro de Atacama: Pukara de Quitor and Tulor Village
Walking around the town. San Pedro de Atacama is not a big town but there are some nice things to see like the Square (Plaza de San Pedro de Atacama), the church, the meteorite museum. There are many nice coffee shops and restaurants in the town where you can chill out between the tours.
Things to do in the Atacama with a tour
Hot air balloon ride. It’s always an incredible experience to observe a natural wonder like a desert or a lake from the air. The bizarre landscape of Atacama is a great place to do a ride. The tours leave very early in the morning, 5am-5.30am in order to make it for the sunrise. Just imagine the waste desert of the Atacama with the sun rising over the horizon. Tours run year round, price CLP 215 000/US$315 per person.
Climbing Cerro Toco. Cerro Toco is a real giant, 5600m mountain close to the border with Bolivia. Due to its accessibility, it’s the most climbed mountain in the Andes. Unlike many 5000m peaks where you start the climb from 2000m or 3000m and steadily walk up for a couple of days, here you can get by car all the way to 5000m and walk the rest 600m up in a couple of hours. Important to remember that going that high requires good acclimatization, make sure to stay for a couple of days around the Atacama before attempting to summit. It takes half a day to get to Cerro Toco from San Pedro de Atacama, climb to the top and get back to the town. Tours leave early in the morning. Price around 100US$ per person including guide, transport, breakfast and lunch, oxygen (in case).
Hiking Zapaleri Volcano. Another local giant, 50m higher than the previous peak, a 5650m volcano that marks the triple border point between Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. The climb starts at about 5000m till there you can get by car but you’ll need a 4×4 vehicle, the road is very rocky and bumpy. It’s recommended to do the climb with a guide. This hike requires proper acclimatization as well.
Sandboarding. If you have never tried sandboarding do it in the Atacama, there are some pretty impressive dunes to slide down. Most of the sandboarding tours take place in Death Valley there are several suitable dunes of different sizes and slopes’ inclinations. Going down standing is not as easy as it looks and it’s not exactly like snowboarding, you basically go down straight. My favorite was going down a bigger dune laying on the board on my stomach or sitting on the board, it was fast and exciting vs slow and clumsy standing descend.
Make sure to bring water and sunscreen. I’d suggest as well wearing a long sleeve shirt and long pants in case you fall to escape stretches and for extra sun protection. Some companies offer even night sandboarding tours not sure how it feels but I guess there will be significantly fewer people. Price from CLP 20 000/US$30 per person, including equipment (a board and a helmet), transport and a guide.
These are probably the main reason tourists come to the Atacama therefor if you don’t have much time or your budget is not high enough to tour around the desert for days we’d suggest doing one or two tours that cover diverse attractions; lakes, geysers, and volcanoes, etc.
Incredible lakes and lagoons of Atacama
There are many of them, different colors, with flamingos, for swimming, with volcanoes on the background, etc. which one to choose is up to you but we’d definitely recommend visiting Laguna Cejar or less touristy Laguna Baltinache where you can float in the salt water like in the Dead Sea. Both lakes are stunning, Laguna Cejar is only 18 km away from San Pedro de Atacama which explains its popularity, Laguna Baltinache is 57 km away, it’s smaller and attracts fewer people.
If you want to see flamingos visit beautiful Laguna Chaxa should be in your bucket list, in the summer you can see many flamingos there. The lake is located in the Flamencos National Reserve, in the middle of the Salar de Atacama.
Famous Lagunas Altiplanicas is another popular attractions to visit in the Atacama, two lakes Miscanti Lake and Laguna Miñiques are worth visit. We didn’t go there we thought we saw a lot of lakes in Uyuni but these lakes do look beautiful in the photos especially in the winter surrounded by snow. The lakes are located next to each other, about 110km south from San Pedro de Atacama, the same road that goes to Laguna Chaxa and the Salar. On the way to the Lagunas Altiplanicas, there is salt lake – Lejia Lake.
As for the lake with the most impressive turquoise color, I think Laguna Verde (Green Lake) is the winner here, it does look green certain time of the day. Surrounded by the volcanoes and mountains this lake looks stunning on a nice sunny day.
Chile is famous for its multiple volcanoes and the Atacama area is not an exclusion, here you can see some sleeping giant like Licancabur and Láscar volcanos. Lincancabur is probably the most iconic volcano in the Atacama, it’s almost 6000m high (5916m). Lincancabur volcano is located 60km east from San Pedro it can be seen from the town. Lincancabur has a perfect cone shape – a great spot for taking photos, especially in winter when its peak covered in snow. For those who like adventure, we’d recommend hiking to the crater of the volcano. We didn’t know about it otherwise would have definitely gone, it doesn’t happen often that you can in a relatively easy way to get to 6000m.
Láscar is another massive volcano near San Pedro de Atacama, about km south. It’s a little bit smaller than the previous one, 5592m high, but much more active, in fact, Lascar is the most active volcano in the region. Despite the fact that it’s an active volcano it’s possible to climb to its top as well which is in a way even more exciting as you climb to the crater of the active volcano. These two peaks are definitely in our bucket list, next time we’re in the area we’ll do it first thing. To book a tour shop around in the town, there are several companies that offer the climb.
Geysers & hot springs
Antofagasta region in Chile has one of the highest concentration of geysers in the world after the Yellowstone in the US and the Geysers Valley in Kamchatka, Russia. El Tatio geyser field consists of more than 60 geysers, located at 4320m it’s the highest geyser field in the world. So for us seeing El Tatio in the Atacama was a must-do activity though we did see a couple of geysers in Uyuni as well they were not as many and as big as here. Hot springs in the valley are another reason to visit El Tatio you can soak in their hot waters enjoying the stunning scenery around. It’s better to come here in the morning when it’s chilly outside during the day it’s hot enough unless you come here in winter.
For those who like more of a tranquil and relaxing bath experience, Termas de Puritama is a perfect option, the system of pools located in a picturesque canyon. There are eight pools, the water temperature in the pools varies between 28 and 30C. There are toilets and changing rooms at the pool. In order to make the experience relaxing and enjoyable, the number of people allowed in the pools at the same time is restricted. Entrance from CLP 9000/US$13.
Valles & salt flats
To be honest we completely skipped this part because we just came from a 3-day tour in Uyuni and felt like we’ve seen enough salt flats, deserts, and bizarre rock formations. I don’t want to see that those in the Atacama look just like the once in Uyuni not at all and if we had more time and higher budget we would like to go and visit all of them but we had to choose and decided to see something else. Pedras Rojas (Red Stones) and Salar de Tara are the most visited attractions in this category. As you can guess from the name, the Valley is covered with huge reddish boulders, the color is the result of the oxidation of iron. The red stones contrast with the blue-white color of the nearby salar (salt flat) and lake, a great spot for photography lovers. Piedras Rojas valley is located about 150km away from San Pedro.
As for Salar de Tara if you’ve been to Uyuni in Bolivia or Salina Grandes in Argentina I wouldn’t recommend visiting this one as well, yes, it’s less touristy but in my opinion less impressive as well compared to the other two, here and there you can see patches of salt but it’s not like the whole area is covered in it. If you have never seen a salt flat go for it, it’ll be interesting and unusual.
If you want to see famous Cardones (gigantic cactuses) that grow in the north of Argentina and Chile and in Uyuni head to the Cactus Valley. Some of the cacti are 5-7m high, which means they’re very old, considering that they grow a couple of centimeters per year, some of them are over 300 years old. Locals use cacti as a building material and make some parts of their houses (windows, doors) using it. Again, if you’re coming from Uyuni you’ve already seen with thousands of these cactus and probably took hundreds of photos as well. It’s possible to do an hour hike (4km) through the valley to enjoy the scenery.
Another interesting valley to visit in the Atacama is the Rainbow Valley as you can guess from the name it boasts different colors (not exactly the rainbow colors but still pretty impressive for a desert). Rocks and the ground here are colored in reddish, brownish, greenish and whitish colors. The valley is located 90km from San Pedro, it’s a short 3-hour tour.
Stargazing in the desert
For us it was another highlight of Atacama or actually any desert, the sky there is just absolutely stunning, I’ve never seen so many stars and constellations in my life (not, actually I did see it once again in Namibia), imagine how much you can see out there with a telescope. The stargazing tour is very interesting and educational. Just remember, close to the full Moon you won’t be able to see much, the Moon is just too bright.
You will be surprised how many interesting villages, town, and archeological sites are hidden in the vasts of Atacama desert. Most of the towns can be visited as a part of a tour and are usually combined with visits to some natural attractions like lakes and geysers. Don’t expect local villages and ruins being as impressive as Machu Picchu these are more of a pleasant place to stop for lunch or to buy souvenirs kind of places.
Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs. Probably one of the most interesting archeological sites in the Atacama desert. Yerbas Buenas is located 50km away from San Pedro de Atacama, it’s less than an hour drive. There are hundreds of petroglyphs in the area. They date 10 000 years back and were created by the Atacamaño people who inhabited the region at that time. To get more out of the visit we’d suggest coming here with a guide that will provide some interesting facts about the petroglyphs and the history of the region. The petroglyphs are usually visited as a part of a tour to the Rainbow Valley. Entrance fee CLP 3000/US$4 per person.
Chacabuco village. One of the several abandoned nitrate towns in the region, probably the best-preserved one. The town was founded in 1924 during the nitrate boom in Chile but after the invention of the synthetic analog, all the mines were shut down by the end of the 30th. Unlike the other mine towns, Chacabuco history continued in the second half of the 20th century when it was used as a concentration camp for political prisoners of the Pinochet regime. We love visiting ghost towns in the desert like this one of Kolmanskop in Namibia. Chacabuco is an interesting place the only problem is the location, it’s quite far from San Pedro, about 200km but like other sites that can be visited as a part of a tour.
Toconao village. The name of the town from the Kunza (a native language spoken by the indigenous) means “place of stone” referring to the volcanic rocks liparite the material that was used in the construction of the town’s buildings. The main attractions of the village are the church, one of the oldest in Chile, and the bell tower. Toconao is located 37km south from San Pedro, it’s a popular stop on the way to the Atacama salt flat. There is a small valley Valle de Jere near the town, it’s a small green oasis next to the river, just a nice shortstop on the way.
Socaire town. A small village 100km south from San Pedro, another stop on the way to the Atacama salt flat. A small church and local handicrafts are the main highlights of the town. Many buses and tour stop here on the way to the salar. We wouldn’t recommend driving that far just to see the village but it’s a nice stop if you’re going that way.
Machuca village. The closest to San Pedro, only 44km away, this small village with only 20 houses represents a traditional local village of the region. All houses have a similar construction, one-story stone buildings very similar to the houses you stay in Uyuni. Machuca is usually visited on the way to Tatio geyser. It’s a relatively new tourist destination but in the last few years, locals opened here several hotels and restaurants if you rent a car it might be a good place to stay overnight to experience the local culture.
Handy items to take with to the Atacama
If you’re planning to camp in the desert, you’ll need;
Day 1. Cycling in the desert
Rent a bicycle in San Pedro and cycle to the Death Valley first, before it gets too hot, explore it, stop for photos. From the town, you’ll have to cycle along the road but it’s only 3 km from the town to the entrance.
From there go back to the road and cycle towards the Devil’s Throat. The road that way has significantly less traffic.
On the way stop at Pukará de Quitor, about 2 km from the Death Valley entrance. To get to the viewpoint you’ll have to walk for 1,5 km.
Continue to the Devil’s Throat, about 4 km. You can cycle in the canyon or leave your bike and explore it walking.
Go to El Túnel, another 600 m.
Once done cycle all the way back to San Pedro, 7 km.
Total cycling distance – 16 km + the distance you’re going to cycle/walk inside the parks.
Going out for lunch and resting in your hotel again before the evening cycling mission. It’s great to stay in a place with a pool at that time of the day you just want to sit there forever.
Take a bike and cycle to the Moon Valley, it’s about 7 km to the entrance. From there you can cycle inside the park there are many interesting things to see or if you’re tired or don’t have much time just go straight to Piedra del Coyote (a viewpoint) that is just 1 km away to see the sunset.
Day 2. Join a tour/rent a car
After the intensive cycling day joining a tour and just sitting in a car is not a bad idea. The previous day there was a lot of desert, sand, and rocks so why not to visit one of the lakes or geysers for a change.
Suggested tours & activities
A perfect way to finish the day is to do stargazing in the desert. To get a chance to observe the night sky and learn a lot about constellations, planets and the solar system in general, the best option is to join the Astronomical tour, where you’ll get a chance to look at the night sky through a telescope. For those who are on a tight budget just walking out of the town away from electric lights is a good alternative.
Day 3. Hiking & camping in the desert
You can do a tour in the morning and visit some archeological sites in the Atacama;
I’d suggest combining both activities because to find a decent camping spot you’ll have to walk out of the town anyway which means both activities can be done in the second half of the day. You could start in the morning but to spend the entire day in the desert you’ll need a lot of water, plus sitting in the tent in the afternoon heat is unbearable. At night you’ll get another chance to admire the night sky covered in billions of stars.
Day 4. Hiking back to San Pedro
Wake up early to enjoy the sunrise in the desert, make breakfast, pack your tent and start heading back to the town.
As for renting a car we didn’t do it in San Pedro, we checked around and for the two of us it worked out more expensive per day than joining a tour. I guess if you’re more people or rent for a couple of days it might be worth it.
Food in San Pedro
There are many restaurants and cafes in the town, all expensive. Breakfast options from CLP 2500/$3,5, set lunch from CLP 3500/$5, family pizza CLP 10 000/$15, big sandwich CLP 2300/$3,3, coffee from CLP 1000/$1,5, etc.
Cooking will save a lot of money, try to find a hotel/hostel with a kitchen. There are no supermarkets in San Pedro, only small shops where you can buy pretty much everything you need for cooking. Prices in shops for the same things are different don’t be lazy and shop around a bit to find the best. We bought most of the stuff in SYS minimarket at Calle (street) Caracoles.
Recommended books & guidebooks