Atacama Desert Travel Guide
Chile is renowned for its contrasting landscapes, flaunting everything from frozen mountain ranges to sun-drenched vineyards; dense, native forests to remote Pacific Ocean islands. This is undoubtedly a mesmerising natural wonderland, and one of the most enthralling regions in Chile is an extreme place – the driest landscape of its kind on Earth – the Atacama Desert. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Atacama Desert is like another world. Travellers come from far and wide to lay eyes on the extraordinary Mars-like scenery here in northern Chile, and we really don’t blame them! If you’re considering venturing here yourself, discover our Atacama Desert Travel Guide to learn more about this special corner of Chile.
Why visit the Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert has so much appeal for visitors. First there’s the jaw-dropping scenery, comprising salt flats, geysers and fumaroles, volcanoes, red-rock valleys, mineral-rich lagoons, thermal pools, gorges and more – some of them providing habitat for Flamingos, Vicuñas and Viscachas. It’s a stunning mix that makes for an awe-inspiring backdrop, whether you are out on an adventure or lapping it all up from the comfort of your Atacama lodge. Then there are the night skies, which are illuminated with spellbinding constellations that are clear to see thanks to a significant lack of light pollution here in the desert. What’s more, this region in northern Chile is home to Atacameño communities, who have been living in San Pedro de Atacama and around since approximately 9,000BC.
When is the best time to visit the Atacama Desert
You can visit the Atacama Desert at any time of year, although the winter season – which falls between June and August – brings significantly colder nights. Due to its high altitude (7,900ft/2,407m), temperatures can actually fall below 0⁰C at this time. On the other hand, high season takes place between the months of December and February, as the Atacama summer boasts warmer temperatures both in the day and night. Of course, high season means more tourists, so you’ll be sharing the Atacama Desert’s famous sites with fellow travellers too. If you want to avoid this, consider visiting the Atacama Desert in the shoulder seasons: spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May). During these periods, temperatures are more bearable than in winter and there are fewer tourists than in summer.
What to pack for the Atacama Desert
Here are some of the essentials we recommend bringing with you on your trip to the Atacama Desert:
- Hiking shoes
- Windproof jacket
- Gloves and hat
- Vest top
- Sun hat
- SPF lotion
- Swimsuit (for the hotel pool and natural hot springs)
How to get to the Atacama Desert
OK, so you’re ready to start planning your Atacama trip. How do you get there? The nearest airport to the Atacama Desert is Calama (CJC), a direct 2-hour flight from Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Airlines that offer this route are LATAM, JetSMART and Sky. Once you arrive in Calama, it’s roughly a one-hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama, the region’s hub where all the hotels, restaurants and excursion operators are based. Usually, your lodge will provide complimentary transfers as part of the package – the best hotels do anyway!
Another way to get to the Atacama Desert is by car or shared transfer from across the border in Bolivia or Argentina. It’s a great way to combine the Atacama Desert with the Uyuni Salt Flats, Siloli Desert and Salvador Dali Desert in southern Bolivia, or Salta and Jujuy in northwest Argentina. After spending a few days in Bolivia – admiring the impressive salt flats, lagoons and canyons – you can continue to San Pedro de Atacama by road, a journey of about 2 hours from the Salvador Dali Desert. From the rainbow mountains of Purmamarca in Jujuy, northwest Argentina, it’s a longer drive of about 5-6 hours.
What to do in the Atacama Desert
Once you arrive in the Atacama Desert, you’ll have so many sights, activities and day trips to choose from. You can go hiking, horse riding and biking; embark on 4×4 adventures; see the Hierbas Buenas petroglyphs in the Rainbow Valley; relax in thermal hot springs at Puritama; and go stargazing at night (or visit the ALMA observatory). Some of the most intriguing sights in the Atacama Desert are, of course, natural phenomena. For example, we highly recommend exploring the Tara Salt Flats; El Tatio Geysers; Moon Valley; the Chaxa, Cejar, Tebinquinche, Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons; Death Valley; and Devil’s Canyon.
These extraordinary sights are peppered across a huge expanse of 105,000sq km/41,000 sq miles, so if staying for just a few days, you’ll probably want to have an idea beforehand of where you want to go most. Plus, there are some fascinating cultural activities you might want to incorporate too. Be sure to spend some time wandering around San Pedro de Atacama, taking in its 18th-century adobe church; Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum; the central plaza; and eateries lining the Calle Caracoles.
Where to stay in the Atacama Desert
Don’t think you’ll be roughing it here. There are some absolute gems when it comes to hotels in the Atacama Desert, many of them award-winning, boutique hideaways with all-inclusive fare and activities. Our favourite hotels in the region are Tierra Atacama, explora Atacama, Awasi Atacama and Alto Atacama, all of them boasting sublime desert views, exhilarating activities, swimming pools and exquisite Andean cuisine. As well as these impressive facilities, we love them for their impeccable hospitality standards and in-depth knowledge of the region.
Start planning your trip to the Atacama Desert today. Use our free online trip builder to handpick the hotels and activities you want, adjust the durations depending on how long you want to stay in each place, and have fun in the process! Surtrek is always at hand to help out. Call us on 1 866 978 7398 (Canada and USA) or 080 8189 0438 (UK) to talk to an expert, and Discover Your South America with Surtrek!