The Atacama desert is the most arid and inhospitable place in the world. Periods without rain are not counted by months, are count for decades. The mere fact of touring it is an adventure in itself.
It also has a multitude of attractions: a salar, volcanoes, geysers, altiplanic lagoons, archaeological remains, natural hot springs and, of course, completely arid valleys …
This destination is undoubtedly the main attraction in the north of Chile and one of the most important in South America.
1. When is the best date to visit the Atacama Desert?
You can travel all year round to this area. In summer (December-March) you will have more heat during the day and not so low temperatures in the morning. On the contrary, in winter (June-September) you will have somewhat lower temperatures during the day and quite cold in the morning.
Our advice is to travel in the spring or in the austral autumn (April-May, October-November). This way you will not get so much heat during the day and the mornings will not be as cold as in winter.
2. How much time is necessary to visit the Atacama Desert?
A 2 to 3 days is enough to see the main tourist attractions. However, if you have days available, we recommend that you also visit the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia. It is relatively close and perfectly complements this trip (3-4 more days).
3. How to get to the Atacama Desert?
There are several options to get here:
- Direct flight from Santiago to Calama. It is the most direct and quick way to arrive (1:40 hours). Once in Calama, take a bus or rent a car to reach San Pedro de Atacama (100 km).
- Direct flight from Santiago to Antofagasta. It is farther from San Pedro de Atacama than Calama, but if the availability of flights is better you can evaluate this option. Once in Antofagasta, take a bus or rent a car to reach San Pedro de Atacama (313 km).
- Travel by 4×4 from Bolivia. Uyuni is relatively close to the Atacama desert (at 440 km), so making the 2 visits on the same trip is an excellent option. In addition, on the road that joins these two destinations, there are several tourist attractions that are worth seeing: highland lagoons, natural hot springs, geysers, …
- Road trip from Santiago. The distance is very large, 1,630 km. We only recommend it if you want to make a trip of several days visiting cities of the north coast.
4. Where to stay in the Atacama Desert?
In San Pedro de Atacama, which is the population located in the Atacama desert, there is variety of accommodations. You can choose from hostels for backpackers, to luxury hotels, through medium-priced options and ecological accommodations.
5. Move through the Atacama Desert
You have different options at your disposal:
- Rent a car: It’s the option that gives you more freedom. In this way you can visit the salt flat, the lagoons and the valleys at your leisure. Also, we recommend that you do it at the Calama airport. In this way it will also serve to move you to San Pedro de Atacama, visit the desert and then return to the airport.
- Hire a tour: There are many agencies in San Pedro de Atacama, so you will have no problem finding the one that best suits your travel preferences and your budget.
- Rent a bike: If you are very sporty and adventurous, this can be a good option to move to the places of interest in the Atacama desert.
6. Altitude sickness
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is not located at a high altitude (2,408 meters above sea level), so there you are not likely to feel the discomfort of altitude sickness. However, in other nearby areas, such as the Laguna Miscanti (4,120 meters above sea level), you might feel some discomfort.
To avoid them, do not make sudden efforts, drink coca tea and, if your head aches, take paracetamol. In the event that you feel bad enough, descend as high as possible until your body reacts.
7. What places of interest are there in the Atacama Desert?
This place is one of the most visited in Chile. There are many places to discover:
- Valley of the Moon: It is called in this way because of the inhospitable and arid it is, resembling the surface of the moon. Here you can see striking natural formations: the amphitheater, the 3 marias and the greater dune. It is 13 km from San Pedro de Atacama.
- Death Valley: Located next to the Valley of the Moon and close to the Sal mountain range, is another of the valleys to visit in this desert area. It stands out for the strange rock formations eroded by the wind.
- Cejar lagoon: It has a very high concentration of salt, similar to the Dead Sea. This allows you to enjoy the sensation of swimming without sinking into the water.
- Atacama salt flats: With its 3,000 km2 it is the largest salt deposit in Chile (3rd in the world). Despite the uninhabitable of the place, there is a large number of flamingos that inhabit their lagoons.
- Tatio Geysers: Set of 80 geysers and fumaroles located at 4,200 meters above sea level. It is the 3rd largest group in the world, representing 8% of the total number of geysers worldwide.
- Altiplanic lagoons: They are located at an altitude higher than 4,000 meters above sea level. The only animals that inhabit them are flamingos, which feed on microorganisms that grow in these extreme waters. The main lagoons are: Miscanti, Miñiques, Tebinquiche and Chaxa.
- San Pedro de Atacama: It is the main population of the area (5,600 inhabitants). Here you will find both the agencies and the lodges to enjoy the experience in the desert.
- Volcanoes: Chile is one of the countries with the most volcanoes in the world. In this part of the country there are several: Licancabur (5,920 masl), Láscar (5,592 masl), Curiquinca (5,700 masl), Escalante (5,800 masl), Sairecabur (6,000 masl) … The most representative of the area is the Licancabur Volcano, located on the border with Bolivia, due to the perfection of its volcanic cone.
- Pucara de Quitor: Archaeological remains of the stone and mud fortress that defended the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. From the top you have a clear vision of the valleys, volcanoes and San Pedro de Atacama town. It was destroyed during the conquest of northern Chile 500 years ago.
8. Uyuni salt flats
Since you are in the north of Chile we recommend you, if you have availability for days, also cross to Bolivia to visit the Uyuni salt flats. There you can enjoy:
- A 4×4 adventure through the Andes.
- Tour the Uyuni salt flats.
- Observe the geysers and fumaroles in the area Sol de Mañana.
- Admire the altiplanic lagoons in the area.
- Contemplate the stone tree.
- Enjoy the Polques hot springs.
- Visit the train cemetery.
We hope these tips are useful for your trip to the Atacama Desert. Also, do not miss other destinations within Chile.
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