This article has been updated on February 15, 2021
Desierto de Atacama is a desert plateau, located in northern Chilean province Antofagasta near the country’s borders with Bolivia and Argentina. From a visitor point of view, we’re talking about an incredible region filled with numerous spectacles reminiscent of extraterrestrial-like terrain. In case you are planning to explore the Atacama desert, you’re in for a treat. The following piece will list the popular places to visit in the area, plus it will also offer few logistical travel tips to get the best out of this incredible place.
Few facts about Atacama Desert
Atacama desert is a 105 000km2 (41 000 square miles) large desert, most of which is sandwiched between the Andes and the Chilean Coastal mountain range which creates a barrier for ‘moisture import’ from the surrounding areas. Together with few other local nature attributes, such as the specific ocean currents, it creates a unique complex weather condition that makes Atacama the driest nonpolar desert in the world. For instance, while Sahara receives about 100mm (3.9 inches) of rain per year on average, the average rainfall in Atacama Desert is only about 15mm (0.6 inches) per year, but some locations only get just 1 to 3 mm (0.04 to 0.12 inches).
Another significant attribute that plays its role in the making of Atacama‘s “extraterrestrial-like” terrain of Atacama is the desert’s 2408metres altitude. While we all understand the use of the term “extraterrestrial-terrain” here in a metaphorical sense only, there’s a wee bit more to it. For instance, space agencies have used the area as an experimentation site on Earth for Mars expedition simulations. The film industry also took advantage of Atacama‘s landscapes and used the desert as a location for filming extraterrestrial scenes. Well, to be honest, there were actually quite a few films shot here and not only in the “extraterrestrial” context.
History-wise, the evidence shows that human existence in Atacama desert goes back as far as 10 000 years. From the more “recent” perspective, AKA prior to the arrival of the conquistadors and even before the Inca empire, the desert’s dry interior was inhabited by the Lican Antay culture (Atacameño tribe). Like many other indigenous communities in the Americas, history wasn’t kind to Atacameños.
The arrival of the Spanish Army, followed by the discovery of copper, gold, silver and iron as well as the world’s largest natural supply of sodium nitrate led to persecution and partial assimilation of the local indigenous communities. Some have however survived those dark historical periods and kept their cultural heritage alive even until the present day. Currently, there are about 20 thousand Atacameños living in 30 indigenous communities in the area.
Following the independence of Spain, the desert was shared by Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. The deadly combination of rich mineral deposits, unclear borders and human nature resulted in an 1879-1884 conflict between Chile and a Bolivian–Peruvian alliance that became known as the War of the Pacific (Guerra del Pacífico), mainly over the then-popular sodium nitrate. This is precisely when Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific Ocean, together with land that included San Pedro de Atacama, which they’ve been trying to regain ever since.
Prior to WWI, Chile had pretty much a monopoly on nitrate worldwide, extracting nearly 3 million tons of the mineral that gained a nickname Chile saltpetre which has been still used to make a wide range of products, such as preservatives in the food industry, fertilizers, smoke bombs and so on. However, since the development of synthetic nitrogen, mining has drastically reduced. The local economy is however still dependant on its minerals to a large extent, with sulphur and copper being mined.
Places to visit in Atacama Desert
As I’ve indicated above, many travellers would recommend Atacama Desert as one of the most surreal and unique places they have ever seen. Of course, such description depends on a perspective because if you live near the desert, you might find Patagonian glaciers, fjords and mountains more attractive and wise-versa. On the other hand, there arenot that many people who would not find the driest desert in the world, which also happens to be at 2,4km altitude exotic enough 😉 So what are the most popular attractions of Atacama Desert to be explored and why?
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about where we're talking about or in case you've fancied to start creating your own itinerary. Just sign in into your Google account and if any listed place sounds like your cup of tea, just click "want to go".
San Pedro de Atacama
Let’s start with the tourist centre of the area, the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. We’re talking about a small town with a permanent population of about 2500 permanent residents that’s filled with hotels, bars, restaurants, pubs and travel agents. As mentioned above, the history of this small settlement however goes as far as 10 thousand years back, when it was serving as a pit stop for the nomadic tribes. The town’s current form however begun to take shape with the arrival of conquistadors.
From the tourism point of view, San Pedro de Atacama still serves as a “pit stop” or let’s say a base for visitors’ explorations of the area that surrounds the town. There are however also few attractions you might consider checking out in the town itself. For instance, one cool thing I would advise you not to pass is The Meteorite Museum. I mean, how cool is it to be able to see and sometimes even touch the meteorites that are 4.6 billion years old?
In case you were interested in local indigenous communities, in San Pedro de Atacama, there’s an archaeological museum R.P. Gustavo Le Paige that displays many artefacts from Atacameño culture discovered in the area. Then there are the usual souvenir shops with products of local artists such as pottery, hats, bracelets and all that. The overall vibe of the town is rather pleasant, if you can ignore the very touristy atmosphere, from both, the good and the bad perspectives the tourist hotspots usually come with.
I mean that on one hand, there are many friendly and happy people, numerous nice restaurants and bars. On the other hand, we’re talking about a very dominant and sometimes even predatory tourist economy and a lot of scam. FYI, during my stay in San Pedro, I got inspired to start collecting the various scam tricks because many of them could be called rather inventive. Read more about that here, in case you were interested 😉
Attractions reachable by a rented bicycle from San Pedro
Only 3km outside of town, you could visit a 12th-century old pre-Columbian fortress that dates back to Pukará Quitor. After a short climb to the top, you’ll also get rewarded with spectacular views of the area. 9km southwest of San Pedro, there’s Aldea de Tulor, an abandoned ancient settlement that dates back to around 380BC. For an amazing sunset over Death Valley, don’t miss out on Mirador de Kari, just be prepared that you won’t be alone there.
Moon Valley and Death Valley
Valle de la Luna is located only about 13km/8miles from San Pedro so it’s reachable by a bike that you can rent in town. And yes, the name is spot on. I believe that if the moon landing conspiracy theorists visited this place, they would certainly say that the 1969 Apollo 11 event was filmed here 🙂 Halfway up to the Moon Valley, you’d reach another popular attraction Death Valley (Valle de Marte) that’s full of “extraterrestrial terrain”.
Rainbow Valley and the Petroglyphs at Hierbas Buenas
Approximately 90km north of San Pedro, you’d reach a basin of Rio Grande Valle del Arcoíris. The cobalt, gypsum and other minerals-rich hills and the weather conditions created a festival of colours in a form of an unforgettable spectacle. A very short distance away from here, there are other attractions, visitors often combine with the visit of Rainbow Valley, the Petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas. For a small fee, you could observe the ancient art that was created by the local tribes.
At 4 320 metres above sea level, Geysers Del Tatio is the highest geyser field in the world. The geothermal field covers an area of 30 km2 (12 square miles), which makes it the third-largest field, right after Yellowstone in the US and Dolina Geizerov in Russia. El Tatio field comprises 67 geysers, some of which could reach 10 metres in height. The peak of activity is between 5:30 and 7:30 in the morning, so make sure to dress accordingly 😉
Except for geysers, the area also contains nearly 300 thermal springs. Later in the day, when it gets a little warmer, people often take the opportunity to bathe at 4,320 meters above sea level. I mean how often do you get to do such a thing? Overall, this is yet another unforgettable experience for a visitor in the area that is boosted by the contrast between the snow-covered Andes you see in the background and the colourful hills that surround the field.
Los Flamencos National Reserve
Los Flamencos National Reserve is a 740 km (290 square miles) high altitude wetland, which makes it rather different or “greener” from most of the other attractions in the area. The area to explore is huge and the main attractions here are: Salar de Tara, Salar de Atacama, Salar de Aguas Calientes, Salar de Pujsa, Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons.
While this is yet another exceptionally beautiful area to check out, the depth of exploring it often depends on if you’ve been or planning to go to Uyuni Salt Flats. The thing is that on the first day of your 2-4 day tour there will be taking part in very similar surroundings not far from here. For those who went or are about to go to take the Uyuni tour and need to be more sufficient with time, there are various Los Flamencos National Reserve one day tours available from San Pedro.
The low light pollution in the region provides you with an opportunity to see the skies the way that not many people can. There are numerous options for booking a stargazing tour with the local agencies. In case you were really into stargazing a lot, there’s also ALMA Observatory for you to check out. It’s apparently the largest and most powerful observatory that is open to the public in the world.
Other possible attractions to consider in the area
I guess that I’ve listed the one week’s worth of ‘highlights+’ when it comes to what there’s to see and/or experience in and around San Pedro de Atacama. In case you still didn’t have enough and had more time to hang around here, there are quite a few other places for you to consider. Except for the numerous viewpoints you’ll be notified about when passing by, I’ll mention at least a few more places for you to consider checking out:
- Piedras Rojas a narrow lagoon that’s surrounded by visually stimulating red rocks and the nearby Laguna Cejar to take a dip in hot springs
- Laguna Chaxa, for flamingos;
- Laguna Tebinquinche for sunset colours reflection on a salt lake;
- Termas de Puritama to take a dip in hot springs.
San Pedro de Atacama has a little local alcohol prohibition going on. The sales of alcoholic beverages are banned after 11:30 pm and even before then, you should only be able to grab a drink if it’s served with food, which isn’t always the case. The rumour had it that you can’t even dance. The local municipal authorities apparently want San Pedro to remain focused on proper area-exploration tourism, rather than becoming a tourist party spot.
As a result of that, the locals organise the infamous “illegal” parties outside of town in their houses or some outdoor spots. I feel like that I must warn you though. It’s a tourist trap. The parties are not so “illegal” but the vibe created makes you feel like it. We’re talking about generator-powered pop-up venues with overpriced drinks, where cheap booze pretends to be of different high-quality brands, shady local characters and highly intoxicated crowds.
A tip: Unless you have some massive social deficit, it’s not worth the hangover from cheap booze, which is btw boosted by the suffering from it in the dormitory (:0 But if you feel like a party, have a drink in one of the busier bars with younger crowds and ask the bar person. Nearly everyone in town knows where the next “secret illegal” party will be. Don’t forget to take a warm jumper as the temperatures drop at night. Leave your valuables in your hotels and watch out whom you get your drinks from…
Except for the tourism-related scam and possible “accidents” on the “illegal” party, San Pedro is actually a very safe town, when it comes to human-made dangers. But then there are natural conditions you should bear in mind. First of all, you’ll be very high up so bear in mind that your haemoglobin levels might not be what you’re used to. The high altitude has a very wide spectrum of symptoms that are all very individual. Even fit and healthy lifestyle people can run out of breath here so please do not underestimate that during your treks. And always have water on you. After all, you’re in the driest desert in the world…
Furthermore, Atacama Desert is not hot as one can imagine, in fact, there could be quite pleasant temperatures during the day. However, the temperatures at night could drop quite low so make sure that you’re prepared for that, in case you went stargazing or to visit any location early morning. Also, think about protecting your body. For instance, when visiting the salt lakes, make sure to protect your eyes with appropriate sunglasses as the white shiny surfaces reflected in bright sunlight could damage your sight. Also, don’t forget about your skin. It might not feel like that but you can get quite burnt up here.
How to explore Atacama Desert?
As mentioned above, for some locations, you should be fine with renting a bicycle in town, which would give you the freedom to do what you want when you want. However, unless you have time to adjust to the altitude, for places located further away, you will have to use a motor vehicle of sorts.
Organised tours could be an option for you to get around the area. They however go place to place to cover the highlights and you have zero freedom of making random stops to enjoy the scenery. Plus I’m afraid that it also often takes the form of the so-called “sheep tourism”.
I mean that it appears that all agencies are doing the same trip at the same time, making stops at the same locations. It gets busy and the large crowds could turn the otherwise magical place into a semi-frustrated “yet another overcrowded place” kind of experience.
A tip: I therefore personally recommend exploring the area in a rented vehicle because in San Pedro de Atacama. However, please be aware that when I was there, there wasn’t a single rental car available in town. So if you can, try renting a car and do it in advance.
When to visit
I’m a big fan of shoulder seasons as they usually give you better prices, smaller crowds and more accommodation options. To a certain extent, it also works in San Pedro de Atacama, but the place also receives some visitors even in Austral Winter (July to September), which is a low season and it could get quite cold over there. The high season is December to February so I’d advise you to go any time between September and November or March and May.
In case you were just entering Chile, please do keep the little paper slip you will be given upon your arrival to Chile during the passport control. You’ll need it again when leaving the country. Furthermore, except for your country’s entry requirements agreement with Chile, please make sure that you must declare all products of plant and animal origin you are entering into Chile. The requirements are listed here.
Stay (or not)
San Pedro de Atacama is a well-oiled tourist machine. It has a tremendous amount of accommodation facilities, ranging from budget hostels up to five-star hotels. Depending on the season, many places might be booked out, because the area is among the most visited regions in Chile so make sure to book your room in advance, in case you were coming in high season (Dec-Feb).
Due to the low options and high prices, I’ve personally picked a dorm in Hostelworld‘s Rural La Florida. Like everything else in the town, the bunk bed at $17,-US wasn’t cheap. In spite of the fact that there was a nice patio with a ping pong table and a very attentive receptionist, I would not recommend this hostel. Other guests that were not staying in the room by the reception however appeared to be happy.
Sort of epilogue
How long do I need to explore Atacama Desert?
Atacama Desert is truly an exceptional place, if you are into nature, “Martian terrains”, stargazing, archaeology or indigenous communities. I’d say that in just over a week, you should be able to cover the basic highlights of the area, and that’s without the hangover from the “illegal party” or time needed for possible altitude adaptation, you might need, depending on how well will your body adjust/react.
That’s ‘one-week plus’, only if you don’t get totally crazy about the place. To be honest, I know people that went back 3 times, each time for two weeks. I mean the number of days you should count on to spend here obviously depends on how deep you want to explore the area. If you have reserved let’s say a little over two weeks, you could also lightly explore the neighbouring Bolivian Uyuni Salt Flats and perhaps spend few days in Argentinian Humanuaca Valley, both being 100% worth it (see the suggestions below).
Scam vs honest hospitality
As I’ve mentioned above, please be aware of the considerably high level of scam in San Pedro. Those are small things, such as repetitive loss of expensive clothing items upon their return from laundry or tricking you into ordering something more expensive and so on. After a little while, it might appear like it’s everywhere, what makes you think that everyone wants to do you.
I can assure you that it’s not like that. It only appears that way because bad shit is louder than good shit. There are many nice and honest people in San Pedro. In my humble opinion, it’s a shame how few people can nearly undo the hard work of many honest tourist guides and hotel or restaurant owners by creating a rather bad reputation for what some people began to call Scam Pedro de Atacama.
Useful links and curiosities
- San Pedro de Atacama website with various tips, accommodation, excursions and so on
- History, geography, fauna and flora of Atacama Desert: Explora‘s page
- Location, weather and facts: Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on Atacama
- Atacama People today: Marine Gauthier and Riccardo Pravettoni‘s article for The Guardian about Atacameños today
- War of the Pacific: An article describing the conflict in Encyclopedia Britannica
- What is a Geyser? Hobart M. King‘s article for Geology about geyser phenomenon
- Bolivia v Chile dispute over Atacama Desert: BBC’s article on the International Court of Justice ruling over Bolivia’s attempt to regain its access to the Pacific Ocean
- Atacama Desert as a filming location: Just out of curiosity, here‘s an IMDB’s list of films that were partially shot in the Atacama Desert
Other interesting destinations in the area
Uyuni Salt Flats
Many travellers book multi-day tours from San Pedro to experience the mesmerising Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. Some say that it’s more expensive if compared to a tour purchased directly in Bolivia but if you count in your expenses to get there and so on, the difference is actually not that big. Read more about a 3-day tour of Uyuni Salt Flats from San Pedro de Atacama here.
Except for the Atacama Desert, the northern Chilean region Antofagasta has plenty of attractions for a wide variety of activities. Whether you want to spend some time on the local beaches, climb the second highest peak outside Asia Nevado Ojos del Salado (6 893m), check out some of the region’s deserts of National Parks, there’s a lot to explore in this diverse province. For more details, please see Chile Travel‘s page here, in case you were interested.
Jujuy and Salta
Your other option is to cross the Andes and explore Northern Argentina. Read more about Jujuy and Salta here. Please be aware that this 12-13hrs stunning and comfortable bus journey cuts through the mountain pass at about 4000metres above sea level, where you’d have to stop and get your bags and passports checked. The altitude sickness starts kicking in at about 3000 metres. Take some headache pills in advance, in case you knew you’ll have thy symptoms 😉
Santiago de Chile, Valparaíso and/or Mendoza
Regarding the popular travel locations in Latin America, Santiago somewhat stays in the shadow of other popular metropolises on the continent. While it doesn’t have as much to offer as for example Buenos Aires or Rio, there are still few nice spots worth checking out in the Chilean capital.
If it wasn’t your cup of tea and you still had few spare days, only two hours away from Santiago on the Pacific shore, there’s a colourful and atmospheric bohemian city of Valparaíso to consider, about which you can read more here. Well, to be honest, you can also take a stunning 10-12hrs bus ride over the Andes to the Argentinean “wine capital” Mendoza from Santiago…
Traveller’s Guide to Chile
For more complex information about the whole country that includes basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit in Chile, please click here.