What to See in the Atacama Desert: 8 Desert Places (and One Sweet Spot) in Chile's Other Wild Side

Think of Chile's wild side and you probably think Patagonia, right? But like every yin & yang, the South American country of Chile has a flip side too. Meet the Atacama, Chile's other wild side at the northernmost end of the second longest country in the world. Equally epic in every way, just completely different.

 

Spanning across four South American countries: Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, the Atacama desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world, and one of the most picturesque landscapes I’ve ever seen. I'm still amazed it remains one of my favorite destinations for its breathtaking - no - jaw-dropping... surreal landscape. 

8 Places to Explore in the Atacama Desert
Atacama desert, Chile

The Atacama desert lies at over 8,200 feet above sea level (2,500 meters), between the Andes mountain range skirting its eastern edge and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west. The Andes act as a natural barrier from the heavy moisture of the Amazon basin, leaving the desert with such low humidity there are still parts of the Atacama with no recorded rainfall since record-keeping began! Amazing, right?

 

With its intense blinding sun and high altitude, the Atacama desert is parched. Squeaky parched! Every drop of moisture evaporates from the Earth’s surface, and the natural geo-thermal activity of the region heats the ground from below, so the simmering cauldron of sand and mud literally boils before your eyes leaving behind crusty tubes of salt jutting out of the ground. You can actually hear the ground snap, crackle, and popping all around you. But its hardly barren and lifeless here. In fact, there's life everywhere - tadpoles by the millions in the hot springs and geyser field puddles at El Tatio, patches of greenery among the bright yellow desert grass, and the occasional oasis amidst miles and miles of sand dunes. There are so much places to explore here and take in the endless views that stretch out as far as you can see. 

    Atacama desert, Chile
    Salar de Atacama, Chile

    To Tour or Not to Tour

     

    We love traveling independently so we rented a car for the week (2 wheel drive) and avoided the group tours. It's easy to navigate on your own, and you'll have the freedom and flexibility to explore the sites at your leisure. In fact, several times we literally followed tour vans into places like Laguna Cejar, Valle de la Luna, and other places, waited 15 minutes or so until they moved on, then had the entire place to ourselves for much longer. That said, most travelers here do take group tours for day trips and sunset to the Valle de la Luna. Tours also offer a degree of freedom - not having to worry about driving, getting back in the dark, etc. Whichever you choose, make sure you visit these 8 incredible places. In 3-5 days you'll have no problem seeing them all!

     

      1. Salar de Atacama

      Salar de Atacama, Atacama desert, Chile

      The Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats, cover large expanses of the region and you’ll find some of the most scenic flats not far from the pueblo town of San Pedro de Atacama. Take the main road out of town and head south. You'll see signs for the Sala de Atacama with craggy basins of white salt extending out in every direction. Stop the car and get out - and you’ll hear the salt snap, crackle, and pop of the scorched earth in the heat. Walking on it is another adventure entirely. Be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots as the flats aren’t really smooth at all but rather like small clusters of sharp coral.

      fumerole, Atacama desert, Chile

      The Salt Mountain Range and the Atacama Salt Plains have been shaped throughout time by the rain and the wind, giving rise to enormous shapes and mineral brilliance made up of salt hills, gypsum and clay, spectacular natural sculptures of various colors as a result of the minerals that form part of this natural attraction. 

       

      2. Los Flamencos National Reserve

      Andean flamingo, with bright yellow legs

      Andean flamingo, with bright yellow legs

      The National Flamingo Reserve covers an roughly 740 square kilometers (180,000 acres) with seven different sections. Some sections lie within other sites listed here. Flamingos here feed on small crustaceans and algae rich in beta carotene, which give the birds their well known pink color. Look for the different type of flamingoes: the Andean, Chilean, and James Flamingo.   

      Chilean flamingos with red bands at the knees, are typically more orange in color

      Chilean flamingos with red bands at the knees, are typically more orange in color

      Chilean flamingo, Atacama desert, Chile

       

      3. Laguna Cejar

      Laguna Cejar, Atacama desert, Chile

      Laguna Cejar is popular for a reason – it’s one of the only places near San Pedro de Atacama where you can get in the cold water and swim, even if you're just bobbing about. The super-salty water keeps you buoyant and won’t let you sink, making it fun but tricky to swim. You’ll stay skimming along the top of the water and never sink at all. But the water is refreshing and the heavy salt crust leaves your skin exfoliated and baby soft. There are fresh-water showers and changing rooms next to the lake near the entrance so bring a change of clothes.

      I'm crusted over with dried salt after my swim in the lagoon

      I'm crusted over with dried salt after my swim in the lagoon

       


      4. Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)

      Everyday around 3:00pm, tourists in town start gathering outside tour offices waiting for the vans to shuttle them out to the Valle de la Luna for sunset. The Valley of the Moon should not be missed. For a small entrance fee you can drive in and hike or drive around the Valley in its ever-changing sunlight.

      Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile

      Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to go, but you’ll compete with tour buses later in the afternoon. If you drive yourself just for sunset (get there before 5:00pm at least or they won't let you in), head out an hour or two ahead of time so you can hike up the dunes for the best view. You won’t believe how insanely beautiful sunset can be!

      Valle de la Luna, Atacama desert, Chile

      When it's time to leave the Park (you'll see all the tour vans leaving), don't head back to town. If you're driving, make a left at the entrance away from San Pedro and head up to the Valle Overlook, about a mile up on your left. You'll see cars parked off in the distance. The light is just as spectacular from this vantage point and extends your sunset viewing even more.

      View from the Overlook, looking back on where you'd be watching the sunset in the Valle de la Luna

      View from the Overlook, looking back on where you'd be watching the sunset in the Valle de la Luna

      TIP: Take along a nice Chilean wine to pop when its done! :-)

      The Atacama's sunset and night sky are something to celebrate!

      The Atacama's sunset and night sky are something to celebrate!

       


      5. Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)

      The Atacama’s Valley of the Dead is equally as impressive as the Moon Valley nearby, but in a very different way. Large rock formations jut out from among the sprawling sand dunes, and driving here can be tricky with rock slides and sand drifts. If you’re into extreme sports, hook up with a sand boarding tour in town and glide down the dunes.

      Valle de la Muerte, Atacama desert, Chile
      Sandboarding, Valle de la Muerte, Atacama desert, Chile

      Driving around here on your own can be tricky - just watch the sand depth and stick to the hard packed road!

      Valle de la Muerte, Atacama desert, Chile

       


      6. El Tatio Geysers

      El Tatio geysers, Atacama desert, Chile

      El Tatio is the highest geothermal field in the world at over 14,000 feet. In the early morning hours (around 5:30am), impressive steam fumaroles are most active gushing super-heated water way up high, and creating plumes of steam in the cold mountain air.

      El Tatio geysers, Atacama desert, Chile

      Since the geysers are a two hour drive from San Pedro, you'll have to get up early (around 3:30-4:00am) to hit the road from San Pedro if you want to get there when they're spouting their highest. If you're driving yourself, take your time and watch your speed. The drive is demanding  as the road is unpaved (hard packed) with lots of twists and turns, and it's pitch black out with no ambient light or street lights. But it is so worth it - especially the gorgeous drive back down - just take it slow and you'll be good to go!

      El Tatio geysers, Atacama desert, Chile

      The area around the geyser field is covered with mineral deposits and thermal ponds, and is surrounded by mountains reaching over 19,000 feet. The road to the geysers leads through the most epic lunar landscapes you’re likely to see anywhere in the Atacama. 

      Just when you think no life could exist in this harsh environment, millions of tadpoles prove you wrong

      Just when you think no life could exist in this harsh environment, millions of tadpoles prove you wrong

      Many El Tatio tours include time to take a dip after visiting the geysers, but you don't need a tour to go

      Many El Tatio tours include time to take a dip after visiting the geysers, but you don't need a tour to go


      7. The Night Sky

      Night sky, Atacama desert, Chile

      The Atacama desert is one of the world’s best places to see and photograph the night sky. If you love stargazing or astrophotography, it should be on your bucket list. The high elevation of the desert means you’ll have a crystal clear view of the heavens year round. It’s such an attraction that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array – or ALMA – here, the largest astronomical project in existence. ALMA is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau near San Pedro de Atacama. The observatory is open for public visits during the weekends. Plan on catching a tour when you visit, or bring your tripod to capture some amazing shots of your own.

      Night sky, Atacama desert, Chile

       


      8. Lagunas Altiplanicas: Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques

      The Altiplanic Lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques are located just 90 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama but more than 4,000 meters above sea level! As you drive up to the high elevation, you may barely notice if you get lightheaded or short of breath, as the drive up is gradual. Both lagoons are fed by water sources that come right from the surface of the land and surrounding mountains.

      Laguna Miscanti, Atacama desert, Chile

      These highland lagoons are one of the 7 sectors that make up the Los Flamencos National Reserve. You'll see volcanoes, snow capped mountains, yellow desert grass, and the indigo blue of the lagoons in one incredible view after another. There's an abundance of wildlife here too -species of flamingos, tagua cornuda nesting on the shores, Chilean flamingo, and vicuna. 

      Vicuna, Atacama desert, Chile

      9. A Final {Sweet} Spot: Artisanal Ice Cream! 

      Ice cream, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

      After just a few days in the Atacama, your throat may start fighting back against the constant dust and harsh desert air. No amount of water will soothe you quite like a coat of cool ice cream, and we found the perfect place to get it - Heladeria Tierra de Sol.

       

      Tierra de Sol creates 100% artisanal ice cream made from desert ingredients found in the Atacama like chañar, hoja de coca, and tres berries. How cool is that?

       

      Trust me, your throat will thank you!


      What to Bring With You Each Day

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      Like this article. Pin This!

      • Water
      • Sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat
      • Sturdy footwear
      • Selfie props (you know, like the cup, purse, or bottle you'll need to play with for those false perspective shots!)
      • A map or GPS
      • Small denominations of Chilean pesos for site admission fees (they often can't make change)
      • Swimsuit, towel, and change of clothes
      • Snacks

      Have you been to the Atacama desert, or are you planning a trip? What's your favorite must-see place?