The Atacama Desert is one of Chile’s most exciting places to visit, comprising as it does incredible landscapes of salt flats and saline lakes, high-altitude geysers, softly smoking volcanoes and lunar rock formations. However, when I visited San Pedro de Atacama, Chile in 2016, I struggled to find much information about how to see the region’s main highlights without paying for costly tours. But it is possible: read on and I’ll show you how with this guide to the top things to do in the Atacama Desert.
Hire a car and go self-guided around the Atacama Desert
Although most backpackers in San Pedro de Atacama march the streets looking for the best deals on the Atacama Desert tours being offered along the high street, one of the easiest (and most affordable) means of visiting the region’s main sites is by renting a vehicle.
We found that having our own wheels made access to the region’s top attractions cheaper, but also that venturing to the remotest sections of the Atacama Desert easier and considerably more fun.
How to rent a car in San Pedro de Atacama
Plan ahead and rent a car in Calama, the biggest town in the region and about an hour’s drive from San Pedro de Atacama. It’s also the main transport hub for visitors to the region, so you’ll likely fly into Calama El Loa Airport or arrive at its bus terminal.
There are at least three international car rental companies in the city (Avis, Europcar and Econorent), just make sure you book at least a month in advance if visiting during high season (December through February). We found almost all of the vehicles to have been booked when we were there in early January and instead ended up renting very last-minute with the Europcar office in San Pedro which charged us over $70,000 CLP per day – hardly the cheapest way of doing it.
Expect to pay upwards of $300.000 CLP for a one week rental of a 4×4. Although it is possible to tour in a 2×4 (just don’t try and go off road, we actually had to pull someone out of a sand bank who had), a 4×4 allows for more of an adventure, if at a higher price.
From Europcar we received a useful (but hand-drawn) road map of San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings. This allowed us to plan where we were going as it included additional information about the various attractions, as well as distances between them.
I’ve tried to include as much of this information in this article. However, I would also suggest you download maps.me (and the other free apps that recommend for travel in South America) as having an actual map and using GPS is always advisable.
Top things to do in the Atacama Desert
Visit Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) and Salar de Talar, Ruta 23
This was actually one of our final day-trips and definitely my highlight from this list of things to do in the Atacama Desert. Surrounded by a ring of volcanoes, Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) are an expanse of red hued rocks that look like a set of huge natural cobblestones.
You can walk on top of this weird natural formation while watching the gentle lapping of the neighbouring saline lake and the blinding white of the Salar de Talar, a much smaller and cleaner salt flat than you will have seen previously in the Atacama Desert.
How to get to Piedras Rojas and the Salar de Talar
Ruta 23 leaves San Pedro de Atacama heading towards the south and is paved right until Socaire, 90km away. From here, the road is a dirt track until you arrive at Salar de Talar and Piedras Rojas. In total, the journey should take around two and a half hours. At Piedras Rojas, there is no entrance fee.
It’s also possible to continue along Ruta 23 as Laguna Tuyajto, 10km further along the road, often contains large groups of flamingos feeding in the shallows. Don’t go too far along this road as you’re right on the Argentine border and you need special insurance to legally drive across.
Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques
Located only a short distance from Piedras Rojas and the Salar de Talar are two gleaming lagoons, Miscanti and Miñiques. Salt-rimmed and flanked on all sides by gently undulating rusty coloured hills and rough, sun baked shrubs, these lakes are perhaps the most beautiful in the whole of the Atacama Desert.
It is a true introduction to the barren landscapes of the Andean altiplano but the combination of motionless water and the brightest blue sky you will have even seen more than make up for the stark, inhospitable nature of the surrounding area.
How to get to Laguna Miscanit and Miñiques
From San Pedro de Atacama, it’s 90km to Socaire (around one hour) and a further 20km to reach the turn off to the lakes (which I think is signposted). You are required to pay around $2.500 CLP entrance fee to the park guard before entering.
We arrived at around 5.30pm and were only allowed in for a short visit and some pictures. Try and arrive earlier in the day to make sure you’ve got time to enter. Be aware that they’re located at an altitude of 4,320m above sea level so make sure you bring plenty of water to stay hydrated on the trip.
Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) and the petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas
Perhaps the least visited of the places on this list of things to do in the Atacama Desert, Valle del Arcoíris and the nearby petroglyphs are two other places that I strongly recommend, particularly if you’ve rented a car.
Your first stop will be the petroglyphs, where a series of rocky outcrops house carvings that have left relief images of guanacos, foxes, men and cross-legged shaman. It’s the best site for seeing cave paintings in the whole region and it’s not hard to see how these carvings have been so well-preserved – the fierce dryness of the desert is excellent at keeping things in place – and it’s worth considering the indigenous groups who survived in such a hostile place when you’re admiring these incredible etchings.
Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) is next: an aptly named tapestry of multicoloured rocks that weave through a series of hills through the river basin of Río Grande. They are hued in mint green, dusty red and even splashes of white, caused, no doubt, by the mineral content of the rock.
We arrived for sunset and the shadows cast over the valley added an extra sense of magic. We didn’t see any other tourist during our visit – if you want to find things to do in the Atacama Desert far away from the gringo trail then a trip to Valle del Arcoíris definitely fits the bill.
How to get to Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) and the petroglyphs at Hierbas Buenas
Take Ruta 23 north-west out of San Pedro de Atacama until at around 35km (30 minutes) you reach a right-hand turning onto a dirt road which is signposted towards Río Grande.
After around another half an hour you should arrive at Hierbas Buenas and the petroglyphs where you must pay $2.000 CLP entry. From there, continue along the main road and take the left turning towards Lican before you reach the bridge. All of this is unpaved and only suitable for vehicles with high suspension. Continue along this road and after about 15-20 minutes you should start seeing the colours of the valley.
Again, I would strongly recommend you download maps.me (literally my favourite adventure travel app) on your phone before you leave as it’s not the easiest place to find and there’s also the possibility of getting lost in the valley as there are several dirt tracks that pass through.
Set up your own star gazing tour
One of the best parts of hiring a car to visit the Atacama Desert is the freedom it gives you to drive off into the wilderness. Not only did we spend an afternoon taking tiny dirt tracks just to see where they went, but we drove out of San Pedro and to a spot a few kilometres away where we could star gaze.
Although I would certainly recommend taking a proper tour (see below), it was still a lot of fun taking the truck out, finding a spot without any light pollution and enjoying the stars.
The police did come and ask us what we were doing (I think a person in a nearby house had alerted them to our vehicle) but “estamos veyendo las estrellas” (“we’re watching the stars”) was enough explanation.
How to go stargazing in the Atacama Desert
We took the road off towards El Tatio Geysers and pulled off down a dirt track and parked up by the side of the road. You don’t have to get far away from the town to escape the light pollution and to realise why the Atacama Desert is one of the globe’s most spectacular places for admiring the constellations.
For an actual tour, I would strongly recommend SPACE (San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations) tours. They’re regarded as the best in town as they have the largest number of telescopes of any public observatory in South America.
They conduct tours in English, Spanish and French and are so popular that you will need to book; they’re often fully-reserved a week or so in advance. However, if you are travelling on your own then it’s possible to visit the office about 5/6pm to see if there have been any cancellations. This happened to me for a Spanish-speaking tour for the same evening and a guy I met got on an English tour using the same method.
It’s also possible to visit ALMA, a huge radio telescope and the most powerful observatory for studying the universe on the planet. You can visit on Saturdays and Sundays but again you must reserve, possible even a few months in advance using their online booking portal.
Although the (free) tour is during the day so you won’t be seeing any stars, you will get to look at the equipment that they use and learn about their latest discoveries about the universe. I unfortunately left it too late to book but I heard it’s a really worthwhile experience and one of the most fascinating things to do in the Atacama Desert if you’re interested in space.
Go camping and hiking in the desert
Although few people do it, it is possible to go hiking and camping in the Atacama Desert. We didn’t end up camping as the guys I was travelling with didn’t have any equipment and so it was easier to stay in San Pedro de Atacama. However, if you’re on a budget or just have a real sense of adventure and some decent camping equipment, it is worth doing.
We did go hiking in the Atacama Desert one afternoon when we tried to climb up Volcano Lascar. Although it was without much success, it resulted in an excellent story of escaping pumas down the edge of a sand dune.
How to go camping hiking in the Atacama Desert
If you want to go trekking, again I would strongly recommend that you download maps.me so that you are aware of where you are at all times. It’s also esssential to take provisions; it can be incredibly hot in the desert, even at altitude, so always have plenty of water with you.
In terms of camping overnight, be aware that there is no wood for building a fire so you will need a cooking stove. Temperatures can drop to -2˚C at night, particularly if you’re at altitude so layers, a good sleeping bag and high-quality tent are important.
Drive out to Salar de Tara
Although we were told at the time that visiting Salar de Tara was among the things to do in the Atacama Desert that you can only experience with a tour, it is actually possible to reach this huge stretch of salt flats and lagoons using your own vehicle.
As one of the least visited places in the Atacama Desert, you’re unlikely to spot any other tourists during your day trip and so you’ll have the whole saline lagoons, sights of feeding flamingos and strange rock formations – the Monjes de la Pacana – all to yourself.
How to visit the Salar de Tara
Part of the issue with visiting the Salar de Tara is that there are no clearly defined roads on the map and you definitely do need a 4×4 to arrive. I would recommend that you speak to the owner of your hostel and see if they can provide you with a map for how to get there.
From Ruta 27 from San Pedro de Atacama, it’s about 100km to reach Monjes de la Pacana and then from here it’s off-road – at which point you will need instructions to get to the Salar de Tara.
Other useful information about visiting the Atacama Desert
Other things to do in San Pedro de Atacama
We also visited the following places on our tour of the Atacama Desert:
- El Tatio Geysers: the highest geothermal field in the world and home to a series of impressive geysers that are most beautiful at dawn.
- Valle de la Luna: red rocks weathered by the desert sands to look like what I imagine the surface of Mars appears. Again, most magical at dawn or dusk.
- Laguna Chaxa: inhabited by three types of flamingos (James’s, Chilean and Andean) and with views of the vast Salar de Atacama.
- Laguna Tebinquiche: possibly my favourite lake, purely for the way that the colours of sunset seem to merge into the lake itself, turning its edges soft pastel shades.
- Termas de Puritama: crystal clear naturally formed hot bathing pools are found here and there’s plenty of room so you might even be able to have your own for the day. As entry costs around $15,000 CLP, it’s worth spending a whole morning or afternoon to make the most of your fee.
Places to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama is very expensive, even by Chilean standards. Remember that, as in most of South America, there are a lot more hostels on the ground than you’ll find on the internet, so be prepared to take a wander around looking for accommodation that you might otherwise have missed.
When I visited, I stayed in two different hostels:
Backpackers San Pedro Hostel, just off Calle Algarrobo
This hostel was clean and had plenty of communal space (including two large kitchens) but was a little out of town (which shouldn’t be too serious but it is hot and difficult walking at 2,400m above sea level in a desert!). It seemed quite expensive compared to some of the other options in town, but prices have gone down and now a bed in a dorm costs around $9.000 CLP
Hostal Eden Atacameño, Calle Toconao
We ended up moving to this much smaller hostel as there wasn’t any more space in Backpackers. This place had a decent sized kitchen, hammocks and a shady communal area with access to WIFI and for around the same price, you get a private room.
We enjoyed it but it sounds like they have become a lot stricter about what you can and can’t do there now according to recent reviews on Trip Advisor. I would suggest you visit and ask about their rules before committing.
Transportation from San Pedro de Atacama
From San Pedro de Atacama, buses leave for Salta, Argentina (11 hours). These generally only depart in the morning and as this is a popular crossing for backpackers, it’s recommended to book a couple of days in advance.
From nearby Calama (one hour’s drive from San Pedro), you can find buses to Bolivia (8 hours) (again only leaving in the morning and not necessarily every day) as well as buses to Santiago (24 hours).
Flights from Calama de Santiago can often be only a little bit more expensive than buses and take a tenth of the time. Flights start from $57,000 CLP but it’s worth booking a few weeks in advance. Try Atrapalo and Skyscanner.net to get the best deals.
Other places to visit in Chile
No trip to Chile would be completed without heading to the far south and Patagonia – a true adventure playground for travellers!
From the ultimate Chilean road trip along the Carretera Austral to penguin colonies and wild Patagonian scenery, there’s plenty of reasons to head south after your trip to the Atacama Desert.
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