What to do in the Atacama Desert – the highest and most arid desert in the world

What to do in the Atacama Desert – the highest and most arid desert in the world

The Atacama Desert, the highest and most arid desert in the world, located in northern Chile is one of the most visited places in the South American country. 

It’s one of the driest places in the world (~3-5% humidity) and has unique landscapes, an impressive night sky and wonderful places to explore, photograph, hike and enjoy!

In this post, I share my favourite activities in the Atacama Desert and useful travel tips to enjoy your stay in top shape and not be affected by the extreme geographical and environmental conditions.

Getting there

Calama Airport is the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama town, where you can find accommodation for all budgets. Calama Airport is about 1.5-hour drive from San Pedro de Atacama.

There are a few resort hotels outside the town that offer high-quality accommodation, spas, great food and drinks and professionally designed excursions. If you like comfort, I recommend staying at a high-end hotel where you will be taken care of, from the moment you land in Calama Airport throughout your stay. 

What to do in the Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama is high in altitude with extreme geographical and environmental conditions therefore, it’s important to strategically design the excursions you will do. For example, a must-see is El Tatio geyser field, but because it is located at 4,321 metres above sea level, locals advise to allow a few days for the body to get used to the altitude before going that high. Otherwise, you risk getting altitude sickness (headaches and nausea.)

flamingos eating in the water
Flamingos and altitude landscape

The ideal way to enjoy a trip to the Atacama Desert, in my opinion, is to mix it up and go on hiking excursions, sightseeing and photography excursions, astronomy class under the stars, as well as relax and recover from the physical activity in high altitude and dry weather. If you have access to swimming pools, spa and comfort, enjoy it because the experience will be even better.

Here are some ideas of what to do in the Atacama Desert

Explore the streets of San Pedro de Atacama town

San Pedro de Atacama is a small town, with a laid-back vibe. It is at 2,407 metres above sea level and has a population of around 5,500 inhabitants. There is a church, a square with a couple of restaurants and the main street with travel agencies that offer excursions, as well as souvenir shops, handcrafted jewellery shops, markets, restaurants and bars. 

Go to the Atacama Salt Flats and see the sunset

People usually go to see the Atacama salt flats early in the morning, to see the sunrise or later in the afternoon to see the sunset. According to locals, the sunset is more spectacular than the sunrise. 

sunset on a road with mountains in the back
Sunset at the Atacama salt flats with mountains in the background

The Atacama salt flats are not only an interesting landscape to explore but there is also wonderful fauna. In this area you find three kinds of flamingos; the Chilean (large bird with long neck, pale pink plumage and grey legs,) the Andean (one of the rarest in the world,) and the James (the smallest bird of the three.) They eat tiny shrimp that live in the saltwater. There are also beautiful small birds that fly in groups and seem to dance around, and Andean seagulls which have black and white feathers.

At sunset, the colour of the landscape changes; the salt flats and the mountains around become pink and purple.

I had never seen flamingos fly until I went to the Atacama salt flats. They look wonderful in the air.

Explore the Moon Valley

The Moon Valley is located about 25 km from San Pedro de Atacama and at 2,550 metres above sea level. The landscape is arid, with different textures like sand dunes, saline outcrops, stone formations that look like sculptures and a variety of caverns. If you stay quiet, you can listen to the salt outcrops crack as they expand in the heat and shrink in the cold.

Don’t miss the ‘Three Marys,’ a natural formation that resembles three women praying. There is another stone formation with no name. To my eyes, it looks like the head of a camel looking back. What do you think?

If you have blue skies, the contrast of the landscape and the sky is beautiful.

Go on a scenic 5k hike at Kari Gorge

The Kari Gorge two-hour hike was one of my favourite activities. It is located about 25 km from San Pedro de Atacama at 2,550 metres above sea level. 

You start contemplating a valley from the Salt Mountain Range with volcanoes in the backdrop. The hike continues down a sand dune gently filling your shoes with sand as you contemplate the landscape.

The scenery becomes more dramatic as you get closer to the river and walk through the Kari gorge, crawl in caves with crystallised salt on the ceiling, walk on salt outcrops, admire the different textures and shades of nature and a white carpet of crystallised salt. The echo of crackling salt expanding in the heat was a spectacular experience. I highly recommend this hike.

Go on a Cactus Gorge Hike at ‘Quebrada de Los Cardones’

The Quebrada de Los Cardones is located about 35 km from San Pedro de Atacama at 3,166 metres above sea level. The hike takes about two hours and is about 5 km long. The landscape in this hike is greener and has water. You’ll walk down a gorge to the river Vilama. The walk is along the shallow river Vilama, crossing it several times, going uphill and downhill, walking on narrow paths admiring the many cactus in the area and the fabulous scenery. Towards the end of the hike, the path becomes flat and wide. This is a challenging hike so make sure you are in good shape and have proper shoes. The next day your thighs might be sore but the experience is well worth it.

We saw two ‘vizcachas,’ a local animal that looks like a big rabbit with a long tail and jumps like a kangaroo.

Vizcacha
A Vizcacha in its habitat

There are three types of cactus in this area; one with a round shape that grows close to the ground and they call ‘the mother in law’s pillow,’ a long and tall cactus with one branch and long tall cactus with multiple branches and small flowers. Cactus grow 1cm per year, the prickles attract humidity and the water concentrates in the core of the cacti. 

Visit El Tatio geyser field and Machuca town

El Tatio is a geyser field, the third-largest geyser field in the world, located 100 km from San Pedro de Atacama at 4,321 metres above sea level. 

The low temperature of the early morning (~-5C) combined with the high temperature of the water result in a dramatic discharge of water and steam. Later in the day, when the temperature increases, the activity is less spectacular. This is why, excursions to El Tatio are planned early in the morning, usually a 5 am departure. Mud geysers are also in-store and are spectacular.

In the excursion we took, they drove us to a beautiful isolated place with spectacular landscape and fauna; birds, vicuñas and guanacos. They prepared an amazing buffet breakfast on-site. 

Near El Tatio is the town of Machuca. It is the smallest town that I’ve ever seen. 

Tip

Wake up early and be ready to leave at 5 am. Wear several layers of clothes and be prepared for about negative five Celsius temperature. As the morning goes by and you descend in altitude, the temperature goes up and you can remove layers.

Attend an astronomy class under the stars

At night, the sky is black and filled with stars and planets. Watching the stars around a bonfire with a glass of wine was my favourite activity in the evenings.

Bonfire at night
Bonfire, wine and a beautiful sky

However, one night we attended an amazing astronomy tour. We lied down on swivel lounge chairs and let the knowledgeable guide explain the stars and planets pointing with a laser beam. We could also look through a 17 and 12mm telescope. This is another ‘must-do’ in the Atacama Desert.

black sky full of stars
The night sky in the Atacama Desert

Visit the Paranal Observatory (ESO)

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is the pre-eminent intergovernmental science and technology organisation in astronomy. If you are interested, you may visit the Paranal Observatory on the weekends.

Paranal observatory
The Paranal observatory from far, in the middle of the desert

Relax and pamper yourself while enjoying the scenery

If you stay at a resort with a spa and swimming pool, I encourage you to take advantage of the facilities. The excursions can be quite a workout and in such dry weather and high altitude, the muscles need to recover and the body to relax. Get a massage, go for a swim, chill in the hot tub, have a drink while enjoying the scenery, read a good book and enjoy life.

12 travel tips to avoid altitude sickness (headaches and nausea) & be in top shape

  1. Before travelling to high altitude and on the day of arrival, do not eat heavy food such as meat and fried food.
  2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate…but with water. Avoid sweet drinks like soda, as well as too much alcohol.
  3. Do not stay for too long under the sun.
  4. Use high SPF all the time (face and body.) 
  5. For more skin hydration and freshness, use a thermal water mist. Mine was very handy 😉
  6. Protect your face with a hat or visor.
  7. Design your excursions starting from the lower to the higher altitude.
  8. Hydrate your skin with a nourishing cream or oil.
  9. Hydrate your lips with lip balm.
  10. Wear sunglasses outside.
  11. Wear proper shoes for hiking excursions.
  12. Walk slowly on the first day or two. 

There are more hikes, scenic strolls, volcanoes, lakes and natural beauty to explore. Prioritize according to the time you have and leave some time for relaxation. Enjoy this wonderful destination!

a illuminated trail and a mountain in the back
The colours of the desert at dusk

Read more travel tips from around the world here   

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