The Ultimate Self-Driving Itinerary for Atacama Desert, Chile + Must-See Spots
The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world and one of Chile’s top places to see. The landscapes and rock formations here are so unlike anywhere else in the world that you’ll be left breathless, quite literally, and stupified by its beauty. If, when you hear the word desert, golden, endless sand dunes, camel rides and mystical desert camps come to mind you may as well do away with those expectations now. The Atacama Desert is very rocky and dusty and if you visit the Atacama Salt Flats the landscape is white, arid and simply put baking. Landscapes that transfer you to the Moon and to Mars immediately spring to mind. What you’ll see here on this Atacama desert itinerary are landscapes eroded by the wind and flash floods over billions of years.
There is so much variety is this region of Chile that you can easily spend a week working your way around all the beautiful, turquoise lagoons, altiplanic landscapes, numerous salt-flats, volcanoes, traditional Atacamanian villages, smoking geysers and chasing all the local wildlife. Four days, however, is enough to see most of what this uniquely beautiful part of the world has to offer and anything between 3-6 days is great.
For this particular trip, we decided to rent a car and explore on our own. I have also, on a previous occasion, visited the desert and done only tours and each option has it’s positive and negative aspects and you can find all those in my next blog post. Having a car simply gives you the flexibility to be able to visit places at your own pace, stop where you like to take photos, have a snack or go to the bathroom.
Atacama Desert Itinerary: General
WHEN TO GO
The Atacama Desert is a year-round destination. High season falls during Chilean summer (Dec-Feb) and low season is in winter (June-August). While the day temperature stays similar year-round the night temperatures can fall into the minuses (Celcius) during the winter. If you’re looking to go when there are fewer tourists winter in the best option. Whichever season you choose to go make sure you take clothes for both extremely hot weather and freezing weather.
WHERE TO STAY
Most people base themselves out of San Pedro de Atacama, a dusty, authentic desert village containing all the accommodation, amenities and restaurants you’ll need throughout your trip. I’d highly recommend staying there. We used Airbnb and stayed in a simple but lovely room. If you haven’t yet tried out the joys of Airbnb, make sure you do and save $25 off your first stay here.
Booking also has some great options to suit any budget. Generally speaking though, San Pedro de Atacama’s accommodation isn’t the best value. You’ll pay about $50 per night for a simple, no-thrills guesthouse room. There are also many hostels around offering dorm beds for about $18 per night, however, if you’re travelling as a couple we found Airbnb to be the best value for money.
WHERE TO EAT
Plant-based eating options in San Pedro de Atacama don’t excite, quite honestly yet this isn’t a culinary destination. In general, food is expensive and the best time to eat in town is at lunchtime when many restaurants have a set meal for a cheaper price. The only vegetarian restaurant in town is Estrella Negra which serves a variety of salads, burgers and various main dishes. It is possible that many other restaurants also offer veggie and even vegan options but we didn’t explore any further.
By Plane– Most flights land in Calama, a mining city 100km to the West of San Pedro de Atacama. LATAM, Sky Airlines and JetSmart all offer cheap flights from Santiago and other many Chilean cities. Once you land at the airport you can rent a car right there or grab a shuttle bus to San Pedro de Atacama.
By Bus– Many long-distance buses from all over Chile and also Argentina arrive in Calama or even San Pedro if you’re lucky. From Calama bus station it’s very easy to make the onward connection to San Pedro de Atacama. On average it takes 19 hours to get there by bus from Santiago and bus tickets are sometimes even more expensive than flights.
From Uyuni– Many tours of the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia can drop you off in San Pedro ready for you to continue your trip into Chile. Same is true the other way around and there any many tours that offer excursions of the Bolivian Salt Flats, ending in Uyuni.
SELF-DRIVE TOP TIPS
↠ If your budget allows, rent a 4×4 for this Atacama desert itinerary. You may not need it but it definitely helps to have a car with a higher clearance. Most of the roads are sealed but not always and there are many potholes and bumps which just feel a lot smoother in a larger vehicle.
↠ Places to eat lunch are sometimes scarce. After landing in Calama I’d highly recommend stopping at a supermarket to load up on snacks and supplies before continuing on. My favourites are nut and seed mixes, hummus and other veggie dips with crackers, bread and more hummus for sandwiches you can make in the car and fruit like bananas and apples. Night temperatures are generally quite low so the car acts as a fridge at night conserving all the food.
↠ Drink lots of water and wear sunscreen. The sun here is fierce and due to the altitude, it’s advised to drink more water than usual anyway. It isn’t advisable to drink the tap water in San Pedro. We bought three 6 litre containers of water, kept them in the car and refilled our reusable bottles as we needed. It wasn’t ideal but this was the best, most eco-friendly option we could find.
↠ It’s high so take it slow. San Pedro sits at 2,500 metres above sea level and that’s generally the lowest point. The highest point we visited was 4,800m. Aim to visit the highest points on the last days of the itinerary. This gives you the maximum amount of time possible to acclimatise. Our itinerary below takes this all into account.
↠Annoyingly you can’t fly a drone almost anywhere you’d actually like to. If you are a drone pilot you’ll find this really frustrating. They make it quite clear to you and when I refused to leave mine with someone I didn’t know she threatened to break it if I was caught flying it.
↠ Valle de la Luna, one of Atacama’s most popular spots can only be visited in the morning or for sunset with a reservation if you aren’t part of a tour. If you’d like to see this popular valley and sunset spot, you’ll have to come by one morning and make a reservation. We simply didn’t manage to weave it into this itinerary and watched the sunset from a valley lookout point instead.
San Pedro is a desert oasis with four roads radiating out from it, West to Calama, East to Argentina and Bolivia, South to the Salt Flats and North to Bolivia and the Tatio Geysers. This made dividing up our days really easy and we simply took a different direction each day.
ATACAMA DESERT ITINERARY: DAY ONE – WEST
After arriving in Calama, renting your car at the airport and doing a supermarket run, head onto Route 23 and towards San Pedro de Atacama. The first stop of the trip is to Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache which are reached by a 45-minute dirt road ride (the turning for which is a little before you get to San Pedro). The entrance fee is CLP$5,000 per person.
Here you’ll find eight pristine salt lagoons, each one different in shape, colour and texture. Follow the designated path to walk from one to the next and admire the shape of the salt formations, the clarity of the lagoons, their depth and the sheer beauty of the landscape. The colours here are insane too, the contrast of the white salt with the blue of the water and the greys and reds of the rock is stunning. It simply looks like you’ve landed on the moon. You can swim in the first and last lagoon and I’d highly recommend it for the sensation of total weightlessness. The frigid water is highly saline so you just float. Showers are provided to get the salt off your body at the end. At the first lagoon, you can find a picnic area which makes for a lovely lunch spot amidst the turquoise pools.
Driving back up the road you came down on and onto Route 23, head to Valle del Marte or Valle de la Muerte (it goes by two names), the sunset spot for tonight. Entrance is CLP$3,000 per person. Explore deep into the otherworldly scenery of this valley. The jagged rock formations and their red, baked-clay colour make you feel like you’ve just landed on Mars. Squeeze yourself through their crevasses and caves and gawp at their dramatic formations.
Close to sunset make your way up to the viewpoint which lies a little further up from the car park. While you probably won’t have the place to yourself, the view from here makes for one of the best in the area. As the sun sets it lights up the volcanoes on the adjacent size turning them a fiery orange and then yellow- mother nature’s colour spectacle never failing to impress.
ATACAMA DESERT ITINERARY: DAY TWO – SOUTH
Today it’s time to explore the road to the South of San Pedro de Atacama and with that a completely different altitude and landscape. Head south along Route 23 towards the villages of Toconau and Socaire. The drive is so beautiful with the Atacama Salt Flats on your right that we stopped dozens of times for photos. You’ll also pass the Tropic of Capricorn so keep your eyes peeled for the sign.
Continue on until you get to the turn off point for Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques or Lagunas Altiplanicas as they’re known collectively. These lakes located at 4,000m, are fed from underground springs and provide a home to the abundance of wildlife that lives here, vicuñas, flamingos, a variety of birds as well as vizcachas, a type of desert rabbit. Admire the amazing scenery and if you’re lucky to arrive early enough, you’ll be able to catch the reflection of the volcano in the deepest blue of the lagoon.
Continue south along the road to Piedras Rojas and the Salar Aguas Calientes, probably my favourite place on the whole trip. Soon after leaving the lagoons we encountered nobody else on the road and it felt like we were discovering a new universe for the first time. Vicuñas were dashing in front of us, across the road chasing each other and providing the most natural of entertainment. We had the Salt Flat and Piedras Rojas almost to ourselves. Simply stop wherever you please and leave your car on the side of the road. Admire the whole landscape from the incredible viewpoint and look out for more vicuñas and flamingos here as well as vizcachas. The variety of textures and colours in the landscape is something to ogle over- from the ice blue colour of the salt flat to the clay reds of the volcanoes flanking it. The untouched, unspoilt nature here is something else.
Continue back to Socaire where you’ll find a number of eateries serving delicious, local, home-cooked food. It’s a little on the meaty side but there is always one veggie dish, salad and rice. A walk around Socaire after lunch will help with digestion and provide some insight into the Atacamanian culture and the people that live the incredibly simple life here. A notable place to visit in the little church called Iglesia Antigua (Old Church). It’s building style and materials, are synonymous with the desert landscape and it’s bare-bones, simple interior is worth a peek inside.
Continuing a little north and turning off on the next left towards Paine you get to the B-355 on which you continue north to Laguna Chaxa. This lagoon is one of the best places to see flamingos and potentially from quite close if you’re lucky. The lagoon is located in the middle of the Atacama Salt Flat and a walkaway juts out into the lagoon from which you can observe the flamingos. We decided to stay here for sunset and we’re so glad that we did. The glowing sun lit up the landscape turning the white salt into a mirror for that golden hour light. The silhouettes of the flamingos in the lagoon punctured the landscape, with the volcanoes and high plains of the Andes turning pink in the backdrop. The day couldn’t have ended any better.
Not sure whether to rent a car or take tours in the Atacama Desert? Check out my must-read guide, Atacama Desert: Self-drive or Tours? to help you decide.
ATACAMA DESERT ITINERARY: DAY THREE – EAST
After a good breakfast in San Pedro start the steep ascent up Route 27 toward Reserva Nacional Los Flamingos. Here you’ll soon pass the majestic sight of Juriques, a snowy, perfectly cone-shaped volcano and the Bolivian border crossing. Keep going until you get to Caldera La Pacana viewpoint. The drive to the viewpoint will take you to the highest point on this trip (4,800m) as well as through some breath-taking landscapes. You’ll find and simply have to stop and photograph the unique rock formations in some of the valleys, the spectacular lagoons with grazing vicuñas and the wind-formed ice formations by the side of the road (only in winter).
Arriving at Caldera la Pacana we were greeted by a display of running and playing vicuñas and the most beautiful ice-blue lagoon views. It was quite difficult to grasp the enormity and beauty of the landscape here.
Head back to San Pedro for lunch and an afternoon of exploring the oasis-like town itself. From the main square, notable places to visit include the local church made entirely out of adobe as well as the local archaeological museum. San Pedro also makes a great place for souvenir shopping.
For sunset make your way towards Valle de la Luna. If you managed to reserve tickets in advance for sunset then you’ll be able to enter and explore the valley as well as watch the sunset from the dunes below. We didn’t have the time to go in the morning to reserve any tickets so we opted for the next best thing; sunset views over Valle de la Luna. Mirador de Kari/ Piedra del Coyote is a viewpoint located on a rocky clifftop above Valle de la Luna, just off of the main road and a signpost on the main road will guide you here. As the sun goes down behind you it casts the softest, most beautiful light onto Valle de la Luna, turning it orange to yellow to pink. Admire the rock formations and crevassed valleys covered in hard, baked salt. Valle de la Luna at sunset and sunrise is a truly unbelievable sight.
Top tip: The viewpoint gets extremely crowded at sunset so make sure you get here at the beginning of golden hour to secure a good spot. Or if you’re up for it why not catch it at sunrise?
One of the top things to do on any Atacama desert itinerary is stargazing and who doesn’t like a bit of stargazing with a blanket and hot chocolate in hand!? Due to the area having some of the clearest night skies in the world, most international observatories are based here and even if you’re not particularly interested in astrology, like me, it’s still worth going on a tour to find out more. It’s advisable to book a star-gazing tour in San Pedro at some point on your first day. Many companies offer a similar tour. Just note that tours don’t run on the days around a full moon, simply because the brightness of the moon makes it difficult to see anything else, so check the lunar calendar before you book your trip.
We got picked up in San Pedro and taken to an observatory based just outside the town. There, a guide explained the basics of astrology as well as what we could see in sky that night- we even got a glimpse of Jupiter. Then you’ll be able to have a look into the many telescopes they have which are lined up to see various stars and planets. The tour lasts about 2-3hours and don’t forget to take warm clothes. On the night that we went in winter, the temperature dropped to about -10c! Freezing temperatures aside, the tour was informative and it was a breath-taking experience to look at a sky so clear while knowing what you’re actually looking at.
DAY FOUR – NORTH
For our last day in the Atacama desert, it’s time to head North to explore one of the areas most famous sights; the Tatio Geysers, entrance CLP$10,000. One of the benefits of having a car is that you can visit the geysers at any time you want. All tours arrive for just before sunrise, departing San Pedro at about 4 am. The reason for this is that not only is the valley absolutely spectacular at sunrise, it’s also when the plumes of steam coming up from the geysers are at their strongest. They weaken as the morning goes on and the air temperature rises. I had already visited the geysers at sunrise on a tour during a previous visit and while the light is amazing, it’s also extremely crowded.
This time we opted to arrive at about 9.00 am. The geysers were certainly weaker but still impressive and we had the area to ourselves. Coming later we managed to experience the silence of the area and the animals that come down once the crowds have left. Wild Andean foxes and birds came to say hello, and a herd of vicuñas ran straight past us, chasing each other through the valley. Walk around the puffs of steam and check out the boiling, eggy-smelling cauldrons of water below the ground. There’s also a thermal bath on-site, heated entirely by the volcanic groundwater below.
Once leaving the geysers, it’s time to head back to Calama, just the long way. Instead of going back to San Pedro take the turn off for the B-159 that leads to the villages of Caspana and San Francisco de Chiu Chiu. These are traditional Atacamanian villages and visiting them will give you an understanding of the everyday lives of the local people. I’d highly recommend a visit to the church in San Francisco de Chiu Chiu- its one of the oldest in the area. The drive, in itself, is absolutely stunning, amid high Andean passes, volcanoes and pastures of rugged scrubs. Enjoy the drive and stop at whichever village takes your fancy, take a stroll and move on. The villages also make a great lunch stop and an opportunity to taste some more local food.
Arrive in Calama for your flight or transport out of the area.
This Atacama desert itinerary can also be done in three days if you are short on time however you’ll have to drop a couple of the sights. Four or five days is the ideal amount of time in the area. It’s also a good idea to take it slow, simply due to the altitude.
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