Looking for the perfect Atacama Desert Chile itinerary? Keep reading for the perfect 4-day self-driving itinerary.
The Atacama Desert Chile 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 Chile 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 in 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.
*This ‘Atacama Desert Chile itinerary’ post contains affiliate links meaning I might make a small profit if you choose to book at no extra cost to you. This helps me to keep providing you with top quality content for free.
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 its positive and negative aspects and you can find all those in Self-Drive Or Tours? | Which Is Better In The Atacama Desert?
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.
Check the best car rental deals here:
Atacama Desert Chile: General
When to Go
The Atacama Desert Chile is a year-round destination. The high season falls during Chilean summer (Dec-Feb) and the 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 is 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 as there generally is nowhere else with better infrastructure.
Nayara Alto Atacama – One of the best hotels situated right outside San Pedro amid the beautiful red rock formations. Rooms are simple yet beautifully decorated, food is top-notch and there’s a spa and wellness center to take advantage of.
The hotel can also organise some amazing excursions that involve picnics at some of the most scenic spots in the area. Check rates and book here.
Altiplanico Atacama– Another excellent choice in the Atacama Desert, this property features minimalistic, desert-inspired architecture in a quiet, natural setting.
You’ll find a gorgeous pool and each room has a panoramic terrace. This is a great choice that doesn’t break the bank. Check rates and book here.
Tierra Atacama – Stay in the Atacama location of Chile’s best luxury hotel brand, Tierra will ensure a fantastic stay throughout your time in the desert.
This hotel is just gorgeous and everything you might expect and more from a unique, luxury stay in the desert. The spa here is probably the best one in Chile.
Also has an all-inclusive option with is expensive but totally worth it. Check rates and book here.
Hotel La Casa de Don Tomás – For a modern, stylish property for somewhat of a budget, opt for this gorgeous hotel that’s fairly close to the center of San Pedro.
With simple, modern king rooms, natural abode buildings, a large pool to relax in during the day and exceptional food it’s a great choice for your stay in the Atacama Desert Chile. Check rates and book here.
Looking for somewhere really special? Read 10 Luxury Hotels in the Atacama Desert Chile
Where to Eat
San Pedro de Atacama isn’t a culinary destination and food doesn’t have the best price-to-quality ratio.
There are many restaurants in town and many luxury hotels also have good restaurant and food options.
Here are my favouirte options:
Baltinache– Atacamanean fusion restaurant using many different local ingredients.
Cafe Adobe– Houses in an old abode house, this local restaurant is charming. Its menu is full of Chilean classics made with local ingredients.
Explora Atacama– I recently heard that Virgilio Martinez, owner of Central, Lima one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, curated the latest menu at Explora’s restaurant. I haven’t tried it but it’s definitely on my list.
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.
Use the form below to find the best deals for flights for your dates.
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.
The same is true the other way around and there any many tours that offer excursions of the Bolivian Salt Flats, ending in Uyuni.
As this is a self-driving itinerary, you’ll need to rent a car, ideally when you get to Calama. It’s impossible to do this trip by public transportation as it’s non-existent.
When searching for rental cars I personally check the following three websites that never fail when it comes to finding the best deals. They vary by country so it’s best to search through all three.
Self-Drive Top Tips
↠ If your budget allows, rent a 4×4 for this Atacama desert Chile 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.
↠ Due to not all the roads being sealed mainly to Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache and Tatio Geysers, there are rocks and stones all along it.
You’ll need to take more care and it really really helps to know how to change a tyre just in case. Also due to a much higher probability of punctures makes sure your rental car has a spare tyre or a puncture repair kit.
↠ 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 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.
↠ 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 Chile Itinerary: Day On- 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 Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache which is 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$10,000 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 cool 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.