San Pedro de Atacama- A guide to Chile’s Atacama desert

valley of the moon

The Atacama desert is truly an otherworldly delight. From bubbling geysers and pink salt-flats to a valley that resembles the moon, you’ll find yourself questioning if you are on the same planet! Fly into Calama and make your way to the “hub” of this vast desert, San Pedro de Atacama. Like most desert towns San Pedro de Atacama is a little strange. It seems as if its only function is tourism yet the adobe buildings surrounded by volcanos are the epitome of a town untouched. One minute you are walking by a North Face on a tourist-filled street and later that day you are in a space that seems so secluded it’s alien. It’s an interesting balance but I still found the tourist town charming. Especially the dozens of sunbathing pups!

Read about all of our Chile travels here.

san pedro de atacama

Getting to the Atacama Desert

We were in Santiago so we flew to Calama and then took a shuttle from the airport filled with other backpackers. They make this seem like the only available option but we were a little disappointed with the price. In retrospect, we wish we would have rented a car.

driving into atacama desert


Getting Around the Atacama Desert

I cannot advise you enough to rent a car! Or even better a Wicked Camper. We really wish we would have known about this option ahead of time. The town of San Pedro de Atacama is small and totally walkable however all of the tours are around 1 hour away. They cost a fortune and you are basically only paying for transportation and a guide because they make you pay the same entry fee you would pay if you drove yourself! Do yourself a favor, rent a car! You will likely end up saving money in the end and have WAY more freedom to explore.

Exploring Natural Wonders of the Atacama Desert


Day 1: Biking the Valle de Luna

When planning our trip I had read that several people recommend biking the Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon). They made it seem like a leisurely, scenic ride. The views are beautiful but it is no doubt strenuous! It is still definitely worth doing, just maybe go by car if you are not a big biker. That being said, as it is with most difficult things, we had a little pride as we locked our bikes up next to the tour buses. It’s about the journey, not the destination, right?!

There are beautiful hills to hike and caves to crawl through along the path. It truly looks like the moon and is a picture of raw beauty. There are several places to rent bikes in San Pedro de Atacama. We only paid $5 for 6 hours! Insider Tip: You must have a neon vest and helmet to bike through. When we rented our bikes this was included but we did see a girl get turned away for not having the appropriate gear.

valley of the moon

Grant at moon valley

Day 2: Lagunas Altiplanicas, Salar de Atacama, Socaire, and Toconao

We booked a tour to check out the salt flats (Salar de Atacama) and it also included stops at two towns (Socaire and Tocoano) and the Altiplanic Lagoons (Lagunas Altiplanicas). Be prepared to wake up early and dress in layers. The lagoons are very beautiful. There are two beside each other, Miñiques and Miscanti, and they are connected underground and made of salt-water. The two towns we visited, Socaire and Toconao, were kind of dinky but they had some nice old churches. The highlight of the tour was the Salar de Atacama. Pink salt flats meet the crystal blue sky and there are flamingos everywhere! It was so cool! The pastel colors are truly breathtaking and the flamingos are too cute.

Salar de Atacama

Day 3: Tatio Geysers, Aguascalientes Canyon, and Machuca

Our second tour was to the Tatio Geysers with quick stops at the Aguascalientes Canyon and the small town of Machuca. The Tatio Geysers were so rad! Steam shoots out of the earth and it looks like you are on Mars! Be sure to pack a bathing suit as there are “hot” springs to soak in. They were actually more like warm springs and in contrast with the below-freezing air, it was slightly uncomfortable. But a fun experience nonetheless! I am not exaggerating about the cold. We rented huge insulated jackets to stay warm. Check out Locaventuras for gear rentals.

tatio geysers

hot springs tatio geysers

The Aguacalientes Canyon is practically a desert oasis. It is a green river of lush plants right in the middle of the dry, vast desert. It is also a good spot to see the cute local animals, vicuñas. We ended the day with a stop in Machuca, a tiny town with more llamas than people! The llamas run wild with colorful ribbons in their fur. You can sample llama meat (gross!) but we preferred to snap pictures with an adorable baby llama instead.

aguacalientes chile

Day 4: Stargazing

Because of its vast emptiness, the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. We went with Sirius Expeditions and it was so awesome! They set our huge telescopes and provide hot cocoa, pisco, and snacks to keep you cozy as you learn about the scientific and cultural aspects of astronomy. Timing is tricky. We saved it for our last night because it was the furthest away from the full moon but then we were unable to go due to clouds. We extended our trip a couple of days to wait for the clouds to pass and it was definitely worth the wait.

stargazing chile

Need more convincing to visit or want to get hyped about your visit? Check out these amazing pictures of the Atacama desert.

How to Book Tours in San Pedro de Atacama

There are a million tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama. Through a combination of online research, walking door to door, and trail and error, we ended up using two different companies, Layana and Lithium Aventura. But they all appear to be about the same, including breakfasts and guides. The tour companies can be a bit aggressive. It is a little annoying to get hassled every time you walk through the downtown. I even had one voodoo tour man become hostile that I didn’t want to book with him and I’m pretty sure he put an evil hex on me!

Eating in San Pedro de Atacama

Not only is Atacama a desert, but it is a food desert! Aside from super overpriced touristy options, there is not much in terms of dining. We found a breakfast place we liked, Roots, But other than that our meals out to eat were fails. Including these $40 loaded fries. Seriously! There is one vegetable market in town so we cooked a few meals at our hostel.

Accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama has so many hostels and small hotels. Surprisingly most of them were booked! We lucked out with Hostal Ayni, a true gem. It has a beautiful patio we frequently used. I would consider it a boutique hostel. Splurge for the cabins as they are very cute and cozy!

hostel view san pedro de atacama

We had a magical time in the Atacama Desert. To be the driest place on Earth, it has an abundance of natural beauty leaving us with awe, wonder, and a desire to discover more.

Want more information to plan your trip to the Atacama Desert? Check out the Chile Lonely Planet here.

In Awe in Atacama,

-Ray

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