7 other-wordly landscapes in Chile's Atacama Desert
Outside of the Earth’s poles, the Atacama Desert is the driest place on the planet. It stretches from southern Peru to northern Chile and its unique environment has created some of the most surreal and strange landscapes.
When we first started planning our trip across South America, the desert was at the very top of our list. We ended up spending around a week here from late December to early January and were completely blown away by everything in the region.
The Atacama Desert sits at a very high altitude (so high that moisture can’t reach it from the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans). The town of San Pedro is at 2,407 metres above sea level and the landscapes listed below range from 3,000-5,000 metres. All of the destinations that we’ve included have been listed in order of altitude to help with acclimatisation.
We’ve included more information about getting to San Pedro and how to get around the Atacama Desert itself below.
1. Valle de la Luna (Moon valley)
On your first afternoon in Atacama Desert, we’d recommend visiting the Valle de la Luna—valley of the moon—to feel as though you’ve stepped onto another planet entirely.
The valley was formed where the desert meets the Andes Mountain Range, and was created thousands of years ago through the constant weathering of winds and floods, as well as the tectonic movements which shaped the surrounding mountains.
The Valley of the Moon can be explored by car or bike and also has a range of tracks to hike. Tours to the valley leave at 4:00pm every day.
Entrance fee: 4,000 Chilean Pesos ($8 AUD).
2. Valle de la Muerte (on Mars)
The Valle de la Muerte is known as both Mars Valley and Death Valley, and is absolutely striking at sunset when the landscape turns into the red planet. The best place to see the sunset across the valley is from the Mirador de Kari, Piedra del Coyote, but there are also many lookouts by the side of the road along the way.
Entrance fee to Valle de la Muerte: 5,500 Chilean Pesos ($12 AUD).
3. Salar de AtacamA
Surrounded by the mountains of the Andes, the Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile. This scenery is some of the most memorable of our entire trip; we floated in a lagoon with nearly as much salt as the Dead Sea and had Pisco sours while the sun set over the salt flats.
Somewhere in the great expanse are the Ojos del Salar—the eyes. These are enormous and deep freshwater holes in the middle of the desert. Our guide told us that they had never been quite sure of how deep the water actually goes, but a few years ago a car was accidentally driven into one of the holes and has never been retrieved (thankfully all passengers were ok).
If you’re visiting the salt flats, there are two lagoons that we’d recommend in particular: Laguna Cejar and Laguna Tebinquinche. Cejar is an interesting experience if you’ve never floated in very salty water, and Tebinquinche is particularly stunning towards the end of the day as it passes through many vibrant colours. We were told that the first oxygen breathing organisms originated here, and the flora endemic to the area can be found as far away as Mexico and Australia.
Laguna Cejar entrance fee: 15,000 Chilean Pesos ($30 AUD). This entrance fee is the most expensive as the national park tries to curb the high number of visitors travelling to the lagoon in recent years.
4. Termas de Puritama
Thermal springs in the area have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries by the Atacameño, with the sulfuric waters particularly recommended for arthritis, stress, physical fatigue and rheumatism. Around 30km away from San Pedro de Atacama, the Puritama thermal springs flow up from underground and run through a canyon at around 33°C (91.4°F).
We decided to visit the Puritama springs at the last minute on New Year’s Eve and were so glad that we did—the baths were beautiful, we saw a proposal, and celebrated Ling’s birthday here.
Entrance fee to Termas de Puritama: 15,000 Chilean Pesos ($30 AUD).
5. Laguna Chaxa
Survival for most animals is difficult in the extremes of the Atacama Desert, but in the midst of the arid landscape there is a beautiful oasis filled with flamingos at the Laguna Chaxa.
6. Chilean Altiplanico
Chile’s high Altiplano Plateau sits at 4,250 metres and is filled with the most diverse landscapes that we’ve ever come across. The colours change so rapidly as you drive across it, and each new section looks completely different from the last. There are two striking lagoons in the area that you can’t miss, which sit at the base of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains: Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques.
From the Altiplano Plateau, the desert stretches endlessly towards the red lagoons and salt flats of Bolivia, which we would also recommend visiting if you’re planning a trip to this part of the world.
Entrance fee to Laguna Chaxa and the Altiplanico: 5,500 Chilean Pesos ($12 AUD)
7. Laguna Kepiaco
Tribute to how incredible the Atacama Desert is, Kepiaco Lagoon was only meant to be a pit stop on the side of the road on the way to other attractions. Despite this, it ended up being one of our favourite places.
Entrance fee to Laguna Chaxa and the Altiplanico: 5,500 Chilean Pesos ($12 AUD)
How to get to the Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert is located in Antofagasta region of northern Chile. While they are extremely remote, all of the landscapes listed below can easily be reached from San Pedro de Atacama, a small town which is the entry point to the desert.
From Santiago, Chile
Buses from Santiago Chile take around 20 hours, and tickets can be booked through Turbus, Pullman or Gémini.
Unfortunately there is no airport in San Pedro itself, however flights frequently depart from Santiago to Calama airport and take around 2 hours. From Calama, shuttle buses to San Pedro take around 1 hour and 15 minutes’ drive, and can be booked through companies such as Denomades for 12,000 Chilean Pesos ($25 AUD) one way.
Taxis and other buses can also be booked once you get to Calama airport. Alternatively, cars can be hired from the airport.
From Salta, Argentina
We got to San Pedro by bus from Salta. It was a 11.5hr overnight trip (including the time it took to pass through Chilean customs) leaving Salta at 1:00am. The cost was 1760 Argentinian Pesos ($56 AUD) each with Andesmar buses.
Getting Around the Atacama Desert
Once you get to San Pedro de Atacama, everything in the town itself is within walking distance. There are a few options for getting out into the desert:
One-day tours to all of these destinations can be organised in San Pedro de Atacama—there is one street that is just lined with different operators. We tried many of them and would recommend Flamingo Tours as they always had new air-conditioned vehicles and better food than the others, but all of the companies offer roughly the same thing at the same price. Tours to each of the destinations listed in this post range from $30 AUD-$100+ AUD per person.
We would recommend waiting until you arrive to talk to some of the tour companies, rather than booking tours online in advance. The prices advertised online were always so much higher, and for some reason when we arrived we were frequently given discounts on top.
Cars can be rented from Calama airport. Not only is the the most cost-effective way to get around (noting how expensive the tours can be), but all tour groups tend to leave at the same time and travel to the same places, so having a car will give you so much more flexibility and allow you to completely avoid the crowds.
The roads from San Pedro de Atacama are quite well marked, however a 4wd would definitely be preferable for driving on the gravel for long stretches. Each of the destinations listed here has a ticketing office to enter the site.
Bikes can be rented in San Pedro, with quite a lot of people riding to the Valle de la Luna. Unfortunately, many of the other landscapes are extremely far out of town and we would'n’t recommend trying to ride too far in the heat.
Best time to visit the Atacama Desert
For most parts of the year, the Atacama Desert receives little to no rain at all—some areas of the desert haven’t seen rainfall in over 400 years. Thanks to this and to the high altitude, it is also one of the best places for astrophotography and stargazing. Having said that, we managed to witness the only cloud coverage of the entire year during our one week stay there.
Summer time (December - February) is the peak travelling season for the Atacama. The days are sunny and the nights are pleasantly warm. Whilst accomodation is expensive and book up fast, we had no trouble finding space on tours, though this essentially meant that lots of destinations had crowds of people once you got there.
The shoulder seasons (March - May and September - November) are also good times to travel, also being mostly dry and warm, but with less tourists.
The biggest drawback of travelling in winter (June - August) is that the temperature drops to below freezing, especially after sunset. which is not ideal for sunset watching and stargazing. Winter time is also susceptible to afternoon showers, but this can also bring out the native flowers in the area.
All pictures in this post can be saved for later.