From the Andes Mountains to high desert lagoons, these are the best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama Desert was our favorite place to visit in Chile. Located in northern Chile, connecting Bolivia and Argentina in South America, the Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world and many travelers make their way to the town of San Pedro de Atacama to enjoy all of the amazing excursions in this extraordinary destination. We visited the Atacama Desert with Exodus Travels and discovered all the highlights with the help of our trusty guide, Alex.
The Atacama Desert is the highest and dryest non-polar desert in the world. It is known for its lunar landscape and natural beauty. With a variety of terrains including salt flats, geysers, and lagoons, Salar de Atacama is one of the most striking places we have ever visited.
Tours and trips can be booked to the desert from San Pedro de Atacama, and while visiting this region of Chile, you will also have the chance to immerse in its culture as it is a center for indigenous communities. The town is a popular destination for backpackers and intrepid travelers who are interested in adventure, nature, and history, and there are many things to do in the area. Here are some suggestions for things to do in San Pedro de Atacama.
The Atacama Desert is located in the northern half of Chile between the Pacific Ocean, to the west, and the Andes Mountains, to the east. This 1,000-mile strip of desert, is the highest non-polar desert plateau in the world. (Antarctica is the driest place on earth if you are wondering) and San Pedro de Atacama is a small town located in the heart of it near the Bolivian Border. San Pedro de Atacama is where everyone makes a base to do desert excursions and this cool town is a destination in its own right. With restaurants, hotels, tour companies, and shops, it makes for a fantastic base to see everything in Salar de Atacama.
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Seeing the flamingoes of Chaxa Lagoon was the first stop on our tour and it was a good one! As part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, Chaxa Lagoon is the best place to see flamingoes. Three species of flamingoes frequent the salt pools to feed on brine shrimp. The setting is what makes this stop so extraordinary.
Rocky paths weave through salt lagoons surrounded by layers of colors leading to the Andes Mountains. Flamingoes fly from one pool to another and then slowly saunter in the still waters with their reflections dazzling in the backdrop of the surrounding volcanoes. From the white salt deposits to the pink hues of the desert, this is a place you’ll want to pull out your camera.
There are three main lagoons in Sector Soncor with the Chaxa lagoon being the best place to spot Andean and Chilean Flamingoes. The lagoons are located at a high elevation of 2300 meters (over 7500 feet)
Chaxa Lagoon is 2 hours from San Pedro de Atacama and you’ll spend at least an hour enjoying the walking trails that weave through the lagoons.
The Valle de la Luna is a unique landscape that is located just 13 km (8 miles) outside of San Pedro de Atacama. It is called the Moon Valley because of its similarity to the surface of the moon but it really looks more like the surface of Mars with its red rocks and red dunes.
Also located within the Los Flamencos National Reserve, this is one of the top places to visit in the Atacama to view the Mars Valley. With its rocky terrain and unusual rock formations. In fact, NASA tested its Mars Rover in the Atacama because of its similar landscape and climate.
The valley is a great place to go hiking, and there are several trails that lead through the area. You can also visit the valley at sunset for some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Hiking Duna Mayor is an excellent short hike to incredible vistas. The hike is about 20 minutes out and takes you along a narrow trail overlooking high dunes and out-of-this-world rock formations.
The most impressive sight was the Moon Valley Amphitheatre. We had the clearest view of it walking back along the high ride on the Duna Mayor hike. It reminded us so much of Wilpena Pound in South Australia.
There are several miradors to watch the sunset in Valle de La Luna and we made sure to pop into all of them for the best views. With Exodus Travels we were spoiled and enjoyed a glass of wine with cheese as we overlooked the extraordinary views from Mirador Lickan Antai. This is a lovely stop off the side of the road if you are cycling, self-driving or have hired a guide. You can hike out for better views of the desert landscapes.
If you are looking for those photos that capture the Salar de Atacama, a stop at Las Tres Marías is where you’ll view the famous rock formations of the Atacama Desert. The salt flat of the Atacama Desert is far different from the Bolivian Salt Flats. See what the salt flats in Bolivia are all about at A Bolivia Salt Flats Tour in Uyuni: Everything You Need to Know
Since it is such a dry desert (some places only see rain every 100 years!) you don’t get the glass-like views and trick-of-the-eye photos as you do in Bolivia, but this is the place where you can play with scale and scope a little bit. The trail is a short 15-minute walk.
One of the best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama is to watch the sunset from Mirador de Kari Piedra del Coyote. Located outside Valle de La Luna, this is the best place for sunset because you need to be out of the valley by a certain time. Since you cannot stay in the Valle de la Luna after sunset, this mirador has the bulk of tourists watching the sun go down in the Atacama Desert.
It is a beautiful view with the sun creating shadows and depth on the rocky valley floor as the high mountains twinkle with color surrounding the vast desert.
The El Tatio geysers are a group of geothermal springs that are the highest geothermal area in the world. A visit to the geysers happens at dawn, and while it is an early and cold tour, this is one place in the Atacama Desert that you don’t want to miss.
The El Tatio Geysers are about a two-hour drive from San Pedro de Atacama. We were picked up well before sunrise and hopped in the van for a nap before getting out in the brisk air. It was -13 degrees Celcius at the geysers so be sure to layer up with gloves and a hat. The geysers are most active at dawn when the water is at its hottest (and air at its coldest), and they produce steam and hot water that can reach temperatures of up to 100°C.
It takes about 90 minutes to walk around the geysers along the designated stone paths and while not quite as impressive at the Geysers of Yellowstone, these are the third largest geothermal areas on earth so they must not be missed! Read more about the Yellowstone Geysers at The Essential Guide to Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone
Have you ever wondered what it was like to walk at high altitudes but don’t want to hike for days to get there? Well, a visit to the high-altitude lakes (The Lagunas Altiplanicas) of Miscanti and Miñiques will do the trick. We drove directly to an elevation of over 4000 meters (13,000 feet) to walk from the picturesque lakes of Miscanti and Miniques.
Usually, you would need to trek for days to get to this elevation. The still deep blue waters are striking and it is shocking to be standing at 4000 meters with the two high volcanoes towering overhead. It was hard to believe that the Volcano right before our eyes was higher than Mount Kilimanjaro. The two volcanoes that frame the lagoons are (5,622 meters (18,445 ft)) and Cerro Miñiques (5,910 meters (19,390 ft))
The lagoons are connected by a trail of rocks and you’ll be able to see wild vicunas roaming the landscape. These animals are related to the llama and el paca families and are now protected. These vicunas are impossible to domesticate so to get their in-demand wool, they round them up to shave them only once every three years.
San Pedro de Atacama is located in an area with very little light pollution or precipitation, which makes it an ideal place for stargazing and tours can be booked for around $50 to see the night skies all around San Pedro de Atacama. There are several companies that offer stargazing tours in the area that you can book in San Pedro de Atacama. Our tour was an add on with Exodus Travels.
The clear, dry air of the Atacama Desert allows for excellent visibility of the stars, planets, and the Milky Way. Because of the low humidity, high altitude, and low light pollution, it is a hot spot for astronomers to study the skies, and many companies from around the world have scientists studying its dark skies. San Pedro de Atacama is popular for Astro-tourism and you cannot miss doing this tour. I really didn’t think I’d be impressed, but I loved listening to the stories of our guide as he pointed out constellations before having us look into the massive telescopes at Saturn, Mars, and Pluto.
We looked through those massive telescopes at stars and planets until the wee hours of the morning. Our guide was so gung ho that long after other tours left, we stayed looking into the night until 2 am!
No cell phones or cameras are allowed, but Dave went off on his own to take some night photos and the company we went with was kind enough to supply photos of our experience. This is one of the most popular excursions in the Atacama Desert.
You can also visit the ALMA Observatory, which is located about 50 kilometers outside of San Pedro de Atacama. The observatory is home to the largest array of radio telescopes in the world, and
There is something special about crossing one of the five major circles of the earth. For example, when taking a cruise, each passenger gets a certificate that they crossed the equator. When visiting the Atacama Desert, we had the chance to stand on the Tropic of Capricorn. The Tropic of Capricorn is about 60 km from San Pedro de Atacama. It’s a small and short stop, but very cool to stand at the place that is the most southerly latitude where the sun can appear directly overhead at high noon. Cool eh?
Besides San Pedro de Atacama, there are a few villages in the Atacama Desert. If you want to do some shopping, the village of Tocanao is a good stop. We bought some jewelry and bags for just a few dollars. Located 38 km from San Pedro de Atacama, most tours will stop here for at least 30 minutes to an hour to support the local community. The most notable building in the village is the bell tower which was built in 1750.
Socaire is another stop in the Atacama Desert that is a good choice for lunch. Our guide called ahead to order traditional stew. The main attraction in this town is the Church of Socaire. This rustic church with a thatched roof is located in a picturesque setting just off the side of the road.
The Salar de Tara is a large salt flat located within the Los Flamencos National Reserve of the Atacama Desert next to next to Piers Rojas (The Red Rocks). It is the third largest salt flat in the world, and it is home to a variety of plant and animal life. The Salar de Tara is a great place to go for a drive, as there are several dirt roads that lead through the area. You can also visit the salt flats on a tour, which will take you to some of the best spots for photography and sightseeing. Read more at: Salar de Tara an Extraordinary Trip in the Atacama Desert
Another salt flat in the Atacama is the Salar de Talar. Located at 3900 meters, Salar de Talar is 46 square km that you can view on the way to Laguna Miscanti. We didn’t visit the salt flat, but we did stop on the side of the road several times for views of the valleys below. The great thing about taking an organized tour is that our local guide always knew where to stop to see the top sights of the Atacama Desert.
Valle de la Muerte is named so because it is one of the harshest locations on the planet. In the past those animals (and humans) who dared to cross perished in the unforgiving conditions. No plants, animals or even insects can survive in Death Valley.
Also known as Mars Valley, this is a great stop for backpackers or those looking to explore on their own. Located just 2 km from San Pedro de Atacama this is a good stop to see the rocky landscape with desert dunes and strange formations giving a taste of that Mars terrain that we talked about earlier.
Throughout the Atacama Desert, the rainbow colors of the landscape are one of the most impressive sites. But there is actually a place specifically called Rainbow Valley. Valle del Arcoiris is about 90 minutes from San Pedro de Atacama which can be booked on a day tour. It showcases the layers of colors reminiscent to Rainbow Mountain in Peru. While there you can see the 10,000-year-old petroglyphs of Yerbas Buenas.
Well, this entire article is about the excursions from San Pedro de Atacama, so let’s stop and talk about this sprawling desert town located in northern Chile. San Pedro de Atacama has that typical backpacker vibe with plenty of restaurants and shops. There are several hotels in town and it is a great place for dining. You can book any day trip you desire from town and it has a cool laid-back vibe that makes it perfect for chilling out for a few days.
There are several things to do in San Pedro de Atacama without leaving town.
By air: The nearest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is the El Loa Airport, which is located in the city of Calama. The airport is served by several major airlines, including LATAM and Sky Airlines, and there are flights to and from Santiago as well as other cities in the region. From the airport, you can take a taxi or a bus to San Pedro de Atacama, which is about a 45-minute drive from the airport.
By bus: There are several bus companies that operate regular service to San Pedro de Atacama from major cities in Chile. The bus journey from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama takes about 23 hours, and there are several different classes of service available, including semi-cama (semi-bed), cama (bed), and VIP. The buses depart from Terminal Alameda in Santiago, and tickets can be purchased online or at the terminal.
By car: If you prefer to travel by car, you can drive to San Pedro de Atacama from Santiago or other cities in the region. The drive from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama takes about 22 hours, and it is recommended to take a 4×4 vehicle due to the rough terrain of the Atacama Desert. You can also rent a car in Santiago or Calama, and there are several car rental companies that operate in the region. Check out car rental prices here.
By tour: If you prefer to travel with a guided tour, there are several companies that offer tours to San Pedro de Atacama from Santiago and other cities in Chile. The tours usually include transportation, accommodation, and activities, and they are a good option for travelers who want to see as much of the region as possible.
No matter how you choose to get to San Pedro de Atacama, it is important to plan your trip in advance and to be prepared for the unique conditions of the Atacama Desert. The town has a dry, arid climate so stock up on water and make sure to dress in lightweight clothing that will protect you from the sun and heat. Oh, and be prepared to be covered in sand. There is a lot of sand.
San Pedro de Atacama is the main hub to explore the Atacama Desert of Chile. There are several options for accommodations. Here are some suggestions for where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama:
No matter where you choose to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, it is important to book your accommodation in advance, especially during the high season, which runs from November to March. The town can get very busy during this time, and it is best to book your accommodation as early as possible to ensure that you have a place to stay. It is also a good idea to research the location of your accommodation, as some places may be farther from the center of the town or the main tourist attractions.
From its incredible salt flat to rolling desert dunes, San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best places to visit in South America. When you go to Chile, make sure it is added to your itinerary. It’s a trip that will create memories to last a lifetime.
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