Chile is a country that literally has it all. The endless coastline, Patagonia with its pristine mountains, glaciers and penguins, modern hip cities, a thriving art scene, and a huge badass desert. The Atacama Desert is more than just sand. It is home to one of the world’s largest salt flats, 3 of the world’s 6 flamingo species (yes flamingos!) and is one of the most striking natural places I’ve ever seen. And I get around! Here is a suggested road trip itinerary for the Atacama Desert along with all the useful tips I could think of.
Table of Contents
Currency: Chilean Peso. Easy to find ATMS. Many restaurants take credit card but most entrance fees in desert must be paid in cash.
1 USD is 591 CLP. It’s confusing because sometimes it is written like this CLP 60.000. This means 60,000 pesos and in Spanish they will say sixty “mille”. Just so you can extra confused.
How to Get Around: To reach the center of the Atacama region, San Pedro de Atacama, you have to fly to Calama. Flights from Santiago to Calama are 2 hours and cost around $100. I think renting a car once there is the best way to explore the Atacama region, otherwise, you have to rely on tours each day. Driving in the region was fairly easy but the roads aren’t always good so a sturdy car is necessary. Some will recommend a 4 wheel drive or SUV but it’s not necessary unless you are planning to go to some offroad areas, such as driving to the Geyser de Tatio. We did ok with a mid-sized sedan. Many roads are gravel and rough so you have to drive slowly.
The Atacama Desert is the driest nonpolar desert in the world. There is practically no precipitation. It also is the oldest desert in the world with the only other desert competing for this title, the Namib Desert.
The Atacama Salt Flat (Salar de Atacama) is the 2nd largest salt flat in the world after the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
Day 1: Arrive as early as possible in Calama. From the airport, stop at the Cordillera de Sal (Salt Mountain) and marvel at the endless views of the red rock. Find your lodging and check in. After this, you can take a half-day trip to the Valley of the Moon and stay for sunset there. Maybe join a stargazing tour in the evening or just relax with a nice meal in town.
Day 2: Drive to the Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos. This can be confusing because almost the entire region is part of this flamingo sanctuary and national park. I will discuss this day in more depth below. On this particular day, we drove to an area that we saw on the map and knew nothing about. At first, we thought we made a huge mistake but ended up having a fabulous day.
Day 3: Visit Salar de Atacama (the Salt Flat) including Lagunas Chaxa, Cejar and Tebenquiche with a stop in the historic town of Toconao.
Day 4: Get up early and visit Geyser del Tatio. Then lounge at the pool, walk around the town of San Pedro or do another activity you missed earlier. There is an afternoon flight back to Santiago.
Note: We did this at a relaxed place with lots of photo stops, eating stops, being lost stops, etc. You can certainly fit in more if you are not…ahem…as “laid back” of a traveler. There is plenty to do in this region!
The name of “Cordillera de la Sal” (Salt Mountains) derives from the fact that its rocks possess a great quantity of calcium sulphate, and gives them the aspect of being splashed with salt.
Once here you will see how it got its name. You feel that you are somewhere other-wordly with lunar landscapes. The entrance fee here is 3000 pesos. The people at the entrance building only speak Spanish but they will give you a map and try to explain the park to you. Many people will tour this park by bicycle and as fun as that would be, make sure you are prepared for a strenuous and very hot day. Honestly, I am usually up for a physical adventure but I was very happy to be in my car as I drove past miserable looking bikers.
This is the most touristy part of the region, and usually the place everyone will visit. That being said, I still didn’t find it that crowded in November which is right before the height of the season.
One of the highlights of the Moon Valley is walking through this salt cave. You need a flashlight (or cell phone) because it gets really dark and it is easy to trip or bump your head. It is also chilly in the caves.
At some points I was worried that there was no end but then you would see a glimpse of light.
At the end there are endless places for a triumphant photo shoot. Please don’t judge my inappropriate hiking clothing. I honestly did not research well and didn’t realize I’d be hiking on sand dunes and walking through salt caves. I look like I’m on my way to a work happy hour. Oh well. My flip-flops got me through the day, only falling apart ten times or so!
While I didn’t technically visit the valley of death which is mainly for sandboarding, this is a view of it from the Valley of the Moon. You hike up the dunes and this view (which is only a segment of the entire vista) is your reward.
We stayed here and watched the sunset (which was just ok and very chilly FYI). The sunset in November was around 7:30 pm. Most people had already left by this time.
This was the day I mentioned above where we thought we made a huge mistake. We saw this on the map and thought…let’s go see flamingos! It turns out this is not THE place to see flamingos, although there were some there. As we drove we noticed gorgeous mountains and on the map we realized were literally on the Bolivian border. Had we gone all the way through this nature reserve we would have ended up in Argentina.
It is very hot in San Pedro de Atacama so we dressed for that weather. As we drove we ended up at a significant elevation which completely took us by surprise. We found ourselves thirsty and short of breath. When stopping for photos we were literally freezing. I checked my snapchat elevation (I know….so technical) and found that we were at over 14,000 feet! Thankfully I had a sweater! I’m shivering in this picture by the way!
Despite the cold, we were blown away but the beauty of this reserve. We only saw two other cars the entire day. It was awesome to have this place all to ourselves. We passed a lagoon with flamingos and had lunch with this view.
Often we would pass these cute little guys which I think are vicunas (either that or guanacos). Anyone know for sure?
Jumping to try to warm up!
I so badly wanted to play with this desert fox that came very close to our car.
Every few minutes we had to stop and take photos.
To get here take route 23 south from San Pedro then 27 west towards the Bolivian border. It’s very cold and windy. We took route 27 about halfway through the reserve then turned and went back. Bring lunch and lots of water. You need it in the desert and even more at altitude. It took us about 2 hours to visit this reserve and is one hour drive from San Pedro.
This is one of the many lagunas in the Salar de Atacama (the salt flats) which is all included in the Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos. THIS is the place to see Flamingos. Atacama has 3 of the world’s 6 flamingo species, the Andean, Chilean and James flamingos. The entrance fee is 3000 CLP.
This place is breathtaking. I couldn’t get over all the perfect lines of color from the white salt flats, the turquoise lagoon and the pink mountains.
The salt flat is seemingly endless. It doesn’t feel like a desert (if you can ignore the blazing heat, your dry flaking skin and unyielding thirst).
The flamingos get their beautiful color from eating the brine shrimp which can live in the high salinity.
This is the only lagoon you can swim in. The salt content here may be even higher than the Dead Sea which means you float! The admission fee is a bit steep here at 15.000 CLP ($25 USD) and includes the changing rooms and showers (which you will need to get the salt crust off your body).
Again, hard to believe this is a desert.
Warning…it’s cold! I took a few photos and got the hell out! The salt actually burned my skin.
This is a small village 38 km (24 miles) south of San Pedro de Atacama and has one of the first recorded civilizations in the region. The most notable building in Toconao is its church. The bell tower is separated from the main church structure and dates from 1750. It is located along the main road (Rte 23) between San Pedro and the nature reserves).
This lagoon is gorgeous and not too far from Laguna Cejar. The road to get here is probably the worst we drove so be careful and take it slow.
Sandboard on the dunes in the Valley of Death
See the Geyser del Tatio at sunrise. This is a volcanic geothermal field, where water and steam columns spring up violently from deep under the ground. Set at a height of 4,000 m (13,000 ft), these are the highest geysers in the world. The peak activity is at dawn. After when it gets warmer, you can bathe in the thermal pools near the geysers and visit the town of Machucha to relax for a while. (I was there on election day and this was closed. Go figure.). I hear it is scary to drive here before dawn so I recommend a tour.
Visit Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Colubian archaeological site.
Visit the Puritama Hot Springs, a series of 8 geothermal pools at the base of a canyon
Staying around San Pedro de Atacama will provide a nice base for exploring the region. There is lodging in all price ranges from hostels to ultra-luxurious resorts. I was shocked at how expensive this region can be.
I stayed at a mid-range place called Atacama Lofts. It had a cool hippie vibe and I really appreciated their commitment to the environment. You choose between a glamping in a tent and sharing kitchen space or having a bungalow with private kitchen and terrace space. The room is more expensive of course but reasonable. Every morning the owners leave fresh bread and supplies in a basket outside your door. You then can make your own breakfast The fresh baguette was delicious and they provided fresh eggs, cheese, tomatoes and some fruit and juice. There was a coffee maker in each room as well. We really enjoyed this and there was enough food that we were able to pack a lunch for ourselves each day.
I loved breakfast on the terrace!
Find your perfect lodging here:
I was not sponsored and all opinions are my own! I’m always trying to find good deals for you all and give my recommendations when a place impresses me.
Have you been to Chile? Where was your favorite place? You can learn more about other places in Chile here:
Disclaimer: Wandering Redhead uses affiliate links which means if you purchase something through my links I may make a small commission that goes towards the costs of running this blog.