Day 1 (Morning) - Arrival and Exploring San Pedro Town
Spend your first day in San Pedro getting your bearings. The town is small but full of great restaurants to check out.
Some of our favourites include:
- Franchuteria – a great café that makes huge baguette sandwiches
- Roots Café Pizza – oven-baked pizza
- La Estaka – a nice restaurant with a small selection of quality dishes like ceviche and steak
You should also use this time to book yourself on any tours for the next few days or if you decided to DIY it, rent yourself a car. We rented a car for our Atacama Desert journey (from Europcar), but this itinerary can easily be followed by booking tours yourself.
Top tip – book your tours in person in Atacama to save money. Online prices are often inflated, and you can find much better deals last minute by haggling in person. If you can visit during the off-season (September to early December or from March to June), then even better as prices will be much cheaper.
Check out this post for our self-drive itinerary with tips and tricks for renting and navigating the desert in a 4×4:
- Atacama Desert Self-Drive Itinerary
Day 1 (Evening ) - Atacama Star Gazing Tour
- Cost: 20,000 Chilean Pesos ($28~)
- Duration: 2-3 hours
The Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. The high altitude combined with the lack of light pollution means the night sky is incredibly clear.
You can find stargazing tours in town or book through your hostel to find a good deal. We stayed at Backpackers San Pedro Hostel and they offered the tour for a little cheaper than 20,000 CLP.
The tour lasts 2-3 hours and is a short drive away from town to avoid the light.
Our tour guide, Jorge Corante, was an expert on the night sky and taught us so much. He had two telescopes we could use: a basic one to observe the moon and then a high powered one for observing faraway galaxies. We learnt about constellations and how to read the sky without a telescope and Jorge taught us a few tips for long exposure photography with our camera.
We highly recommend this tour; it was educational and fun and something a little different. It turned out to be one of our favourites from the whole of South America.
For a longer tour with more features such as a visit to the observatory, check this out:
- Viator – Atacama Star Gazing Tour
Day 2 (Morning) - Laguna Cejar
- Cost: 10,000 CLP from 09.00 AM to 14.00 PM, 15,000 CLP from 14.00 PM to 18.00 PM
- Opening times: 09.00 AM – 18.00 PM
- Duration: 1-2 hours swimming
A short drive from town you can find the salt lagoons Laguna Cejar and Laguna Piedra.
Laguna Piedra is just for observing and you can see flamingos nesting if you are lucky. Then the main lagoon, Laguna Cejar, is the one you can swim in.
This lagoon is saltier than the dead sea. The high salt concentration means you float easily and it’s the perfect way to cool off from the intense desert heat. We floated around for an hour working on our tans and drinking in the beautiful views of Licancabur Volcano and the surrounding mountains.
Tip – you can’t swim with sun scream on as it will damage the bacteria in the lagoon. Plan to only stay an hour or two otherwise you will get burnt or visit early or late in the day when the sun is less intense.
Bring flip-flops, a towel, and a small bottle of shampoo – there’s a changing room and shower at the lagoon so you can wash all the salt off afterwards.
How To Get There
You have lots of options. Again, we recommend renting your own car as it’s the easiest all-around option. It’s a 30-minute drive from the town of San Pedro.
The other option is a tour. The cheapest tour we can find online for $29 which takes you to Laguna Cejar, Ojos del Salar and Laguna Tebinquinche for sunset.
This tour is 5 hours long and good value for money if you don’t want to rent a car:
- Viator – Laguna Cejar & Tebinquinche
Day 2 (Afternoon) - Laguna Tebinquinche & Ojos Del Salar
The second set of salt lagoons you can visit are a 20-minute drive away from Cejar on the same dirt road.
Ojos Del Salar is two circular lagoons that resemble a pair of eyes when viewed from above. The water is deeper here and you can jump in from the sides.
Most tours finish up here with a final swim in the waters before stopping to watch the sunset over Laguna Tebinquinche. The reflection of the sunset off the lagoons is incredible and a great way to end your first day in the Atacama Desert.
There aren’t any showers here so just a heads up, you will have to travel home feeling a bit salty if you decide to go for a second swim.
Day 3 (Morning) - El Tatio Geysers
- Cost: 15,000 CLP entrance fee
- Duration: 5-6 hours including travel time
It’s an early start to reach the El Tatio geysers (4-5 AM most likely). You need to arrive early in the morning, between 6 and 7 AM when they are the most powerful and it’s an hour-and-a-half-hour drive from town. By around midday, the geysers will have calmed down to a mild bubble and it’s not worth the trip.
You won’t regret it though. The drive there is beautiful, passing volcanoes, snow-capped mountains and harsh rocky desert filled with vicunas and other desert animals. We stopped off a few times to get pictures because it was a feast for the eyes.
At 4200m, the El Tatio Geysers are the world’s third-largest geyser field, and home to 80 active geysers.
You can walk through the fields and get some great pictures stood among the steam. You can also dip in one of the hot springs if you want.
See how this 4-day itinerary fits into a wider South America backpacking trip:
How To Get There
Car – if you have your own car (best to rent a 4×4 as the roads are bumpy), then head north out of town onto the B-245 highway. It’s a single road the whole way there so it’s impossible to get lost. Once you get close to the geysers you will start to see signs.
Tour – This tour, arriving back in town at 1PM in the afternoon is best for those of you who haven’t rented a car. You will be able to fall straight back asleep on the bus once you’ve been picked up, breakfast and lunch included, and you also stop off at a couple of other places on the way back adding to the trip.
- Viator – El Tatio full-day tour – $46
Day 3 (Afternoon) - Termas De Puritama
- Cost: 15,000 CLP entrance fee
On the way back from the El Tatio Geysers, you can stop of in the small town of Puritama and visit the natural hot springs.
This part of the itinerary is only available if you have your own car, otherwise, you would have to book two tours on one day.
The Puritama Hot Spring is an oasis in the middle of the desert made up of eight large pools of geothermal springs.
Now run by the Explora Hotel, facilities include the outdoor pools connected by wooden footpaths, some waterfalls, and changing rooms with showers.After a cold morning at the geysers, you can spend the afternoon treating yourself by relaxing in the thermal waters and enjoying the beautiful desert surroundings.
How To Get There
The Puritama Hot Springs are 30 kilometres from the town of San Pedro de Atacama, about halfway along the road that goes to the El Tatio Geysers.
If you don’t have your own car then this tour will take you:
- Viator – Puritama Hot Springs
Day 3 (Evening) - Desert Party
On our way to Atacama, we heard rumours from other travellers about the epic parties held in the middle of the desert. In our minds we pictured a pitch-black scene with crazy lasers, speakers blaring and people dancing till the early hours of the morning.
What we found was a little different. The ‘desert party’ is much closer to town and is just a bunch of Chileans partying away around fires and people selling bootleg alcohol. It was fun, nonetheless.
If you want to have a night out whilst in San Pedro then try a few of the bars in town before asking around about the ‘desert party’. All the bars have to shut by 12 PM in San Pedro so the locals throw these get-togethers to carry on the fun.
They are technically illegal and get shut down by police, so the location is often by word of mouth. A friendly local should guide you in the right direction.
Day 4 (Morning) - Sandboarding
Sandboarding on the never-ending dunes in Atacama is a great thrill and physical challenge, perfect for adventure travellers.
You will board down massive, 120-meter dunes in Death Valley and enjoy adrenaline-filled fun in the sand and sun!
You receive a lesson before you start and can go down as many times as you like to practice during your session. You may get a mouthful of sand though!
Check out Sandboard San Pedro. They have great reviews on TripAdvisor and offer morning, afternoon, and night-time tours:
Day 4 (Afternoon) - Valley Of The Moon
- Cost: 2500 CLP from 09:00 AM – 13.00 PM, 3000 CLP from 14:00 PM – 17:00 PM
- Opening: 09:00 AM – 17:00 PM (but can stay later as long as you’ve entered before 17.00)
- Duration: 2-3 hours
Valle de la Luna (or Moon Valley) is an otherworldly landscape full of amazing geological formations similar to the surface of the moon.
We think the best time to visit the Valley of the Moon is for sunset. As the sun gets low in the sky, all the weird and wonderful rock formations are illuminated in a beautiful orange glow and create long shadows across the valley.
There are 5 main stops within the valley you will want to check out. If you have your own car you can enter up to 5.00 PM but can stay until sundown.
Best to make your way into the park all the way to Tres Marias first, and then come back on yourself. Here are the 5 places you will want to check out:
- Las Tres Marias – three weirdly shaped rocks
- Mina Victoria – an old salt mine and caves which you can enter to see stalactites and stalagmites
- Mirador Acaches – a path leading up to a rocky outcrop where you can get the best views of the Amphitheatre and valley
- Duna Major – the huge sand dune in the middle of the valley. Most of the tours will end here and it can get a big crowded, especially at sunset. We decided to stay at Mirador Acaches for the whole of sundown. If you follow the path all the way to the end along the outcrop you can get to a place with a decent view of the dune.
How To Get There
You have three options:
Tour – tours are cheap, but you will end up being stuck to a schedule and with lots of other tours at each of the sites. Here is one for $23:
- Get Your Guide – Valley De La Luna Tour
Car – this was our preferred option, it’s easy to drive into the park (30 minutes from town) and you get to stay longer if you have a car instead of a bike for some reason. We could easily park at the different sights and stayed at each place as long as we wanted.
Bike – you can rent bikes in town and ride to the Valley of the Moon. This is a better option if you want to save money, but you can only visit during the day. They stop letting bikes in after 4 PM.
Day 5 (Optional) - Salar De Atacama, Volcano Lascar & Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques
If you want to extend your adventure filled itinerary to 5 days, then here are some other options that are a little further afield:
- Salar De Atacama – If you haven’t had the chance to visit the Salt Flats in Bolivia yet, then the Atacama Salt Flat is worth a visit.
- Volcano Lascar – a picturesque cone-shaped volcano set in front of a reflective lake making for some incredible photos.
- Laguna Miscanti and Miniques – a slightly longer drive (2-3 hours) to see flamingos and more of this incredible landscape. We had seen a lot of lagoons and mountains on our Uyuni Salt Flat Tour so didn’t feel the need to travel this far.
How Many Days Do You Need In The Atacama Desert?
3 days is the perfect amount of time needed in the Atacama Desert.
This gives you enough time to visit the highlights such as the Valley of the Moon, Laguna Cejar and El Tatio Geysers.
If you visit one of these places on each of the 3 days you have, you will have filled up your days nicely without feeling overwhelmed. There are also some great options for evening activities as well such as the stargazing tour, and San Pedro town is full of great restaurants to try out.
Extend your trip to 4 or 5 days if you wish to explore further from San Pedro to see places such as Laguna Miscanti or Volcano Lascar.
For more articles like this on other great countries in South America and why you should visit them, head to the posts below:
To see how a trip to the Atacama Desert fits into a longer South America Itinerary, check out our posts below: