Is The Atacama Desert Worth Visiting?
If you’ve never visited a high altitude desert before, then yes, Atacama is 100% worth your time.
This is a place for adventure lovers and those who want to experience unparalleled natural beauty. You can spend your days floating in crystal clear salt lagoons surrounded by towering volcanoes, and your evenings exploring the night sky with some of the best star gazing tours in South America.
One of the best reasons to visit Atacama is the ability to explore it without a guide. Many travellers rent a 4×4 for a couple of days and drive all over the desert exploring its wonders.
This is great for several reasons; you avoid paying for multiple tours, you aren’t on a time limit and you are free to explore. The majority of sights in the Atacama desert, from the salt lagoons to the hot springs, simply require you pay an entrance fee to visit.
Keep reading for the full 12 reasons why you should visit the Atacama desert:
1. Rent A 4x4 And Explore Atacama On Your Own Terms
Renting a rugged 4×4 vehicle opens the door to unrestricted exploration in the Atacama Desert.
With its vast and varied terrain, the desert is a playground for off-road enthusiasts. Navigate the winding roads, traverse dusty trails, and discover hidden gems that only a self-guided adventure can unveil.
Whether you want to chase sunsets, climb dunes, or venture into remote valleys, having a 4×4 at your disposal allows you to avoid paying for tours, set your own pace, and create a personalized desert experience like no other.
Here’s a comparison table to show you why renting a 4×4 is the way to go in Atacama:
|Renting a 4x4||Booking Tours|
$80-100 a day
$60-70 per tour with two tours a day needed to see the highlights
You're in control of your time. You can wake up any time, leave at any time, and spend as long as you want at each place
Set schedule and itinerary, only 30-45 minute stops at each place
Maximum freedom to explore at your own pace. You can deviate from your plan whenever and discover hidden gems off the beaten track
Limited freedom as schedule and itinerary are fixed
Can group stops together and see more things in one day
You need to book separate tours for most things. For example, you need separate tours for El Tatio Geysers and Puritama Hot Springs even though they are in the same area of Atacama
If you book 4-5 separate tours to see Laguna Cejar, El Tatio, Puritama and Valle De La Luna, this will cost you around $200-250.
In comparison, renting a 4×4 in Atacama for two days will cost you $200 but you also get the benefit of exploring at your own pace, not feeling like a tourist, and seeing every part of the desert in an efficient manner.
Renting a 4×4 in Atacama is a no brainer in my opinion. We used Europcar.
2. Get Up Close To The Towering Licancabur Volcano
Licancabur Volcano is a towering giant reaching 5920m (19,423 feet) into the sky.
With your 4×4, you can drive up along the Ruta 27 towards the Bolivian border to get uninterrupted views this majestic volcano. If you star ‘Mirador Volcan Licancabur’ into google maps, this is the best place to stop for photos.
But, if you’re looking for a physical challenge, why not climb it?
Climbing Licancabur is a physically challenging altitude trek that involves a full day with 9 to 10 hours of hiking and ascents. The path up is straightforward but the 5920m altitude means this is only for hikers with experience hiking at altitude.
The awe-inspiring views from its summit offer a profound sense of accomplishment, as you gaze across the desert and into neighbouring Bolivia.
For an added bonus, go for the 2-day trek where you camp at the base on the first day to acclimate, then start the trek at 2AM the next morning. The sunrise from Licancabur’s peak is a moment etched in memory forever, where the world unfolds in hues of gold and blue, reminding you of nature’s grandeur.
3. See The Clearest Night Sky On A Star Gazing Tour
- Cost: 20,000 Chilean Pesos ($28~)
- Duration: 2-3 hours
The Atacama Desert boasts some of the world’s clearest and darkest skies, making it an astronomer’s paradise.
On a star gazing tour, an expert guide will lead you through the cosmos, pointing out constellations, planets, and galaxies with telescopes that reveal the wonders of the universe in astonishing detail.
You can find star gazing tours in town or book through your hostel to find a good deal. I stayed at Backpackers San Pedro Hostel and they offered the tour for a little cheaper than 20,000 CLP.
Our tour guide, Jorge Corante, was an expert on the night sky and taught us so much. He had two telescopes: a basic one to observe the moon and then a high powered one for observing far away galaxies. We learnt about constellations and how to read the sky without a telescope.
Jorge also taught us a few tips for long exposure photography with our camera.
I highly recommend this tour; it was educational and fun and something a little different. It turned out to be one of my favourites from my time in South America.
For a longer tour with more features such as a visit to the observatory, check this out:
- Viator – Atacama Star Gazing Tour
4. Watch The Sunset In The Valley Of The Moon
The Valley of the Moon lives up to its name with an otherworldly terrain that truly resembles the surface of the moon.
However, it’s at sunset when this part of the desert truly shines. As the sun dips below the horizon, the valley’s rocky formations cast long shadows and the colours shift from warm oranges to deep purples and blues.
It’s an ethereal experience, where you feel like you’ve left earth for another planet.
Here are the 5 places you will want to check out within the valley:
- 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 Visit The Valley Of The Moon (In Atacama)
- 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
You have three options to visit the Valley of the Moon from town:
- Tour – tours are straightforward, taking you into the park, stopping at 2-3 places before dropping you home. You’ll end up being stuck to a schedule and with lots of other tours at each of the sites. Here is one for under $50.
- Car – this was my preferred option. It’s easy to drive into the park (30 minutes from town) and you get to stay for as long as you want compared to a tour. The park can get busy and there are a limited number of tickets a day, so if you are visiting in peak season make sure you arrive in the morning to buy them.
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 in the day. They stop letting bikes in after 4PM.
5. Float In Laguna Cejar
Imagine the sensation of floating effortlessly in crystal-clear waters, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes.
This is the magic of Laguna Cejar, a surreal salt lagoon 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 taking in the beautiful views of Licancabur Volcano and the surrounding mountains.
How To Get To Laguna Cejar (From Atacama)
- 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
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 $45 which takes you to Laguna Cejar and then two more – Ojos del Salar and Laguna Tebinquinche.
This tour is a half day and good value for money if you don’t want to rent a car:
- Viator – Laguna Cejar & Tebinquinche
6. Visit The World's Third Largest Geyser Field - El Tatio
El Tatio is the world’s third largest geyser field, and home to 80 active geysers.
The contrast between the frigid morning air and the steaming geysers creates a surreal image. As the sun rises over the stark landscape, it bathes the geysers in a golden light, painting an otherworldly picture.
You need to arrive early in the morning, between 6.00-7.00 AM when they are the most powerful. This means an early start somewhere between 4.00 – 5.00AM most likely as it’s a 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.
I pulled over a couple of times on the way there and back to get pictures because it was a feast for the eyes.
How To Visit El Tatio Geysers (From Atacama)
- Cost: 15,000 CLP entrance fee ($16)
- Duration: 5-6 hours including travel time
Car – if you have your own jeep, 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 included, and you also stop off at a couple of other places on the way back. Entrance free to the geysers isn’t included in the price
- Viator – El Tatio Tour – $50
7. Bathe In A Desert Oasis At The Puritama Hot Spring
After a couple of days of desert exploration, a visit to the Termas De Puritama Hot Spring is a well-deserved escape.
This oasis in the middle of the desert made up of a eight large pools fuelled by geothermal springs. The warm, mineral-rich waters have long been treasured for their therapeutic properties, providing relaxation to weary travellers.
Surrounded by lush greenery and the sound of flowing water, these hot springs offer an escape from the arid landscape.
Run by the Explora Hotel, the facilities include the outdoor pools connected by wooden footpaths, some waterfalls, and changing rooms with showers.
How To Get To Termas De Puritama (From Atacama)
- Cost: 15,000 CLP entrance fee ($16)
Car – The Puritama Hot Springs are 30 kilometres from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. The Hot Springs and El Tatio Geysers are close together. If you have your own car, it’s easy to combine these two in one day. On the way back from a cold morning at El Tatio Geysers, you can spend the afternoon treating yourself by relaxing in the thermal waters.
Tour – If you don’t have your own car then this tour will take you. Whilst it includes transport, lunch and 4 hours at the hot spring, it’s still not worth it in my opinion. For $88, you might as well rent a jeep.
- Viator – Puritama Hot Springs
8. Catch The Perfect Reflection Photo At Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques
Nestled amidst the high-altitude desert plains, Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques are two pristine and mesmerizing lakes that mirror the surrounding volcanic peaks.
These twin gems are a must visit for nature enthusiasts and photographers alike. The deep blue waters, set against the backdrop of rugged mountains, create a picture-postcard scene.
The lakes are also home to various bird species such as flamingos, adding to the charm of this natural wonder.
These two lagoons are slightly longer drive south of Atacama (2-3 hours). If you feel like you’ve seen a lot of lagoons and volcanoes already, then I would recommend skipping these.
If you want to combine a trip to Argentina alongside Chile, then there are several ways to do this with a simple border crossing. You can easily travel from Atacama to Salta in Argentina.
The three itineraries in the post below can help you cross the borders a 3 different points in Argentina to see Chile:
9. Easy Access To Bolivia And The Salt FLats
One of the advantages of visiting the Atacama Desert is its proximity to Bolivia and the famed Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.
From Atacama, it’s relatively easy to organise a trip to explore this surreal natural wonder and then end up in the town of Uyuni so you can start exploring Bolivia.
Many travellers argue that the Atacama to Uyuni route is better compared to the inverse, as you save the best part, the salt flat, for the final day.
This transition from arid desert to blindingly white salt is an experience you wont forget. The endless expanse of salt, often covered with a thin layer of water, creates a stunning mirror effect that seems to stretch into infinity.
How To Book A Salt Flat Tour From Atacama To Uyuni
Whatever you do, don’t book this tour online. All tours follow the same route, stop at the same sights, and stay in the same hotels.
Spending an extra $100 booking online will add zero benefit to your tour.
For the Bolivia to Atacama route, I recommend a tour company as I went with them myself and they have 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor. However, for the inverse route, I suggest window shopping in Atacama and booking any with availability.
By booking in person, you can haggle and get the best deal. You should be aiming for around $100, maybe a bit more during high season.
Check out the post below to see how this part of the journey can be turned into a multi-country fits South America backpacking trip:
10. Attend A Nighttime Desert Party
On the way to Atacama, I heard rumours from other travellers about the epic parties held in the middle of the desert.
In my mind I pictured a pitch-black desert with strobe lights, lasers, speakers blaring and people dancing till the early hours of the morning.
What I found was a little different.
The ‘desert party’ is on the edge of town and is just a bunch of Chileans and backpackers partying away around fires with 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 location of the party.
All the bars in town shut by 12.00 PM so the locals throw these get togethers to carry on the fun. They are technically illegal and get shutdown by police, so the location is often by word of mouth. A friendly local should guide you in the right direction.
11. Top Quality Restaurants
For a small desert town, only a few roads big, I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurants and cafes on offer.
Some of my favourites include:
12. Go Sandboarding Among The Dunes
Sandboarding down 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 sun!
You receive a lesson before you start and can go down as many times as you like to practice. You may get a mouthful of sand if you wipeout though so be warned.
Check out Sandboard San Pedro. They have great reviews on TripAdvisor and offer morning, afternoon, and night-time tours:
How Many Days Do You Need In The Atacama Desert?
4 days is the necessary amount of time needed in the Atacama Desert in my opinion.
This gives you one day as an ‘arrival’ day and then 3 full days to explore the north, south and west of the desert.
This gives you enough time to visit the highlights such as the Valley of the Moon (west), Laguna Cejar (south) and El Tatio Geysers (north).
If you visit each 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 star gazing tour, and San Pedro town is full of great restaurants to try out.
Check out this fully planned 4-day itinerary to see how to maximise your time in Atacama:
Why Should I Skip The Atacama Desert?
There are several reasons why you might not want to spend as long as 4 days in Atacama or just skip it completely.
- If you have arrived from Boliva after a salt flats tour, you may be a bit bored of high-altitude lakes, volcanoes and deserts. I certainly wasn’t, but you’ll be seeing more of the same thing here. If that’s you, then take 1-2 days instead.
- If you are only visiting Chile, you’ll have landed in Santiago. Depending on your budget and timing, a return flight and 3-4 days in Atacama may not fit your plans
If you’ve never experienced a high-altitude desert before, love adventure and exploring, I 100% recommend you visit Atacama whilst in Chile. If you have seen a high-altitude desert before, suffer from altitude sickness, and prefer warm climates and beaches, maybe give it a miss.
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