I was dreaming of visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile since I learned about the place at school. The fact that this is the driest desert in the world sounded exciting and intriguing and I knew I want to see this place one day. There was no other option, I had to put the Atacama in my Chile itinerary!
Fortunately, it is rather easy to visit Atacama. The tourist hub in the area is a small town, San Pedro de Atacama, located in the middle of the desert. It is not the most exciting of places to visit in Chile but pleasant enough to spend there a few days and actually have a good time.
There are not too many things to do in San Pedro de Atacama but the truth is no one comes here for the city. The surrounding area, however, is another story!
Table of contents
- 1 Why visit San Pedro de Atacama
- 2 How to get to San Pedro de Atacama
- 3 Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
- 4 How to get around the Atacama desert
- 5 Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama
- 6 Atacama or Salar de Uyuni?
- 7 Final thoughts on visiting Atacama desert
- 8 Further reading
- 9 Travel Resources
Why visit San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama in Chile is the main base for visitors who want to explore the Atacama desert. You will find truly spectacular places just right outside the town, even within a walking distance.
Nature here is outstanding and the landscape is out of this world. You will find here geysers, volcanos, lagoons, salt flats, breathtaking valleys, and more!
The area is also among the most popular ones in the world for stargazing. Plan at least a few days here to see all the Atacama highlights.
Just a bit of a warning: San Pedro de Atacama is located at an elevation of some 2400 meters above sea level. It’s not that high but some people might feel uncomfortable, with headaches and fatigue.
How to get to San Pedro de Atacama
Even if the town is located in the middle of the desert, getting to San Pedro de Atacama is actually really easy.
The nearest airport is in Calama, 100 km away, with numerous flights throughout the day to Santiago and other destinations in Chile. After arriving you will easily find a few companies that will take you directly to your address in San Pedro de Atacama, the one-way ticket costs 10.000-12.000 CLP. You might also pre-book the transfer from the airport, click here for details.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
Since San Pedro de Atacama is a popular tourist destination, there are plenty of accommodation options to choose from. Below are some of the recommended ones:
How to get around the Atacama desert
The best way to get around Atacama is by car – you can rent it at Calama airport.
If you can’t or don’t want to drive there are plenty of tours to choose from and you will still be able to see the best Atacama attractions. I don’t even have a driver’s license yet I managed to see and be enchanted with the beauty of the Atacama desert.
I will tell you about the best and recommended Atacama tours later in that post.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama
And now, without further ado, here are the best things to do in San Pedro de Atacama.
Enjoy the town
While everyone comes to San Pedro de Atacama for the desert, the town is nice enough too and you should give it some of your time as well.
San Pedro de Atacama is rather small, with a population of around 5 thousand inhabitants, and even with tourists around it feels really calm and sleepy. The center is mostly pedestrian, packed with either tour agencies, bike rental shops, or restaurants – a typical tourist infrastructure. But the contrast of streets and buildings with volcanos or rock formations in the background looks pretty cool.
On the main square, you can find the local church and the municipal house which are probably the nicest buildings in San Pedro de Atacama. The biggest attraction of the town is the R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum with a large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, especially ceramics and pottery.
If you want to eat or drink something you will find plenty of places in the center of the town. Some of the recommended ones include Pizzería El Charrúa, Emporio Andino, Sol Inti, Tierra Todo Naturale, or Café Peregrino.
Visit Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna (“Valley of the Moon”) is the most popular side trip from San Pedro de Atacama as it is located near the town – the entrance is only 8 km away.
The name of the place is very accurate since the landscape here is very much moon-like. There are numerous rock and sand formations as well as dry lakes.
The red color of the red-ish color of the rocks is often compared to the Grand Canyon in the US but it reminded me more of the Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan. Either way, it is a spectacular place you don’t want to miss on your trip to Atacama!
When approaching San Pedro de Atacama from Calama look to the right and you will see a foretaste of Valle de la Luna. Then come back later for a proper trip.
You can either come here on your own or with a tour – those usually cover a sunset time when the rocks turn pink. If you are fit enough you can rent a bike in the town and cycle to the Valle de la Luna although it is a bit steep in some parts.
The main attractions of Valle de la Luna include the Grand Crater, the Salt Canyon, the Three Maries and salt mines, the Salt Caves, the Cari Viewpoint (also known as ‘Piedra del Coyote’).
Here are some of the recommended tours of Valle de la Luna:
- From Atacama: Valle de la Luna VIP Sunset Tour
- Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) from San Pedro de Atacama
- San Pedro de Atacama: Valle de la Luna Sunset Tour
Visit Valle de la Muerte
Located on the other side of the road leading to San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de la Muerte (“Death Valley”) is not as popular as Valle de la Luna but nevertheless also incredibly beautiful. It is also located closer to the town so you can actually walk there (that’s what I did).
You can expect to see here red rocks (that look a bit like from Mars), high sand dunes perfect for sandboarding, and viewpoints offering stunning views of the area, including volcanoes in the background. Be sure to have plenty of water with you and use sunscreen (I didn’t, learn from my mistake).
If you come to Valle de la Muerte by car or by bike you can combine the visit with the Valle de la Luna, unfortunately, the entrances to valleys are a bit too far away to do them both at once when walking.
Go for day trips to the Atacama desert
Now that you got to know places in and near the town, it’s time to see more of the desert. And there are plenty of them!
While based in San Pedro de Atacama you can see salt flats, lagoons, volcanoes, and some exceptional rock formations – the list of Atacama attractions is really long and everything can be visited as a day trip.
Some of the most spectacular places include Salar de Talar, Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons (at the altitude of 4,200 m), Geysers del Tatio, Los Flamencos National Reserve, Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley), Piedras Rojas or Puritama Hot Springs. You might even go hiking on the Láscar Volcano.
I went for a tour to Miscanti Lake and Miniques Lagoon, Piedras Rojas, Tuyajto Lagoon and Chaxa Lagoon on the Atacama Salt Flats inside Flamingos National Reserve and I loved every single place we visited. The landscape and views were phenomenal and my jaw has dropped in amazement so many times.
The tour itself was good and well-organized too with plenty of time in each of the visited places. That said, better always check the reviews before booking the tour (that’s when booking online comes in handy, although it might be a bit more expensive), there were some stories of poor-quality tours in the Atacama and you don’t want to join those.
Here are some of the well-rated tours from San Pedro de Atacama:
- Piedras Rojas, Altiplanics Lagoons & Salar Full-Day Tour
- Salar de Atacama, Altiplanic Lagoons, and Toconao Day Tour
- Cejar and Tebinquinche Lagoons
- Hidden Lagoons of Baltinache
- San Pedro de Atacama: El Tatio Geysers Tour
Since the Atacama desert is located so far away from other big cities, the sky isn’t light-polluted and this is actually one of the best places in the world for stargazing (another popular one is on the Southern Island in New Zealand). Even a short walk outside of the town can reveal some mind-blowing views of the night sky, however the further from San Pedro de Atacama you go, the better the views can get.
If you don’t have a car you can join one of the stargazing tours with the expert astronomers who can explain to you all the details of the sky, stars and planets and who can borrow some professional equipment that can help you see the beauty above us. Click here for details.
Atacama or Salar de Uyuni?
Many travelers try to decide between visiting the Atacama or Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. My advice is – visit both, if you can! Both places are different, yet each offers some spectacular and one of a kind attractions that are hard to beat.
You might join the tour that will take you from Salar de Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama (or in the reverse direction) in a few days, stopping in the most amazing places along the way. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for that so I only did a one-day tour to the salt flats in Bolivia.
I personally preferred the Atacama a bit more but I don’t regret a single moment I spent traveling to and from Uyuni just for the tour there.
Final thoughts on visiting Atacama desert
While I expected to see some beautiful places on my trip to the Atacama desert I wasn’t prepared for all that beauty that waits there on every step.
I had only two days in San Pedro de Atacama so I only managed to squeeze in my itinerary one full-day trip and short trips to the valleys near the town (and even that took me a long time to decide since there were too many options to choose from and each of them just seemed like the best one). But I really wish I could have stayed there longer and seen more of the area!
This is actually the only place from my trip to Chile I regret I didn’t have more time in and that makes me dream of visiting the Atacama again.
When planning your own trip there be sure to give the desert more time than you initially think about – this place will amaze you too!
If you plan a trip to Chile those articles I wrote might be interesting and useful for you:
- Chile travel tips – all you need to know about visiting Chile
- Chile Itinerary – What to See in Chile in 10 Days
- 23 Best Things to Do in Santiago, Chile
- Santiago to Valparaiso Day Trip – Visit the Most Colorful City in Chile
- 14 Great Things to Do in Punta Arenas, Chile
For the end I left a few announcements that might interest you:
- Sign up to my newsletter or follow me on Bloglovin to get updates about the new posts
- Join my Facebook group about Eastern Europe, the Balkans and former USSR and connect with fellow travellers and enthusiasts of these regions – just click here!
- I’ve included a few handy links of services and products I personally like and use so you can plan your own trip to Chile too. They are often affiliate links. This means I will get a small commission if you book/purchase anything through my links, at no extra costs for you. Thank you!
LIKED IT? PIN THIS POST FOR LATER!
If you enjoyed that post why don't you share it with your friends? That would mean so much to me! Also be sure to join 27.000+ fellow travelers and follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for travel updates and even more pictures! If you don't want to miss new posts sign up to my newsletter or follow on Bloglovin!