The Atacama Desert is said to be the driest desert in the world. This superlative has always had a special appeal for me. The inhospitability and hostility simply fascinated me. The fact that NASA is also testing its Mars robots in this region, because the landscape here resembles that on the distant red planet, is just the icing on the cake. At the latest since I traveled with a friend in 2015 to the neighboring countries of Bolivia and Peru and was so close to this region, I knew that I had to take a closer look at the highlights of the Atacama Desert.

The dry heat, the vastness, the dust and sand and the omnipresent colors reddish brown/grey (the rocks and mountains) and bright blue (the sky) will stay in our memories for a long time. So will our highlights of the sights in the region. In our camper, we focused more on having a good time and camping in beautiful places and enjoying camper life.

Therefore, we have not visited all the sights in the Atacama Desert, but have chosen a fine selection of the possibilities, which we now want to present to you in the order in which they impressed us the most. By the way, the starting point for all activities that you can do on your own with a rental car or with an organized tour is a small town in the desert.

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama, ChileThis dusty town is the starting point for different tours in the Atacama Desert and therefore quite touristy. There are many restaurants, tour providers, souvenir stores, bars and everything a backpacker’s heart desires. As a tourist stronghold, the price level is unfortunately also relatively high.

Dinner is available from about 8000 CLP (about 10 euros), a beer or coffee costs about 4 euros. Overnight stays start at about 30 Euro in a double room. San Pedro is the gateway to the Atacama Desert and the Uyuni region of neighboring Bolivia. But also the Puna de Atacama in Argentina can be reached very well from here.

#1: Valle de la Luna

The Valley of the Moon is definitely the number 1 highlight for us in the Atacama Desert. Rarely has a landscape, compressed into only a few square kilometers, impressed us so much. We did a bike tour through the breathtaking Valle de la Luna in San Pedro de Atacama and it was mega exhausting to cycle through the dust-dry heat. But the moon-like landscape and the possibility to stop when and where you want definitely compensated for all the efforts. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

How to get there?

On your own by bike In San Pedro de Atacama you can rent bikes everywhere. The bikes usually cost 3000 CLP (4 Euros) for 6 hours or 6000 CLP (8 Euros) for 12 hours. Included in the rental are bike helmets, repair kit, bike lock and a nice yellow high-visibility vest. The bikes are mostly in good shape and have at least also a suspension fork. It still makes sense to compare a few providers and also make a short test ride before you decide on a bike. You don’t want to be stuck in the desert with a defective bike.

With the bike you are in about 30 minutes at the entrance and can then spend the rest of the day in the park. With an organized tour You can also just join a tour and you will be let out at the respective sights to take pictures. A tour will cost you about 15-20 euros per person. With a rental car Of course you can also rent a car. But you should have rented it already in Calama. As far as we know there is no car rental in San Pedro except Wicked Campers.

What can you do there?

Here, it’s clearly about exploring the landscape, climbing hills and just being amazed. Every sight seems completely different and we found the area simply breathtaking. A must-do in the Atacama Desert. You can easily spend the whole day here. Most people choose to finish the day with a sunset in the nearby Valle de la Muerte. It is best to be there at 5:30 pm. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

Summarized info

Directions from San Pedro:
by bike: 30 min
by car: 15 minutes

Entrance fee:
before 1 pm: 2500 CLP (approx. 3 €)
after 1 pm: 3000 CLP (approx. 4 €)

Price of a tour:
10-15,000 CLP (approx. 15-20 €)

We have explored the Valle de la Luna by bike ourselves. 

#2: Laguna Cejar & Laguna Piedra

Our second highlight in the Atacama Desert is the Laguna Cejar. Located in the Salar de Atacama south of San Pedro de Atacama, it has a salt content of more than 40% and is also called the Dead Sea of Chile. The light blue lagoon is one of the most popular destinations in the area in San Pedro de Atacama and therefore also one of the top highlights of the Atacama Desert.

However, you cannot swim in this lagoon, this is only possible in the neighboring Laguna Piedra. Together with a third lagoon, which again may only be looked at, these form a common complex, for which only once entrance must be paid. In addition, there are toilets, open air showers, changing rooms and also a small picnic area. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

How do you get there?

On your own by bike or rental car You can rent a bike in San Pedro de Atacama and take the long way there. It is about 15 kilometers to ride and you can’t miss the route. Nevertheless, this can of course be very exhausting if the heat is right. Nevertheless, we saw some cyclists on the way. It is easier with your own rental car. Then you need, also thanks to the moguls, about 30 minutes. But also by tour you can visit the lagoons. Plan for about 20,000 CLP.

What can you do there?

First of all, you can visit the beautiful lagoons. The Laguna Ceja is only to be looked at and not to be bathed in. This lagoon is beautifully surrounded by pampas grass and offers wonderful views from 2 small viewing platforms. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips The second lagoon during our visit is Laguna Piedra. And there we are finally allowed to swim. About 200 meters in front of it there are very nice changing rooms and we are lucky to be there in the early afternoon even all alone. We quickly change and walk to the lagoon.

The water is already shimmering blue and we can’t wait to jump in. What we did not expect is that the water is ice cold. Slowly we feel our way in and then manage to stay in the water only a few minutes to shoot the obligatory souvenir photo.

By the way, due to the high salt content of the water (40%) you float quite like in the Dead Sea above without doing anything, a very special feeling. After the bath you have a white, thin salt crust on the whole body. This can be washed off in the shower, which is part of the facility and is very nicely furnished.

Summarized info

Directions from San Pedro:
by bike: about 1+ hour
by car: 30 min

Entrance fee:
before 2 pm: 10000 CLP (ca 13 €)
after 2 pm: 15000 CLP (approx. 20 €)

Price:
approx. 20,000 CLP (approx. 26 euros)

 

#3: Laguna Chaxa

Laguna Chaxe, just like the Cejar and Piedra lagoons, is located in the Salar de Atacama. In the lagoon, which costs only 2500 CLP entrance, a large round way is put on at the various info boards with information to the lagoon and the animal inhabitants. But the highlight of this lagoon are the numerous flamingos, which are quite close to the trails, especially in the morning hours.

So with a little luck you get a nice photo of the graceful pink birds in front of a gigantic salt lake backdrop. The Salar shines in the most dazzling colors. Together with the volcanoes on the horizon, unique photos are pre-programmed. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

How do you get there?

Best from San Pedro by rental car (1h) or with an organized tour (about 20.000 CLP). Theoretically it is also possible to get here by bike, but due to the long distance to San Pedro we would not recommend it.

What can you do there?

Clearly the flamingos are the highlight of this lagoon. Around San Pedro there is no place where you can get a better view of these wonderful animals. In addition, you can learn quite a lot about the flamingos and their food, small brine shrimp, on the loop road and in the building at the entrance. Also, the staff on site is very helpful and happy to answer all kinds of questions about flora and fauna.

Summarized info

Directions from San Pedro:
by rental car: approx. 1 hour

Entrance fees:
2500 CLP pP ( approx. 3 Euro)

Price of a tour:
ca. 20.000 CLP (ca. 25 Euro)

#4: El Tatio Geysers

One of the most popular sights in the Atacama Desert, besides the Valle de Luna, are the El Tatio Geysers, the world’s highest and also one of the largest geothermal fields on earth with a total of more than 80 geysers. A few hours north of San Pedro de Atacama, at an altitude of almost 4300 meters, the geysers continuously shoot water and steam spectacularly into the air.

It is a truly surreal environment. The best time to visit the geysers is at sunrise, when the early light allows you to see the steam rising and take brilliant photos. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

How to get there

Directions from San Pedro:
approx. 1.5 hours by rental car over often bumpy roads
by organized tour for about 30.000 CLP (about 40 €)

What can you do there?

Normally you go there very early in the morning (around 5am) to see the numerous geysers at sunrise. But we didn’t want to get up so early nor pay so much money for the entrance fee. Therefore, we had only picked out a free geyser near the Tatio Geyser in the app iOverlander, which we wanted to look at. Since the way there was unfortunately closed we drove nevertheless still to the El Tatio.

We were there at about 9 o’clock. At this time there were hardly any other tourists there. Even if the steam of the geysers was no longer quite so high, these gave a great and impressive picture. And we were just almost alone on the road, Even more impressive for us, however, was the fact that we could observe at the rearmost geyser field all alone as a fox was chased by a group of vicunas and the fox hid from his hunters behind a rock before he then went up and away.

After this unique experience we took a bath in the small pool, which is heated by the hot springs. However, the water was not as warm as we had hoped. The water is rather lukewarm, so after 10 minutes we went back into the dry. Because of the altitude it is much cooler at the geysers than in San Pedro de Atacama.

Summarized info

Journey from San Pedro:
by rental car: approx. 1.5 hours

Entrance fee
10.000 CLP pP (approx. 13 Euro)

Cost of a tour:
approx. 30,000 CLP (approx. 40 €) Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

#5: Rainbow Valley (Acronis Valley)

The Rainbow Valley is our 5th highlight in the Atacama Desert and of course does not look as colorful as the name suggests. Nevertheless, this colorful valley located 60km north of San Pedro de Atacama in the Domeyko Mountains is worth the long and jerky journey.

The rainbow valley is located at an altitude of almost 4500 meters and so the car struggles meter by meter up the Andes during the journey. Arrived one must drive the last kilometers over a humpy gravel road and cross also some smaller rivers. But this should not be a problem even with a normal rental car. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

How do you get there?

Directions from San Pedro:
about 1.5 hours by rental car on paved roads. Only the last kilometers are gravel road.
Alternatively by organized tour for about 25.000 CLP (31 Euro)

What can you do there?

After the last kilometers of gravel road there is a small parking lot, which is a good starting point for small hikes through the Rainbow Valley. But you can drive a few hundred meters further without any problems and then you are completely alone there – like we were.

With luck you can also see some guanacos. You can spend a few hours here and marvel at the colorful rock formations and take pictures. Yerbas Buenas Near Rainbow Valley (about 2km in the direction of San Pedro de Atacama) you can visit the pre-Columbian ruins of Yerbas Buenas, where there are several hundred years old rock paintings to admire. A small entrance fee is required.

Summarized Info

Directions from San Pedro:
by rental car: about 1.5 hours

Entrance fee
free of charge

Price of a tour:
about 25.000 CLP (31 Euro) Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

Additional tip #1: The ALMA observatory

The Atacama Large Millimeter ArrayALMA for short – is a network of 66 radio telescopes in the Atacama Desert on the plateau near San Pedro de Atacama. The dust-dry desert air as well as the location at up to 5044m above sea level offer astronomers ideal conditions for observing the universe. The ALMA Observatory also played a major role in the discovery of the first black hole in the universe in April 2019.

I would have loved to see the large radio telescope, but of course we didn’t get tickets because I didn’t take care of tickets in time. If you want to visit the observatory, you have to register months in advance. But at least the tickets are free. You can get the tickets on this website Official ticket website ALMA

Additional tip #2: Trip to the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)

It’s not quite in the Atacama Desert, but scenically it’s definitely one of the biggest highlights in the entire Andes region. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Even if you don’t plan a vacation in Bolivia, it’s no problem at all to take an organized tour from Chile to neighboring southern Bolivia and see the unique landscapes there.

I have already visited this region a few years ago with a friend and was rarely so consistently just fascinated. I think there are hardly any other regions on earth that can keep up with southern Bolivia in terms of surreality. Atacama Desert | 5 great highlights and tips

Facts about the tour to Uyuni, Bolivia

  • From San Pedro de Atacama organized tours cost about 200-250 USD per person
  • There are 3 & 4 day tours offered (e.g. at World White Travel)
  • You can be brought back to San Pedro by the tour provider or continue your trip in Bolivia
  • It is also possible to go to Bolivia on your own with a rental car, but this requires sufficient preparation.

Do you have any questions about the sights in the Atacama Desert? Or do you know an Atacama highlight that we should definitely add to the list? Write us a comment under our travel report.

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