Often overlooked in favor of Patagonia in the southern half of Chile, Northern Chile is fascinating in its own right. The star of the show in Chile’s north is the Atacama Desert. Known as the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert is unlike many places you will visit in the world.
But what is there to do in the Atacama Desert? From the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama to flamingos at Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos to the Tatio Geysers, there are plenty of things to do in the Atacama Desert.
We spent over three weeks exploring the Atacama Desert and the small town of San Pedro de Atacama waiting on paperwork for our first van “Pablo”, but you can easily explore all San Pedro de Atacama has to offer in a long weekend.
So if you are looking for what to do in San Pedro de Atacama, here is our list of the most incredible things to do in the Atacama Desert.
1. Float in Lagunas Baltinacha, Laguna Cejar’s Little Sister
One of the best things to do in the Atacama Desert is to visit one of the salt lagoons. While Laguna Cejar is by far the largest and most popular, we recommended heading to Lagunas Baltinacha.
Some 50 bumpy, dusty kilometres down a dirt track off the road leading into San Pedro de Atacama you will find Lagunas Baltinache. A series of small shallow pools of a beautiful turquoise color, Lagunas Baltinache is a sight to behold in the arid landscape that surrounds it.
Make sure to pack your swimsuit for this one. Much like the Dead Sea, the conditions of the shallow pools provide a higher buoyancy than regular water allowing you to float effortlessly for significant periods of time. That is if you can bear the frigid temperatures!
2. Watch the Sunset at the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
No trip to the Atacama Desert is complete without visiting the Valle de la Luna, the crown jewel in the Atacama Desert. With out of this world lunar landscapes, one could easily spend a full day exploring the Valle de la Luna. The highlight, however, is catching sunset.
Colors of red, pink, and orange reflect back over the Andes Mountains which further enhance the raw and natural beauty of the mountains. If you are going to do one thing in the Atacama Desert, this would definitely be high on the list and was one of my favorite things to do in the Atacama Desert.
3. Catch the Sunrise with Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos
The Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos at Laguna Chaxa is a real Attenborough experience that is truly amazing. A must on anyone’s bucket list for the Atacama Desert.
We recommend visiting Laguna Chaxa first thing in the morning. We camped just a few kilometers down from the entrance to make sure that we were the first people at the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos to avoid as many other tourists as possible. And while we did not have the place completely to ourselves, we watched vans of tourists arrive as we were leaving.
Regardless of whether you enjoy the flamingos in the Atacama Desert alone or with others, you will be rewarded with one of the most memorable experiences. Flocks of flamingos feed as they stalk through the shallow lagoons, before taking flight in little groups cruising toward the mountains to do what ever these sharply dressed birds do during the day.
You won’t be sorry you had to get up early for this one!
4. Wander the Streets of San Pedro de Atacama Chile
The capital city of San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert is unlike other Chilean cities and exploring this age old cities is one of the best things to do in the Atacama Desert.
While the town may be small, there are few cities in Chile that rival the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama. Dirt streets, white sandstone abodes, and colorful artisan crafts in the windows, make the town of San Pedro de Atacama picture perfect.
Admire the beauty this city has to offer, but make sure to wander early in the morning or in the later afternoon to avoid the extreme temperatures of the Atacama Desert.
5. Get Steamy at the Tatio Geysers
Located high in the Andes Mountains are the Tatio Geysers. The Tatio Geyser is the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.
This rare phenomenon is a result of water reaching deep into the depths of the earth to hot rocks where the water starts to boil and culminates by erupting to the earth’s surface shooting hot water and steam high into the sky.
The Tatio Geysers can reach heights of 10 meters ( 33 feet), but usually erupt to average heights of 1 meter ( 3 feet 3 inches).
The entrance fee to the Tatio Geysers is CLP $10,000 per person and the best time to visit the Tatio Geysers is first thing in the morning!
6. Get Lost at the Lagunas Miscanti and Miñique
The Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñique nestled high in the Andes Mountains under the Miscanti Mountains are just south of San Pedro de Atacama. These antiplano lakes are more than 4,000 meters in altitude and therefore reaching them is not for the faint of heart. Due to their remote location, hiring a rental car is recommended or joining one of the many tour groups that operate in the area.
7. Enjoy an Authentic Chilean Menu del Dia
One of the most local and authentic things to do in San Pedro de Atacama is to feast on the Chilean menu del dia. Popular with the locals, the menu del dia is the best bang for your bucket for those on a budget in Chile. The menu del dia comes with a soup, main course, and sweet treat (usually a candy bar). The main course typically includes protein of pork, chicken, or vicuna with rice and beans. It may not sound delicious, but it is a great way to experience the authentic Chilean tradition.
The best and cheapest menu del dias in San Pedro de Atacama are located in the small huts behind the artisenal market. Make sure to try the vicuna! You may not have another opportunity to taste this unique animal!
8. Discover the Valle Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley)
Valle Arcoiris or Rainbow Valley is one of the lesser known things to do in the Atacama Desert. The name of the canyon originated from the multitude of colors that appear in the rocky valley sides, a result of the different concentrations of clay, salt, and minerals. The best time to catch the amazing rainbow colors is at dusk and dawn, although the valley itself is stunning all day.
If you are overlanding Chile or have hired a campervan in Chile, camping in the Valle Arcoiris is highly recommended. We had the place all to ourselves with the exception of a few vicunas. Be careful, however, of the wind. When it gets to roaring, make sure you are tucked away safely inside!
9. Go Stargazing
There are few places remaining on earth more remote than the Atacama Desert. Outside of the main city of San Pedro de Atacama, the darkness of the Atacama Desert engulfs you. Without light pollution from nearby cities, the skies come alive with thousands and thousands of stars as the night progresses. Grab a bottle of delicious (and affordable Chilean wine) and a blanket and relax under the truly magnificent stars on show in the Atacama Desert.
If you are keen to get even more up close and personal, the Atacama Desert is home to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the largest and most expensive telescope located on earth. ALMA is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday mornings, however, it is mandatory to register in advance. And while you won’t be able to visit at night when the stars are at their best and brightest, it is a great opportunity to learn about the observatory itself.
10. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Vicunas, the Llamas Wild Kin
Who doesn’t love a good llama? And if you love a llama, you are bound to love a llamas crazier, undomesticated cousin. The vicuna is the undomesticated version of the llama. Vicunas roam the rugged landscape of the Atacama Desert. You are bound to spot a few as explore all the things to do in the Atacama Desert.
If you are keen, you can even sample some of the wild game as part of your dining experience in San Pedro de Atacama.
11. Sandboard in Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)
Sandboarding in the Atacama Desert at Death Valley, or Valle de la Muerte, is a popular tourist activity. If you are like to try new things or an adventure junkie, this one is for you.
Sandboarding is similar to snowboarding but just on sand. To sandboard, however, you must go with a tour operator. Each tour typically includes 3 hours of sandboarding, gear (boots and helmet), and transportation to and from Death Valley just outside of San Pedro de Atacama.
12. Be Awed by the Salar de Atacama
I’m sure you have seen pictures of salt flats and thought “Wow, that is impressive.” But, it is not until you actually visit a salar, or salt flats, like the Salar de Atacama that you can truly understand. Miles and miles of salt stretching out in every direction as far as the eye can see as if it were snow and you were not literally in the driest place on earth.
13. Do Some Atacama Desert Camping
A truly unique experience is to camp in the Atacama Desert. Atacama Desert camping is an easy and affordable way to see all of the sights and attractions of the Atacama. Camping on government land is permitted and there is plenty of government land to choose from in the Atacama Desert.
We recommend to camp outside of the city of San Pedro de Atacama. One of Eddie’s favorite stories to retell of our time in the Atacama is on our first night Atacama Desert camping. Just as we were falling asleep, I quietly whispered to Eddie that I had read about the extremely high crime rate, especially related to tourists, in this part of Chile. After informing Eddie of this fact, I easily doze off, but unfortunately a car passes by our remote campsite and Eddie cannot shake the fact that I have just delivered.
I, however, managed to sleep fine until awaking suddenly in the middle of the night. This is Eddie’s retelling of the story.
I awake at 5am, Kelli is staring at me wide eyed, ‘did you hear that?
“No I’ve been sleeping”
“Do you think it’s murderers” she whispers in earnest.
“Well I didn’t, but now I might!” I whisper urgently back.
It isn’t murderers, or at least if it is they choose to move on to greener more murdery pastures.
14. Treat Yourself at the Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa
You won’t be visiting the Atacama Desert frequently, so treat yourself at the Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa. Vacation in style at this four-star resort which offers all of the amenities you could ever want complete with a spa, pool, and impeccable rooms with stunning views over the Andes Mountains and the Atacama Desert.
Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa aims to provide you the best luxury getaway experience, so you can make the most out of your time in the Atacama Desert. Another added bonus…air conditioning. Air conditioning in the Atacama Desert is hard to come by, so if this is a must-have then a stay at Tierra Atacama is a must!
- Address: Las Chilcas Road, San Pedro de Atacama
- Cost: ~$1,660 USD for two people, two nights
(Steep? Yes. But you are only in the Atacama Desert once in your life!)
15. Visit the Eerie Chacabuco
Chacabuco is one of the first attractions to see as you make your way north to San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert. This abandoned nitrate town is a unique off the beaten path Chile adventure. Walk through the desolate and eerie streets and imagine what it use to be like during its heyday.
16. Eat a Completo
Few countries have hot dogs as the number one food to try when visiting their country. The only other countries that even come to mind when thinking of hot dogs is the United States and maybe Iceland, although I am not quite sure while hot dogs and Iceland ring a bell. But a quick check on Google, however, has confirmed by suspicions of Iceland’s love of hotdogs.
What makes Chilean’s hotdog or completo unique is that it is loaded with all the toppings. Chopped tomatoes, avocados, mayonnaise, sauerkraut, salsa Americana, chili pepper, green sauce. You name it, it comes on the completo.
Even if you don’t love hot dogs, no visit to Chile is complete without enjoying this authentic street food in Chile.
With these great things to do in the Atacama Desert, you are sure to have a memorable holiday. If you are looking for more great things to do in Northern Chile, head over to Antofagasta. Or, if you are headed south, check out one of Chile’s up and coming wine regions in the Choapa Valley.