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14 Incredible Things to Do In San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is one of northern Chile’s most exciting places to visit, comprising as it does incredible landscapes of salt flats and saline lakes, high-altitude geysers, softly smoking volcanoes, and lunar rock formations.

However, when I visited San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, I struggled to find much information about how to see the region’s main highlights without paying for costly tours.

But it is possible: read on and I’ll show you how with this guide to the top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert.

IMPORTANT: From March 2023, many of the Atacama Desert’s main attractions must be booked in advcance. For the Lagunas Altiplanicas here, for Piedras Rojas here and Laguna Chaxa here. You also must book the Valle de la Luna at least 24 hours in advance; you can do it here.

Why you should hire a car and go self-guided around the Atacama Desert

Although most backpackers in San Pedro de Atacama march the streets looking for the best deals on the Atacama Desert tours being offered along the high street, one of the easiest (and most affordable) means of visiting the region’s main sites is by renting a vehicle.

We found that having our own wheels made access to the region’s top attractions cheaper, but also that venturing to the remotest sections of the Atacama Desert easier and considerably more fun.

things to do in Atacama Desert Chile

How to rent a car in San Pedro de Atacama

Plan ahead and instead rent a car in Calama, the biggest town in the region and about an hour’s drive from San Pedro de Atacama.

It’s also the main transport hub for visitors to the region, so you’ll likely fly into Calama El Loa Airport or arrive at its bus terminal.

things to do in Atacama Desert
Awkward self-timer car gang selfie…

There are at least three international car rental companies in the city and I recommend using Rental Cars as they hook you up with the cheapest provider in the area – and all your insurance information is in English.

Make sure you book at least a month in advance if visiting during high season (December through February).

We found almost all of the vehicles to have been booked when we were there in early January and instead ended up renting very last minute with the Europcar office in San Pedro which charged us over $70,000 CLP ($113 USD) per day – hardly the cheapest way of doing it.

Expect to pay upwards of $300,000 CLP ($485 USD) for a one-week rental of a 4×4. Although it is possible to tour in a 2×4 (just don’t try and go off-road, we actually had to pull someone out of a sandbank who had), a 4×4 allows for more of an adventure, if at a higher price.

Hiring a 4x4 car from San Pedro de Atacama to visit the Atacama Desert, Chile
Pulling a 2×4 out near the Salar de Atacama

From Europcar we received a useful (but hand-drawn) road map of San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings. This allowed us to plan where we were going as it included additional information about the various attractions, as well as distances between them.

I’ve tried to include as much of this information in this article. However, I would also suggest you download maps.me (and the other free apps that recommend for travel in South America) as having an actual map and using GPS is always advisable.

FAQs about visiting San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama lies at the heart of the Atacama Desert and is known for its remarkable high-altitude landscapes, which are often compared to Mars. Home to vast salt flats, saline lagoons, and the third-highest geysers in the world – all of which are surrounded by a ring of volcanoes – the Atacama Desert is famed as a truly otherworldly place to visit. 

Tours can take you out to the region’s top attractions, including the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), Géiseres EL Tatio (El Tatio Geysers), Laguna Chaxa (Chaxa Lagoon), and the Lagunas Altiplánicas (Altiplanic Lagoons). San Pedro de Atacama is also known for its clear night skies – on average, they number 320 per year – which makes it one of the best places in the world for stargazing. 

Yes! While it gets exceptionally busy with tourists, particularly during the months of January and February, San Pedro de Atacama is worth visiting for the remarkable natural landscapes that surround the town and is considered one of the unmissable things to do on a trip to Chile.

Photographers and those who thrive on beautiful scenery will love the Atacama Desert, while those seeking high-adrenaline adventures such as sandboarding and horseback riding will find plenty to do here. 

The best way to visit is by hiring a rental car to explore the region independently. Alternatively, you can book tours through one of a whole host of operators based in San Pedro de Atacama. 

You need a minimum of four days in San Pedro de Atacama. It’s a two-hour flight from the Chilean capital, Santiago, to Calama, the nearest city to San Pedro de Atacama. From here, it’s a one-and-a-half-hour drive to reach the town itself, from where trips out to various natural landmarks within the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos and the wider Atacama Desert begin. 

There are plenty of activities in the Atacama Desert that you can do from San Pedro de Atacama. With four days, you’ll be spending half a day at each end getting to and from San Pedro de Atacama, which leaves you around three days in total. This should be with enough time for a dawn tour to see the Géiseres EL Tatio (El Tatio Geysers) and an afternoon tour to see the flamingos in Laguna Chaxa (Chaxa Lagoon), swim in the salty waters of Laguna Cejar (Cejar Lagoon) and see the sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche (Tebinquinche Lagoon). 

You’ll also be able to spend a day exploring the Salar de Tara, plus a day seeing the beautiful Lagunas Altiplánicas (Altiplano Lagoons) and the vast red scenery of Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks). You can also catch the sunset at Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and go stargazing at one of the observatories surrounding San Pedro de Atacama.

Top things to do in San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert

1. Visit Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) and the Salar de Talar, Ruta 23

This was actually one of our final day trips and definitely my highlight from this list of things to do in the Atacama Desert. Surrounded by a ring of volcanoes, Las Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks; enter between 9am-4pm; site closes at 6pm; $18,000 CLP entrance fee; book in advance here) are an expanse of red-hued rocks that look like a set of huge natural cobblestones.

You can walk on top of this weird natural formation while watching the gentle lapping of the neighboring saline lake and the blinding white of the Salar de Talar, a much smaller and cleaner salt flat than you will have seen previously in the Atacama Desert.

Salar de Talar and the Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) in the Atacama Desert, near San Pedro de Atacama
Um, wow!

How to get to Piedras Rojas and the Salar de Talar

By rental car

Ruta 23 leaves San Pedro de Atacama heading towards the south and is paved right until Socaire, 90 kilometers (56 miles) away, where you are now required to check in with a pre-purchased ticket (buy it here) one hour in advance of the time you’ve booked. I’m not entirely sure how long this gives you at the state, but I imagine it’s a one-hour slot.

Yes, that seems insane, but Chileans love beauracracy. From Socaire, the road is a dirt track until you arrive at Salar de Talar and Piedras Rojas.

In total, the journey should take around two and a half hours. You can combine a visit here with sunset in Valle de la Luna or at Laguna Tebinquinche.

It’s also possible to continue along Ruta 23 as Laguna Tuyajto, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) further along the road, often contains large groups of flamingos feeding in the shallows.

Don’t go too far along this road as you’re right on the Argentine border and you need special insurance to legally drive across.

By tour

Tours to the Piedras Rojas and Salar de Talar generally also include the Lagunas Altiplánicas (below) and Laguna Chaxa (also below), both of which are on the same road out from San Pedro de Atacama. Expect to spend around $55,000 CLP for a tour to all of these destinations.

IMPORTANT: From March 2023, many of the Atacama Desert’s main attractions must be booked in advcance. For the Lagunas Altiplanicas here, for Piedras Rojas here and Laguna Chaxa here. You also must book the Valle de la Luna at least 24 hours in advance; you can do it here.

2. See the dawn at El Tatio Geysers

With 80 active geysers on 10 square kilometers (2,470 acres), the El Tatio geyser field (5am- 5pm daily, $15,000 CLP entrance fee; more information here) is the third largest in the world, and at 4,320 meters elevation (14,170 feet), it’s also the highest.

Rising before dawn is the prerequisite to see them at their most photogenic – which is worth the bone-rattling two-hour journey on an unpaved road.

Standing in the steam at El Tatio Geysers near San Pedro de Atacama
Standing near the steam of the Géiseres El Tatio.

If you time it right, as the early light of dawn saturates the night sky, the fumaroles (steam from the geysers) are visible as they escape the earth in huge puffy columns, some of which can reach six meters in height. Get here too late and the steam doesn’t contrast as noticeably, making it less impressive.

The prime attraction is the spurting steam, but wildlife is also plentiful, and more observable after the deluge of tourists has departed. Vicuñas, viscachas, Andean foxes, and birdlife such as Andean gulls, black-billed shrike tyrants, and the bright yellow black-hooded sierra finch are found here.

There’s also a rustic thermal bath that’s heated by the geysers, albeit at a cooler temperature. The hot water arrives through shafts in the bottom of the pool, meaning the water is not a consistent temperature, nor is the ambient air particularly warm.

Bring plenty of warm clothing for after your swim and wrap up warmly anyway, as temperatures are well below 0°C before dawn.

How to visit El Tatio Geysers

By rental car

It can be difficult to find the route in your own vehicle in the dark, but since all the traffic leaves San Pedro at the same time to reach the geysers for dawn, it’s not too hard to follow the line of vehicles.

The road is unpaved, so a high-clearance vehicle is essential. Experience driving in high altitude conditions is recommended, as the road weaves up into the mountains and gains significant altitude.

The road towards El Tatio Geysers, one of the things to do in San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert
The route towards El Tatio Geysers is possibly even more impressive than the geysers themselves…
With a tour

Tours to El Tatio generally leave around two hours before dawn in order to be at the site for its most photogenic period. You can expect to pay around $40,000 CLP for a tour, which won’t include the entrance fee for the site.

Bring something soft to act as a pillow on the ride there (although you’ll need to be a heavy sleeper to snooze through the rough drive) and travel sickness medication if you experience motion sickness.

What previous clients have said:

“It’s refreshing to find someone with insider knowledge that can take you off the beaten track, away from the mainstream. I particularly liked the detail you give; where to stay and your favourite places. We stayed in some lovely places because of your knowledge, places that we would probably never have found. I also liked the fact that we could ask you questions whilst on the move. Lots to like Steph!”

Sharon, United Kingdom
Traveled to Patagonia, January to February 2019

3. Visit Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques

Located only a short distance from Piedras Rojas and the Salar de Talar are two gleaming lagoons, Miscanti and Miñiques (enter between 9am-4pm; site closes at 6pm; $10,000 CLP adults and $8,000 CLP children entrance fee; book in advance here).

Salt-rimmed and flanked on all sides by gently undulating rusty-colored volcanoes and rough, sun-baked shrubs, these lakes (also known as the Lagunas Altiplánicas) are perhaps the most beautiful in the whole of the Atacama Desert.

Laguna Miniques near San Pedro de Atacama and one of the things to do in Atacama Desert
Laguna Miñiques in late afternoon

It is a true introduction to the barren landscapes of the Andean altiplano but the combination of motionless water and the brightest blue sky you will have even seen more than make up for the stark, inhospitable nature of the surrounding area.

How to get to Laguna Miscanti and Miñiques

By rental car

From San Pedro de Atacama, it’s 90 kilometers (56 miles) to Socaire (around one hour). As with the Piedras Rojas, you are now required to check in with a pre-purchased ticket (buy it here) in Socaire, one hour in advance of the time you’ve booked. I’m not entirely sure how long this gives you at the state, but I imagine it’s a one-hour slot.

From Socaire, it’s a further 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) to reach the turn-off to the lakes (which I think is signposted).

Be aware that they’re located at an altitude of 4,320 meters (14,170 feet) above sea level so make sure you bring plenty of water to stay hydrated on the trip.

With a tour

Tours to the Lagunas Altiplánicas also tend to include Laguna Chaxa (below), the Piedras Rojas, and Salar de Talar. Expect to pay around $60,000 CLP for a tour to all of these destinations or just $35,000 CLP without the latter two.

4. Go off the beaten path at the Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) and the petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas

Perhaps the least visited of the places on this list of things to do in the Atacama Desert, Valle del Arcoíris ($5,000 CLP entrance fee) and the nearby Yerbas Buenas petroglyphs ($5,000 CLP entrance fee) are two other places that I strongly recommend, particularly if you’ve rented a car.

Petroglyphs near Hierbas Buenas, near San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert, Chile
The petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas near San Pedro de Atacama

Your first stop will be the petroglyphs, where a series of rocky outcrops house carvings that have left relief images of guanacos, foxes, men, and cross-legged shaman.

It’s the best site for seeing cave paintings in the whole region and it’s not hard to see how these carvings have been so well-preserved – the fierce dryness of the desert is excellent at keeping things in place – and it’s worth considering the indigenous groups who survived in such a hostile place when you’re admiring these incredible etchings.

Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) is next: an aptly named tapestry of multicolored rocks that weave through a series of hills through the river basin of Río Grande. They are hued in mint green, dusty red, and even splashes of white, caused, no doubt, by the mineral content of the rock.

We arrived for sunset and the shadows cast over the valley added an extra sense of magic. We didn’t see any other tourists during our visit – if you want to find things to do in the Atacama Desert far away from the gringo trail then a trip to Valle del Arcoíris definitely fits the bill.

How to get to Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) and the petroglyphs at Yerbas Buenas

By rental car

Take Ruta 23 north-west out of San Pedro de Atacama until at around 35km (30 minutes) you reach a right-hand turning onto a dirt road which is signposted towards Río Grande.

Rainbow Valley near San Pedro de Atacama and one of the things to do in Atacama Desert
Valle del Arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) is next: an aptly named tapestry of multicolored rocks that weave through a series of hills through the river basin of Río Grande.

After around another half an hour you should arrive at Yerbas Buenas and the petroglyphs where you must pay $5,000 CLP entry. From there, continue along the main road and take the left turning towards Lican before you reach the bridge.

All of this is unpaved and only suitable for vehicles with high suspension. Continue along this road and after about 15-20 minutes you should start seeing the colors of the valley. They now charge $5,000 CLP for entrance to the valley; I’m not sure where you pay this, but there will likely be a booth by the side of the road.

Again, I would strongly recommend you download maps.me (literally my favorite adventure travel app) on your phone before you leave as it’s not the easiest place to find and there’s also the possibility of getting lost in the valley as there are several dirt tracks that pass through.

With a tour

An easier way to reach Valle del Arcoíris and the petroglyphs is with a tour from San Pedro. This should cost around $35,000 CLP for a half-day tour.

5. Go stargazing in the Atacama Desert’s remarkably clear skies

Because of the lack of light pollution and the average 330 clear nights that the region experiences annually, the Atacama Desert is one of the best places on the planet to appreciate the night sky.

Not only will you be able to see various constellations visible from the Southern Hemisphere, but you’ve got a very strong chance of seeing the Milky Way in all its glory. For the best opportunity, you’ll find the most favorable stargazing conditions are in October-November; avoid January-February, which can see electric storms and clouds, and August-September, when high winds cause dust storms.

Dark sky with beautiful bright starts covering
The Atacama Desert is one of the best places on the planet to appreciate the night sky.

I’ve both driven out into the desert for some independent stargazing and taken a tour and, if you want to learn about the stars and get a really good view of them, I highly recommend the latter.

How to go stargazing in the Atacama Desert

Stargazing tours

San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE) are regarded as the best in San Pedro de Atacama as they have 15 telescopes on-site, including a 720-centimeter telescope, the largest public telescope on the continent.

They conduct tours in English, Spanish, and French and are so popular that you will need to book; they’re often fully reserved a week or so in advance.

However, if you are traveling on your own then it’s possible to visit the office about 5/6pm to see if there have been any cancellations.

Want to take the hassle out of planning your trip to the Atacama Desert? EcoChile Travel are a brilliant tour operator based in Santiago, who run tours across the country. Their four-day Atacama Desert trip takes you to some of the region’s top attractions, as well as to meet local weavers in a traditional adobe village to learn more about the culture of the Atacama. You’ll get 5% off if you mention Worldly Adventurer when enquiring through this form.

This happened to me for a Spanish-speaking tour on the same evening and a guy I met got on an English tour using the same method.

After leaving San Pedro (Domingo Atienze and  Caracoles) and a 15-minute journey to the observatory, six kilometers (four miles) south of town along Ruta 23, the tour starts beneath the stars with an informative and entertaining overview, including beliefs of our ancestors and how stars got their names.

Sunset over San Pedro de Atacama and the Licancabur Volcano
San Pedro de Atacama at dusk, just before we left to star gaze

You’ll then be shepherded toward the telescopes and told about what they’re trained on and given a cup of hot chocolate and a Q&A  session, before being driven back to San Pedro.

By rental car

One of the best parts of hiring a car to visit the Atacama Desert is the freedom it gives you to drive off into the wilderness. Not only did we spend an afternoon taking tiny dirt roads just to see where they went, but we drove out of San Pedro and to a spot a few kilometers away where we could enjoy some stargazing.

Although I would certainly recommend taking a proper tour (see below), it was still a lot of fun taking the truck out, finding a spot without any light pollution, and enjoying the stars.

The police did come and ask us what we were doing (I think a person in a nearby house had alerted them to our vehicle) but “estamos viendo las estrellas” (“we’re watching the stars”) was enough explanation.

Moon Chile guidebook

We took the road off towards El Tatio Geysers and pulled off down a dirt track and parked up by the side of the road.

You don’t have to get far away from the town to escape the light pollution and to realise why the Atacama Desert is one of the globe’s most spectacular places for admiring the constellations.

6. See the sunrise or sunset over the Mars-like Valle de la Luna

Ten kilometers west of San Pedro de Atacama, the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley; 9am-7pm Sun.-Fri., $10,000 CLP adults, $5,000 CLP children entrance fee; book at least a day in advance here) is a jarring set of red and white rock formations created by tectonic forces four million years ago. This is easily the most popular of the region’s attractions, thanks to its proximity to San Pedro.

These canyons are special at dawn or dusk when the shadows lengthen and the soft light paints this bizarre lunar landscape and the Andes beyond in hues of pale pink. Take plenty of layers as the temperature drops rapidly at night.

San Pedro de Atacama valleys
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) close to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

How to explore the Valle de la Luna

By rental car

To explore the salt caverns and climb the sand dunes, take Ruta 23 toward Calama on the northwest edge of town and turn left 600 meters after the bridge over the Río San Pedro. Follow the signs to Valle de la Luna and a toll booth where you show your ticket.

Hiring a bicycle and pedaling to the valley is a low-cost alternative, possible during the day (bring plenty of water) or, better still, on nights with a full moon, as the main highway lacks street lamps. From San Pedro, it’s a 30-minute ride to the ticket booth and another 15 minutes to the caverns.

Rent a bike from one of the agencies in San Pedro (along Toconao, south of Caracoles). Rentals cost $10,000 CLP for the whole day; ask to keep the bike overnight for an additional $15,000 CLP.

The popularity of this location means you’ll be sharing the sunset with at least a few other travelers. It’s relatively quiet during the day, so consider visiting earlier to avoid the crowds.

With a tour

Tours normally involve walking through the valley, visiting some of the vast salt caverns, and sitting atop a sand dune to watch the sunset.

You can expect to pay around $20,000 CLP for a tour, which typically leave in the afternoon around 3pm to catch the moment the sun drops behind desert.

7. Drive out to the bewitching and remote landscapes of the Salar de Tara

Although we were told at the time that visiting the Salar de Tara was among the things to do in the Atacama Desert that you can only experience with a tour, it is actually possible to reach this huge stretch of salt flats and lagoons using your own vehicle.

As one of the least visited places in the Atacama Desert, you’re unlikely to spot any other tourists during your day trip and have this whole unique landscape all to yourself.

Huge stretch of salt flats and lagoons in Atacama desert
Geological monolith close to Salar de Tara

At the center of the salt flats is a vast salt-rimmed lagoon, home to an array of wildlife, including breeding flamingos, vicuñas, Andean foxes, and birds such as the puna plover and Andean goose.

Don’t miss the Monjes de la Pakana (the Pakana Monks), a series of rock pillars weathered by wind erosion to resemble the silhouettes of monks, although they are also known as the Moais of Tara, a reference to their similarity to the monolithic moai statues found on Rapa Nui.

How to visit the Salar de Tara

With a tour

Most people visit the Salar de Tara with a tour, as the lack of defined roads to reach it makes it a hazardous journey if you’re not familiar with the area. Tours typically cost around $70,000 CLP and leave San Pedro at 8am and return by 4pm.

Groups visit Salar de Tara as an independent destination, as it’s not easy to combine with the region’s other attractions in the same day.

By rental car

Part of the issue with visiting the Salar de Tara is that there are no clearly defined roads on the map and you definitely do need a 4×4 to arrive. I would recommend that you speak to the owner of your hostel and see if they can provide you with a map for how to get there.

From Ruta 27 from San Pedro de Atacama, it’s about 100 kilometers (62 miles) to reach Monjes de la Pacana and then from here it’s off-road – at which point you will need instructions to get to the Salar de Tara.

8. Try sandboarding

Two kilometers north of Valle de la Luna, the undulating Cordillera de la Sal continues before it becomes Valle de la Muerte, a name derived from confusion over a French accent.

It was originally named Valle de Marte – Mars Valley – by a Belgian man living in the region. His accent was misunderstood and it became known as Valle de la Muerte.

Sandboarders walking up the dunes in Valle de la Muerte
Sanboarders climbing up the dunes in the Atacama Desert

With its slopes of golden sand and strips of red rock, it’s as otherworldly as Valle de la Luna, but significantly quieter, with fewer visitors. Most come as part of sandboarding tours from town, with the rippling waves of sand providing an adventure playground for adrenaline seekers.

How to visit the Valle de la Muerte

With a tour

Because you’ll need to hire equipment, it’s not possible to go sandboarding without a tour. You’re unlikely to be whizzing down the dunes as fast as the pros, but a 3.5-hour tour with Sandboard San Pedro is excellent cardio and a brilliant way of seeing the desert from a new perspective.

Tours are for beginners and upwards and for CH$45,000 you get equipment that includes a helmet, an English-speaking guide, a souvenir video, and transport to the sand dunes from their office. Tours leave at 9am and 4pm daily, but you will need to reserve in advance. (reservation required).

During the full moon and occasional Saturdays, they run nighttime excursions at 9pm ($50,000 CLP). Tours focus on the dunes in Valle de la Muerte; those to Valle de la Luna have been suspended due to erosion. 

9. Catch the sunset at pink-hued Laguna Tebinquinche

The ultimate destination for sunset, Laguna Tebinquinche (4pm-8.30pm summer, 3pm-8.30pm winter, $5,000 CLP entrance fee) is a large saline lake bordered by stretches of hardened salt that turn a soft pink as the light drops.

The view is made even more magical by the orange hue of the mountains in the east, making this one of the most unique places to catch the sunset in the Atacama Desert.

View of sunset with an orange hue of the mountains
Large saline lake bordered by stretches of hardened salt that turn a soft pink as the light drops.

While there are plenty of tour groups catching the very same view at the very same time, it was still my favorite place to see the sun go down – and a pisco sour (which is normally included in the tour) only added to the enjoyment!

How to visit Laguna Tebinquinche

By rental car

Laguna Tebinquinche is very easy to reach independently. Turn left off Ruta 23 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of San Pedro de Atacama and head east and then due south along the dirt road to reach Laguna Cejar and then, a couple of kilometers further, Laguna Tebinquinche.

With a tour

Most tours continue from Laguna Cejar south for a couple of kilometers to spend sunset on the lake’s pastel-hued shores. For $33,000 CLP, you’ll see get a pisco sour and nibbles to toast the dusk, but remember to wrap up warm when the sun finally sinks behind the Cordillera de la Sal.

10. See all three species of flamingos at Laguna Chaxa

When it comes to the region’s most famous water-loving residents – flamingos – there’s one place to head. Laguna Chaxa (8am-1pm, 2pm-6pm daily, $8,000 CLP adults, $4,000 CLP children entrance fee; book in advance here) is one of the best destinations for spotting flamingos in the Atacama Desert as it’s home to large colonies of all three altiplano species: James’s, Andean, and Chilean.

It’s located within Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos (Los Flamencos National Reserve) and the vast Salar de Atacama, which stretches south from San Pedro de Atacama for over 100 kilometers (62 miles) and is the third largest salt flat on the globe.

Flamingoes in the Laguna Chaxa
Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos

It was formed by water deposits from the Andes Mountains collecting in this natural basin and evaporating to leave a crust of salt; bear in mind that the sediment – dirty and resembling dead coral – is significantly less impressive than El Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat across the border in Bolivia.

The best time to see the flamingos at Laguna Chaxa is when they’re most active. At sunrise, you’ll see them busy slurping the water for algae, but whatever the time of day, you’ll find this lake picture-perfect, with their pink bodies reflected in the water against a backdrop of pastel-hued mountains.

How to visit Laguna Chaxa

By rental car

Laguna Chaxa is reached by taking Ruta 23 out of san Pedro south to the settlement of Toconao; continue 3.5 kilometers (two miles) south of the town and take the dirt B-355 west for another 20 kilometers (12.5 miles).  

With a tour

You’ll generally find that tours visiting Piedra Rojas and the Lagunas Altiplánicas stop at Laguna Chaxa on the way to or from San Pedro de Atacama. It should cost around $60,000 CLP to see all three destinations.

11. Find out what it feels like to be weightless at Laguna Cejar

Going to space might not be an option for most of us, but if you’re wondering what it feels like to be weightless then head out to Laguna Cejar ($15,000 CLP adult, $5,000 CLP children, 9am-1pm open to the public; 2pm-6pm open to tour groups; book in advance).

This sinkhole has a salt concentration of 28 percent, which means that when you enter, you can float weightlessly. The water is cold, but it’s refreshing in the blazing heat of the desert and the feeling of bobbing around on the surface of this tranquil lake is more than worth the discomfort.

Large sinkhole in the Atacama desert
Laguna Cejar, a large refreshing and salty sinkhole in the Atacama desert

Bear in mind that the chemicals in sunblock have done damage to the fragile ecosystem of the water, so you’re not allowed to enter the water with any chemicals on your skin – so you’ll want to be careful about how long you spend in the water to prevent getting sunburn.

How to visit Laguna Cejar

By rental car

To reach Laguna Cejar on your own, take Ruta 23 south from San Pedro for 17 kilometers (10.5 miles), then take a sharp right along the dirt track. It’s around a 30-minute drive from town.

It’s only open to the public between 9am and 1pm and you’ll need to book tickets in advance through this website. It’s also possible to persuade the people at the gate to let you enter for free for 30 minutes to take photos.

With a tour

Organized tours typically start mid-afternoon from San Pedro de Atacama, stopping at the Ojos del Salar (one saltwater and one freshwater pool, the latter of which you can swim in) before heading to Laguna Cejar around 4pm and onwards to sunset at Laguna Tebinquiche.

Expect to pay around $33,000 CLP for this tour.

12. Take a dip in the Termas de Puritama hot springs

The Atacama Desert isn’t known for its cool daytime temperatures, so you might be surprised to learn that one of the most popular things to do here is to visit a series of natural hot springs in the Rio Puritama, a 30-minute drive north of San Pedro de Atacama.

The eight, crystal clear hot springs at the Termas de Puritama (9am-6:30pm daily, $30,000 CLP, $16,000 CLP 5.30pm-6.30pm; book in advance) have temperatures of between 25°C and 30°C, with the purportedly relieving rheumatism and arthritis due to the high concentration of sodium sulfate. However, when the air temperature is warm, they can feel less than refreshing.

Termas de Puritana
Crystal clear hot springs at the Termas de Puritama

The pools are in graduated sections of the valley and connected by small waterfalls. Each pool is accessible via a wooden walkway. The entrance fee is steep and gives you three hours in the pools; so it’s worth spending an entire morning or afternoon to get your money’s worth – or arrive for the sunset swim at 5.30pm instead.

How to visit the Termas de Puritama

By rental car

The springs are 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of San Pedro on the road toward Géiseres del Tatio and are clearly signposted from the road. The road from Guatin is bumpy to say the least, so drive slowly. You must book your tickets in advance here.

By tour

Tours to the Géiseres del Tatio typically stop at the thermal springs on the way back from San Pedro de Atacama for no additional cost.

13. See meteorites from space at the Museo del Meteorito

While stargazing is a highly recommended activity in San Pedro, it’s also worth looking a little bit closer to home to learn more about space.

The Museo del Meteorito (6pm-9.30pm Tues.-Sun., $5,000 CLP adult, $4,000 CLP child) is housed in two large geodesic domes and offers fascinating insights into the arrival of objects from space.

It was born from the passion of two local brothers and now displays 77 of a collection of over 3,200 meteorites that have landed in the Atacama Desert; some have been dated to 4.5 million years old.

A free 45-minute audio guide, available in five languages, provides technical descriptions of the meteorites but most of the fun is admiring the rocks on display.

Ever touched something millions of years old? You’ll have the chance here, as two plastic cases with holes allow you to inspect the rocks close up and even touch them.

How to visit the Museo del Meteorito

Independently

The museum is just north of the main streets of San Pedro de Atacama, making it within easy walking distance.

14. Sample wine from one of the highest-elevation wineries in the world

A desert – and the world’s driest nonpolar desert in the world – probably doesn’t sound like a likely place to grow vines. At least, that’s what I thought until I visited the indigenous Toconao community and their vineyards.

At 2,468 meters (8,097 feet) elevation, the vineyards of Viña Santa Romina (10.30am-5.30pm summer, 9.30am-4.30pm winter), are the highest in Chileand among the highest in the world. But one of the most remarkable features is seeing how neat rows of vines grow out of parched sand – all against the backdrop of the arid Salar de Atacama.

Chilean Vineyards in the Atacama desert
The vineyards of Viña Santa Romina

Visiting Santa Romina is a chance to learn about how exactly you grow grapes in a desert, before sampling their Ayllu wines, which have taken on the unique climatic conditions and volcanic soils of Atacama to produce bold flavors.

The vineyard itself is operated by a cooperative of indigenous Lickanantay people from the community, who have been cultivating wine since the 16th century. It’s a very unusual place, but still one of my favorite wineries in Chile!

How to visit Viña Santa Romina

By rental car

No tour operators currently run trips to Viña Santa Romina, so you need to have your own transport. Book a tour directly here, which includes a tour of the vineyard and winery, plus a tasting of three of their wines for $44,990 CLP.

Useful information about visiting the Atacama Desert

Comprising more than 73,000 hectares in seven sections south and southeast of San Pedro, the spellbinding Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos contains many of the sights mentioned above

Most of the reserve’s seven sections have their own entrance station and there is no general park admission fee, so you’ll need to bring cash with you to pay for individual entry fees at the CONAF ranger station at the entrance.

Altitude is one of the biggest challenges of exploring the Atacama Desert, as many of the attractions are situated at elevations above 3,000 meters (9,850 feet). To avoid contracting altitude sickness, it’s best to work your way from the lowest- to the highest-elevation sights, particularly if you’re driving, as the effects of altitude can cause accidents.  

If you’re planning on cycling to the Valle de la Luna or around San Pedro de Atacama itself, take plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat to avoid heatstroke.

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama is very expensive, even by Chilean standards.

Laguna Chaza near San Pedro de Atamaca, Chile
Laguna Chaxa surrounded by the Salar de Atacama

Following my visits to San Pedro de Atacama, the following places are my top picks.

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

I stumbled upon Ckuri Atacama ($80 USD) double) online and this is definitely the nicest place you will find in San Pedro. They only have three rooms and it’s best if you’re a couple (they’re only double rooms), but they all include a bathroom with shower, large double bed and a small dining area with fridge, cutlery and plates.

Breakfast isn’t included but you can easily buy what you need and eat in your own personal dining area! The owner, Edgar, is really really friendly and can help you out booking tours or with suggestions for dinner. They also have bikes that are free of charge to borrow and are in the process of building an upstairs terrace where they’ll have a telescope for star gazing.

If you’re looking for more space and facilities, the ten large bedrooms, decorated with thatch ceilings, adobe walls, and beautiful Andean textiles, make up the gorgeous Hotel Pascual Andino ($219 USD double). It’s situated just outside of the center of San Pedro de Atacama, making it within a stone’s throw of all of the town’s restaurants but without the unwelcome noise pollution.

Each room has a shady outdoor patio with rattan furniture as a place to relax during the cool evening, although each has access to an outdoor lounge and a small pool, which will likely become your go-to location during the heat of the day.  

The hotel’s free bikes are also handy if you fancy heading out to Valle de la Luna for a spectacular sunset, or just as a means of exploring the town on two wheels. 

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama on a budget

Just a short, 10-minute walk from the main street in San Pedro de Atacama lies one of the town’s best budget choices: Hostal Pablito ($85 USD double). With its large, year-round swimming pool and comfortable, impeccably clean bedrooms, this guesthouse feels like a real bargain. The staff are very welcoming and can be flexible with early breakfasts where required for pre-dawn tours.

Streets of San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama town

Another option is Backpackers San Pedro Hostel ($14,000 CLP ($16 USD) dorm, $33,000 CLP ($38 USD)). It’s clean and had plenty of communal space (including two large kitchens) but is a little out of town (which shouldn’t be too serious but it is hot and difficult walking at 2,400 meters above sea level in a desert!). It’s a more relaxed option than many of the other hostels in town, although noise can still be an issue here.

Remember that, as in most of South America, there are a lot more hostels on the ground than you’ll find on the internet, so be prepared to take a wander around looking for accommodation that you might otherwise have missed.

Transportation to and from San Pedro de Atacama

From San Pedro de Atacama, buses leave for Salta, Argentina (11 hours). These generally only depart in the morning and as this is a popular crossing for backpackers, it’s recommended to book a couple of days in advance.

From nearby Calama (one hour’s drive from San Pedro), you can find buses to Bolivia (eight hours) (again only leaving in the morning and not necessarily every day) as well as buses to Santiago (24 hours).

Flights from Calama de Santiago can often be only a little bit more expensive than buses and take a tenth of the time. Flights start from $57,000 CLP ($92 USD) but it’s worth booking a few weeks in advance.

Compare prices on Skyscanner.com and try Jetsmart (super budget) or Sky Airline (budget) for the cheapest flights.

From Calama, minibus transfers leave directly after flights arrive and cost a fixed rate of $15,000 one-way and $28,500 return:

They all offer shared transfers to and from hotels in San Pedro, one and a half hours away.

You can organise for them to pick you up from your hostel if you have a flight back from Calama. An easier way is to rent a car directly from Calama Airport through Rental Cars.

Other inspiration for places to visit in Chile

While there are plenty of adventure travel destinations in Chile, particularly in the north of Chile, no trip here would be complete without heading to the far south and Patagonia – a true adventure playground for travelers!

From the ultimate Chilean road trip along the Carretera Austral to penguin colonies and wild Patagonian scenery, there are plenty of reasons to head south after your trip to the Atacama Desert. Get inspired with these four Patagonia travel itineraries for short trips!

Pushkar

Tuesday 5th of December 2023

Hi, thanks for your very useful website. Can you please tell if Piedras Rojas is a separate ticket or I am covered if I have the ticket to Aguas Calientes Salt Flats + Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons? I couldn't tell if Piedras Rojas is simply the name of the road or a separate point of attraction. If it's a separate ticket, can you please re-post the link?

Steph Dyson

Sunday 14th of January 2024

Hi Pushkar, it's the same ticket as far as I'm aware. Steph

Giselle Valdeiro

Wednesday 1st of November 2023

Hello Steph - I am visiting Atacama in January and used the link in your post to book tickets to Piedras Rojas... The Socaire Chile website had a tab for 'visit SALAR DE AGUAS CALIENTES SUR "Red Stones". Is that the same as Piedras Rojas?

Best regards Giselle

Steph Dyson

Thursday 23rd of November 2023

Hi Giselle, yes it is! Steph

Lous

Tuesday 18th of July 2023

Hi there nice blog thanks for the tips! But some info is not correct and should be updated. >It is not possible to visit ALMA anymore (closed for 3 years already). >Also SPACE does not have an office anymore, you can only reserve by e-mail, the response is slow and tours will get full quickly, so plan at least 1-2 weeks in advance. Both were disappointments for us, so hope this update will help other travelers.

Sue

Thursday 18th of May 2023

Do you still need to prebook things in the Atacama desert during the off season? We are going the 20 of May. Ww are considering renting a car (which I know is your recommendation) but don’t want to prebook. Someone told me that if you go by car you can only visit places in the morning as the afternoons are reserved for tours. Please let me know. Thanks

Steph Dyson

Monday 5th of June 2023

Sorry I didn't respond to this earlier Sue. I hope you got it sorted!

Victoria

Sunday 13th of March 2022

You can book the "Valle de la Luna" tickets on https://www.puntoticket.com/ ..just type in valle de la luna to find it!

Steph Dyson

Monday 21st of March 2022

Thank you Victoria! Steph