The Atacama Desert is a must to see in Chile. Its variety of landscapes is stunning: one day you are walking in a moony desert, while the other day you are swimming in a lagoon or driving in the snow.
The best way to visit it all is renting a car. Of course, you could also book a tour, but they are quite expensive and mostly in the afternoon. That means that for seeing everything you will need probably an entire week. On the other hand, if you go on your own, you can visit it in the morning when there is almost no one and enjoy the landscapes without a crowd of tourists.
Otherwise, if you love adventure, you could also rent a campervan as I did with my friend Chris. It’s even better than a car, because not only you save on tours, but also on accommodation. And food too, because you can just buy groceries and cook on your own.
We rented our 2-people campervan from Wicked. They have various options, with everything you can need: an (almost) comfortable bed, an icebox where to put your food, a sink that pumps water from a bottle, a folded table with two chairs, cutlery, pots and a stove. You can also grab some blankets and sleeping bags at the Wicked headquarter, but we preferred renting clean ones from Locaventuras.
Renting a campervan is not cheap, but it should be more or less the same as renting a normal car and paying for 3 nights in a hostel. We paid about 75,000 CLP per day, which is more or less 100 USD. Not cheap, but it gave us a lot of flexibility.
So, what can you actually see in the Atacama Desert? Before doing this trip I researched online, but I haven’t found a precise day to day schedule, so I decided to write it, based on our 4 days trip.
Day 0: Arrival in San Pedro de Atacama
You will probably arrive in the afternoon or evening, flying from Santiago to the Airport of Calama. From here you will have to get a taxi to the city of San Pedro de Atacama: a one hour and a half journey for 20,000 CLP per person, including the way back.
Once in San Pedro, you will probably spend your first night in a hostel and have dinner and a Pisco Sour in one of the many restaurants. I can recommend Barros, which seems to be frequented by locals and there’s live music.
Day 1: Valle de la Luna and Valle de Marte
Get up early, pack your stuff and have an amazing breakfast at the French bakery La Franchuteria: the best French croissants of South America, I would say! I would recommend buying also a baguette, that will get useful later for lunch.
Time to get our campervan! Wicked opens at 10 am, so be there for this time. It will probably take about two more hours to set up the papers for the van, get gas and buy some groceries.
Those two things are quite important: the only gas station is in San Pedro, so make sure to fill up. The station is not super easy to find, but the guys from Wicked will provide you with a map and there are a few signs that say “Carburante”.
Groceries: you already have baguettes. You can buy something to fill them if you want (cheese and ham?) and that will be your lunch. Then you need to buy something for dinner and for the breakfast of the next day, as you are not coming back to San Pedro today. And don’t forget water! Plenty of it!
Ready? Set. Go! It should be about 12 pm and you are ready to go. First stop: Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). Just head north, back on the same road that leads to the airport of Calama (road 23) and, after a few kilometers, you will see a brown sign that points left. Take that street and you will reach the entrance. The price is 3,000 CLP per person, which includes a map of the valley. Keep the ticket as you will need it in two days!
Follow the dirt road by car and stop at every estacionamento: leave the car and explore the surroundings.
The first stop is the Cueva de sal, a salt cave you can enter (you’ll need a headlight) and follow for a few meters in the dark, before reaching the end, climbing up on the top for descending the salt formations.
The second stop in the Duna Major, a big sand dune that you cannot climb. But following the path, you will reach the top of a rock, close to the upper part of the dune, from which you can overlook the entire valley and see the white mountains in the background.
Now you will understand why it’s called Moon Valley! With its dunes and its rocks with particular shapes, this valley really looks like the Moon. And you can fully enjoy it, as at this time there are almost no other tourist (tours usually start at 3 pm).
Now it’s probably past 2 pm, time for lunch! Just take out table and chairs, directly in the parking where you are and have your baguette, relaxing with the view of the dune.
The next stops are another high viewpoint, followed by a salt mine, which is actually just a big hole in the ground.
The last stop is the complex of the Tres Marias, three rocks that look like three statues. With a bit of imagination, you can probably see the Holy Virgin in them. This is the end of the road, now you have to take the same way back.
Once you are out of the Moon Valley, take again the street to Calama and stop after a few minutes when you see the brown sign of the Valle de Marte on the right. The price is the same (3,000 CLP per person). Enter with your van and stop where there is a sort of square. It’s a nice place for pictures, with cracked red ground and a labyrinth of strange red rocks. Yes, that’s why it’s called Valle de Marte (Mars Valley). It’s also known as Death Valley, but just because the name got misspelled from Marte (Mars) to Muerte (Death).
Follow the dirt road by car until it’s too sandy to continue. Then leave the car and start walking, following the path on the left of the big dune where people do sandboarding. If you wanted to do the same, you should have rented a board in town, sorry!
After a few minutes the path will lead you to a canyon: climb up on the left and you will reach the viewpoint where a stunning sunset will wait for you. Just be sure to get there on time (6 pm in winter)!
Now it’s time to find a place to park your van and camp. Tomorrow you are going to the Tatio’s geysers and you want to be there at 6 in the morning, as it’s the best time to enjoy the steams and smokes.
Take the way back to San Pedro and, when you are close, follow the sign for El Tatio (road B-245). You have two options: driving now as close as you can to the geysers, sleep there and get up at about 5.30. Or you can camp closer to San Pedro, get up very early, drive about 2 hours and a half and reach the geysers at 6 am.
We chose the first option: we took road B-245 and we drove for 55km, passing by the towns of Guatin and Machuca. Don’t expect to find something there: there are just a few houses and nothing more. You have to rely on your own groceries for dinner and on the “Inca toilet” for your needs. We finally camped near some frozen lagoons after Machuca.
My suggestion: don’t do that! It’s true that the following morning we had just half an hour of driving to the geysers, but, on the other hand, we slept almost nothing as it was insanely cold and it took us half an hour to unfroze the windows and have the engine start.
Day 2: Geysers del Tatio, Termas de Puritama, Jere Valley and Laguna Chaxa
No matter how and when you decide to cover the 80km of dirt and bumpy road from San Pedro to El Tatio, but try to be there at 6 am and you will be able to enjoy a very nice sunrise, among geysers spilling alternatively steams of smoke and hot water. Just be aware that the temperature is very low, due to the early hour and the high altitude, so get ready!
Pay the entrance (10.000 CLP per person), follow the street and park in the first estacionamento. From there continue by walking in this alien landscape. The geysers, erupting hot water from the depths of the earth, bring out different minerals, creating various colorful formations.
You can then move your car to the second parking and have a walk over there too.
When you can’t bear the cold anymore, head back on the way to San Pedro and stop to the Termas de Puritama: you deserve a warm bath! The cost is 15.000 CLP per person (not really cheap, I know), but after so much cold, you will enjoy swimming in a warm natural river flowing in a green canyon with little waterfalls. It opens at 9 am, so be sure to be there at this hour, in order to avoid the crowd of tourists that are still freezing at the geysers (ha!). Here there are changing rooms and bathrooms, but no showers. The water of the thermal baths is quite warm, but do not expect a super hot bath. It’s pleasant anyway.
When you are done, go back to San Pedro. You can have a proper lunch in the city, buy more groceries for dinner, breakfast and lunch of the next day, and get gas. And, why not, buy a bottle of Chilean wine!
This afternoon you go south. Take road 23, following the indications for Toconao. After 40km you will reach this city, which is the access to the Jere Valley, a green oasis in a canyon. We stopped there for about an hour, but actually it’s not worth it even if the entrance is very cheap (3.000 CLP per person). You can see some petroglyphs, walk in the canyon along the river, see some ancient houses and some small caves in the mountain. Nothing special, actually.
Follow the road heading south and, after about 4km, turn right following the brown sign of the Laguna Chaxa. After almost 30km of dirt road, you will reach it.
The Laguna Chaxa is a big beautiful lagoon with three different kinds of flamingos. The snowy mountains on the horizon perfectly reflect in the pond, creating an amazing landscape where sky and water seem to merge.
Now, our main plan was going as much south as possible today, camp there and visit the other lagoons the next day. Laguna Miscanti and Miñiques are at about 80km from here and it could be the first thing to see in the morning tomorrow, followed by a visit to Piedras Rojas in the furthest south. But we had no luck: we drove towards the lagoon and we had to stop a few kilometers before, because the street was closed for snow. It was impossible to proceed with our campervan. We enjoyed a nice sunset among the snow and we came back to San Pedro, camping just outside of the city.
So now it’s up to you: if the road is open, head there and camp for the night. Tomorrow you can see the lagoons and Piedras Rojas, which is supposed to be a very nice highlight. Otherwise, you can remain in Laguna Chaxa for the sunset and come back.
Day 3: Hierbas Buenas, Rainbow Valley, Piedra del Coyote, Laguna Cejar, Ojos del salar and Laguna Tevenquiche
If you have come back to San Pedro, today you can head north again. Take the road in direction of Calama (road 23) and, after 35km turn right and take B-207 following to Rio Grande.
After a few kilometers, stop when you find the brown sign of Hierbas Buenas. It’s an archeological site where you can observe ancient petroglyphs carved in the rock, representing animals like lamas, foxes, goats… Be sure to be there at about 8.30 am in order to avoid other tourists.
Follow then the same street until you reach a bridge. Take the left dirty road just before it and… let the adventure begin! You will have to cross a little river about five or six times but… don’t panic! Even if at the beginning it can seem challenging, the water is low enough and you can enter it with your campervan with no fear. Just be careful to avoid big hidden stones.
When you start to see colorful mountains, you are close. Take the left road that will lead you in the Rainbow Valley and park your van when you reach the main big parking area. From there walk following the path that goes across the mountains. If you manage to be there at about 10 am, there will be almost no other tourists.
You will see red, green and white mountains resembling ice cream cups, where every color is due to a different mineral. Maybe it’s not the Rainbow Mountain in Peru, but the view is really worth it!
When you are done with this first part, don’t leave! Came back to the main dirt road and follow it for 1-2 kilometers more: you will reach the back of the valley. Leave the car and start climbing!
Now you can go back in direction of San Pedro. When you are on road 23, you can stop to Piedra del Coyote. It’s a viewpoint on the other side of the Moon Valley respect to where you have been the first day. You will need the same ticket (did you keep it?). Leave the car in the parking and walk to the two viewpoints where you can appreciate the Moon landscape from above.
When you are about to arrive in San Pedro, follow the directions for Laguna Cejar and Salar de Atacama. After about 20km heading south on a dirt road in the middle of the Atacama Salt Flat, you will reach Laguna Cejar. The entrance is not cheap at all (10.000 CLP per person if you arrive before 2 pm, 15.000 CLP otherwise), but it’s an experience you should try.
You will find also changing rooms, bathrooms and showers. Yes, because if you are brave enough, you can swim in one of the lagoons! The concentration of salt is so high that you float as you were in the Death Sea. The only downside: the water is 10 degrees! When you enter with your feet it will hurt badly, but after a few minutes you will lose sensibility. It took me a good ten minutes before I had the courage to jump totally in the water. It’s so cold that, after the first impact, it will almost start burning.
My suggestion is swimming there before 3 pm, because that’s the time all the tours will arrive. In this way, you can have the entire lagoon just for you.
You can then have lunch in a sort of picnic area: we moved there our table and chairs and we cooked a pasta on our camping fire.
From the lagoon, just outside the control house, there is another dirt road. Take it and it will lead you to the core of the Salt Flats: the Ojos del Salar (the Salt Flat’s Eyes), two deep blue lagoons where you can jump into as many tourists use to do.
Following the road, you will reach Laguna Tevenquiche (2.000 CLP per person), a huge lagoon in the middle of the Salt Flats. This is the perfect place to wait for the sunset, walking the paths along the pond. The mountains reflecting on the still surface are a pretty view, that becomes breathtaking when the sky turns pink and then deep red.
Day 4: Rocky Valley and Salar de Quisquiro
Today there’s not really much more to do, you have already seen almost everything! An idea could be to get the route 27 to the east, following to Paso de Jama, getting close to the Bolivian and Argentinian border.
The road itself has a very nice view of the mountains and, after a few kilometers, you will find the wreck of a bus on the left. I don’t know how long it’s there, but it should have been a very bad accident. You can see that everything is burned, with many melted bags and clothes around.
I would call it “Dead Road”, because this is just the first wreck. In the next kilometers, you can notice some other pieces of cars and many commemorative monuments with flowers and crosses along the street for kilometers. Maybe this street get dangerous when it’s iced, but otherwise it’s a very normal and nice street.
If you are lucky you can also see many animals, from friendly and brave foxes walking in the middle of the street, to vicuñas and llamas.
After 100 kilometers of driving in nice landscapes, you will reach the Rock Valley. It’s a large valley with a lot of wind and many rocks with different shapes, which you can climb and take pictures to. One rock is particularly famous, thanks to its size and its finger-like shape. Ok, more than a finger, it can remind you something else, you dirty mind!
Close to this spot, there is also a big lagoon, Laguna de Aguas Calientes, followed a few kilometers later by another salty lagoon with various colors, called Salar de Quisquiro.
Now it’s time to go back, otherwise you will arrive in Argentina!
If you don’t want to drive for 100 kilometers, following our same itinerary, you can also stop after 60 kilometers and, from the route 27, get a little deviation on the left that will lead you to ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array), an important Astronomic Observatory you can visit. But you have to reserve at least one month before!
How much I spent
This is the breakdown of just my expenses (so multiply by 2, to have the total):
- Flight Santiago-Calama-Santiago: $400
- Campervan rental: $270
- Fuel: $60
- Entrance to parks: $80
- Hostel first night: $30
- Restaurants: $90
- Groceries: $30
- Taxi: $30
So, in total, I spent about $1000 for 4 days. Ok, not cheap at all, But, hey, who said that Chile is cheap?
The Atacama desert is not famous and spectacular as the Uyuni Salt Flats, but it’s really worth a visit. It’s probably the most stunning thing you will see in Chile.
Is it worth it renting a campervan? Well, I have to admit that it wasn’t necessary. Especially because we passed by San Pedro every day and finding a place where to camp wasn’t really easy. You cannot just park along the main road: it’s better to find a place far from trafficked routes.
Moreover, during the night it’s soooo cold and the mattress in the van is not very comfortable. The first night we had no sleep at all…
Is it worth renting a car? Absolutely! As I told you, you will be free to go wherever and whenever you want, avoiding crowds and saving on tours. Just rent a cheap hostel in the city and use it as a starting point for all the trips. Enjoy!