Adventures in the Atacama

A striking landscape with a backdrop of vast volcanoes in almost every direction and huge sand dunes, fascinating rock formations and enormous skies, the Atacama was one of the highlights of my three month trip to Latin America.  Warm and sunny all year round with very little rainfall, sunsets and sunrises are equally magnificent as the sun rays bounce off the red and orange rocks and out in the desert, with almost no light pollution, star gazing is extraordinary.

Self driving along dusty roads here is straightforward – until you have to stop to let a herd of llamas cross the road that is – and there is more than enough to see and do to fill a week here if you like the outdoors.  See below for my favourite things to see and do in the Atacama.  Shearwater Travel can help you put together your dream trip to the Atacama, perhaps in combination with Patagonia or north west Argentina or as part of a big tour around Chile. 

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Highlights of the Atacama


Valle de Luna

Close to San Pedro de Atacama (where most visitors stay) is the Valle de Luna, named after its moon like appearance.  Here you can spend the day wandering its desolate dunes, climbing rocky peaks and venturing down into craters. Go on a guided tour or better still, drive yourself around the one way circuit, stepping out of the car to walk to various miradors with exceptional views.  Going independently means at times you can feel all alone in this lunar landscape.  Valle de Luna is also a popular place to gather to watch the sunset, less popular for the early morning sunrise.  

Laguna de Chaxa

Laguna de Chaya is an absolute must if you like flamingoes.  The volcanic backdrop is stunning and the lake and the salt pans surrounding it shimmer in the heat.  Hundreds of flamingoes live here and its possible to see them really quite up close and flying overhead.  Again, driving yourself out there, means you can avoid the crowds and if you succeed it is a very peaceful place.  



There are numerous astro tours available from San Pedro de Atacama, but we chose to go with a an outfit taking you to a private observatory in the centre of the desert outside San Pedro. With telescopes with huge magnification and very knowledgeable guides on a clear night it is possible to see Mars, Jupiter, star clusters, binary stars, supernovas and nebulla.  At then, have your photo taken with a long exposure in front of the Milky Way.  

valle de arcoiris

Valle de Arcoiris (or Rainbow Valley) is a short drive outside San Pedro.  In a decent car (the road is quite potholed) you can drive into the park and from there walk to see all the various rock colours and formations and some wild guanaco.  


El Tatio geysers

These geysers have become an icon of the Atacama Desert and there is no doubt that at dawn, as the sun creeps over the horizon and the geysers are at their most powerful in the cold morning air, it is a spectacular sight.  You need to leave San Pedro by 5 am for the two hour trip to El Tatio.  The drive is along a very bumpy seriously potholed road and best done on a tour from San Pedro. Driving yourself is possible but a very stressful and uncomfortable experience.  By 09.30 the sun is up, the geysers have reduced to little bubbling ponds, most tourists have left and the guanaco come down into the crater to reclaim the place. 

Volcano climb

If you are fit and heathy and able to cope with high altitude, then you can do a volcano hike from San Pedro de Atacama.  Which volcano you climb will depend on volcanic activity at the time but as well as a day hike it is sometimes possible to do an overnight trip.  These volcanoes are high, we climbed to 5600m and should only be done when you have been in San Pedro for several days to acclimatise (the town itself is at 2400m).  The views from the top, over into neighbouring Bolivia are stupendous.  The haze from the desert gives the view a surreal feel, almost as if you are looking at a painting rather than real life.   


Puritama springs

An easy day trip from San Pedro de Atacama, these natural springs have eight pools varying in temperature from 24 – 33 degrees.  You need to book ahead for a morning, afternoon or evening session but it is a very relaxing way to spend a few hours.  Most people drive there, but we hiked there through a rocky gorge filled with giant cacti – the route isn’t signposted and we got a bit lost so not for the fainthearted.  

San Pedro de Atacama

Not exactly a highlight, San Pedro de Atacama is the oasis town where most visitors to the region stay, taking day trips out to see the sights.  It is a rustic cowboy town, full of adobe bricked dwellings, dusty streets, a range of restaurants and diverse accommodation from simple adobe bed and breakfasts to all include luxury lodges.  As well as the usual tourist gifts, you will find some true artisans and craft shops and in the evenings the streets fill with locals and travellers selling their crafts.  

Chile-San Pedro de Atacama
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