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San Pedro de Atacama Valle de la Luna © Miguel Vieira
San Pedro de Atacama Valle de la Luna © Miguel Vieira
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The Ultimate Guide to Discovering the Atacama Desert

Picture of Elizabeth Trovall
Updated: 30 April 2017
The Atacama Desert’s unique topography and clear, starry night skies make it a travel destination unlike any other. Here is the ultimate guide to exploring this breathtaking, Mars-like destination.

The massive Atacama Desert encompasses approximately 40,000 square miles of northern Chile and features many of South America’s incredible landscapes. Most travelers start their journey to the Atacama Desert from San Pedro de Atacama, which is strategically located near many of the desert’s highlights. A number of local tour companies based in San Pedro de Atacama offer excursions for the leading sights and attractions throughout the desert.

Salar de Atacama © Nicolas de Camaret
Salar de Atacama | © Nicolas de Camaret

Where to Go

Though San Pedro de Atacama is the leading tourist city in northern Chile, the city itself only offers two main attractions: the R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum and the Church of San Pedro. For this reason, it is vital to book tours to the variety of desert destinations beforehand. Without a reservation for a tour or excursion, it is difficult to see everything the Atacama Desert has to offer.

El Tatio Geyser Field

Over 80 active geysers are present at the El Tatio Geyser Field. It’s the third largest geyser field in the world. Puffs of steam released from the geysers add an other-worldly effect to the terrain. El Tatio is located about 50 miles from San Pedro de Atacama.

Valle de la Luna

Valle de la Luna is just eight miles west of San Pedro de Atacama, and is one of the most breathtaking sights the desert has to offer. This “Valley of the Moon” has earned its name from its moon-like sand and stone formations, shaped by thousands of years of water and wind erosion.

Salar de Atacama

Chile’s largest salt flat, Salar de Atacama, is just 34 miles south of San Pedro de Atacama. The spectacular views from the salt flat, the third-largest in the world, include several large volcanoes and the Andes mountains.

Los Flamencos National Reserve

This gorgeous nature reserve includes a number of the Atacama Desert’s most impressive sights, including the Miscanti, Miñiques, and Chaxas lagoons and the Salar de Tara and Salar de Aguas Calientes salt flats. The reserve gets its name from the bright pink flamingos that have made the lagoons home.

Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats

One way to reach the stunning Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia is through tours based out of San Pedro de Atacama. The Salar de Uyuni, containing the largest salt flats in the world, is one of South America’s leading tourist destinations.

Kirche von Machuca © Nico Kaiser
Kirche von Machuca | © Nico Kaiser

How to Get There

The most common route to San Pedro de Atacama is by flying to El Loa Airport in Calama, Chile, about 60 miles away. From Calama it’s easy to take a bus to San Pedro. Direct bus lines from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama are also available, though the trip takes around 20 hours. It’s also possible to get to San Pedro by car.

Best Time to Go

The Atacama Desert receives visitors year-round. The climate is extremely dry due to little rainfall and doesn’t change much throughout the year. To avoid the extreme heat and big crowds, it’s ideal to plan a trip before or after the hottest summer months (January through March), when Chileans also take their summer vacations.

Bosque de Los Cactus © Nico Kaiser
Bosque de Los Cactus | © Nico Kaiser

What to Bring

Because of the dry climate, it’s important to stay both hydrated and moisturized on this journey. Bring lotion, sunscreen, lip balm, and sunglasses for skin and eye protection. Pack high-coverage clothing that’s easy to layer. Jackets, scarves and hats provide shield from the intense sun rays and provide warmth during the evening when the temperature drops significantly. Tennis shoes or hiking boots are recommended for the desert treks.