Currently we have Paul’s parents visiting us from Switzerland and just returned from an unforgettable 5-days trip to the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile.
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth that is sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific. With little human development, it makes a perfect spot for backpackers and travellers who like to get off the beaten tracks. I have never seen such a colourful landscape before. It is really like no other place on this planet.
With temperatures ranging from plus 30 degrees to minus 10 degrees and altitude differences from 2.500meters until over 5.000meters, the Atacama is an extreme environment. Various animals like mammals (vicunas and guanacos), lamas, flamingos, and different birds call the desert their home.
From São Paulo we flew to Santiago (4h flight), to take another plane to Calama. This two-hour flight (chose seats on the right side of the plane to get the better view) was already a highlight, flying over the Andes and watching the mountains to get a full scale view. In Calama we picked up our rental pick-up to drive to San Pedro de Atacama (1h drive) which lies besides the Salar de Atacama (salt flat) at 2.500m altitude. This cute, little town is based in the heart of the desert and is a great base for exploring the stunning region. San Pedro de Atacama offers different types of accommodation from hostels to rather luxurious hotels, mainly made out of loam.
Day Trips in the Atacama Desert
Since we wanted to be flexible and to discover the Atacama Desert by ourselves, we did not book any organized tours. We collected much information beforehand and decided spontaneously on a daily basis what we want to see and where to drive with our rented pick-up. This gave us the opportunity to visit the sides at off peak times i.e. when the travel groups were not there.
Atacama Desert: Day 1
We left at 10am and headed towards the Lagoons Cejar and Piedra that are only 30km away from San Pedro. While the lagoon Cejar is great for watching flamingos, the lagoon Piedra invites for a swim and float in the salt water. It is a great place for relaxing and observing birds. We were very lucky as we went in the morning and had the lagoon almost for ourselves before other tourists arrived at noon.
From there we drove to the little town Toconao for a quick visit of the church and bell tower, both colonial-era constructions. We spontaneously decided to head towards east, driving around the huge and impressive volcano Licancábur (great photo spot) to then drive over the Bolivian border and visit the Lagoon Verde. It says that the “journey to get there is an adventure from the beginning” and YES that was true… On our way uphill we changed the road to a sand road and unfortunately got stuck with our car. Luckily a van passed by with a guide who helped us to get out of the sand. As we finally arrived at the Bolivian boarder and already excited to proceed to the Lagoon Verde, we had to turn back since we were not allowed to drive into Bolivia with our rental car. What a shame! However, the way up to the boarder with the spectacular landscape as well as putting at least our feet on Bolivian ground, made it worth to drive all that way.
The rest of the day we explored San Pedro de Atacama, which has a little pretty town centre with local shops, lots of tour operators, restaurants and cafes.
Atacama Desert: Day 2
Our second day started very early in the morning. We got up at 4am to leave to the Geysers. El Tatio (the Geysers), which means “the old man crying”, is the third largest geysers field in the world. The eruptions are produced through the convergence of groundwater above a lava field. We arrived at 6am as one of the first and right in time to see the spectacle starting which is just fascinating to watch. With -8 degrees, it was freezing cold and we should have better prepared ourselves for that temperature with warmer clothes and gloves. We waited for the beautiful sunrise and Paul and his dad went into the “hot springs” that were not as hot as expected and far too cold for me.
Our trip back towards San Pedro was a visual delight. We came across wetlands, breath-taking views of the colourful desert and took a stop at the hot Termas de Puritama. The pools (like terraces) are located in a rocky Canyon were a lukewarm stream flows which were nice for a bath to heat up a little. However, entrance fee was rather overpriced for what is offered and we probably would have skipped that if we knew before. Continuing our tour, we came across the amazing ancient forest of cactuses. The Atacama Desert barely has any cactuses so we were excited to see a couple.
At around 7pm we headed to the Coyote rock, which is located on the left hand side on the street 23 towards Calama and just great for watching the sunset. From the cliff-top we were perfectly placed to watch the setting sun turning the Andes from gold to red and finally to pink before it gets completely dark.
Atacama Desert: Day 3
On Wednesday we decided to drive east again in the direction of the Argentinian boarder to visit the Salar de Tara (Tara salt flat), which is not one of the main tourist tours. The journey to get there is just beautiful and again landscape wise totally different than anything we have seen before.
We left the main road and entered into the vastness of the desert on an improvised road to get to the huge formation “Monjes de la Pacana” that is placed in front of the deep blue Aguas de Calenties lake. You feel the pure nature with mammals walking around the lake looking for food.
Afterwards we headed to the Salar de Puja (Flamingo National Reserve) to spot some flamingos and we were able to get very close to them.
For the evening we booked a stargazing tour. With its clean air and huge night skies, Atacama is one of the world’s best places for stargazing. Many companies offer stargazing, but lots of them do not have a satisfactory service. After doing some research, we booked a tour called “the big bang experience” with Time Travel. Rodrigo, a really nice guy, picked us up at 9pm at the hotel. We drove to his house outside of San Pedro where he gave us a presentation about cosmology before we went outside watching the stars and planets (Saturn and Jupiter) with a telescope. Even without the telescope it was already fascinating watching the stars, it looked like an endless sky full of stars with a startlingly bright and busy Milky Way. We even saw the Magellanic Clouds which are distant dwarf galaxies visible in the southern hemisphere.
Atacama Desert: Day 4
In the morning of our fourth day we started with a tour to the Laguna Miscanti & Miniques. And once again, we drove through a stunning landscape where you can just not get enough and which just astonished us. Laguna Miscanti & Miniques are probably the most beautiful lagoons in the Atacama desert. The shades of green and yellow grass, the snowy peaks of the mountains and the animals (birds, vicunas and flamingos) make this plateau a magnificent and silent sight you do not want to leave.
15km west of San Pedro, is the place to be. Most people probably start exploring the Atacama desert with visiting the Moon Valley, while we left it for the end. The lunar-like landscape, which gives the valley its name, amazed us once again with totally different scenery. The non-existence of animals, flora and human life makes it feel a death place. On a 20 minute walk with high temperature (around 30 degrees) we climbed the highest dune and rock, to enjoy the amazing and unreal view over the entire Moon Valley. However, if we had considered that the Moon Valley is so hot during the day, we would have chosen to visit this place in the morning.
Atacama Desert: Day 5
On our last day we just relaxed at the pool in the morning and headed back to the airport at noon.
Overall, it was really an adventures trip with multifaceted scenery from which you can’t get enough of.
Accommodation in San Pedro
We stayed at the wooden Hotel Poblado Kimal, which is situated in the historical centre of San Pedro de Atacama. All guest stay at cosy natural looking bungalows made out of wood and loam. The hotel offers also two pools and overall has a very relaxing atmosphere. It is a great place to stay in San Pedro and to discover the Atacama Desert by day trips. Especially the location is convenient as its located in the centre of the city so that restaurants and shops are all in walking distance.
Restaurants in San Pedro
Service in general is not the best in San Pedro de Atacama as it is a touristy town. We tried different restaurants for dinner and liked these two the best: La Casona and Restaurant Paacha (Poplado Kimal Hotel).
What to pack for the Atacama Desert?
Since I couldn’t find that many recommendations what to bring to the Atacama desert, I list some general tips what we felt is important to take:
For the dry air
– Eye & Nose spray
For the heights
– Iron supplements
– Winter clothes (winter jacket or parka, hiking boots, hat, gloves) as some parts get really cold
– Summer clothes (cap etc.) as it gets warm
– Always take a bikini / swimming clothes with you on every trip
A few more impressions of the Atacama Desert, since this part of the planet is so picturesque and I am totally in love with the landscape: