Salar de Atacama and Other Surreal Landscapes You Have to See in Chile's Atacama Desert
When you hear of Chile's wild side, you probably think Patagonia, right? But like every yin & yang, the South American country of Chile has a flip side too. Meet Chile's Atacama desert, the other wild side of the second longest country in the world. The Atacama makes a stark contrast to Patagonia - equally epic in every way, just completely different. The landscape here is surreal and breathtaking to see and even swim in - taking a dip in the Laguna Cejar is perfect after exploring the Salar de Atacama (salt flats) all day.
Spanning across four South American countries - Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina - the Atacama desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world, and one of the most picturesque landscapes I’ve ever seen. I'm still amazed it remains one of my favorite destinations of all time.
The Atacama desert lies at over 8,200 feet above sea level (2,500 meters), between the Andes mountain range skirting its eastern edge and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west. The Andes act as a natural barrier from the heavy moisture of the Amazon basin, leaving the desert with such low humidity there are still parts of the Atacama with no recorded rainfall since record-keeping began! Amazing, right?
With its intense blinding sun and high altitude, the Atacama desert is parched. Squeaky parched! Every drop of moisture evaporates from the Earth’s surface, and the natural geo-thermal activity of the region heats the ground from below, so the simmering cauldron of sand and mud literally boils before your eyes leaving behind crusty tubes of salt jutting out of the ground. You can actually hear the ground snap, crackle, and popping all around you. But it's hardly barren and lifeless here. In fact, there's life everywhere - tadpoles by the millions in the hot springs and geyser field puddles at El Tatio, patches of greenery among the bright yellow desert grass, and the occasional oasis amidst miles and miles of sand dunes. There are so many places to explore here and admire the endless views that stretch out as far as you can see.
To Tour or Not to Tour
We love traveling independently so we rented a car for the week (2 wheel drive) and avoided the group tours. It's easy to navigate on your own, and you'll have the freedom and flexibility to explore the sites at your leisure. In fact, several times we literally followed tour vans into places like Laguna Cejar, Valle de la Luna, and other places, waited 15 minutes or so until they moved on, then had the entire place to ourselves for much longer. That said, most travelers here do take group tours for day trips and sunset to the Valle de la Luna. Tours also offer a degree of freedom - not having to worry about driving, getting back in the dark, etc. Whichever you choose, make sure you visit these 8 incredible places. In 3-5 days you'll have no problem seeing them all!
8 Can't Miss Atacama Desert Landscapes
1. Salar de Atacama
The Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats, covers large expanses of the desert region and you’ll find some of the most scenic flats not far from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Take the main road out of town and head south. You'll see signs for the Salar de Atacama with craggy basins of white salt extending out in every direction. Turn off the car and get out and listen - and you’ll hear the snap, crackle, and pop of the scorched earth in the heat. Walking on it is another adventure entirely. Be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots as the flats aren’t smooth at all but rather like small clusters of sharp coral.
The Salt Mountain Range and the Atacama salt plains have been shaped throughout time by the rain and wind, giving rise to enormous shapes and mineral brilliance made up of salt hills, gypsum and clay - resulting in spectacular natural sculptures of various shapes and colors.
2. Laguna Cejar
Laguna Cejar is one of the most popular Atacama Desert attractions for a reason – it’s one of the only places near San Pedro de Atacama where you can get in the cold water and swim, even if you're just bobbing about. The super-salty water keeps you buoyant and won’t let you sink, making it fun but tricky to swim. You’ll stay skimming along the top of the water and never sink at all.
The water is refreshing (and cold) and the heavy salt crust leaves your skin exfoliated and baby soft. It can also be damaging to your hair, so wear a protective hat or tie it in a top knot and try not to get it wet. There are fresh-water showers and changing rooms next to the lake near the entrance so bring a change of clothes along with you.
3. Los Flamencos National Reserve
The National Flamingo Reserve covers roughly 740 square kilometers (180,000 acres) with seven different sections, some that also lie within other sites listed here. Flamingos feed on small crustaceans and algae rich in beta carotene, which give the birds their well known pink color. Look for the 3 different types of flamingos: the Andean, Chilean, and James Flamingo.
4. Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Everyday around 3:00pm, tourists in town start gathering outside tour offices waiting for the vans to shuttle them out to the Valle de la Luna for sunset. The Moon Valley is a must-see in the Atacama and should not be missed. For a small entrance fee you can drive in and hike on foot, or drive around the Valley in the ever-changing sunlight.
Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to go when the light is best and it's not blasting hot, but you’ll compete with tour buses later in the afternoon. If you drive yourself just for sunset (get there before 5:00pm at least or they won't let you in), head out an hour or two ahead of time so you can hike up the dunes for the best view. You won’t believe how insanely beautiful sunset can be!
When it's time to leave the Park (you'll see all the tour vans leaving), don't head back to town. If you're driving, make a left at the entrance away from the town of San Pedro de Atacama and head up to the Valle Overlook, about a mile up on your left. You'll see cars parked off in the distance. The light is just as spectacular from this vantage point and extends your sunset viewing even more.
And of course, take along a bottle of Chilean wine to pop when its done! The Atacama Desert sunset and night sky are truly something to celebrate! :-)
5. Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)
The Atacama’s Valle de la Muerte (Valley of the Dead) is equally as impressive as the Moon Valley nearby, but in a very different way. Large rock formations jut out from among the sprawling sand dunes, and driving here can be tricky with rock slides and sand drifts. If you’re into extreme sports, hook up with an Atacama Desert sandboarding tour in town and glide down the dunes.
Driving in the Atacama Desert on your own can be tricky - just watch the sand depth and stick to the hard packed road!
6. El Tatio Geysers
El Tatio is the highest geothermal field in the world at over 14,000 feet. In the early morning hours (around 5:30am), impressive steam fumaroles are most active gushing super-heated water way up high, and creating plumes of steam in the cold mountain air.
Since the geysers are a two hour drive from San Pedro, you'll have to get up early (around 3:30-4:00am) to hit the road from San Pedro if you want to get there when they're spouting their highest. If you're driving yourself, take your time and watch your speed. The drive is demanding as the road is unpaved (hard packed) with lots of twists and turns, and it's pitch black out with no ambient light or street lights. But it is so worth it - especially the gorgeous drive back down - just take it slow and you'll be good to go!
The area around the geyser field is covered with mineral deposits and thermal ponds, and is surrounded by mountains reaching over 19,000 feet. The road to the geysers leads through the most epic lunar landscapes you’re likely to see anywhere in the Atacama.
7. Atacama Desert stargazing
The Atacama desert is one of the world’s best places to see and photograph the night sky. If you love stargazing or astrophotography, it should be on your bucket list. The high elevation of the desert means you’ll have a crystal clear view of the heavens year round. It’s such an attraction that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array – or ALMA Observatory – here, the largest astronomical project in existence. ALMA is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau near San Pedro de Atacama. The observatory is open for public visits during the weekends. Plan on catching a tour when you visit, or bring your tripod to capture some amazing shots of your own.
8. Antiplano Lagoons: Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques
The Altiplanic Lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques are located just 90 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama but more than 4,000 meters above sea level! As you drive up to the high elevation, you may barely notice if you get lightheaded or short of breath, as the drive up is gradual. Both lagoons are fed by water sources that come right from the surface of the land and surrounding mountains.
These highland lagoons are one of the 7 sectors that make up the Los Flamencos National Reserve. You'll see volcanoes, snow capped mountains, yellow desert grass, and the indigo blue of the lagoons in one incredible view after another. There's an abundance of wildlife here too -species of flamingos, tagua cornuda nesting on the shores, Chilean flamingo, and vicuna.
At the End of the Day: Artisanal Ice Cream!
After just a few days in the Atacama, your throat may start fighting back against the constant dust and harsh desert air. No amount of water will soothe you quite like a coat of cool ice cream, and we found the perfect place to get it - Heladeria Tierra de Sol. It's one of the unique Chilean foods you have to try when you're here.
Tierra de Sol creates 100% artisanal ice cream made from desert ingredients found in the Atacama like chañar, hoja de coca, and tres berries. How cool is that? Trust me, your throat will thank you!
What to Bring With You Each Day
Sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat
Selfie props (you know, like the cup, purse, or bottle you'll need to play with for those false perspective shots!)
A map or GPS
Small denominations of Chilean pesos for site admission fees (they often can't make change)
Swimsuit, towel, and change of clothes