One week in another world: Atacama Desert, Chile

If we told you that it is the driest desert in the world, and the highest in altitude? Or if we said that this is one of the regions with the greatest mineral wealth and largest mines in the world? And if we tell you that it looks so much like Mars that even NASA carries out vehicle tests here? Nothing? It says nothing to you? Yes, the Atacama Desert is an exciting place and fortunately still unknown to many tourists! The crowds have not yet arrived to this magical place that left us speechless every 30 minutes. It is so far the only place in the world where we said “Wow, did you see that?” Or, “Look over there! It’s incredible!” every 30 minutes or so for the 6 days we were there!

Here is a summary of the things we did in Atacama in Chile in a week.

How to get to the Atacama desert?

Our LAN flight where left Santiago in the morning and landed at Calama airport 2 hours later. Calama airport is small but there are enough domestic and international flights. Little tip to save some money: LAN and other airlines detect your computer’s IP address to book tickets online, so if you’re booking from Europe you’ll pay a lot more! Ideally, you can buy tickets online, but do it once in Chile; or the best would be to have a good Chilean friend who can buy the tickets for you. We chose the second option and would like to send a big ‘thank you ‘ to Jaime and Pili for their help!

In Calama, we rented a ATV for 6 days, which allowed us to get around with all the freedom and peace we were looking for in the desert. Having your own car will allow us to enjoy the beauty of Atacama withouth limits.

Calama Airport

Where to sleep in Atacama desert?

Almost all hotels are in San Pedro, or close to it. San Pedro is the starting point for all travelers, with restaurants, a pharmacy and banks in the town center. It’s pretty small, but fortunately there are not many people in the desert! The good point is that you will find accommodation to suit all budgets. We chose the Hostal Desert, a little further from downtown, but very well located near the road and close to grocery stores. We had no air conditioning, but the owner Hugo is very friendly and helped us in every way (tours, restaurants, how to get to that place…). There is free wifi connection, kitchen available to guests and a barbecue with hammocks (great for evenings under the million stars of the Atacama night sky).

Day 1 in Atacama, Chile – Exploration

The first stop was at Calama Mall to fill the car with food and drinks for the week. Among the key items: several liters of water, meat for the barbecue and pisco! Once we had packed the car, we started our exploration. Our first stop was Chiu Chiu, a charming town known for the beautiful church of San Francisco, made of adobe and considered the oldest in the country. Its interior is fantastic as its wooden roof, made of straw and cactus wood lets the light in making of this a magical place. In Chiu Chiu also we visited the lagoon, a freshwater oasis that lends itself for a bath!

Chiu-chiu laguna Chiu-chiu (1)

After enjoying the landscape, we went towards Ayquina, and we stopped to take pictures when the road passes over the Rio Salado.

Rio Salado

After a Ayquina there is a green farming area, very green and fresh if compared to the rest of the desert.

Ayquina

On our way to Turi we took some beautiful pictures on a vast plain with the San Pedro volcano in the background. Impressive! The Baños de Turi are small thermal hot water lagoons where you can have a bath. We did not because the wind was too strong. But we had a picnic, because despite the wind the temperature was quite pleasant.

Banos Turi 2 Banos Turi (1)

And to finish the day, we arrived at Toconce, a small village where there was not much to see. Then we decided to go to San Pedro de Atacama, to get to the our hotel. The fastest was to return directly to Calama taking the main road (faster and safer than all the smaller roads full of rocks). A few kilometers before entering San Pedro, valley views are breathtaking. We let you judge for yourselves!

San Pedro 1

Day 2 in Atacama, Chile – San Pedro and its surroundings

The second day, more used to the altitude and after a good night’s sleep, we decided to go explore the area around San Pedro. The town is a small oasis because there are areas of farming and it’s therefore a little greener than the rest of the desert. You can walk around the city to discover the typical buildings of adobe and mud.

San Pedro 3 San Pedro 2

Then we went to visit the Pukará de Quitor and the river of San Pedro. A Pukará is an old fortress from the pre-Inca Indian period. The ruins of Quitor are beautiful. Admission is paying but not very expensive. We recommend you do it in the morning because you have to climb several small hills, and with the sun and the heat and the altitude of the desert (over 2500 meter above sea level) it becomes quite difficult! The view from the top is spectacular and well worth the trouble of making a little effort to climb to the top.

Pucara de Quitor

Pucara de Quitor (2)

Then we returned to have lunch in San Pedro and in the afternoon we went to visit the famous Valley of the Moon. The entrance to the valley is a little more expensive, and we recommend exploring this area in your own car. There are excursions that will take you here, but the best is to do it at your own pace, stopping when you want to, because the landscape is really impressive!

Valle de la Luna 1

Valle de la Luna 2

Besides, there are areas that are difficult to access by car, so be careful and patient (there are buses which can’t go there). Long ago , the Valley of the Moon was a huge salt mine, so there are areas where everything is covered in white (it looks like it’s snow, but it isn’t!). We really liked it and really had the feeling of being on another planet.

Valle de la Luna 3

Valle de la Luna 4

The valley is divided into several areas: one for walking with small caves and rocks of amazing shapes, and the other much broader. Among the most interesting places, don’t miss the amphitheater (a magnificent curtain of rock), the entrance to the salt mine, and the great dune. On top of the dune, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset (do not forget to bring a windbreaker because the wind gets really strong!).

Valle de la Luna 5

Day 3 in Atacama, Chili – Great exploration and altitude

For our third day, we decided to get a little further away from San Pedro and explore a good part of the desert. We started with Toconao, a beautiful village mainly known for its bell tower, which was destroyed during an earthquake, and then beautifully rebuild. We also visited a nice little crafts shop where they sold products made of cactus wood. Beautiful and quite original!

Toconao

After that, we headed towards Laguna Chaxa, a salt flat where you can see lots of flamingos! The entrance is paying but not very expensive, and the place is cool. There is a path where you can walk, right in the middle of the lagoon, having the wild flamingos on both sides, and even over your head! A nice experience.

Laguna Chaxa

And then, we were again on the road and on going up! We drove to the impressive Salar de Talar. Just a little tip: if you’re driving and you come across the Chilean police, you’d better don’t overtake them, they won’t like it! We got pulled over just because they weren’t happy…

The Salar de Talar is quite far away, a 2-hour drive from Toconao, but it is so beautiful that it’s well worth the effort! Before getting there, we stopped at a curve on the road and looked at the thousand colors of the salt flat and the surroundings from high up: it was mind-blowing! We stayed in a respectful silence for some seconds before taking our cameras out and started taking pictures. It’s a really magical and spectacular place! In the pictures below you can see all the colors of the rock, the salt and the sky. We also crossed a group of lamas and some other animals from the desert (foxes, rheas, etc).

Salar de Tara 2 Salar de Tara 3

Salar de Talar 1

A little further forward, after the Salar de Talar, there is the Tuayito Lagoon, which is not as beautiful as the first, but it does have a special character (specially with all that yellow grass). The salar and the lagoon are at approximately 4,000 meters above sea level, so the headache, the dizziness and the general uncomfortable feeling pushed us to begin our descent.

Salar de Tuyaito (1)

On the way down towards San Pedro, we stopped at the famous Lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques, also known as the Lagunas Altiplanicas. They’re two big lakes at high altituted where we took some nice pictures! And then we crossed several animals. It was a very nice day, with breathtaking landscapes and in very special places!

Laguna Altiplanica

And what a better way of wrapping up a wonderful day than having a nice barbeque and some Pisco cocktails (the national drink in Chile and other countries of the area) while looking at the stars in one of the cleanest skies on the planet!

Day 4 in Atacama, Chile – Puritama Hot Springs

After a morning walk in San Pedro, we set off northwards. The first stop was Guatin, a little village known for its Cactus Forest. And the final destination of the journey was to spend a good part of the afternoon at the Puritama Hot Springs, a paradise hidden at the bottom of a canyon in the desert! Puritama was probably one of the places that we preferred of our stay in Atacama. And not just because of the hot springs, but also because the hole place is magical and relaxing. It’s protected from the wind, full of plants and vegetation, and not crowded at all: a dream place!

Termas de Puritama

Day 5 in Atacama, Chili – the border with Bolivia

This day we explored the region near the borders with Bolivia and Argentina. We followed the main road towards Paso Jama. On our way, we stopped a couple of times to take pictures of the volcanos – we had to take advantage of the good visibility that day – and we also stopped for some time to see some flamingos and lamas.

Volcan

Flamencos Atacama

The passage between Bolivia and Chile is not really frequented, as the road is more like a stone track, so we had to stop there. But from the other side of the border we could see the Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca!

Paso Frontera Chile Bolivia

In the afternoon, after coming back to San Pedro, we went for a swim in the Cejar Lagoon. It’s actually two small lagoons: the biggest one is toxic so swimming is not allowed, but the smallest one has such a concentration of salt that you’ll float without the slightest effort! A little tip: there are two options if you want to visit the lagoon: you can either pay the fee and stay as long as you want, or say you’ll stay for just 30 minutes and go in for free! We chose the free option because the water is so salty that it’s not recommended to stay in the water for a long time.

Day 6 in Atacama, Chili – Valle de la Muerte and back to the airport

For our last day in the Atacama desert, our flight was leaving in the afternoon. So we have decided to spend the morning at the local crafts market in San Pedro. It’s a very cool place to visit and discover all the local arts, and nobody will push you buy! We decided to buy different souvenirs, such as a scarf made of high-quality alpaca wool, a packet of quinoa and some gemstone bracelets.

After lunch, on our way to the airport, we stopped to see the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). It’s a nice little canyon that you may try to visit by car – even if some areas are quite difficult and many people prefer to do it by bike).

Valle de la Muerte

Miam YummyYummy

There are many restaurants in San Pedro that we liked! The food is usually very tasty and varied, specially meat – it’s difficult to find fish in the desert, you know – as well as vegetables and rice. The most famous dish in Chile is the Ceviche, made with marinated salmon or other fish in lemon juice, served cold with salad and sliced vegetables.

IMG_20160427_193826

The famous drink in Chile is the Pisco sour, that we highly recommend, it’s great! Made basically with lime, pisco (grape alcohol) and egg white, even if the ingredients look bizarre, it’s delicious. There are different recipes, so try them!

Pisco Sour (from www.radiocampuspau.fr

Restaurante Blanco: with a nice deco and excellent food, the Blanco left us speechless after tasting their salads and ceviche. The prices are affordable.

Restaurante Tierra: Decorated in rustic adobe, the food is good and the price quite low (12€ for a menu).

Restaurante Adobe: Althought it’s clearly dedicated to turists, the Adobe is very nice place, with live music every evening and a wonderful atmosphere. The food is tasty and the staff fast and friendly. The only negative point would be that it can get quite noisy.

Restaurante El Toconar: The only restaurant in the area that disappointed us in terms of food quality and decor.

Helpful hints

The Atacama desert is the highest desert in the world (at a mean altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level). So we have made a list with some helpful hints following our experience:

  • As most interest points are at a higher altitude than San Pedro, have a light breakfast before hitting the road. Don’t eat anything before or on the way up if you want to avoid the Puna (the local nickname for altitude sickness) and eat only on your way down towards San Pedro, or at a similar altitude.
  • Always bring lots of water and some snacks and food with you: the Atacama is the driest desert in the world and there are no supermarkets or convinience stores out of San Pedro.
  • The desert also holds one of the purest, cleanest skies on the planet, and the sunlight gets really strong at times. Protect yourself!
  • It’s often very windy! So also protect your eyes from the dust and sun with good sunglasses – and think of having artificial tears at hand just in case.
  • If you’re driving your own car, you’ll see that over 2,500 meters asl the engine won’t be as responsive as usual (you can step fully on the accelerator and the car won’t even speed up), but don’t panic, it’s just the lack of oxygen.
  • Even if there are many travel agencies in San Pedro, make sure you know the itinerary and that you can drive in conditions that differ from the regular ones. We couldn’t get to the Geysers of Tatio because our car wasn’t fit for the road – too high and too rocky.
  • The only gas station is in San Pedro, so always fill up before leaving on an excursion, you don’t want to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere!

Positive
Negative
- It's a unique place in the world and the landscapes are impressive.
- There's a great variety of places to visit.
- It's still not very touristy and peaceful.
- We found many wild animals while on the road.

- It's so beautiful that the sights and views left us speechless a couple of thousand times.
- The tranquility in the atmosphere and the feeling of being somewhere special.
- The food!
- The good atmosphere among the travelers: hitchhicking works well, spontaneous conversations with strangers...
- All the basic infrastructure is in San Pedro (pharmacy, gas station, market...) so you'll have to think of taking everything before you leave on an excursion.
- Be careful with altitude sickness, it can ruin your holidays if you don't observe some basic rules.

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