Atacama Desert in Chile is the world’s driest desert. It is famous for it’s Mars like landscapes, geysers and salt lakes full of flamingoes.
We flew into Calama, which is the closest airport of Atacama desert in Northern Chile. With only four days and multiple spots we wanted to discover, we decided to rent a car to make our lives easier and to be able to go as we wish.
We stayed in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, as most of the travelers. It has the easiest access, many options for lodging and other services, and it’s also conveniently located sightwise. San Pedro is also beautiful, a true dreamlike desert town.
San Pedro de Atacama has all the services a traveler needs from accommodation to tour operators and shops.
PUKARÁ DE QUITOR – FORTRESS OF QUITOR
Pukará de Quitor is pre-colombian fortress and nowadays an archeological site. It’s close by the village of San Pedro and reachable with bikes or even walking if you up for it. The challenge is not in the distance but in the heat and direct sunlight without an escape.
Besides of the ancient fortress to discover, there is a viewpoint further up. It was worth it to walk all the way there and get a good climpse of Atacama desert from above. I cannot highlight enough to bring loads of drinking water and covering yourself from the sun!
Moving around Atacama is not about the distance only. You have to remember it’s a desert, actually the world’s driest non-polar desert, so for the heat is real and surroundings don’t offer much escape from the sun.
VALLE DE LA LUNA – VALLEY OF THE MOON
Valle de la Luna is doable by a tour but I have to say that a rental car gave us freedom to discover it as we wish. While most of the tours had the same route with same stops, we drove first to the far end and slowly drowe towards San Pedro stopping anywhere we felt. I would not recommend to do this with a bike. You really won’t have time to see it all and there were loads of tired cyclists hitchhiking by the road on our way back to the town late on evening. If you are not a pro-cyclist, I wouldn’t do.
WHAT TO SEE
- Tres Marias – The three sisters rock pilars
- Anfiteatro – A naturally formed amphitheater
- Great Sand Dune – Huge dune which is good sunset spot but popular
- Cañon de Sal – Salt cavern like out of a Dalí painting (bring a flashlight)
- Stop over pretty much anywhere to have a wander around
If you plan to spend whole day (which is easy!), bring enough food and water with you, there is no services around.
Watching sunset in Valle de la Luna is popular but worth the crowds. Just pick a good spot and enjoy the show.
LAGUNAS ALTIPLANICAS – HIGHLAND LAKES
There is multiple salt lakes in the Los Flamencos National Reserve area. There is a high chance to see wildlife like rare vicuñas (small cousins of lamas) and flamingoes. Tours are offered, but once again, a rental car gives certain benefits. Laguna Chaxa was our first stop, roughly about 100km drive from San Pedro. Watching the flamingoes on a mirrorlike lake which was reflecting the whole landscape was absolutely stunning. Make sure your camera/phone has enough space for some serious photoshooting! There is multiple small lagoons like this around.
Further down the road there is Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques. They are beautiful bright blue lakes worth visiting as well. We saw some vicuñas here but they were too fast for my camera (I have poor zoom). Ideal place for a picnic so grap your lunch with you!
The salt lakes have quite a strong, not so pleasant smell but don’t let that put you away – they are absolutety gorgeous!
If you have more time in Atacama, I would add Tatio Geysers to your to do -list as well. We had to choose between some attractions and we had more geysers coming up in our next destination Uyuni in Bolivia.
After quite a search we did found out that there is a bus connection from San Pedro to Uyuni. To ensure our spots in the bus we dropped by at the bus station a day before to buy the tickets. On the last evening we returned our pickup to the rental shop in San Pedro and tried to rest before our early morning bus (3.00 am!).
• San Pedro de Atacama, Chile