The Atacama Desert in the north of Chile and famous for being the driest place on earth is an exciting region with lots of special sights and truly unique natural wonders you can’t find elsewhere on the planet.
Do: The town San Pedro de Atacama located at about 2400m altitude is the main tourist destination and starting point for most expeditions in the area. It’s a lively hippie place with a good vibe and people from all around the world. Here you find most shops on pedestrian Caracoles street. It’s where many tour operators, shops and restaurants are located but you also find a lot more in town, for example around the main square. Here, the old Iglesia San Pedro is worth a visit, which was made from traditional adobe material and cactus wood. There are also usually some small market stalls selling souvenirs and the nice Cafe La Plaza.
The Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat is surrounded by massive volcanos, all with their own ancient myths, and holds several lagoons where you can find flamingos and other special birds.
Part of Los Flamencos Nacional Reserve are Laguna Chaxa, Miscanti and Miniques. The best change to see the pink, shy birds is in the early morning when there are few tourists. On the way to the lagoons one comes by the small village Toconao. There is a nice square with an old tower the Campanario de Toconao, a colorful cemetery and a canyon outside the village. There even is a small forest in the middle of the desert. The beautiful bushy Tambillo trees are the only trees that grow and survive in this dry climate.
The region is also famous for a breathtakingly clear and bright night sky. The ALMA Observatory with its huge telescope is located here, which also offers guided tours where you need to register first, and many local tour operators advertise astronomy tours. Only when you are visiting around a full moon the night sky is too bright and tours will not be offered.
The Valle del la Luna and Valle de Marte are located just outside town. Here, you feel like rambling on a different planet when driving or walking between the deep orange hills with their thick white salt crust, fantastic rock formations and big sand dunes. You don’t pay a one-time entrance fee like in a national park but have to pay at most bigger attractions, so you have to pay an entrance fee before entering both valleys. In Valle de la Luna you find crazy rock and salt formations, like the Three Marias and in Valle de Marte you can go Sandsurfing on a huge dune. The sunset is also very beautiful at the valleys, the most popular spot is the Mirado del Coyote, where hundreds of people gather every evening, but you can also find many other nice spots if you look just outside town a little bit.
Furthermore, Pukara de Quitor is an interesting old archaeological site that can be visited.
Stay: Hotels and hostels in San Pedro are expensive even though there are plenty, like hotel Kimal or Tulor. But it’s also very nice to stay a bit outside of the dusty, crowed town centre. So renting an accommodation via Airbnb can be a good alternative, for example the simple, nice Casa Yali.
Eat: You wouldn’t expect such a lovely cafe like La Franchuteria in the middle of a small desert town. But you even sit under green trees and get very good baguettes and croissants. A popular and vibrant restaurant is Adobe where they have good value for money and an open fire under the sky. Las Delicias de Carmen serves the biggest portions you’ve ever seen, so go here if you’re hungry. There are also some food trucks and stalls right in front of the soccer stadium where you have a change for good, cheaper food.
If you’re looking for a truly special experience book a dinner at Sitial del Fuego. The friendly guys will pick up all guests and bring the small group to a traditional dinner place under the sky where you gather around a big, warming fire. Here you can taste very good traditional Chilean and Andean food and wines while you get told the history and legends of the area and the people who lived here for thousands of years.
Shop: On Caracoles street you find countless souvenir and tourist stores, but there are also a few nicer shops, like Arte Minga, Mercado Blanco and Manos Andinas.
Getting around: The airport in Calama is located one hour by car from San Pedro. A rental car is advisable if you want to explore the region on your own and not book guided tours.
Calama itself is a working-class town where most people live who work in the huge copper mine close-by, the Mina de Chuquicamata which can also be visited. There is a big market hall, colorfully painted houses and a little bit cheaper supermarkets and gas station than in San Pedro. Also look out for the giant Cristo statue on the way towards San Pedro just outside town.
Once in San Pedro it’s best to start the day early because it gets hot and crowed with tourists fast. But mornings and evenings are very cold, so wear layers and always bring a hat and sun protection. You can get everywhere by car, many people also rent bikes, but it’s extremely dusty on the streets, so walking and riding a bike can be exhausting.
There are more interesting travel guides and ideas for destinations in Chile. Read about the day trip to the El Tatio Geysers in the Andes or find out about the lake region with its volcanos and the idyllic island of Chiloé here.
Also don’t miss tips for adventures in Patagonia! Wether its hiking the W-Trek, visiting Torres del Paine National Park, or Puerto Natales and the Magellan Region! There is also a city guide for Santiago de Chile.