The Atacama Desert, located in the Northern part of Chile is the driest non-polar place on earth! With the Pacific in the west and the Andes Mountain Range in the east, this area boasts of amazing other-worldly landscapes. From unique rock formations to salt flats, from lagoons to volcanoes, the Atacama Desert has no end to places you can see and visit. This post covers 12 must visit places in the Atacama Desert.
1. San Pedro de Atacama
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is the epicenter for all visits to the Atacama Desert. The little town center is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and tour agencies selling tours around Atacama. San Pedro is also where you will find most accommodation and if you are driving a car, the only fuel station for miles!
2. Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna is perhaps the most popular site on this must visit places in the Atacama Desert list! The Valle de la Luna is a place in the Atacama Desert that is famous for its moon like landscapes. From rock formations to fine desert sand, Valle de la Luna is a fascinating place to explore. Here are some of the specific landmarks that you can visit. All except Mirador Piedra del Coyote are in the same area. You can drive up to some of the spots while others are hikes. Bring hats, sunscreen and lots of water. It’s hot and dry!
- Duna Mayor
- Salt Mine Victoria
- Las Tres Marias
- Mirador Piedra del Coyote – best seen during sunset
The visitor center will give you a map and explain how long each of the hikes are. Prepare to spend at least 3 hour here. I felt like the heat slowed me down!
Tickets need to be bought in advance at this site. The site doesn’t always work for some reason. If it doesn’t, keep trying! I found it worked best on my phone than laptop. Either way advance tickets are a must! You need to show it at the visitor center and register before you can proceed.
3. Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache
A relatively unknown spot, Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache is a series of small salt pools with turquoise blue water, in the middle of nowhere. The road to get here however is not great! Most of the roads in Atacama (other than the highway) are very bad but this road was probably the worst. Half way through the drive (about 40 kilometers from the main road), my tire pressure light came on. I drove all the way to the location hoping to find a inflator but the guy at the entrance told me they didn’t have one and that it may be best if I turned around as the tire may deflate further the more time I spent there.
Although the tire didn’t look too bad but I didn’t want to take a chance so I turned back. Somehow the light went out on its own mid way through going back but, I didn’t want to turn around at that point. Having a flat tire in that environment would have been my worst travel story ever! There are no tire or car repair shops for miles and also no cell service. I later read that people have got stranded out there.
If you do go, make sure you have a 4×4, carry an inflator and/or know how to change a tire! OR (probably the better option!) find a tour company that can take you. It looks beautiful and one of my biggest regrets is not seeing the place.
Tickets can be bought at the location.
4. Laguna Tebinquinche and Ojos del Salar
Laguna Tebinquinche is a lagoon surrounded by salt flats. This area is said to be important for scientific research as there are microorganisms in the lagoon that goes back in time. The lagoon is one of the largest in the area and is framed by mountains and a volcano in the background, making it a popular spot to watch the sunset. I even saw some flamingo at the lagoon. Keep to the walking paths and bring sunscreen! It’s fully open and the desert sun can be very hot here.
Ojos del Salar are 2 almost identical pools on either side of the entrance to Laguna Tebinquinche. Ojos del Salar means the eyes of the salt flats. A fitting name for 2 pools that look like eyes.
Tickets can be purchased on site.
5. Laguna Cejar
Laguna Cejar is a salt lagoon with turquois blue waters and salt deposits on its shore. I really enjoying just gazing across the pool. When the skies are clear, the views make for some dramatic scenes. You cannot swim here. It’s more for the views.
6. Laguna Piedra
My nickname for Laguna Piedra is Dead Sea 2.0! Laguna Piedra is a salt pool in the Atacama Desert (right next to Laguna Cejar), where you can actually swim or rather bob up and down like a cork screw! This was one of my favorite must visit places in the Atacama Desert!
Most people mix up Cejar and Piedra and call the pool you can swim in Cejar. It’s actually Piedra. I took a picture of the park map where it was clearly marked.
Tickets for both Laguna Piedra and Laguna Cejar can be bought on site. It’s one ticket for both. There is a 3rd pool beyond Piedra that can be visited on the same ticket (cannot swim there). The ticket also comes with changing facilities and showers. Because of the high salt content, you are only advised to spend nothing more than 20 minutes in Piedra.
7. Lagunas Altiplánicas
Lagunas Altiplánicas consists of two high altitude lagoons called Miscanti and Miniques that are located next to each other. The views here are very dramatic with desert vegetation, a volcano in the backdrop and the beautiful colors of the lagoons. There are walking paths so that you can walk around. My favorite part was seeing South American fauna like guanaco and vicuña grazing. I arrived at 9 AM and the place was so peaceful!
You need advanced reservations to visit these 2 lagoons and #8 on this list of must visit places in the Atacama Desert. It is a little complicated so read all the way through.
You need to reserve your tickets from this website. At first it looks like there are 4 options but it is essentially only 3 options. 1. the lagoons only, 2. #8 below only, 3. the lagoons and #8 combined. What looks like a 4th option is really the order of your visit between the lagoons and #8. You have to pick if you want to see the lagoons first or #8 first. It’s confusing because they call #8 two different things on the site. But auguas calientes = hot waters.
Once you reserve the tickets, you need to show up to a little hut in the village of Socaire 1 hour before the time you selected on the website for your visit. For example, if you booked a ticket to see the lagoons at 9 AM, then you must show up in Socaire at 8 AM. Tickets are not sold in Socaire, so you have to buy them online. Once you show your reservation at Socaire, they will give you the actual ticket.
8. Piedras Rojas
Piedras Rojas was another one of my favorite must visit places in the Atacama Desert. Literally meaning red rocks, the landscape here is truly otherworldly. The area consists of milky blue waters, dramatic mountains and rust red rocks. I spent a lot more time that I was expecting to at Piedras Rojas. This site is also called Southern Hot Water Salt Flats or Aguas Calientes South Salt Flats.
Buy a combined ticket with Lagunas Altiplánicas (#7 above)
9. Laguna Chaxa
Laguna Chaxa is considered to be one of the best spots to see flamingo. Located 56 kilometers south of San Pedro de Atacama, it is a popular destination to see these birds in their natural habitat.
Sometimes Laguna Chaxa may also be referred to as Salar de Atacama. Salar de Atacama is the blanket name for some of the salt lagoons in the Atacama Desert, including Laguna Chaxa. I was confused by this and kept thinking Salar de Atacama was a physical place.
Tickets can be bought at the location.
10. Geysers el Tatio
Located at 4,320 meters or 14,170 feet above sea level, El Tatio is a geothermal field with lots of geysers. It is the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Although I had planned to visit, I actually ended up not going. You have to visit Geysers el Tatio early morning. Earlier the better. This is because the geysers are most active in the early mornings and they fizzle out as the day progresses.
I had a rental car with me and my tire pressure light had come on the previous day. I had read the road to Geysers el Tatio was not great so this coupled with the early morning wake up time (I had barely slept in Patagonia where I was previous to Atacama) deterred me from going. Plus I had seen geysers before in Iceland. If I go again, I would probably join a tour verse drive myself.
Even though I did not end up going, I still think Geysers el Tatio deserves to be on this must visit places in the Atacama Desert list.
11. Puritama Hot Springs
Puritama Hot Springs is a series of eight geothermal spring water pools located at the bottom of a canyon in the Atacama Desert. The pools cascade down and stretch over a length of about 1 kilometer of the Puritama River. I love a thermal bath, but I had never been to one that was this high up in altitude. Situated at 3,475 meters or 11,400 feet, the pools are of varying temperatures so you have to try them all!
The baths are located about 28 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama. You have to park on top and walk down a small hill but it’s easy. Bring a towel and change of clothes. They have changing facilities and bathrooms.
Buy tickets in advance as they tend to sell out. HERE is the website.
The Atacama Desert is one of THE best places to stargaze. This is a great activity for older kids too. There are several companies offering this service. Upon doing some research, I found San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE). It is run by a French Astronomer, Alain Maury and his wife at their house in the middle of the desert. Maury has discovered several comets, asteroids and other space objects.
The tour starts at night and lasts around 3 hours. It first starts with a show and tell outside where we learned about the night sky. I learned so many new things but was also able to refresh some of the things I had forgotten about the sky, stars, planets and constellations. We then moved over to seeing planets, stars and nebulas using the many telescopes that the couple owns. These telescopes are massive! It was truly impressive that they had all this equipment in their yard. The tour includes a photograph of you that is taken out in the field. Finally, we moved to their house, where we continued learning more about the sky by listening to a small lecture by Maury. We were served the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life! It was made from scratch over a stove vs. from a box or packet.
The cost of all this, which included pick up and drop off to the hotel at San Pedro de Atacama was only $40. You can pay by cash or card after the tour. Email email@example.com for reservations.
I knew they were a good and ethical company because they do not run the tour during the full moon period as the sky is too bright to observe. Some other tour operators still do the tour despite low visibility.
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