The Atacama Desert is a must visit location in Chile. Considered the driest non-polar place on earth, the Atacama Desert is full of otherworldly and unique landscapes. This post covers all you need to know about visiting the Atacama Desert and how to spend 3 days experiencing this amazing destination!
Before getting into a specific plan for 3 days in the Atacama Desert, I want to give you some insights
Atacama Desert Travel Guide
How to Get There
The best way to get to Atacama is to fly to El Loa Airport in Calama. There are 3 airlines that operate out of here. LATAM, SKY and JetSmart. My advise is to go with LATAM or SKY. If using LATAM, book on their Chilean website as the price is a lot cheaper. Flights are relatively cheap, especially if you are coming from Santiago, where it is a direct flight.
Once at the airport, you can either take a taxi, a public bus, or a private transfer to San Pedro de Atacama which is the main hub for all tourism related things in the Atacama Desert. The taxi option is the most expensive, while the bus option is the most inconvenient as you have to go to transfer at the town of Calama. The private transfer option is what most people use. Here are 3 options:
Alternatively, you can also rent a car from the airport. The distance is 100 km or about 1.25 hours. If renting a car, make sure you book in advance.
Planning Your Time
You can easily visit all the main sites in the Atacama Desert in 3 days. If you have 4 days, that will probably be a even more comfortable pace (I never left rushed with 3). One main thing to consider are the distances between attractions. They are vast! So you have to go with a plan in advance or you will end up wasting time on the road. A second things to know about is the condition of the roads. Barring the main highway, the roads where most attractions are (off the main highway) are TERRIBLE! You may need to drive a lot slower than what Google Maps tells you to, so keep this in mind also. The last thing to consider is re-fueling. There is only one fuel station in San Pedro de Atacama and this is the only fuel station for miles.
How to Tour
I rented a car and toured all the places myself. From the moment I got to the Atacama Desert and up until now, I am still not sure if I should have driven or taken organized tours. There is so much freedom that comes with driving in your own vehicle but the road conditions were bad that I was admittedly a little worried. This is only because the roads in Patagonia (where I toured previous to coming to Atacama) were also similar and I had a flat tire. I didn’t need a repeat of that in Atacama too!
Organized tours on the other hand mean early starts and you are kind of restricted to what they have in the itinerary. If you don’t want to go to 1 of the 4 places on the itinerary then you end up wasting time. In hindsight, I probably should have booked organized tours for a couple of attractions. I will call these out below.
You can actually book all your tours on arrival in San Pedro de Atacama. The main road in town is fully of your agencies selling tours. The best part is that they are all very reasonably priced. You can shop around, making sure you get the best price and attraction combinations. Expect early mornings all if not most days. If not having tours planned before arriving gives you some anxiety (trust me, I TOTALLY get it!!), Denomades is a well reputed tour agency in Chile that has great reviews. I used them in Patagonia and loved their service. Check all their tours HERE. They have individual tours that you can mix and match to create a full day’s worth of tours as well as pre-packaged day tours.
Other Helpful Tips
- Bring cash for entry free for various sites. Most of the ones where you pay on site are around 15 pesos
- Bring a moderate winter jacket. Some of the high altitudes sites are cold even in the summer
- Some of the high altitude sites may cause altitude sickness. Drink a lot of water and start low and go high. I never felt it but some do
- May not be a bad idea to rent an SUV if you are self-driving (I had an SUV)
- Mentioned both of these before but road conditions are not great and there’s only 1 fuel station for miles
- You need to register yourself and vehicle at most places. Know your passport number and vehicle license plate number by heart or take pictures
- Be prepared to be covered in dust from head to toe! (maybe leave those white sneakers out!)
- You may find very little food options outside San Pedro de Atacama. Picnic lunches or snacks may not be a bad idea. My hotel even gave me a boxed lunch
- Some of the sites close for lunch from around 1-2 pm. You can use this time to eat yourself
3 Days in the Atacama Desert
This itinerary is mainly for people who may be self-driving. If you are only taking organized tours, then read my other post to see what attractions you want to tour before you book tours. The tour agencies will do all the coupling and combining for you.
Tips for this Itinerary
- Feel free to mix the order of the days around
- If mixing the order of attractions within each date or swapping out an attraction listed on day 1 with one on day 2, you may have to put all the attractions on Google Maps and make sure the driving distances are ok
- Leave the high altitude attractions until the end
I have written a detailed post about each of the places below. Therefore, will focus this post purely on the itinerary.
Valle de la Luna
An area with moon like landscapes. Probably one of the most popular attractions in the Atacama Desert. You need to buy tickets in advance HERE. The website is a little finicky. Keep trying using all methods (laptop, phone, ipad etc.).
Ask for a map at the visitor center. They do a good job explaining what is a hike vs. what can be seen from the road.
Expect to spend around 3 hours here. Although, you could spend even less time if you don’t do some of the hikes. All but one attraction (Mirador Piedra del Coyote) is in the same area. Coyote is best seen during sunset. Hold on to the ticket!
Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache
A salt lagoon with bright turquoise blue water in the middle of no where. The drive there is not the best. Go slow if you are driving. In hindsight, I should have booked an organized tour for this one. Tours run for about 5 hours (return trip)
Tickets can be bought on site.
If you want to see the sunset, Mirador Piedra del Coyote is a good spot to do this.
You will be covering some long driving distances today. Start early. My recommendation is to get that earliest time slot for Lagunas Altiplánicas.
You will pass this sign as you make your way to your first stop. There’s parking on either side if you want to hop off and take a quick picture!
Day 2 of this 3 days in the Atacama Desert itinerary starts at Lagunas Altiplánicas. Lagunas Altiplánicas consists of two sister lagoons called Miscanti and Miniques. The scenes here are so peaceful but also very dramatic. I especially loved all the animals grazing around.
Reservations to Lagunas Altiplánicas and the next attraction (Piedras Rojas), need to be made in advance at this website. You then have to go and pick up the tickets at the village of Socaire 1 hour before the time you selected on the website for your visit. See my post where I go in to more details and explain all the options available on the website.
Enjoy some beautiful desert views as you drive to and from these lagoons.
One of my favorite attractions in Atacama. Piedras Rojas is a salt flat with stunning vistas. The area consists of milky blue waters, dramatic mountains and rust red rocks.
Tickets can be bought individually or combined with the Lagunas Altiplánicas in the same way as described above.
Another salt flat where flamingos gather. You can stop by on your way back to San Pedro de Atacama. It is about an hour’s de-tour each way. If you are running out of time and steam, I think this is skippable. The flamingoes were pretty sparse when I visited.
Tickets on site.
Now this one I think is not skippable! The Atacama Desert is one of the best places to stargaze in the entire world! I went with a company called San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE) and they were great! Professional, communicative and I had a blast! See my post for more details.
Email email@example.com for reservations.
Day 3 is an early start to see the geysers but also one of my favorites on this 3 days in the Atacama desert itinerary. There’s also a lot of fun and relaxing attractions planned for today!
Geysers el Tatio
The highest attraction in terms of attitude (4.3k meters 14.1k feet), Geysers el Tatio is a geothermal field full of geysers. I skipped this for two reasons. 1. had read the roads were bad (and my previous tire related drama was too fresh in my mind) and 2. I just didn’t have enough steam for a 4 am wake up call because I visited Atacama right after Patagonia and I was exhausted. In hindsight, this is another attractions I should have done with a tour group. I still would have had to wake up early but at least the bad road would have not been an issue!
Why is this an early morning attraction? because the geothemal activtiy tends to die down as the day goes by. So your best chance of seeing the geysers in action is early morning.
Puritama Hot Springs
Puritama Hot Springs is a series of eight geothermal spring water pools at 3.4k meters or 11.4k feet. Each pool cascades down and has a different temperature. Enjoy a couple of hours just soaking in the pools!
Buy tickets in advance as they tend to sell out. HERE is the website.
You are done with this section of the Atacama. Depending on time, you can go back to San Pedro for lunch and even a snooze if you want to.
Lagunas Cejar and Piedras
Located just 30 minutes from the town of San Pedro are two salt pools that can be very easily visited. Cejar is just to view only while you can swim in Piedra. The water is so salty that you actually float! I loved every second of this…well, every 1200 seconds, because 20 minutes is the recommended maximum time you should spend here due to the high salt content.
It is one ticket for both attractions and can be bought on site.
Laguna Tebinquinche and Ojos del Salar
Just a few minutes from the previous two lagoons is Laguna Tebinquinche and Ojos del Salar. Laguna Tebinquinche is a milky blue lagoon surrounded by salt flats. The lagoon is a very dramatic site with views of a volcano in the background and even a flamingo or two in the foreground. It’s another popular site for watching the sunset, but closing time is around 5, so you may have to come early and just hang around. There is a walking path that takes you along the bank of the lagoon.
Ojos del Salar are two small twin pools that resemble eyes and are therefore called the eyes of the salt. You can see it on your way to Laguna Tebinquinche.
Tickets can be bought on site.
Where I Stayed
I stayed at Foresta Atacama Lodge in San Pedro de Atacama. This hotel was in a central location and walking distance to the city center. The staff were also lovely and even packed me a breakfast box when I told them I was leaving in the morning. The room was spacious and comfortable!
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