San Pedro de Atacama and the beauty that is the Northern Chilean Desert
The tourist friendly town of San Pedro de Atacama is located just 1 hour away from the closest airport, which is in Calama. San Pedro is located in the desert and has a Santa Fe, New Mexico feel with lots of little restaurants and cafes, yoga classes, a local market for produce and plenty of places to stay.
We camped at a cool hostel/campsite called Camping Campestre. It was at the very end of the main road in town (might be a long walk through the heat if you have a heavy backpack, but it's not terrible). The tent camping was covered by trees, the hostel had wifi and a nice kitchen that was cleaned by the staff everyday and the company was really great. They had separate, new, outdoor bathrooms for campers with hot water (all very clean) and outdoor seating for those cool desert nights.
THE BEST SITES TO SEE:
Geysers el Tatio
These geysers are some of the highest in the world and can spray up to 2 meters high! They seem to be most active at sunrise, which is when most of the tours are scheduled. El Tatio is a 2-hour drive from San Pedro, so you have to leave before 5am. The cost to enter is $30 if you just show up by car – but the tours offered in town will include the entrance fee and a bus transfer/pick up from your hotel.
Another amazing thing about this drive, is the opportunity to see wildlife on the way back. At 5am, you miss the stunning landscape so the drive home is a completely different experience. Some of our favorite pictures were around 8 or 9am as we were driving back to San Pedro.
Valle de Luna
Go at sunset! This amazing valley is FREE to visit if you drive up top and park on the side of the highway (all of the tour busses do this too). If you want to hike up from the bottom you'll have to pay to enter but we imagine the sunset reward would be that much sweeter after a short, uphill trek. Not to mention walking through the valley! (for the hike: be sure and go before they close – about an hour before sunset).
Valle de la Muerta
There is a small booth off the highway where you can enter and actually DRIVE through the valle de la muerta. This was super cool. Tours offer sand boarding back in this area but we didn't partake. We just parked near the dunes and hiked up to the lookout. Our GoPro battery melted in the car (just a friendly reminder that despite the cool breeze, we're still in the desert!). When we visited, there were VERY few people around. The sand boarders didn't even notice us and NO one else was hiking up where we were. Cost: 5000 for 2 (this is $7.50 USD).
We couldn't afford to go to Bolivia to see the Salar de Uyuni so we chose to seek out salt flats in other areas. Luckily we found the Atacama Desert. However, when we arrived at the Salar de Atacama and realized how expensive it was to visit, we opted for Laguna Tebinquinche instead. Again, ZERO other people around and it only cost us $7.50 USD! The vast expanse of (almost blinding) white was incredible to see. And even though we didn't get to visit Bolivia, we feel Laguna Tebinquinche totally delivered.
Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques
Driving through the Atacama Desert is pretty unbelievable but pulling up to these two gorgeous lakes was even more impactful. We think they're SO much better in person, but hopefully the pictures give you an idea. The fees to visit cost $8.25 USD for two. If you're starting to notice the entry fees adding up, you'll also understand why tour companies offer packages with transportation to all of the above locations. The problem is, not as many tour companies go to the next place on the list (which is BY FAR the best).
Piedras Rojas / Laguna Altiplanicas
Totally free, but farther than everything else. It appears to be visited less frequently than the others, which makes sense, because it’s pretty out there. We went later in the day, knowing the sun set SO late in the desert during January that there was no need to hurry. It also meant that we had the place to ourselves!!
Piedras Rojas was the most amazing of all the sites we visited in the Atacama desert. And the DRIVE!! We almost didn't make it back before sunset because we stopped about a million times.
When we arrived to the Laguna Altiplanicas we went a little crazy ;) We jumped and ran and played for almost an hour before finally dragging ourselves away... C H E C K. I T. O U T.
It's no surprise that the Atacama Desert ended up on our favorites list. We want you to have as amazing a time as we did. If you're a normal person and don't have a car, don't fret. All of the above tours can be organized once you arrive in town. If you'd like to do it beforehand, I think some of them even include airport transfers from Calama. Don't hesitate to email us if you have any specific questions.
See you down the road!
Meg + Tyler