Before our trip to Chile, I was aware of several big attractions in the country; Patagonia, Andes Mountains, Santiago, Valparaiso, but Atacama was new news to me. After investigating more, I learned that Atacama is one of the biggest, if not the biggest tourist destinations in Chile. We were able to find cheap flights and an inexpensive hostel near the heart of the town in San Pedro.
The night before our departure, we dropped our dog Posey off with our friend and dog-sitter, Gabriela. Our flight was around 2 hours and we arrived in the small Calama airport around 9 am. When researching this trip, I learned that San Pedro is about an hour drive away so I scheduled a shuttle from the airport to take us directly to our hostel.
After dropping our bags off at our hostel, we headed to the Whipala Tours Office in San Pedro to pay for our tours and finalize our plans. We learned quickly that we would have to be flexible with our tour dates because many companies change the days/times of your tours in order to maximize their group size. On two occasions our tour company actually sent us with a different tour company for our trips.
We found a nearby restaurant that offered a great lunch deal for $4000 CLP ($6USD). I had ceviche, ribs with mashed potatoes, and dessert. Drew had a chorillana, a typical Chilean meal of fries, grilled onions, steak, and fried eggs. There are a lot of restaurants in town and many offer daily fixed priced menus.
Valle de la Luna
Later that afternoon, we met back at the tour office for our first tour of Valle de la Luna. Only 15-minutes outside of San Pedro, Valle de la Luna is known for its rugged moon-like landscape. On our first stop, we wove through jagged salt lined caves where you can actually lick the cave walls! Next, we hiked to the top of the area’s largest sand dune and received spectacular views of mountains, massive salt flats, a natural coliseum and both sides of the dune. Our last stop in the park was at the “Three Marias”, which are natural formations that emulate three holy figures. Next to the “Three Marias” is another formation of a T-Rex head popping out of the earth. To finish the tour, we arrived at a lookout point to watch the sunset. The Valle de la Luna was one of our favorite tours and was the cheapest!
TIP: It was really windy and sandy at the dunes, so a scarf or bandana comes in handy. We arrived back in town after dark and walked back to our hostel. Most streets outside of the main part of town do not have street lights so bring a headlamp or flashlight to help you navigate your way back in the dark.
The following day we were picked up early at our hostel for the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour. We drove about an hour and a half to the highlands which are almost at the Argentine border. When we arrived at the Lagunas Altiplánicas, we were served a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs, avocado, ham, cheese, bread, and coffee overlooking the Miscanti lagoon. After breakfast, we hiked near the lake and took pictures. Our tour guide picked us up and drove us to the Meñiques lagoon for more pictures and bird watching. The highlands were stunning and filled with wildlife including desert foxes, tiny mice, and guanacos. We stopped at two small villages, Socaire and Toconao, to visit old churches and buy souvenirs. Our last stop was at the Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa in the Los Flamencos national reserve. Seeing hundreds of flamingos in their natural habitat was a once in a lifetime experience. We learned that there are actually different types of flamingos in the area including the Andean, Chilean, and James flamingo.
TIP: It’s very cold in the morning and hot in the afternoon so wear lots of layers
Puritama Thermal Baths
On Tuesday, we headed to the nearby Puritama thermal baths. As we drove down the dry and rocky canyon, we were met with an oasis of turquoise pools, huge reeds, and wooden walkways. We changed into our bathing suits and headed to the first pool. The Puritama hot springs have 8 pools ranging from 25º to 30ºC. We spent a romantic morning relaxing, swimming under waterfalls, and enjoy the sunshine.
TIP: It’s a little chilly in the morning, but that doesn’t mean that the sun won’t get you! Wear sunscreen.
Geyser del Tatio
Our second to the last tour was our earliest day, with a 5:30 am pickup to the Geyser del Tatio. Since it was a long 2-hour drive to the geysers, I was hoping I would get some sleep, but it was actually too cold to sleep! We arrived just after sunrise, when it’s the coldest (-10º C) and the geysers are most visible. I was surprised that there were so many geysers. We walked around and took pictures for about 30 minutes and then had breakfast. After breakfast, we went to another thermal bath in the geyser park. The thermal bath was much colder than I anticipated but had pockets of hot water that came and went.
TIP: It was SO cold, especially during the car ride there. I would suggest bringing lots of layers including gloves, hat, scarf, and a thick jacket.
Afterwards, we headed back towards San Pedro and stopped a few times to take pictures of the wildlife. About 45 minutes outside of San Pedro, we stopped at a small village, Pueblo de Machuca, known for its 94-year-old church. When we pulled up, there was a small stand grilling guanaco skewers. Drew and I split a skewer, which was tender and delicious. We then walked to the top of a hill to visit the church and gave a small donation. Although the geyser tour was an interesting experience and one of the area’s most popular, it was one of my least favorite tours.
Our final tour was to the Cejar lagoon. But before we could even take off, we were informed that one of the roads was under maintenance for a few days. We weren’t going to see two of the attractions, so we were offered a small discount. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed with the Cejar lagoons, not only because it was a partial tour but the park entrance fee was really expensive. We walked down to the salt water lagoon and struggled to get in because the water was so cold! We only hopped in for 10 minutes to float in the salt water and snap a few pictures. Then we had to rinse off in a cold outdoor shower. The silver lining, my skin was very silky smooth afterwards! Since the rest of the tour was canceled, we had to kill a few hours. We walked around, chatted with other couples, drank pisco sours, and had snacks while waiting for the sun to set.
TIP: A comfortable change of clothes is nice to have for after the cold salt lagoon.
Atacama has many options for travelers. It’s easy to fit in several excursions in a few short days. My favorite tours were Valle de la Luna, Lagunas Altiplánicas, and Puritamas thermal baths. For travelers with more time, there are longer trips to Bolivia and Argentina. Be sure to check out my 10 Tips for Visiting the Atacama Desert here.