The Atacama Desert is known as one of the driest places on Earth, creating harsh conditions for wildlife that dares to exist here. But don’t write it off just yet. Travelers will find this part of the country to be full of magnificent surprises, with vast stretches of geographic diversity. 4 days in Atacama should be a great start for anyone who wants to visit this popular tourist attraction in Chile.
4 DAY TRAVEL GUIDE FOR THE ATACAMA DESERT
The easiest way to is to fly, using the capital city of Santiago (SCL) as your airport, and finding cheap tickets from there to Calama (I got mine for $60 USD round trip!). From Calama, you’ll need to travel about an hour to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, which you’ll use as your base for your 4 days - there are shuttles from the airport to San Pedro.
In the Calama airport, you can also choose to rent a car (it’s what I did) for your 4 day Atacama trip, or pick various tours to help you navigate all there is to see once you get to San Pedro. The latter is the most popular option, and there are countless tour operators that can help you - in advance or last minute.
If you choose to rent your own car, keep in mind that you’ll need a 4x4 to navigate some of the more challenging off-road situations you may encounter. We did just fine on our own with an SUV.
WHERE TO STAY
San Pedro exists to serve tourists, so budget travelers will be hard-pressed to find accommodations in a reasonable price range. That being said, make sure to reserve ahead of time and scan websites like Booking.com to secure the best prices. Also, be sure to find something that includes breakfast to save on food costs (which will also be high).
I stayed in the Yakana Hotel during my visit - it was on the expensive side, but was clean, comfortable and offered a decadent breakfast each morning. The staff was overly accommodating to all our questions about how to get around (especially since we opted to drive ourselves). The only drawback was the spotty WiFi, but that’s the case in most hotels and hostels in Atacama.
WHERE TO EAT
There were no dearth of restaurants and eating establishments in San Pedro de Atacama. All the people we interacted with were incredibly warm and eager to chat. I’ve listed out some of my favorite places below that can all be found on Google Maps:
Roots Cafe Pizza ($): Good wifi if you need to catch up on some emails, awesome pizza and sandwiches. Their coffee was relatively mediocre, but I’d highly recommend their cappuccino. I’m still thinking about it months later!
Barros ($$): I spent a magical evening here listening to some of the best live music I’ve heard in a long time (look up the group - Sonando America). Along with the nightly entertainment, the restaurant makes a delicious Pisco Sour, as well as a solid cazuela, which is a Chilean broth-like stew.
Adobe ($$$): The quality of food at Adobe is outstanding, with innovative dishes for both meat lovers and pescatarians alike. I’d recommend arriving early (around 7pm) to snag a table next to the communal bonfire and cozy up with a delicious glass of Chilean Carmenere. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find some traditional live music on weekend nights.
WHAT TO DO
The Atacama Desert is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Chile, for good reason. It has a tremendous amount of attractions to keep you busy for days. While you can cram in all the important ones in 4 days using back to back tours, I would recommend taking it as slowly as possible to have time to appreciate the astounding beauty. And you’ll also feel less like herded cattle at every stop! Here are some of my favorite places to check out on a 4 day visit to Atacama Desert.
#1: Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna): What’s amazing about this valley is its proximity to the town of San Pedro. Located just a few kilometers away, you’ll find another world to set foot in and explore. I’d recommend 2-3 hours here, giving yourself enough time to hike up to the Big Dune, take in the stunning scenery, and enjoy the deafening silence enveloping your senses.
Tours cost around $20,000 CLP ($29 USD as of April 2019) and will leave from San Pedro around 4pm - they will include wine, cheese and snacks
If you go without a tour, know that they only allow tour companies to enter for sunset; all others can explore from 8am-1pm
Exception: if you enter earlier in the day, the rangers will give you a ticket to enter another area at 5pm to view the sunset - win win!
#2: Death Valley (Valle del Muerte): Another remarkable destination within spitting distance of San Pedro, Death Valley is most popular for sand boarding. Renting sand boards is relatively cheap (again, find the tour operators in San Pedro), and it’s a fun activity that’s slightly different than hiking or walking. You can also enter here without a tour and marvel at the sunset from the mirador (lookout point).
Entrance fee is $4000 CLP ($6 USD), and even less for senior citizens - for a tour, it’ll be about $20,000 CLP ($29 USD)
To access the mirador, you’ll have to walk for 20-30 minutes from the parking spot
The hikes within the valley are not recommended for those with limited mobility (in which case I recommend a tour company)
#3: Lagunas Altiplanicas & Flamenco National Park: This gorgeous nature reserve includes a number of the Atacama Desert’s most impressive sights, including the Miscanti, Miñiques, and Chaxas lagoons and the Salar de Tara and Salar de Aguas Calientes salt flats. The reserve gets its name from the bright pink flamingos that have made the lagoons home.
I visited the Miscanti and Miniques lagoons (they’re right next to each other), and while I can see their beauty, I left feeling very underwhelmed. The 1.5 hour drive to the lagunas. on the other hand, was absolutely spectacular, and we stopped at many points along the way to take photos and soak in the beautiful vistas.
The lagunas are at an altitude of about 14,000 feet - make sure you plan your visit a couple of days after you’ve been in San Pedro so you give your time to adjust to the altitude
You can also drink some coca tea to help ease the altitude sickness
The drive to the lagunas is all on paved roads and incredibly easy - if at all possible, I’d highly encourage your own car instead of taking a tour because the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.
#4: Rainbow Valley (Valle de Arcoiris): This valley is located between Calama and San Pedro, so it’s an ideal stop on your last day before you make it back to the airport. The Rainbow Valley is one of the less frequented destinations, but I can confidently say it is the most beautiful drive I have ever done in Chile (and I’ve been to Patagonia!). This destination is known for its multi-hued mountains that dot the landscape all around you. While I was glad I visited, I’d recommend prioritizing other locations over this one if you’re short on time.
Visit with your own car if that’s an option, going with a tour will be expensive and not worth it (in my opinion)
Check out the tiny town of Rio Grande at the end of the paved road in Rainbow Valley and eat at the one restaurant - that’s where we tried llama for the first time!
Stop by the petroglyphs at the entrance to Rainbow Valley to extend your trip and add in a 1-hour hiking excursion
#5: Go stargazing: Given the number of high-profile observatories that have flocked to this area, it should be no surprise that this region is a haven for astro-tourists who want to view a star studded sky. Booking a tour is mandatory, and there are a number of tour operators available in town. The most popular is Space OBS, but I chose Alarkapin and was very happy with my choice. The astro-enthusiasts who provide the tour are trained by the astronomers from Pangue Observatory in La Serena. They were really eager to answer all of our questions (of which there are were many), and we were lucky to be able to see Jupiter, Saturn and several constellations!
Dress warmly, with several layers to keep you toasty - you’ll be spending a significant amount of time with low temps
Prices can skew quite a bit, so look for something in the price range of $25,000 CLP ($36 USD) which will also include hotel pick-up and drop-off
#6: Visit the famous Tatio Geysers at sunrise - If the idea of a 4am wake up time sounds daunting to you, I get it. I’m not a morning person either, but if you’ve never seen hot springs or geysers before, this is your opportunity to do it.
Why do you need to visit the geysers at sunrise? Because they have the highest level of activity the colder that the outside temperature is (and trust me, it’s COLD).
So, at sunrise, the heat rising from the Geysers reaches an extremely hot boiling point (about 85° Celsius) creating clouds of steam all around you.
All the science aside, it’s a sight to behold, even in the frigid temps and icy cold breath!
Have I mentioned it’s cold? Bring your warmest jackets, layers, hats, gloves and scarves to keep yourself warm.
I’d also recommend some insulated boots or shoes that can keep your feet warm, with some thick socks - my sneakers failed in this department
If you choose to go without a tour, know that it’s very do-able on your own as it’s a straight, paved road for about 90 minutes. The toughest part is willing yourself to wake up at 4am.