The Atacama Desert in the north of Chile is one of the most popular travel destinations in this country. Visitors from every corner of the globe flock to the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama, which is packed with endless rows of tour operators. For those of us less inclined to get shepherded into tour vans, I recommend renting a car from the Calama airport. And to help you navigate the open roads, I’ve created a self-guided driving tour for your Atacama adventure.
ATACAMA DESERT without a tour: SELF-DRIVE ITINERARY
This Atacama self-guided itinerary is for a 4 day trip, Thursday evening through Sunday night.
RENT A CAR FROM THE CALAMA AIRPORT
Begin your itinerary at the Calama airport, where you’ll have a number of rental car companies to choose from, including Avis, Budget and Europcar. I strongly recommend you rent a car well in advance of your trip as the longer you wait, the more expensive daily rates will be. I got my car for $250 for 4 days in Atacama, which was a fantastic price for 4 people.
stop at the mirador on ruta 23
Once you roll out of the airport, it’s a straight shot on Ruta 23 headed to San Pedro de Atacama. There are numerous signs to guide you along the way, and it’s virtually impossible to get lost. This will be your first introduction to the desert, so marvel at the scenic 360 degree vistas as you try to keep your eyes on the road.
While there are numerous photo opportunities, 20 minutes outside of Calama is a beautiful look out point where you’ll see other cars stop as well. It looks out into a deep canyon and further ahead, a large campo (field) dotted with green trees stretching into the blue skies.
check out the dramatic sunset in san pedro de atacama
After you’ve checked into your hotel / hostel (I recommend Yakana), walk around the town of San Pedro de Atacama. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to time it right around sunset, where you’ll find jawdropping skies filled with fiery streaks of orange, red and yellow.
You can also slowly start making your way to the central hub of town for dinner, with most restaurants and bars in and around Caracoles street.
start early & visit laguna cejar
Just a short 16km from the town of San Pedro, you’ll find Laguna Cejar, a charming emerald blue lagoon frequented by visitors to Atacama. This natural spa is perfect for taking a dip in the middle of the day, especially in the peak of summer
The entrance fee is steep at $17,000 CLP ($25 USD) as of April 2019, so I’d recommend heading in only if you have a few hours to spend here.
VISIT LAGUNAS MISCANTI & MINIQUES with PHOTO STOPS!
Next up, you’ll settle in for a long 90-minute drive to head to Lagunas Miscanti & Miniques, located in the area’s national park. Yes, it’s a long drive but know that the entire time you’ll be treated to stunning views of snow-capped peaks in the distance. There are also long stretches of time where you won’t find a single car in your proximity, leading to photo sessions like the one below! Also, watch out for the Tropic of Capricorn sign, a common stop along the way to snap a photo.
watch the sunset in valle de la muerte
You’ll quickly find that Valle de la Luna is the most popular spot in the Atacama Desert for sunset. However, due to new rules, only tour vans are allowed to enter after 5pm, so any self-driving tourists are turned away. Fear not, because Valle de la Muerte is a fantastic alternative and significantly cheaper than doing a tour.
You’ll drive through stark other-worldly terrain with cavernous rock spires seemingly jutting out of nowhere. After paying the entrance fee and driving a couple of kilometers, you’ll find a parking area across from a sand dune popular with sandboarders.
From here, you’ll walk about 20-30 minutes to the mirador (lookout point) to catch the brilliant sunset, which lights up the valley in distinct and rich colors.
visit tatio geysers at sunrise
Set your alarm for 4am to make your way to the famous Tatio Geysers.
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!
STARGAZING WITH ALARKAPIN
This is the only exception to the self-driving rule, but worth including in your Atacama itinerary. There are several tour astronomy operators, the most popular being Space OBS. 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!
VISIT VALLE DE LA LUNA
While you can’t visit during sunset, Valle de la Luna is open to all visitors 8am - 1pm every day. 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.
DRIVE THROUGH VALLE DE ARCOIRIS (RAINBOW VALLEY)
The Rainbow 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.