Earth’s driest non-polar desert is not the barren, sand covered void that you may assume it to be. Indeed, Chile’s northernmost region is also one of its most interesting. Moon-like valleys, giant geyser fields, imperious volcanoes, rugged salt flats and serene lakes dotted with huge flocks of flamingos, are just some of the many highlights that can be visited with only relatively short commutes from the central hub of San Pedro.
The arid climate of the region has meant that little has changed in this landscape for many thousands of years. When you step outside of the towns it is like stepping back in time. Ancient fortifications that pre-date the arrival of Europeans still stand. Petroglyphs (rock carvings) depicting freeze framed moments in the lives of the Atacameno people who inhabited the desert over 10,000 years ago, still stir emotions. And the star studded skies are as clear as ever, and consistently attract the interest of astronomers seeking to uncover the secrets of the universe.
- Visit the contrasting landscapes of 'Moon Valley' and the Atacama salt flats
- See the sun rise through a geothermal mist at the El Tatio Geysers
- Watch the inspiring dance of the flamingos in shallow turquoise waters
- Wander the paths around pre-Colombian ruins
- Spend evenings star gazing under the clearest skies on Earth
Road connections in the region are generally well maintained, quiet and easily navigable, meaning self-drives are a very viable and appealing option for those wanting to explore the area. Having your own car also allows for greater flexibility, so you can roam at your own pace, and follow your own itinerary.
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Itinerary & Accommodation
- Day 1: Atacama arrival, Death Valley & Moon Valley
Fly to the northern city of Calama. Pick up your 4x4 vehicle at the airport and drive east to San Pedro de Atacama, a lively little town that acts as the perfect hub for your Atacama adventures. After dropping off your luggage at the accommodation that will be home for the next 3 nights, make the short journey to ‘Valle de la Muerte’ (Death Valley). This stark, rocky and alien landscape full of caverns and canyons, is the perfect place to start your introduction to these other worldly lands.
Before the sun begins to dip, make the small hop over to the neighbouring Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), which has similarly stunning scenery and contains some of the best vantage points in the world, from which to observe the setting of our star
- Day 2: Toconao, salt flats and lagoons
Begin today with a visit to the village of Toconao. This is an incongruent oasis of vegetation in otherwise desolate surrounds, nourished by water flowing through the Quebrada de Jerez canyon. Take your time to enjoy the area before continuing to the Laguna Chaxa. Set amongst craggy white salt flats, this pool perfectly mirrors the distant mountains and its stillness is often only broken by the dancing feet of its resident flamingos.
Spend the afternoon at Miscanti and Miniques, two turquoise lakes that offer mesmerizing contrasts to the autumn like colours of their surrounding scenery. On the way back to San Pedro, why not take the slight detour to Laguna Cejar, a lake so rich in salt that those who enter simply bob straight to the surface.
- Day 3: El Tatio geysers and Puritama Hot Springs
El Tatio is a geothermal hotspot which is home to over 60 active vents that seethe and simmer all day and night. Some of these also shoot waves of boiling water into the air, thrilling those standing watch from the safety of the side-lines. It is often said that sunrise is the best time to be here. The morning mist created by the fumaroles makes for an eerie backdrop and the changing light generates a special atmosphere that is perfect for keen photographers. Geyser eruptions also tend to cease at around 9am each morning so setting off early is highly recommended.
After the early start, there is no better way to relax than with a visit to the Puritama Hot Springs, which require only a small diversion on your route back to San Pedro. This series of 8 geothermally warmed pools have been frequented by locals for centuries and it is claimed that the mineral rich waters possess healing capabilities for a range of common ailments. (Entrance fee is not included – approx. £20pp).
Continue your lazy afternoon by relaxing at the hotel, or by taking a gentle stroll around the streets of San Pedro where you can shop for souvenirs or visit the popular archaeological museum.
N.B El Tatio is located at the highest altitude that you will likely visit on this holiday (4,320 metres above sea level). Therefore, if you or a member of your party are susceptible to altitude sickness, it is recommended that you visit the geyser field later in the day so that you are well rested and will not need to worry about driving in the dark (note that geyser activity ends or is significantly reduced after around 9am however). Alternatively, you could join one of the many escorted excursions to the region which are accompanied by an experienced guide who will carry oxygen reserves to aid those in need. An entry fee of around £10 per person will be required if not visiting as part of a pre-booked tour.
- Day 4: Depart Atacama
- Today you will need to drive back to Calama for your flight back to Santiago, but if time allows, go via the pre-Colombian ruins of Pukara de Quitor. This ancient fortress is thought to have been constructed in around 1100AD and was used to protect the inhabitants from raids by nearby villagers and later, numerous foreign invaders.
Please note: This itinerary is a guideline only and can be tailored to meet with your specific interests and requirements. Contact our team of specialists for full details.
Museums throughout Chile are generally closed on Mondays and many tourist establishments may be shut or fully booked during National Holidays. Therefore please inform us of any key elements of your trip that hold particular importance to you, even if they are not being pre-booked, so that we can tailor your itinerary accordingly.
Hotel Kimal - Atacama
- Grade: Standard
- Type: Hotel
Located in the historic centre of San Pedro de Atacama, …
Casa Atacama Hotel
- Grade: Standard
- Type: Hotel
The Casa Atacama Hotel, located close to the centre of t…
Tierra Atacama Hotel - San Pedro de Atacama
- Grade: Superior
- Type: Hotel
Tierra Atacama is a high quality boutique hotel located …
In addition to those listed, a large variety of alternative accommodation options are available for this holiday. Please contact us for further details.
Prices & Dates
2018 Prices and Dates
Price from £352 per person, based on twin-share standard accommodation and 4x4 rental vehicle.
Departs daily, year round
3 nights bed and breakfast accommodation at Le Casa de Don Tomas • 3 days 4x4 car hire (CAT F1 - Hyundai Creta or similar) with unlimited mileage - based on afternoon pick up on day 1 & morning drop off on day 4 • Airport pick-up/drop off fees • Semi-comprehensive CDW insurance (for 2 named drivers) • Detailed documentation helping you plan your daily activities
All airfares - we would be happy to assist with booking these • Road tolls • Fuel • National Park Fees • Excursions and entrance fees • Additional airport or airline security charges • Passport and visa expenses (we will be pleased to advise you on any necessary documentation, however this is passengers' own responsibility) • Government arrival and departure taxes • Any accommodation/meals/drinks/land arrangements not mentioned in inclusions • Excess baggage charges • Telecommunication charges, laundry costs and other charges of a personal nature • Travel insurance
How to book
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Speak to a specialist: 1-844-584-0668Book this trip
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