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The Atacama Desert has tons of unique nature.

The Atacama Desert in Chile: a Place Out of This World

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The Atacama desert in Chile is nothing like you may think. When you hear the word "desert", you are probably thinking of an extensive amount of sand, heat and nothing more than that (maybe even a camel or a scorpion!). In reality, this is a massive area with valleys, salt lagoons, rivers and so much more.

Whether you're visiting soon, or just want to see mind blowing destinations, the Atacama desert in Chile is a place you'll want to keep in mind.

So without further ado, let's jump right in and tell you all about this amazing place!

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Where is the Atacama Desert in Chile?

The Atacama Desert is all the way in the north of Chile. The closest large city is Antofogasta, and the main town that people stay in while visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile is San Pedro de Atacama. The whole area covered is a whopping 104,741 km², lying between the coast and the Andes mountains.

Where is the Atacama Desert in Chile

The Atacama Desert is located in the north of Chile.

Getting to the Atacama Desert in Chile

If you want to visit the Atacama Desert in Chile, the best place to base yourself is San Pedro de Atacama, as this is close to most points of interest. Antofogasta is also another city where you can start discovering the area.

What is the Closest Airport to the Atacama Desert?

If you'd like to base yourself in San Pedro de Atacama, then the best thing to do is to fly into Calama, which is 86 km away. The three cities that fly to Calama are Concepcion, La Serena, and Santiago. Those same three cities also fly to Antofogasta, which is the other side of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Flight Tip: Using Skyscanner you can check the calendar to see which are the cheapest dates for going to either of the two airports in the Atacama Desert.

Search for a flight to Antofogasta or Calama:

Want to book your transportation to San Pedro de Atacama from Calama? We found an option:

Visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile by Excursion

We personally visited by taking a trip along the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, and our tour finished in San Pedro de Atacama. If you are planning on doing a trip there, we definitely suggest this as your end point.

Want to sign up for an Uyuni Salt Flat tour that ends in San Pedro de Atacama? Check out the different options below:

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Entry Requirements for Chile

Before booking your trip, you'll want to know if there are any specific requirements for entering. Here's what you need to know to visit Chile.

Visa Requirements for Chile

There are 95 different nationalities that can enter Chile visa free for up to 90 days. Those countries that can enter Chile without a visa are mostly from the Americas and Europe. If your country does not fall into the list, you must in fact get a visa before entering the country.

Covid Entry Requirements for Chile

In order to enter Chile one must either be vaccinated, or present a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of flying.

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Local Adjustments for the Atacama Desert in Chile

When traveling to any new country, there are plenty of local things to adjust to. Here are a few to keep in mind while traveling to Chile.

What Language Do They Speak in the Atacama Desert?

The official language in Chile is Spanish. However, out of all Spanish-speaking countries, we believe Chileans are the most difficult to understand. They speak extremely fast, run their words together, and even have plenty of different words than other Spanish-speaking countries. Nevertheless, it is still helpful to learn a bit of Spanish before going! Just don't feel bad if you have a hard time understanding the locals.

Currency Used in the Atacama Desert

The currency used in Chile is the Chilean Peso. Currently (As of April 2023) 1 USD is equivalent to 820.63 Chilean pesos. Credit card is taken in many restaurants, hotels, and shops. However, you may want to take some cash out for smaller shops, street food, and local attractions.

Plug Types Used in the Atacama Desert, Chile

The country of Chile uses plug types C and L. Plug type C is the one with two round pins (like Europe), and plug type L has three pins across. They run on a 220 V supply voltage and 50Hz.

Can You Drink Tap Water in Atacama?

The tap water throughout the country of Chile is safe to drink, and that includes the city of Santiago.

Tipping Culture in Chile

The universal average tipping culture is 10%, and that is exactly what is expected throughout Chile. Some restaurants may already add it to the bill, but you are always encouraged to leave a bit more.

What to See in the Atacama Desert in Chile

There's definitely a lot to see in the Atacama desert, so we recommend you to invest a few days in your travels here. Nevertheless, if you are on a tight schedule, we have solved this for you. We arranged all items by what we consider a priority for you to see.

1. Moon Valley

The Moon Valley has its name due to its huge dunes, formed by rock, salt and sand. The largest of them is the Valle de la Luna Amphitheater of about 40 meters. Scientists tested a prototype for a Mars rover here because of the valley's dry and forbidding terrains.

There are various studies that indicate that there was a large lake in the Valle de la Luna, but that the Domeyko mountain range, which is the basis of this landscape, formed from volcanic activity and alluviums. This became a valley with hills of salt, rock, and sand, and free of flora and fauna.

Very close to the Moon Valley is the Death Valley, which is a true abyss of sand. You can find it just 6 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama. Its name is due to the fact that remains of bones (humans and animals) have been found and the story says that everyone who tried to cross this valley died on the way.

Atacama Desert, Atacama desert in Chile
Moon Valley, Atacama Desert in Chile
Moon Valley, Atacama desert in Chile

Moon Valley has wild moon-like features.

Would you like to sign up for a tour that includes Moon Valley? We've included a few below:

2. Ojos del Salar

Ojos del Salar are two small, perfectly round freshwater lakes. They appear to open in the middle of nowhere, and are located about 20 miles from the city of San Pedro de Atacama.

You can access it from a sandy path, and these two freshwater lakes are regularly visited as part of a larger trip to two other lakes in the area, Laguna de Cejar and Laguna Tebenquiche. The best part is that they are literally on the side of the road so they're completely free to visit.

Ojos de Salar, Atacama Desert
Ojos del salar, Atacama Desert in Chile

The Atacama Desert has tons of unique nature.

Want to take an excursion that includes Ojos de Salar? We've included a few different ones below:

3. Laguna Cejar

You can also find Laguna Cejar 20 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama. Its strong Calypso color of the water makes it very recognizable. Its waters, being saline, allow bodies to float and remain without sinking, because the salt load is greater than the weight of a person.

The landscape is one of the most attractive of the Atacama desert, where the blue of the sky, the white of the salt, the light blue of the water and the pink of the flamingos create a beautiful mix of colors. It is best to always walk with shoes since the salts have sharp points that can cut the feet.

We recommend you to visit the Cejar Lagoon in the afternoon and finish with the sunset in the Tebinquinche Lagoon, since the colors on the salt flat are one of the best landscapes for those who visit the surroundings of San Pedro de Atacama.

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Atacama Desert in Chile Pin
Atacama desert in Chile Pin

Want to see Laguna Cejar? Simply check out the tours below:

4. Laguna Tebinquinche

This lagoon has been formed by the rainfall and thawing that occurs throughout the year in the Atacama Desert. It is very close to the Ojos del Salar and, for this reason, the landscape that surrounds it does not change too much with respect to the latter. 

Of course, the protected area in Laguna Tebenquiche is more extensive and protected by the community of Coyo, so they are in charge of charging entrance to visitors.

Want to join a tour that includes Laguna Tebinquiche? Here are a few that you can check out:

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5. Lagunas de Baltinache

The Laguna Escondida de Baltinache complex is a set of 7 pools or small lagoons, where its extension basically depends on the rain, with an average of 5 meters in diameter. According to the locals, the deepest would reach 6 m. To get here you need to head from Atacama towards Calama.

As in Laguna Tejar, the salt density here is so high that it makes bodies float effortlessly, just like in Laguna Cejar or in the Dead Sea. The only thing you need to be aware of is that after you leave the lagoons your body will be fully covered with salt, and the feeling isn't the best.

They have showers at the entrance, but sometimes by the afternoon the water supply is finished, so it is good to have extra water with you just in case, or to go earlier in the day, so  you don't want to have to go back all covered in salt. Trust us on this, we've been there.

Laguna Baltinache, Atacama Desert, reasons to visit South America
Laguna Baltinache 2 Atacama Desert

Want to book a tour to visit Lagunas de Baltinache? We've included a few below:

6. Laguna Chaxa

This spot is particulary good if you're a fan of flamingos. You can spot three of the five known species (James, Chilean and Andean) at this salt lake, as well as plovers, coots and ducks: bring zoom lenses and snappy reflexes. Sunrise is feeding time for the birds, though the park doesn't open until 8 am. It’s also gorgeous at sunset.

Looking for a tour that includes Laguna Chaxa? Check out the ones below:

7. Cordillera de la Sal

The name actually comes from the fact that its rocks have a large amount of calcium sulfate, which gives them the appearance of being sprinkled with salt

Cordillera de la Sal was formed millions of years ago. It was an old lake, whose bottom rose by the same movements of the land coast that gave rise to the Andes Mountains.

Shaped through time by the rain, wind and sun of the Atacama Desert, its final shape as we know it today has a great variety of natural sculptures, different types of stratifications and colorations varied by the mineral diversity of the place.

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8. El Tatio Geysers

El Tatio is the largest group of geysers in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world, after Yellowstone (United States) and Kronotski Nature Reserve (Russia).

It has about 80 geysers, which amounts to approximately 8% of those in the world. Despite the number of geysers, the eruptions are not very high, reaching an average of 76 centimeters.

Want to book a tour to El Tatio Geysers? Just check these out:

9. Guatin Canyon

The Guatín Canyon is an area where the waters of the Puritama and Purifica rivers descend, creating a great variety of cacti. It is also known as Valle de los Cactus or Quebrada de Cardones. Many of them are centenarians and have heights that reach up to 7 meters, which are in danger of extinction.

Here you can also find the Puritama Hot Springs, which are a group of eight large pools of water located in the middle of the desert, at 3,475 meters above sea level.

"You can hear many rivers ... you can hear many waterfalls... but when you hear it in the middle of the desert, it really is a different experience" is something you will hear a lot around here.

Want to book an excursion to Puritama Hot Springs? We've listed a couple below:

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How to Move Around the Atacama Desert in Chile

There is a lot more to the Atacama Desert than you may have thought, and it is really a huge place to explore! Here are our tips for getting around the Atacama Desert in Chile.

When it comes to time, don't waste it. Rent a car.

There are many agencies & tours leaving from Atacama to all the main features. They all have daily departures and prices are ok. But to be honest, we believe that this is one of those cases where time is money, and having to spend a full day in a place, having so much to see, is a waste.

That's why we recommend you to rent a car. The price might seem high when compared to transportation in general in South America. However, the truth is that you will be saving time and even more importantly, you will be the captain of your schedule.

There are a lot of locations, like Ojos del Salar, that are completely free, so you can literally drive down there, spend as much time as you want, and keep on going. Most car rentals are found at Calama airport, so if you happen to fly in, this will be the most convenient option. In our experience, we had to take a bus to Calama airport from San Pedro de Atacama, which took a little over an hour.

Rent a car at Calama Airport:

Even Better... sleep in your transportation!

When we traveled to the Atacama Desert this option wasn't available because we basically couldn't find any company with available vans. But you can get a super cool van where you can also sleep there and have a blast! Wicked has ground-breaking options if you go for this.

Imagine sleeping in the middle of a desert, under a million stars, without having to share the experience with strangers. Imagine deciding when you want to move and when you want to stay. What if there wasn't a time to "go back" to your accommodation? A van can solve all of this.

Don't want to explore the desert on your own? Here are a few excursions you can sign up for:

Where to Stay in the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert in Chile is enormous, but the most popular base for travelers to stay in is San Pedro de Atacama. There are plenty of different options to choose from, and you can check them out on the map below:

Local Food & Drink in the Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama has a ton of fun restaurants and bars to choose from. You can find all different types of options, both local and international. One local dish that we definitely suggest you to try is Patasca, which is a stew made with pork or beef, onions, potatoes, and white corn.

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Is the Atacama Desert in Chile Safe?

While safety can certainly vary throughout South America, we can say that we always felt super safe in San Pedro de Atacama, as well as in the surroundings. Locals are very friendly, and the desert has plenty of tourists and backpackers. Overall it's a great vibe, and we had no issues walking around solo or at night while in town.

Other Things to Know About Visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile

Here are a few other tips we have while you are visiting the area.

Go out in town!

Atacama is a small town, and it's mainly used as a checking point to go back and forth from all the incredible landscapes around it. But this doesn't stop it from being a very tourism friendly place.

There are many places to see, restaurants with live shows at night, and even some parties a few blocks away from town, in the middle of nowhere. There's definitely much more to do than you might think, so give yourself a treat and enjoy the little gems Atacama has to offer.

The Weather in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Being a desert, the weather in Atacama is super dry, and there is very little rain. Days are hot and sunny, and nights cool off, especially in the winter months.

The Best Time to Visit the Atacama Desert in Chile

The most popular time to visit the Atacama Desert is in the summer months of December, January, and February. If you want more mild temperatures and fewer crowds then the best months are October, November, March, and April.

Packing for a Trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile

Here are a few of the essentials for your trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile.

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Bring Sunscreen & Lotion

This advice always sounds obvious, but there are certain occasions where it's very important to keep reminding about this. Atacama desert has been declared one of the driest places on Earth, since some spots haven't received a single drop of water in hundreds of years!

This is why you can expect temperatures to be very high & dry during the day. The lack of humidity in the air will also cause your skin to not only burn by the sun faster but to be more sensitive to any scratch.

So make sure you bring a good sunscreen & lotion to keep your skin protected and hydrated.

Sunglasses are Another Must

Keep in mind that almost all places you will visit are in the open air, keeping you under the sun constantly. For this reason, and especially if you are going to spend a few days here, it's a total must to wear sunglasses to protect your eye sight.

Having sunglasses will help your eyes feel rested and relaxed, and will also help you avoid wrinkles such as crow's feet, leaving you with a pretty & young skin ready for some amazing pictures.

We have created a list of travel necessities for your trip which are particularly great for South American travels.

Packing List for the Atacama Desert in Chile

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We left the Atacama desert in Chile with a big smile on our faces, because it really exceeded our expectations. You can easily spend a week here, and even so it may leave you craving for more.

If you're planning on traveling through South America, we have a whole list of travel guides & tips ready for you.

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