With its stark mountains, sprawling salt flats, clear high-altitude lakes, and centuries-old cultures, the Atacama desert is one of Chile’s top tourist destinations, especially during the summer months of December through March when the heat and long days make it easy to explore and get to know the area through hiking or cycling. Most people choose to stay in the town of San Pedro de Atacama because of its proximity to all the most popular sites like the Chaxa Lagoon, the Atacama Salt Flats, the Tatio Geyser Field, and Valle de la Luna. But all those lunar valleys and dry desert plains are just as magical in the winter, and there are even several added benefits to going to the Atacama in winter instead of summer. Here are ten reasons why you should visit the Atacama in low season!
1. See snowfall in the high desert – It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s magical! Throughout the year, places in the Atacama like the Valle de la Luna and the salt flats may look like they’re covered in snow, but those white patches seen amongst boulders or sprawled over the desert plains are actually just salt. Which is why when snow does sometimes fall during winter, it makes the Atacama’s Martian landscapes look even more enchanting and otherworldly, especially when it falls on the high mountains and volcanoes like Lincancabur. Snow angels in the world’s driest desert, anyone?
2. Good winter weather – While nighttime in the Atacama does get a bit brisk (around 28 degrees Fahrenheit on average), most of the days are still sunny and clear with average highs in the 70s, allowing for days full of adventure and exploring instead of being stuck inside. But do bring along a windbreaker or a warm jacket: the winter winds are definitely chilly!
3. Fewer crowds – Traveling during low season always brings the added bonus that there will be much fewer tourists around, which can make visiting sites like the Tatio Geysers or Chaxa Lagoon a much more peaceful experience, allowing you to actually enjoy the places and their wildlife without jostling crowds, constant noise and interruptions, and long lines.
4. Excellent opportunities to see wildlife – With less people around to scare off wildlife, winter is a great time to see the creatures who call this high-altitude land home, like vicunas (a wild relative of the llama), grey foxes, viscachas (relatives of the chinchilla), flamingos, and much more.
5. It’s the BEST time for stargazing – Stargazing in the Atacama is incredible year round, but the winter months are when the night sky is at its clearest, allowing you to see the Milky Way as you’ve never seen it before. On moonless nights, just driving a short way out of town will yield incredible views of our galaxy stretched across the night sky in all its glory. Definitely be sure to do a stargazing and astronomy tour during your stay: local astronomers will tell you about the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere, pointing out constellations and planets, using telescopes so you can see these celestial bodies a bit more up close.
6. Going to the geysers in the morning will be amazing – A must-do day trip while in the Atacama is visiting the Tatio Geyser Field, which is the higher geyser field in the world. The best time to go is in the early morning when the heat rising from the geysers and fumaroles hits the cold air, producing huge clouds of steam that shroud the entire site. Now imagine how spectacular that morning show of clouds and steam would be in the winter?! And don’t worry: we bring along breakfast with hot drinks to warm you up while you’re admiring the geysers.
Photography: Diego Maia
7. Escape the cold at the Puritama hot springs – What goes better together than going to the hot springs in winter? Not much! Just a short drive from San Pedro de Atacama, the Puritama hot springs is a series of eight geothermal pools sheltered by desert grasses in a small valley. The springs have been used for centuries by the Atacameno people, who believed that the waters had healing capabilities. Even to this day, it’s said that the sodium sulphate waters can help with ailments like arthritis and rheumatism. But either way, it’s a wonderful, secluded place to spend an afternoon or morning in the winter, going from pool to pool to enjoy the warm waters and emerge feeling relaxed and refreshed.
Photography: Tuanh Nguyen
8. Do a cold plunge in Laguna Cejar – After heating up at the Puritama hot springs, cool down with a polar plunge! Located in the Atacama salt flats, the Cejar Lagoon is a sinkhole lake with a high salt concentration in the water, meaning that you can’t sink when you get it; you just float, weightless. Many people who visit the Atacama love to spend an afternoon relaxing here to escape the heat, but in winter, the site will have less visitors and while it may not be fun for wiling away an afternoon, jumping into a saltwater lake in the Atacama in winter will be an experience you’re bound to never forget!
Photography: Rodrigo Viera Soares
9. Take advantage of the low-season rates – As always, one of the best benefits of going on vacation somewhere during low season is that, with the crowds gone, hotels and tour operators will have reduced rates. The Atacama is definitely not a very expensive destination, but nor is it the cheapest, since it is pretty isolated. The summer months see the bulk of tourism in the Atacama and is when most hotels and tours will be at their most expensive, so if you choose to travel during winter, you’ll walk away having saved a decent chunk of change on everything from accommodations to tours.
10. Enjoy the tastes of the Atacama – Although you can find standard Chilean cuisine in the Atacama as well, there are dishes and tastes here that are very unique to the region. After a long day exploring, unwind with a rica-rica sour: a local take on the pisco sour but made with the rica rica, an indigenous herb that has a minty flavor to it. A wonderful dish for winter is patasca, which is made with beef, corn, tomatoes, and onions, and can be found at restaurants all over the region and in San Pedro (locals swear by Las Delicias de Carmen for the best in town). And, since you’re in the Atacama, you have to have a taste of llama: the historic village of Machuca, found en route to the Tatio Geyser fields, is famous for their delicious llama skewers. Llamas are adorable, but (sadly) they are also quite yummy!
Photography: Fonda de Solor