We may be biased, but we think Chile is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and exploring it on foot is an experience that is difficult to describe. While the classic treks around Patagonia take our breath away every time, there’s so much more to explore off the beaten path. Include the trails of Chile’s hidden treasures in your itinerary to make your trip unique, taking home with you the memories of the views and sounds of undisturbed nature.
Explore the wild landscape of Navarino Island, in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and take the southernmost trek in the world. At the end of the world, you’ll climb and trek the sharp peaks that look like an apex predator’s teeth. The island’s extreme location means that few tourists visit this place, but if you’re a trekking enthusiast, you need to add this to your list. Far from the public (and phone signal), here is the perfect place to reconnect with nature and your senses. This one is certainly for experienced hikers but the extra effort is paid for with the magnificent views.
Silence Valley, Torres del Paine
The Torres del Paine treks are some of the most popular in Chile, and it’s true that if you visit in summer you will be sure to encounter groups of other tourists. If the Torres are on your list but you want to venture away from the crowds, then explore the lesser-tread paths. After visiting the Torres, you’ll continue your adventure behind the monoliths to Silence Valley. Over the next few days, you’ll cross glaciers, walk through native forests, and kayak across lakes, exploring the hidden gems of the Torres del Paine National Park with uninterrupted views. This is an adventure that will stir your soul and leave you with great memories (and photos!).
This is an adventure through the luscious foothills of Patagonia. Explore forest and steppe, snowy peaks and white-water rivers. Here you can hike surrounded by the beautiful forests, breathtaking volcanoes, and spectacular fjords of South America’s best-kept secret. Explore the myths of Chiloé, the wildlife of the Lake District, and the waterfalls and rivers of Chile’s hidden gem far away from the traditional tourist attractions. These trails vary in difficulty, but no matter which one you choose, the reward will be incredible.
Poike Volcano, Easter Island
Easter Island is full of treasures to discover, but if you want to see something that most travellers don’t, consider a hike around the little-traversed northern coast of this magical island or climb Poike, the island’s second-highest summit and oldest volcano to see Rapa Nui in all its glory. Along the way, you can discover ancient villages, caves, carvings and moais that most travellers don’t experience and get to know a different side of the island on foot.
Guatin Ravine, Atacama
After the lagoons and the geysers, escape the crowds of San Pedro and explore the Atacama wilderness. Take a short trek through a towering cactus forest in the driest desert on earth and follow the river to the most miraculous viewpoint looking over this incredible landscape with the Salar de Atacama in the distance. Away from the Atacama’s usual highlights, you will see a whole different side of this enchanting desert.
Talk to us today to plan your next adventure away from the crowds!
Chile is a very long country and its climates vary from deserts to sub-tropical to plateau. When you know where you want to go, here are our top tips to decide when for the best weather, availabilty of hotels, and prices!
If you want to experience smaller crowds and save some money, you may want to consider visiting Patagonia during the shoulder season from October-November and March-April, when there are fewer tourists and the seasons are starting to change.
Spring in Patagonia occurs from September to November. While the temperature is still a bit chilly, it begins to fade into milder, warmer weather.
It’s also a great season to avoid the crowds; with hiking trails throughout the region reopening after winter, visitors will find national parks and landmarks relatively quiet, having the advantage to see animals that the bigger crowds might drive away, such as pumas!
Patagonia’s climate in the springtime will be the wettest as the winter begins to melt away and winds are usually high. Yet you will gain the advantage of seeing Patagonia change from freezing winter into the colorful tones of Spring.
Due to the great geographical diversity of Chile, there is a very particular attraction at this time. Depending on the town you visit, you can find an impressive variety of colors and contrasts.
In Patagonia, the reddish and yellow colors are contrasted with the green moss and dark browns of the logs and ground. When there are early snowfalls, we can appreciate an additional attraction to this landscape.
The Ocean and the Coastal Mountain Range are other places with great vegetation and are completely stained, giving us stunning views of the mountain and sea.
What are the advantages of traveling during fall?
Along with its incredible landscapes, most of the destinations go into the low season, so it is possible to visit these places with fewer people. Every year it becomes more popular to travel in these so-called “shoulder seasons” so destinations are increasingly prepared to receive adventurers. Many professional photographers visit these places during this season of the year.
Winter Season (Low Season)
Patagonia in the winter is between June and August. It is a season that hasn’t been as popular in the past due to the harsh weather, extremely cold temperatures, and snow/ice. However, it is a season that is gaining more and more popularity because of the unique and amazing landscapes that are only possible to see during winter, such as the peak of the towers with snow!
It is a season that is certainly for the adventurous souls seeking to experience the raw wilderness of the region, at a time when you’ll see a significantly small number of tourists.
While hikes such as the O and the W circuits are closed, there are ways to experience Torres del Paine in an adapted way. Such as the Carretas Hike, the Portería to Portería traverse, full-day Paine or Base of the Towers winter hike.
One thing to have in mind when visiting Patagonia in winter is to have more full days available, so you can switch days for the activities evaluating the weather locally.
Summer Season (High Season)
The Patagonia summer season goes from December to February; these are considered the high season months when temperatures can reach 72 degrees, making this season the most wanted. There is also a much clearer sky during this time, therefore, it is less likely to get a cold day for your photos at the base of the Towers or Glacier Grey. Patagonia is very unpredictable, though, so the weather is not always consistent!
This season is also known for its extreme winds that can reach over 120 miles/hr. Usually, larger groups come to Patagonia at this time as the weather is generally more stable.
Usually, summer weather in Patagonia is ideal, with all the trekking trails open and in perfect condition. All of the most iconic hikes are easily accessible, such as the Tower base, French Valley and travelers can explore the area and its wildlife in its abundant glory.
Easter Island is a magical destination that, for most people, might be a once-in-a-lifetime journey because of the remoteness. Therefore, it is very important to know which is the best time to visit Easter Island.
All seasons are great to visit this mysterious island, it’s just a thing about your interests, availability, and budget.
The summer season in Easter Island begins in December and runs through the end of March. Temperatures are higher, so temperatures are ideal for those who enjoy sunbathing and swimming in Anakena Beach, but can also be slightly suffocating for those who seek to explore by bike or hiking.
This is also the time for summer vacations in Chile, so plane tickets and hotels tend to raise their prices.
In February, the Tapati Rapa Nui festival takes place. This is the most important cultural event in Easter Island, where the population is divided into two clans that get through different tests and competitions to choose the Queen and King of the island.
To attend this unique festival, you need to plan your trip several months in advance to find reservations and reasonable prices for plane tickets.
This season extends from late March until November. Temperatures tend to be “lower”, but Easter Island is a subtropical island so temperatures are warm and humid in the summer and more mild in winter. The average daily temperature ranges from 23/24 °C (74/75 °F) in the period from January to March to 18.5 °C (65 °F) in the period from July to September, making the milder temperatures ideal for exploration by bike and hiking.
Low season prices are more convenient and you can find better offers for flights and accommodation. The number of tourists is significantly lower, so attractions are less busy and there are more hotel options.
The Atacama desert is a place you can visit all year round with amazing views of lunar landscapes, geysers, altiplanic lagoons, and pink flamingos. It is the perfect place to experience remoteness!
It runs from December to February and is the most popular season for exploring the Atacama Desert. The refreshing day temperatures and warmer nights make for a pleasant time to travel to the desert.
For the best stargazing, the high season is the time to visit. The sky is incredibly clear all year round, but nights during the winter season months are very cold, making stargazing in summer more pleasant since this is an activity that needs to be done at night.
The summertime also brings an increase in humidity, with rainfall not entirely uncommon at this time of year.
The low season starts in March and runs until November. 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.
Traveling during the low season always brings the 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
There is a lower demand for accommodation, so there are better deals.
Valleys of Martian-red rock, snowless white ground, jewel-toned lakes: all over its more than 40,000 square miles, the Atacama is full of stunning landscapes and cultural sites that astound everyone who visits. But there are some that rise above the rest as being truly emblematic of this unique high desert, which has attracted humanity for thousands of years with its timeless beauty, and who then leave their mark on the land. Made by man or made by nature, these are the top must-visit places in the Atacama Desert.
Valle de la Luna – Barely ten minutes from San Pedro de Atacama you’ll find a wonderland of otherworldly rock formations, coated in what appears to be snow. But appearances can be deceiving: that white substance covering the ground and craggy walls is actually salt! The Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is a truly lunar place, with sandy dunes and salt-covered ground hemmed in by rock walls of bright red. There are plenty of hiking paths that lead to amazing viewpoints, as well as driving roads. Best time to visit for views and to escape the heat is at sunset.
El Tatio Geysers – Roughly an hour and a half from San Pedro is one of the highest and biggest geyser fields in the entire world: the El Tatio Geysers. Meaning either “oven” or “grandfather” in the extinct Kunza language of the Atacameño people, the field is covered in eighty active geysers, as well as hot springs, fumaroles, and sinter deposits (a kind of chemical sediment that forms the strange rock formations found around geysers all over the world). Pathways cross the field allow you to walk past the different geysers and immerse yourself in their plumes of mist and steam at safe distances. It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie and, as it’s best to visit in the early morning, a great way to start the day.
The Hand of the Desert – To reach this giant sculpture of a hand rising out of the desert floor requires a more than four-hour drive from San Pedro, but if you’re planning on visiting the nearby port city of Antofagasta or want to go for a long drive, it’s worth the trip. Surrounded by stark white desert on all sides, the 11-meter tall hand is a striking contrast to the barren landscape and makes for a fantastic photo op.
Tara Salt Flats – The Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia are by far the most famous salt flats in South America, and while the Tara salt flats may not be as vast, they are equally beautiful. Located within the Los Flamencos National Reserve at more than 14,000 feet above sea level, the Tara salt flats are comprised of flat plains of crusty salt, as well as high desert lagoons frequented by local wildlife like flamingos and vicunas, grasslands, and bizarre rock formations like the Pacana Monks, which are vertical rock stands said to resemble the posture of monks.
Piedras Rojas – One of the most striking aspects of the Atacama desert is the richness and contrast of colors, from rocks to salt to water, and nowhere is this contrast more apparent and stunning than at the Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks). The expanse of bright-red rocks, which get their tint from iron oxidation, border on the soft turquoise blue of the Salar de Aguas Calientes lake with colored mountains bordering on the horizon. It’s a deeply beautiful landscape and is an ideal spot for nature and landscape photographers.
Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons – Sitting at over 13,000 feet high, nestled in the shadows of colorful hills and snowy mountains, these high-altitude lagoons are about as picturesque as it can get. The blue lakes, whose colors shift in the sunshine, are surrounded by shrubs and desert grass, and they’re great sites for bird and wildlife viewing. With no other human dwellings nearby except for the ranger station, here the peace and quiet is total and you can allow yourself to be immersed in this high desert beauty.
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works – While many people come to the Atacama to experience its wealth of beautiful natural landscapes, it also has a vast, multicultural history, which started with indigenous tribes who either lived in the region or migrated through before the Spanish arrived and then colonists came for the saltpeter boom. Saltpeter, which is another term for sodium nitrate, was mined all over the Atacama throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, but when a synthetic version was created in Germany, the industry collapsed, leaving the region dotted with the abandoned factories and mining towns that sprung up for workers and their families to live in. One of the biggest and best preserved is Humberstone and the Santa Laura plant. Nearly a five-hour drive from San Pedro, it’s only forty-five minutes from the coastal resort town of Iquique, which is a great spot for swimming, surfing, and paragliding off the massive sanddunes behind the city.
ALMA Observatory – One of the most famous of the Atacama’s many scientific observatories, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array consists of 66 radio telescopes that use millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths to probe deep space for answers to the mysteries of the universe. The telescope field and Operations Support Facility are located a short drive from San Pedro on the Chajnantor plateau at over 16,000 feet high. Scientists come from all over the world and wait years for just a few nights at the helm of these telescopes. The facility is closed to the public for night tours but there are day tours on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs – Time and nature are ruthless in destroying what humanity builds, but at this pile of red rocks roughly 45 minutes from San Pedro, something of ancient mankind has managed to endure. The rocks are covered in an astonishing array of well-preserved petroglyphs and rock carvings. There are over a thousand in total, many of llamas and other creatures that were important in the lives of the Atacameno people. Dating back 10,000 years, it’s a truly awe-inspiring spot that offers a glimpse into the lives and beliefs of a tribe who called this desert home thousands of years ago.
Puritama Hot Springs – Need a day of rest and relaxation? Head out of San Pedro for a day at these secluded hot springs, shaded by desert grass along the bottom of a rocky canyon. A series of geothermically-heated pools are connected by a series of red walkways, and there are bathrooms and changing rooms onsite. Pretty and peaceful, it’s a lovely place to escape for a day and relax.
The Atacama is not exactly known as a foodie destination. But rest assured, there’s much more to the dining scene here than just backpacker fare (although you will find tasty burgers and pizzas). Relying on seasonal ingredients, meat from local animals like llamas, and desert herbs and flowers for flavor, a truly unique regional cuisine has grown up over centuries of humans etching a living from this land, and inventive new chefs are taking these building blocks and opening exciting and delicious new restaurants, bistros, and cafes around San Pedro, while many family-run restaurants continue to preserve classic recipes for pure, uncomplicated enjoyment. And fresh seafood is always in abundance, as the ocean is never far away, and so fresh fish, shrimp, mussels, and crab are right at your fingertips even in the middle of the desert. So, to experience the fruits of Chile’s high desert, these are the best places to eat and drink in the Atacama.
Las Delicias de Carmen – A short walk off San Pedro’s main drag, this charming and unassuming spot may have the occasional tourist but more often than not, it’s packed with locals. Ask someone from San Pedro where to go to eat and they’ll say Las Delicias de Carmen. Named from the woman who owns the joint, Las Delicias specializes in gigantic servings of traditional Chilean and Atacama fare; the soups and stews like patasca (made with beef, white corn, and potatoes) are especially good. Go for a casual but delicious time.
Adobe – The alfresco dining patio at this chicly rustic spot, which features Southwestern-style wooden pergolas, brown adobe walls, wood tables, and a communal bonfire space, is always packed, as much for the ambiance and decor as the food. Serving Chilean and international cuisine, the dishes are delicious and filling (we recommend their meat or fish dishes) and they also have a great drinks menu with plenty of wine and strong pisco sours.
La Casona – Featuring hearty servings of Chilean and South American cuisine (I’m talking giant empanadas, heaps of perfectly cooked meat, fresh seafood, the works), La Casona is always bustling. Some of their most popular dishes are Chilean “chupes”, which are like meat pies made with crab or mussels, and “pastel de choclo”, which is a baked corn pie with chicken and other ingredients. A full bar serves a great selection of wine to go with the food, as well as beer and cocktails. The dining room itself is also charming, with white walls, dark wood paneling, and an adobe fireplace, and there is an outdoor dining space as well.
Babalu Heladeria – Chileans love ice cream, and nothing helps beat that Atacama heat than some cool, refreshing ice cream. There are several good ice cream joints around town but Babalu is especially well-known for its inventive artisan flavors that use local ingredients like rica rica or quinoa. Grab a cone or cup on a hot day and enjoy!
Baltinache – With only a handful of tables that are always occupied, you can be sure that the food at Baltinache is worth the wait or even making a reservation in advance. And it is. Inspired by the historic cuisine of Atacama indigenous cultures, local ingredients and flavors get reimagined in contemporary ways and plated with creative flair. The restaurant itself is also lovely, with white-washed walls covered in drawings and hangings of native petroglyphs found out in the desert.
Lola – San Pedro is not much of a night-life town, but Lola always guarantees a good time. Part bar, restaurant, and late-night hangout spot, they make crazy good cocktails that go down way too easy after long days of exploring, and offer fun entertainment like karaoke.
Tierra Atacama – On every trip, you should treat yourself to a truly fancy meal, and in San Pedro, that should be at Tierra Atacama. Part of the luxe Tierra hotel chain, at their innovative restaurant you get to experience a multi-course tasting menu that takes traditional Chilean ingredients and dishes to new heights, featuring succulent meat and seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables. Start with a rica rica sour, the local take on pisco sours but flavored with the native rica rica herb, and then move on to their excellent wine menu to pair with the meal.
The Atacama Desert is one of the popular destinations in Chile. Located in the north of the country and squeezed between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama is the driest non-polar desert on the planet, receiving less than 0.6 inches of rain in an entire year. The lack of moisture, unforgiving sun and desert winds have, over millennia, created out-of-this-world landscapes with lunar valleys, high-altitude lagoons, cracked salt flats, and endless horizons. Full of natural wonder and with a cultural history dating back thousands of years, it’s a must-visit. But, being such a harsh and isolated environment, there can be some unexpected surprises for first-time visitors. Take it from someone who knows the area: here are 8 things I wish I knew before visiting the Atacama that will help you be better prepared and have the best trip possible!
1. There’s so much more to see and do besides San Pedro
When people talk about the top places they want to visit in the Atacama, generally they’re referring to San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings: the El Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna, Chaxa Lagoon with its flamingos…the list goes on and on. San Pedro, a small adobe town with roughly 4,000 inhabitants, is the hub of Atacama tourism and the starting point for many adventures. But the Atacama spans over 40,000 square miles; there’s a lot more to see and do outside of San Pedro. You can head to the coast to enjoy the beaches or go surfing at Iquique, visit saltpeter ghost towns like Humberstone, seek out the Hand of the Desert monument, and much more. So don’t restrict your Atacama exploring to just San Pedro.
2. July-August is the best time to visit for stargazing
Even though the summer months of December through February are high season for tourists, if you love stargazing and astronomy, the best time to visit is definitely during winter. Granted, due to the altitude, arid weather, and lack of light pollution and radio interference, good stargazing can be found year-round (except during full moons) but July and August are when the skies are at their absolute clearest and most brilliant, making for amazing stargazing even without telescopes.
3. It gets really cold at night
Even though you’re going to the desert, don’t think that it’s gonna be all sunshine and heat: the Atacama’s elevation means that the temperature plummets at night, down into the forties or lower. So when packing, don’t forget to include cold-weather clothing like jackets, sweaters, long pants, gloves, and hats. That way, you can do nighttime activities like stargazing or go to visit the Tatio Geysers in the early morning and then peel off layers as the day warms up. And if you forgot to pack warm clothes, don’t worry; you can find cozy items made from local alpaca and llama wool at shops around San Pedro.
4. The altitude will affect you
San Pedro is located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level: more than a mile high. And all over the Atacama, visitable elevations can increase to the same altitude as Everest base camp (17,600 feet high). So yeah, the Atacama is pretty high, and the dry air and desert climate doesn’t help. So it’s entirely possible that you’ll experience some altitude sickness during your visit, which can manifest as headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Generally taking it easy the first few days by not pushing your body too hard, drinking lots of water, and avoiding alcohol will help your body adjust, but you can also try coca tea (made from coca leaves), which the locals use to combat altitude sickness.
5. Want to visit the Tatio Geysers? Be prepared to get up early
Paying a visit to the Tatio Geysers — the highest geyser field on the planet at over 14,000 feet above sea level — is a must when visiting the Atacama. But the best time to see the steam rising from the geysers is at dawn, when the air is cold enough for the steam to erupt in giant plumes, and since the geysers are an hour and a half drive from San Pedro, that means that you’ll need to get up super early (I’m talking 4 am!) to make the trip. And don’t forget to bundle up; not only is it early, but you’re also nearly doubling your elevation, so wear layers! But the sight is well worth the early rise and most tours bring along breakfast and coffee to enjoy at the site.
6. Most observatories aren’t open for nighttime tours
The Atacama is home to some of the most advanced observatories in the world; scientists and astronomers come from all over to use their state-of-the-art telescopes to explore the night sky. One of the most famous observatories, ALMA (which stands for Atacama Large Millimeter Array), is located just a short drive from San Pedro and their impressive telescope collection attracts a lot of interest. Lots of visitors want to see the facilities and possibly even go on stargazing tours, but since ALMA and other places like it are working observatories, they are not open for nighttime tours. However, many do offer daytime tours on the weekends (at ALMA, they offer tours of the Operations Support Facility on Saturday and Sunday mornings). For stargazing, there are plenty of other astronomy tours (like those offered by San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations) around San Pedro and further north at tourist observatories in Valle de Elqui.
7. There is no airport in San Pedro
Even though most people start and end their Atacama trips in San Pedro, you’re not gonna be stepping off the plane there. The nearest airport is in Calama, a mining town known as the Gateway to the Atacama, roughly an hour and a half away. From Calama, you can either take buses or rent cars to get to San Pedro, and most tours include transportation from Calama to San Pedro in their packages.
8. Pack a swimming suit
Even though you’re going to the heart of the world’s driest desert, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to get your feet wet! A short drive from San Pedro you’ll find the Puritama Hot Springs, a series of eight geothermal hot springs hidden by desert grass inside a rocky canyon. And, out on the salt flats, there are several salt-water lagoons that you can swim and float in. So don’t forget that swimsuit!
Once it’s safe to travel again, we know that you’ll want to get back out there traveling and exploring as soon as possible to make up for time lost; we want to do the same thing too! But the travel landscape is bound to be a bit different after the pandemic, making it more important than ever to plan ahead in order to protect your health, safety, and money.
Here’s how planning a trip a year or so in advance will benefit you:
Booking farther in advance will give you more options for activities and accommodations. Furthermore, many 2020 travel bookings that had to be canceled because of COVID-19 were pushed into 2021, meaning that there might not be as much availability as you’d expect during certain seasons and at popular destinations. Plan and book well in advance to guarantee finding the best hotels, excursions, and transport available.
In the wake of COVID-19, the travel industry has implemented extremely flexible booking, postponement, and cancellation policies to help protect clients and operators like tour companies, hotels, and airlines. We at EcoChile have also outfitted our tours with the most flexible, accommodating policies possible, working with leading travel insurance companies, so that if something comes up and you need to cancel or change anything, we’ve got your back.
Like many in the travel industry, we’ll be offering special promos and early-bird specials to entice future travelers. So take advantage of those deals while they’re available: you’ll be saving money yourself and helping support an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic. And when you book late, there will likely not be special rates, so book well in advance!
Not only are all these logistic reasons important, but it can also be fun to have something to look forward to. Instead of rushing to plan and organize a trip a few months in advance, you’ll be able to relax and look forward to your perfectly organized trip!
Covering tens of thousands of miles, the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, is full of opportunities for adventure and discovery. But, with such a vast expanse of space, there are far too many things to do than you can fit into a single trip. So what are the best activities that will provide you with the ultimate Atacama experience? These are our picks for the top things to do in the Atacama!
Visit the El Tatio Geysers
Sitting over 14,000 feet high, the El Tatio Geyser field, which is comprised of eighty active geysers, is one of the highest geyser fields in the world, as well as the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and the third-largest globally. Nestled at the base of stratovolcanoes which are the source of geothermal activity, Tatio is one of the most popular sites in the Atacama. The best time to visit is in the early morning when the cold air enhances the steam rising from the geysers, resulting in dramatic plumes that cover the area in mist. And always obey the rules and stay on the path: the temperature of the water and steam reaches dangerous levels and can cause bodily harm, so never leave the marked trails. Otherwise, feel free to wander and marvel at these feats of nature!
Thanks to a winning combination of extreme altitude, very little rain, and no large cities (which means there is virtually zero light pollution or radio interference), the night skies of the Atacama are some of the clearest on Earth. Many top observatories are based in the Atacama (like ALMA), using some of the most advanced telescopes on the planet to produce cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs in the field of astronomy. But you don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate the night sky here: just walk outside or drive a short distance from San Pedro and you can see the Milky Way and other celestial bodies with the naked eye. There are plenty of stargazing tours available around the Atacama, where, with the aid of professional or amateur astronomers and high-quality telescopes, you can find constellations, look for planets and moons, and much more.
Swim in a salty lagoon
Dotted throughout the salt flats that surround San Pedro are lagoons of refreshingly cool water, making them great spots to beat the heat during those high desert summers. But thanks to the location, the water in these lagoons have incredibly high levels of salt, making floating in them feel like you’re completely weightless. There are several such lagoons you can visit, like Laguna Baltinache, but Laguna Cejar is the most popular. The bright blue waters of the lagoon stand out against the stark white of the salt flats, making it both a relaxing and picturesque spot.
Watch the sunset in Valle de la Luna
Just outside San Pedro is one of the most out-of-this-world (literally) places to visit: Valle de la Luna. Meaning “Valley of the Moon”, the strange rock formations and salt-encrusted ground make the landscapes look like something you’d see on the moon. There are various driving and hiking trails around the area, all of which lead to incredible viewpoints and can be enjoyed throughout the day, but the best time to visit is at sunset, when the combination of light, shadow, and color has to be seen to be believed.
Look for native wildlife
Although the barren desert-scapes may look utterly inhospitable to life, the Atacama is full of unique wildlife that has adapted to the harsh environment. You’re bound to see vicuña (smaller, undomesticated relatives of llamas and alpacas) all over the place, as well as domesticated llamas. The Andean fox is a common sight, and when passing by heaps of rocks, you’re likely to spot vizcachas (rodents that are similar to chinchillas) sunning themselves. The birdlife in the Atacama is also extremely diverse, but one species of bird you’re guaranteed to see at the Chaxa Lagoon (roughly an hour outside of San Pedro) are bright-pink flamingos, which gather in huge flocks to feed. And if you’re really lucky and know where to look, you may even see pumas stalking herds of vicuña.
Walk around the historic town of San Pedro
This small town of adobe buildings and dusty streets is the center of Atacama tourism, so while you’ll be spending most days heading out into the surrounding desert for adventures, it’s worth taking a day to roam San Pedro’s streets. You’ll find plenty of artisan shops, restaurants, bars, historic architecture, and museums to visit. San Pedro has a very laid-back, chill vibe, so exploring its meandering avenues, enjoying local food, and buying souvenirs is a great way to unwind after long days of exploring.
Go back in time at Pukara de Quitor
Terraced across a hillside overlooking a verdant river valley, this Pre-Columbian fort, built by the Inca in the 12th century, was used as a defensive fortress against invaders. Comprised of rooms, corridors, and lookouts made from rock and mud walls, the site is incredibly well-preserved and you can walk around it to enjoy the vistas of Licancabur Volcano on the horizon and think about the battles that were once fought here.
Mountain bike at Quebrada del Diablo
The rugged canyons and valleys of the Atacama are perfect for outdoor sports enthusiasts, especially mountain bikers. The Quebrada del Diablo (“Devil’s Throat”) dried-up riverbed is an excellent spot for it, with the trail surrounded by rock walls of bright red.
Go for a sunrise hot air balloon ride
If you thought the dramatic landscapes of the Atacama were beautiful on the ground, just imagine how they look from a bird’s eye view! At dawn, when the rising sun colors the desert in red and gold, it’s a truly awe-inspiring sight. You can book sunrise hot air balloon tours near San Pedro, which include transport to the launch site and a multilingual guide. While the balloon ride is a bit pricey, it’s well worth the cost for the unforgettable views from the balloon’s basket, passing over serene desert landscapes and with mountains and Licancabur Volcano in the distance.
When is the best time to visit Chile? It depends on what you want to do and see while you’re here, but spring is one of the most beautiful and underappreciated seasons to visit. Full of vibrant spring sunshine, the awakening of all the trees and plants, new baby animals, and much more, it’s a glorious time to get to know this unique country full of life and adventure. Here’s six reasons to visit Chile during spring!
1. Low season rates – Always a good incentive to travel outside of high season: better prices! The summer months of December through March are high season for Chile, especially since that’s when Chile’s schools are out for the summer vacation, so hotels, tour packages, flights, and everything else associated with vacation is at its highest pricing. But during spring, tour operators, hotels, and destinations are eager to kick-start the season and attract off-season visitors, so they offer special reduced rates that you can take advantage of to save money and maybe even have enough to extend your stay and see even more!
2. Good weather – Spring in Chile is a lovely time: the earth is waking up, everything is in bloom, and the weather is wonderful. Most visitors rave that summer in Chile is the best, but especially if you’re going to Patagonia, off-season during spring is just as good a time to visit as summer or fall, and you may even have better luck avoiding the region’s notoriously bad wind or summer showers. If you’re visiting during September or October, there is also still a good chance that some of Chile’s ski resorts will still be open for skiing and snowboarding, so you can shred the slopes in gorgeous sunny weather.
3. Fewer crowds – A definite bonus of traveling before high season in summer: there will be far less people at the top attractions! During summer places like San Pedro de Atacama and Torres del Paine can become overrun by tourists so visiting a few months ahead of the crowds is always a good idea if you prefer some peace and quiet during your travels. And, if you’re visiting lesser-known destinations like Valle de Elqui or the Carretera Austral during spring, you’re almost guaranteed to have the place pretty much to yourself!
4. Blooming plant life – As the snows of winter melt away, Chile blooms to life again! The country’s fantastic diversity of exotic flora wakes up after the long sleep of winter and cover the country in green and colorful flowers. If you’re lucky, you may be visiting during a year when the Atacama Desert experiences one of its rare and magical blooms, when this incredibly arid desert – the driest on Earth – has received enough rain that large patches of it erupt in gorgeous flowers as far as the eye can see. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime sight. But even if the desert isn’t blooming this year, watching the rest of Chile’s beautiful landscapes come to life is a real treat, perfect for going on hikes, cycling, or just driving through the scenery.
5. Baby animals – Spring is also the time when many of Chile’s native animals enter their birthing season. If you’re planning on visiting any of Chile’s national parks or protected lands during your visit, if you’re lucky you may be able to see adorable new baby animals taking their first steps and getting to know the landscape. A good place to see this in action is at Torres del Paine National Park, where the large guanaco populations usually start giving birth in late spring in October or November.
6. Celebrate Chilean Independence – Even though the official first day of spring in Chile is September 21st, spring feels like it starts before then in early or mid September because of the Fiestas Patrias holiday. Celebrating Chile’s Independence from Spain, the 18th and 19th of September are national holidays and many Chileans take the whole week off to mark the occasion with barbecues, family parties, traveling, and attending local fondas: fairs where they can enjoy traditional Chilean food and drinks, dance the national dance, the cueca, and celebrate. Because of the festive air that takes over the whole country leading up to these holidays, it’s a wonderful time to come to Chile to experience the culture, food, and season.
Of the best parts of traveling and going to new places is learning all about what makes each place special and unique, and the same is definitely true of Chile, and there are some interesting things to know about the country that may surprise you. Here’s 15 fun facts that you didn’t know about Chile!
1.Chile has the world’s largest swimming pool! Found in the coastal city of Algarrobo, the pool is the length of 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools and holds 66 million gallons, making it a Guinness World Record Holder.
2. At 4,270 km (2,653 mi), Chile is the second longest country in the world, only narrowly being beat out by Brazil, which is 95 kilometers longer.
3. Chile has the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams, although some people argue that since Puerto Williams is on an island and not the mainland, Ushuaia, Argentina should hold the title of southernmost town.
4. The oldest mummies in the world were found in Chile. Known as the Chinchorro mummies, the mummified remains of individuals from the ancient Chinchorro tribe of the Atacama desert have been dated to be from between 5050 and 3000 BC, meaning that people in the Atacama were mummifying their dead up to two thousand years before the Egyptians!
5. Chile is home to the tallest building in South America, the Costanera Gran Torre. Located in Santiago, the Torre has 64 floors and has two observation decks on the top two floors that offer jaw-dropping views of the city and the surrounding Andes Cordillera.
6. The Atacama Desert, which is located in the north of the country, is the driest desert on Earth, with an average annual rainfall of only 0.6 inches a year.
7. Scientists have used the harsh conditions of the Atacama to test Mars rovers, as the desert terrain and volatile conditions are believed to mimic those found on Mars.
8. It is believed that 90% of the world’s potatoes originate from the islands of Chiloe off the coast of the Lakes District! Even today, the islands are home to 286 unique varieties of Chilote potatoes.
9. Chile is one of the only governments in the world with an official department dedicated to research into UFOs (yes, as in the alien kind). Talk about close encounters of the Chilean kind!
10. Stories from Chile have helped inspire some of the great books and characters of classic literature. In “The Tempest”, it’s believed that Shakespeare based the character of Caliban on descriptions and tales of the natives living in Tierra del Fuego. The Essex, the whaling ship that inspired Melville to write his epic, “Moby Dick,” was sunk by a whale while off the coast of Chile, and the survivors were taken to the city of Valparaiso. Finally, “Robinson Crusoe” was based on the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who spent four years stranded on the Juan Fernandez islands.
11. The largest earthquake ever recorded occurred in Valdivia in 1960, registering at a 9.5 and killing aroundly 1,000 people.
12. Even though they look very similar, the flag of Chile is 21 years older than the flag of Texas in the US, which uses a similar color scheme. On the Chilean flag, the colors and symbols symbolize: blue – the sky and the Pacific Ocean; white – the snow of the Andes Mountains; the star – guidance and progress; and red – the blood spilled in the fight for independence.
13. The alerce tree of southern Chile can live to be up to 4,000 years old!
14. Chile is the world’s 4th largest exporter of wine!
15. Where did the name “Chile” come from? Some say that the word may have come from the indigenous Mapuche word “chili,” meaning “where the land ends”, or that it could also be based on the imitation of a native bird call that sounds like “cheele cheele.”
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.
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.
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!
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!
Everyone knows that Chile is one of the best destinations in the world for downhill skiing, home to first-rate resorts like Portillo or Valle Nevado, but there’s much more to winter in Chile than just hitting the slopes. Summer in the southern hemisphere, which falls during the months of June, July, and August, offers the perfect escape for the heat of summer in the northern hemisphere, as well as the chance to see Chile’s captivating landscapes in all their wintry glory. From trekking in Patagonia, to stargazing in Chile’s northern deserts, to enjoying uniquely Chilean winter drinks and food, winter is fast becoming the new best time to visit Chile.
1.Epic winter sports – Chile’s many diverse regions make the country perfectly suited to a huge range of winter sports, making it the perfect winter getaway from the summer heat in the northern hemisphere. If downhill skiing isn’t your forte, the Lakes District is prime territory for excellent cross-country skiing, as well as the chance to ski down volcanoes, and snowboarding and extreme sports like heli-skiing are also very popular. If you’d prefer not to shred the slopes, winter trekking is on the rise, like the W trek in Torres del Paine, or day treks in the area like Cerro Dorotea, or live your Iditarod dreams and go dog sledding with a team of huskies through Chile’s southern forests.
2.Beautiful snowy landscapes – Torres del Paine. The Atacama Desert. The Andes. The Lakes District. All these beautiful landscapes are one of the main reasons people want to visit Chile. Now imagine them in the wintertime. The granite peaks and pampas of Patagonia, covered in snow and ice under a cold winter sun. The Lakes District – land of luscious forests and towering volcanoes – becomes the ultimate winter wonderland. The dramatic backdrop of the Andes behind Santiago, capped with a layer of snow. If you go crazy for a fresh snowfall, winter in Chile is the best time to go.
3.The coziest winter food and drink – To get through those long, cold winter nights, Chileans have created some of the tastiest, most filling winter fare in South America. For lunch or dinner, tuck into a warm bowl of cazuela, Chile’s version of chicken noodle soup, chicken-and-dumplings-like pantrucas, or porotos con riendas, a hearty stew of beans, spaghetti, squash, and sausage. Then, for apres-ski drinks, try a cup of navegado, Chilean mulled wine, accompanied by a plate of sopaipillas pasadas, which are disks of fried Andean squash that have been soaked in a sugary sauce called chancaca.
4.The best time to go stargazing – Winter is when the skies in the southern hemisphere are at their clearest, making prime stargazing spots like San Pedro de Atacama and the Valle de Elqui even more spectacular. You can visit world-class observatories like ALMA (unfortunately not at night, though, as it’s a working observatory) where you can learn more about the important scientific discoveries that have been made at Chilean observatories. Then, bundle up at night for stargazing tours with local expert astronomers, where you can use a range of telescopes to see nighttime marvels like nebulas and planets and learn all about the constellations and southern skies.
5.Low season crowds – Aside from the top ski resorts outside Santiago, winter is low season for tourism in Chile, which is good news for you! There will be even fewer crowds at the top destinations like San Pedro or Torres del Paine (which is now open for winter trekking, either with the full W or day treks), there is more availability at the top restaurants and hotels all over the country, and, best of all, you get to take advantage of great low season rates!
Visiting the driest desert on Earth – San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro lies in the north of Chile, acting as a gateway to the driest desert in the world, the infamous Atacama. In San Pedro and its surrounding there are a lot of activities related with adventures, gastronomy, amazing landscapes and local culture, you simply must go if you’re ever in Chile.
Using San Pedro as a base, you can easily explore the otherworldly valleys, high-altitude lagoons, and ancient hillside ruins. You can also gawp at the night sky – possibly the clearest in the world – by taking an astronomy tour, or simply walking a little away from the light of the town. A starry night here is something you will never forget.
Ideally, you will need 4 days to make the most of your time here. The town is small and easily walkable. There are tour agencies and empanada shops (the best kind). More time will allow you some relaxation and wiggle room, less means you will need to select your activities wisely. Without further ado, here are the best things to see and do around San Pedro de Atacama.
Where to Visit
1. Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, is a spectacular valley located just 13km from San Pedro.
The information desk at the entrance provides maps of the valley, taking you all the way to Las Tres Marias, three unusual rocky formations that jut out of the desert floor.
The first stop, around 3km from the entrance, is the salt caverns. They’re a winding and narrow cave system, containing unearthly geological structures. You can walk the snaking trail in around 20 minutes and either carry on along the main road, or take a right as you exit the caves and explore a less visited part of the valley.
There are more surreal cliffs and caves, but the further you head in this direction, the less people you will encounter, and the more it begins to feel like you are truly isolated in the desert. The midday sun beats down on your face and neck, no matter which way you look.
The main view that everybody comes to see in the Valley of the Moon is the sunset, particularly from the top of the giant sand dune. The path is sandy but well worn; it shouldn’t pose a problem to anybody. The view from the top makes you understand the logic behind the valley’s name. It was also here where NASA tested the prototype for the Mars rover, due to its strikingly similar terrain.
Watching the sun drop behind the ridge is beautiful on its own, but it doesn’t compete with the red-gold afterglow that engulfs the desert. At the top of the dune, you can walk along the ridge in either direction. The right allows you a view of the sun setting behind the sand dune, and if you turn around, you have the full chain of the Andes mountains, complete with several large volcanoes in the distance. The left has a view of the craggy hills and the interminable desert. The path goes on further, too, meaning there is more space to find your own spot, away from the crowds. This is the busiest time on the sand dune, but the view is remarkable all-day long. A sunset here is one you will remember for the rest of your life.
How to get there Getting to Valle de la Luna can be done in a several ways, depending on your preferences. The best option is to take a tour, which will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and transport you to the entrance, visiting each of the locations with a knowledgeable guide, before dropping you back off at your accommodation. They usually start at 2 or 3 pm so that you can catch the sunset, but an earlier one is possible.
Cycling is easy as well. In your free time you can rent a bike in town and start your trip. The ride from the centre of town to the entrance takes about 25 minutes. However, upon entry into the actual valley, the road becomes rickety and there are steep sections, too. A helmet and visibility jacket are essential for you to take the bike into the valley. I made the mistake of cycling there without either, and was told upon arrival that they would not let me take the bike inside without them.
2. Valle de la Muerte / Valle de la Marte
The Valley of the dead, also known as the Valley of Mars, is closer to San Pedro than the Valley of the Moon. Its surreal landscapes are just as astonishing, but they have the bonus of being less crowded than their bigger and more popular neighbour. That’s not to say that nobody visits the Valley of the Dead, but it doesn’t get as many as the Valley of the Moon.
The entrance is on the right-hand side of the road to Calama, approx 2km from the centre of town.
This valley is the perfect place to sandboard. The Valley of the Moon also has a huge sand dune but you are not allowed to sandboard on it. As well as climbing the dune to ride back down, it is also worth going up for the view alone. The desert rolls out before your eyes, stretching all the way to the jagged Andes mountains, cowboys ride through the rugged valleys, kicking up dust in their wake, and bizarre outcrops defy logic at every turn.
I made the mistake of climbing the dune in a straight line, from the base to the highest point. Don’t make the same mistake as me. I had to use both my hands and my feet, as the surface was almost vertical. My feet sunk into the sand a good 30cm with each step, making the whole ordeal unnecessarily demanding. I had half the desert in my shoes by the time I made it to the top. Luckily, I had enough water to make sure I didn’t pass out from the midday heat. Despite taking the most difficult route (there is a well-trodden track for sandboarders, which takes you up diagonally), it was well worth the effort.
You can also continue on the path further into the valley, which winds its way up to the opposite side of the sand dune, giving you a view of what lies beyond the towering ridge. It looks like an extreme Motocross track, built for giants. I still struggle to get my head around how these valleys were formed.
How to get there
You can travel here using the same methods stated for the Valley of the Moon.
A way to get to the Valley of the Dead is with a tour departing from your hotel. Your van will stick to the main road towards Calama. The sandy hill, directly in front of you as you leave the town, is the entrance. It should not take longer than a few minutes to get there. If you have enough time it is possible to reach very good viewpoints. Take plenty of water and some snacks.
There are tours combined with the Valley of the Moon, if you prefer to visit both at once.
Finally, you can cycle. It’s easy to get here, despite a little up-hill section. Cycling in the actual valley can be quite difficult however, as the sand can be thick. I walked to the top with my bike, then rode down (without peddling), but my wheels jammed in the sand and I flew over my handle bars, almost rolling off the steep road and into the Valley of the Dead below. It would have been a fitting place to die, but it was not to be. You can also cycle from here to Pukara de Quitor in a relatively fast time, as there is a path directly from entrance to entrance.
3. Pukara de Quitor
This fascinating hill-side ruin was once a mighty fortress, perched in a great defensive location, destroying the element of surprise for invaders. You can find it 3km north-west of San Pedro. Like most of the attractions here, there is an entrance fee of a few thousand Pesos. If you have a bike, there is a place to lock it at the entrance.
You can choose between climbing the ridge that runs along the 700-year-old ruins, or the hills in the distance. The hills contain several view points and shelters to rest, as well as a few interesting structures at the top. From the peak, you can look down on the Valley of the Dead to see it from a different perspective. You can also gaze into the valley that leads to Catarpe – an interesting and adventurous bike ride away.
The view from the top of the hills is worth seeing. You see everything from an inferior angle, and whilst you can get a lot closer to the ruins, you can’t go inside them. Having said that, the path is short and is probably worth the 15 minutes it will take to walk.
Near to the entrance of Pukara de Quitor, is another path. Instead of taking the ramp up to the bike storage and ticket office, go the opposite way, sticking to the wall of the rock, and follow the path up to a cave and some amazing archaeological carvings. The cave is pitch black at certain points, so make sure you have a torch handy. Be careful with your head, too, especially for tall people like me. You’ll be bending a lot. On the other side of the cave is a small open area, where you can witness the unusual rock formations up close, and add your own cairn to the masses already there, before heading back the way you came. It might be a good idea to take something to cover your nose and mouth, as you will inhale a lot of dust. Outside, you can marvel at the two giant heads, that have been carved from the cliff face.
How to get there
All the above options apply for here. You can take a tour, walk or cycle.
Arguably the best activity to do here, based on the area’s pristine skies, is look upwards. Within the next year, over 70% of the world’s astronomical observatories will be based here. From this desert, you can see the Large Magellanic Cloud with the naked eye, a foreign galaxy that orbits the Milky Way, over 150,000 light years away. You can also see the Small Magellanic Cloud, fainter and even further away. It’s the farthest visible object in the southern hemisphere, without the aid of telescopes. You can also stare into the heart of our own galaxy. Do you know that strip of cloud-like substance you see in films and the best astrophotography? You can see it with your own eyes.
It takes a brilliant camera to be able to pick any of it up, but luckily for us, almost all astronomy tours will take a group photo on their own cameras. You can ask for one on your own, too.
I went on a tour and couldn’t recommend it enough. They took me on a 2-hour tour, pointing out all the visible constellations of the zodiac and explaining the reasons behind them. They also showed us a short documentary and allowed us to feast on little sausages and snacks.
It obviously helps if you have an experienced guide who can point to Saturn as soon as you ask him and tells you everything about all the stars you see.
I visited in August, the tail-end of their winter, and Saturn was the easiest to see. Early at night, it is possible to spot Mars and Jupiter, too. At different times throughout the year, it’s possible to see all the first six planets with the naked eye.
5. High Plain Lagoons and the Atacama Salt Flats
The high-altitude lakes are definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. You have the opportunity to watch pink Flamingos in Chaxa National Reserve, walk on a frozen lake at Red Stone, and see Vicuñas (a relative of llamas and alpacas) in their natural habitat – the hills above 3,000m.
It’s best to start early for these places, as they’re a bit further away than the majority of the attractions. I drifted in and out of sleep on the ride there, catching dreamlike glimpses of snowy peaks, sprawling desert and grazing vicuñas, half-listening to the guide talk about how vicuñas are still hunted for their fur, despite it being illegal.
I woke up when the smooth road swiftly changed to a jolting sandy track. I bounced up and down, bashing flailing limbs off parts of the jeep that I didn’t even know existed. Then I was hit by the cold. Mornings at high altitude aren’t pleasant for the half-dressed. Luckily, I was prepared.
How to get there The best way to go to these places is by taking a tour. It’s worth it. We visited all the aforementioned places, as well as Toconao, a traditional village. The main square has large cacti that grow 1cm per year. These cacti were over 2 metres tall, meaning they were planted in the early 1800s! You can explore the handcraft shops and go souvenir hunting, check out the old church, or taste local homemade ice cream. They have Rica Rica flavour, which is a mint-like herb that grows in the shrubby area of the desert. The driver makes a short stop here, too, for you to harvest your own supply.
Other things to do in the area include:
Tatio Geysers – Expect an early start if you visit these. They’re most active around 4.30 am.
Hot Springs / Aguas Calientes – There are lots of hot springs near San Pedro de Atacama. I visited hot springs in Peru and Bolivia – there is nothing quite like bathing in hotter-than-bath water in the middle of the freezing cold Andes. (As Termas Puritama and Tatio Geysers.)
Hot Air Balloon over the Atacama – Ballooning over the Atacama Desert is a breathtaking and unique experience. You will start the tour right before sunrise to see all the colors and rocks of the desert in the morning light. Every tour is different because you don’t know where the wind will take you but you can be sure that you will have an impressive view over the stunning landscape of the Atacama Desert. This is definitely a memory you will never forget!
The Flowering Desert – A lot further south from San Pedro, but still in the Atacama, near to La Serena, there is a natural phenomenon taking place in the desert, causing flowers to blossom everywhere. It only happens once per year and this year is supposed to be the largest ever.
How to Budget Generally, San Pedro is slightly more expensive than other towns of similar size in Chile. The customers are predominantly tourists, which means the prices are inflated. It’s possible to find all type of vegetables, meat, fish and local food. There are many options of restaurants, accommodation and activities for your stay in San Pedro de Atacama.
When to Go The Atacama is dry, with clear skies all year round. You can count the number of clouds you see in your time here on one hand – most likely, you won’t need any hands. On the astronomy tour, the guide said that only 30 nights of the year are cloudy, and even then, they’re not terribly intrusive.
Chilean summer runs from December to February, and their winter, from June to August. However, the climate here doesn’t change that much. Due to the altitude (2,408 metres above sea level), San Pedro experiences cold nights all year round, with the lowest being in July and August, at -1° C, and the highest, around 5-6° C, in January. In the day, the winters can reach 20° C, and the summer, 25° C. The altitude makes the days seem hotter though, because the sun’s rays have less of an atmosphere to cut through before reaching you. Combine this with the unusual clarity of the sky, and basically, you will frazzle.
If you want to avoid the crowds, then the best time to visit is just before winter (northern summer holidays), but after southern summer. April – June is classed as low season here. There will be less people, but never expect it to be empty. San Pedro is a tourist hot spot.
What to Bring
Altitude Sickness Tablets – Depending on your attitude toward altitude, you may wish to bring some medicine. Some people simply don’t agree with being at higher elevations. While 2,408 metres isn’t ridiculously high, some of the activities can go well over 4,000m. You can also buy local remedies for altitude sickness all over town. Coca leaves are helpful for long uphill hikes. Just don’t swallow them.
Vaseline or Lip Balm – This one is fairly self-explanatory. You’re in the driest desert in the world. Without it, your lips will crack, bleed and split. I speak from experience.
Sun Lotion – The altitude makes you burn a lot faster than if you were at sea level.
Map App – While there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned paper map, it won’t help you if you don’t know where you are in the first place. MAPS.ME is a good choice as it allows you to download the maps for offline use (like most apps), but it also shows walking trails and footpaths that are mostly invisible on Google Maps, for instance.
Water and Snacks – Again, it’s self-explanatory. You need lots of water in the driest desert on Earth. If you’re stranded, don’t count on rain to save you. Certain areas here receive less than half an inch per year. Some native people have never seen rain in their entire life, particularly closer to Antofagasta. A little snack is helpful, too, as there aren’t any shops outside of the towns.
Camera – This is an unforgettable place, but it doesn’t hurt to keep photos.
Experience the unique terrain of the Atacama desert like the ancient people of the Atacama did on the Ancestral Caravan tour. Trek the desert using traditional Andean llamas alongside local communities and indigenous people sharing their customs and culture along the way. The tour is a great way to learn more about the traditional cultures of the desert and connect with local people.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
See the desert from another angle on a magical hot air balloon ride above the Atacama. Eastern Safari’s “Balloons Over Atacama” offers daily flights over the Atacama Desert and close to San Pedro de Atacama, with views of the endless salt flats, impressive volcanoes and ancient rock formations. Every ride can hold up to 16 passengers, and a premium option is also available, which includes a toast of sparkling wine at the end and a photo of the flight.
Half Day Fishing Tour of Easter Island
Explore Easter Island and learn more about the native tradition of fishing and cooking on this half day tour of the island. With the help of a native Easter Islander fisherman, you will learn the core techniques behind fishing on the island and then fish in its waters yourself. The catch of the day is then prepared and cooked over the island’s natural hot volcanic rocks to create the traditional dish “Tuni Ahi”, which is served on banana leaves.
Horseback riding in Easter Island
Travelling the island on horseback is one of the best ways to see the hidden natural beauty of the region and reduce your carbon footprint. A typical Rapa Nui experience takes you to some of the more remote areas of the island that can only be reached by taking this traditional mode of transport. What’s more, you don’t have to be an experienced rider to make the journey and travel into the past, it’s a peaceful and engaging experience that takes all-levels of riders through regions such as Rano Raraku, Orongo and Mount Terevaka.
Santiago and Central Chile
Penguin Watching Cachagua Tour
Leave the hustle and bustle of Santiago and head to the beautiful beaches and islands off the villages of Cachagua and Zapallar. Known for their delicious seafood and stunning shoreline, the villages offer access to the remote and protected Humboldt Island, also known as Penguin’s Island. Enjoy the magical Chilean countryside on route to the coast, made up of Avocado farms and vineyards, and a boat ride to greet the colony of penguins located on Humboldt Island. There will also be time to swim and sunbathe at hidden bays and sample local seafood.
Snow Hike tour from Santiago
Put on your snow shoes and trek through the heart of the Andes, on this expertly-led hiking experience like now other. Led by an expert mountaineer guide the trek leaves from Santiago to the valley of Cajon del Maipo. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains ranges and snow-topped peaks as you climb, and when you finally reach Aguas Penimavida. Knowledgable local guides will enhance the experience with stories of the mountain ranges and volcanoes before heading back down to the town of San Jose del Maipo, and a delicious Chilean empanada.
Chilean Lake District
Alerce Andino National Park
The Southern Chilean Lake District is one of the country’s most dramatic landscapes, and this tour takes you to one of the region’s most prized natural emblems, the ancient Alerce tree. The tree was made a national monument in 1976 and is a massive 45 meters high and 4 meters wide. Located in the Alerce Andino National Park, this tour takes you through ancients forests and offers views of the Calbuco volcano and the Andean-Patagonia mountain range. Take on three beautiful trails, including a wet waterfall hike and plenty of time to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Located in the Los Lagos region of Chile, the Chiloe Island tour departs from Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. Take the ferry across the Pacific to the island, which is the fifth largest island in South America. Visit the island’s oldest village, Chacao, and its distinctive UNESCO World Heritage Listed native timber churches and architecture, dating back to 1567. The tour also includes a visit to Castro, the capital and third oldest city in all of Chile. Visitors will have a chance to shop in the towns and city and sample food at a typical Chiloe Island restaurant.
Whale watching from Punta Arenas
Journey through the first ever Marine National Park in Chile, Francisco Coloane, and spot some of the most majestic creatures in the world, humpback whales. Get up-close to the marvellous creatures surrounded by impressive untouched landscape, including hanging glaciers on the Darwin mountain range, as you journey by boat through the park and regions around it. There will also be a chance to spot some of the other inhabitants of the park, including Magellan penguins, sea lions, austral dolphins, albatross and sea elephants.
Ice Hike at Glacier Grey
There is nothing quite as impressive as walking on a glacier. With Big Foot Patagonia you can ice hike on Glacier Grey, and be on the only tourists there! With the assistance of an experienced guide, you will be supplied with the relevant equipment to climb and take the 2.5 hour trek through cracks, rivers, lagoons and tunnels of the pristine Grey Glacier. Visitors with knee problems should consult guides before booking.
Canter along winding trails along rocky slopes, across sparkling streams and past jade-green lakes surrounded by craggy mountain peaks . A horseback ride through Chile will reveal stunning remote scenery that you couldn’t see any other way.
Horseback riding is one of the best ways to see the rugged and beautiful countryside of Chile. You’re following in the hoofprints of the Chilean Huaso (cowboy) tradition, experiencing nature with all of your senses.
There are so many gorgeous places to ride horses in Chile, but here are a few of the most stunning opportunities to saddle up and hit the trail.
Torres Del Paine National Park
Mother Nature sometimes likes to show off what she is capable of and Torres Del Paine is a great example of this. The Torres del Paine, the mountains that give the park it’s name, are three distinctive peaks of granite piercing the sky. Enormous glaciers, towering rocky peaks, glittering lakes and thundering rivers fill every visitor with awe.
The terrain is perfect for long galloping rides and you can either stay in an estancia (a ranch house) or camp on a multi-day ride. You will be able to ride up to the glaciers, explore the foothills and skirt along the wetlands against the spectacular backdrop of the Paine Massif.
The wild and barren landscapes of Patagonia, with their snow capped mountains and enormous skies, are the perfect place for a horseback riding adventure. UNESCO has named this area as a World Biosphere Reserve and it is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
The wind can blow hard and the weather conditions can be extreme, so listen to the advice of your local guide for a safe and enjoyable ride. The horseback journeys in Patagonia will generally take the low trails through the valleys in order to avoid the heavy winds.
Cross Between Chile and Argentina on Horseback
For a truly epic horseback journey, you can cross the Andes on a trail that San Martin and his “Army of the Andes” used in 1817 as they freed the people of Chile from the European monarchs. You’ll journey through the steep mountain pass, flanked by the towering stone peaks of Mercedario and Aconcagua.
During the journey you will have lots of time to stop in local villages along the way and explore. You’ll have the option of ending up in Mendoza, Argentina where you can relax and sample one of the world-renowned wines that are produced here – you’ve earned it.
The Atacama Desert
The Atacama is a huge expanse of stony terrain dotted with salt lakes and felsic lava flowing towards the Andes. It is situated between two mountain chains that create a rain shadow on either side, making it the driest non-polar desert in the world. There are some weather stations here that have never received rain and sometimes the region goes for years without a drop.
Exploring this ancient, arid desert on horseback is like no other travel experience in the world. As you ride past the rusty ravines, vast white salt flats and coloured lakes, you will feel like you are on the surface of another planet.
The small town of San Pedro de Atacama is the ideal base for beginning your journey. Be sure to head to the Valle de la Luna, which has a moon-like landscape and looks surreal and hypnotic when illuminated by the golden glow of the setting sun. Most horseback riding tours will begin in San Pedro and travel along the Vilama River to the Valley of Arenoso, the Devil’s Throat and Coca Stone.
To create your perfect horseback riding adventure in Chile, check out our Design your Tour feature so that you can put together a custom tour.
Today’s dynamic result of the interaction of the geographical elements that have made up the Chilean territory throughout history is a highly rich patrimony. It has a variety of ecosystems, microclimates and diverse scenery – some of it unique worldwide.
These characteristics of Chile are not news to the global scientific community, which has shown interested in them for decades through the development of important scientific and technological projects. This has enabled us to keep expanding our ability to perceive and interpret Chile as a true natural laboratory.
To astronomers, the skies over the Atacama Desert are unrivalled. International institutions have funded various astronomical installations and by 2018, 68% of the world’s capacity for observing the universe will be found here. Observatories you can visit in the Atacama Desert include Paranal and Alma.
What is more, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are frequent events in Chile. In fact, more than 40% of all the planet’s registered seismic energy has been released in Chile, with these phenomena constantly present. This presents a perpetual opportunity for scientific tourism and research. Additionally, we are located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, meaning that this is one of the most volcanically active countries on Earth.
In this respect, one of the most interesting areas to visit is Kutralcura Geopark, situated in the Araucanía region in the south of Chile. Here, you can explore the volcanoes of Chile via its 15 georoutes.
These examples are but a small sample of local projects and places with unique features of Chile related to their intrinsic scientific value. If you are interested in learning more about these types of initiatives, I recommend consulting the book “Tecnociencia” by Andrea Obaid, editorial compass Chile, where 30 routes for scientific tourism in Chile are detailed in Spanish and English.
The legacy felt over the 4,270 kilometres taken up by Chile comprises the expressions of the country’s nature and culture, demonstrating the evidence of its land’s evolution and that of its inhabitants. It is like traveling in time; being able to discover, understand and value that which often seems so little and insignificant.
We should take advantage of the opportunities these places offer us, so we can relate to our heritage in a more profound way, broadening and complementing our knowledge.
Traditional culinary preparations are always an invitation to explore and understand a little more about a region’s cultural identity.
If you are one of those travelers who enjoys trying new things, and is always on the lookout for locally prepared dishes, here are some recommendations for you to consider when you are in the following places:
1) San Pedro de Atacama: Rica rica ice cream
In the world’s driest desert, the land of San Pedro de Atacama and its neighboring areas are home to millenia-old crops such as rica rica. This is a wild shrub, coarsely textured and ubiquitous, whose green and aromatic leaves are used in a variety of dishes including desserts, teas, savory dishes and even alcoholic drinks, like rica rica pisco sour.
In the Babalu Ice Cream Parlor, in the middle of San Pedro town, you can enjoy a refreshing rica rica ice cream to invigorate you, as well as ice creams made of other local plant species such as chañar, coca leaf and ayrampo.
Address: Calle Caracoles 160 – caracoles419.
2) Santiago: Mote con huesillo
One of the most typical Chilean drinks from the central zone, it crops up every year when temperatures begin to rise, signaling the arrival of summer.
This preparation made of wheat, water, rehydrated dried peaches and chancaca (a sugary confection for dissolving), it is served chilled and has been drunk since colonial times. Today, we Chileans know what to do to cool down in the heat and satiate our thirst and hunger: drink mote con huesillo!
There are many options for this in Santiago – I recommend the place that quickly became my favorite. At the top of the Cerro San Cristobal, near the statue of the Virgin Mary, you will find two kiosks selling the drink. Both are good-quality preparations.
Address: Pio Nono 450, Parque Metropolitano.
3) Pucón and the pine nuts of Currarehue, mapuche flavors
38km away, to the east of Pucón, lives Anita Epulef – a Pehuenche Mapuche woman who owns an eatery in the outskirts of the locality of Curarrehue.
Since time immemorial, the Pehuenche people have scoured the millenia-old pehuen or araucaria forests for their seeds, one of the most important components of their traditional diet: the pine nut.
Here, there is Mapuche cooking, vegetarian and nutritious.
Carretera, 39 – Km.38, Curarrehue , Región Araucania
4) Chiloé: Dalcahue Market, food court of the archipelago
The territorial chunk that is Chiloé provides a unique sample of Chilean gastronomy. Dalcahue market offers most of the archipelago’s traditional dishes.
The eateries, constructed on stilts and with a nautical theme both inside and out, invite you to explore its traditional flavors. For example, the classic Chiloé empanada made of razor clams, and a Chiloé stew made of luche (reddish seaweed found in abundance on the coasts of Chile), chapalele, milcao,chuañe; these last three made with potato. Chiloé’s terrain is ideal for potato cultivation – they grow more than 287 varieties.