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.