The Atacama Desert: a 4-day itinerary

Deserts have long been backdrops for spiritual, historical, and mythical events. Something about their vastness simultaneously lends them to feelings of abandonment and abundance. The desert landscape is a powerful one; to be observed and appreciated in all of Nature’s glory.

When I had the incredible opportunity to travel around Chile, I managed to spend 4 days in The Atacama Desert. In the North of Chile and stretching into Bolivia, The Atacama is the driest (nonpolar) desert in the world and is home to some of the world’s most awe-striking landscapes. Read on to find our perfectly compact 4-day itinerary!

Day 1:

We arrived at the town of San Pedro de Atacama around mid-afternoon, after a quick but scenic flight up from the country’s capital, Santiago. Being permanently hungry, we stopped at the first place we could find and grabbed some ’empanadas’ – a widely popular South American dish – imagine a Cornish Pasty crossed with a pork pie. There’s an array of empanadas to discover, from large calzone-style ones, to mini deep-fried cheese ones (which I highly recommend!).

After satisfying our appetites and settling into our hotel, we piled onto the tour bus and made our way out into the desert. The two stops for that evening were Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). Moon Valley is made of salt rocks that have been formed by erosion over time, and is home to unique and beautiful rock formations, such as the ‘Tres Marias’. Nicknamed due to its naturally artistic portrayal of three versions of the Virgin Mary, this is just one of the many mind-bending rock formations that you can find in Moon Valley.

‘Las Tres Marias’ – a salt rock formation in Moon Valley.

Although the name doesn’t sound quite as inviting, our visit to the nearby Death Valley was one of my personal favourites, as it was where we were able to watch the setting sun paint the sky various shades of pinks and oranges before our drive back to the hotel.

Day 2:

Next was our trip to the Atacama Salt Flats. Now, these are not to be confused with the salt flats of Bolivia, as they couldn’t be more different. The Atacama Salt Falts are formed from crystallised salt that has solidified over many years and looks strikingly different to the bright white salt crust that can be found in Bolivia.

You may be forgiven for thinking the Atacama is a barren desert, void of all wildlife. This, however, is not the case. The Desert is home to one of the rarest birds in the world, The Andean Flamingo, as well as various other species.

After wandering the salt flats, we jumped straight back onto the tour bus and began the slow and steady climb through the mountains to see the famous Altiplanic Lagoons: situated at a staggering 4200m above sea level. Along with slight altitude sickness (mainly being out of breath all the time) one thing I definitely noticed was the temperature drop from a lovely 30’C to a spine tingling 8’C as we climbed the side of the mountain, complete with patches of snow along the side of the road – a complete contrast from our morning adventures!

One of the Altiplanic Lagoons we visited.

Day 3:

Day 3 brought with it a very early start. At 4.30am, we piled onto the bus to make our way up to the Geysers del Tatio. We arrived at the Geysers just before sunrise, and got to watch the sun come up, the geysers explode, and eat pancakes all at the same time. Witnessing such a beautiful natural phenomenon was an unforgettable experience – mainly because of the -10-degree temperatures.

In the afternoon, we travelled just north of San Pedro, and found some Hot Springs. With thermal rocks along the bed of the natural pools, the water is warmer by your feet than by your head and you also float a lot more than usual, due to the high salt content in the water.

As our stay was drawing to a close, we took this evening to wander around the town of San Pedro, which boasts so many hidden gems, it’s impossible to discover them all in one trip. We found starlight restaurants, handmade jewellery shops and some of the best bars. The whole town is funded by tourism so there is definitely something for everyone.

Day 4:

On our last day, we hired some bikes and went on an adventure for a few hours as our flight back to Santiago wasn’t until the late afternoon. I would highly recommend doing this as it’s the best way to get around, and much quicker than walking. There are so many unexplored areas in the outskirts of San Pedro, and we had such a fun time exploring all the bike trails. The only downside would be the altitude – breathing suddenly becomes a chore, you need to take some TLC afterwards!

Exploring the bike trails around San Pedro!

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