Holidays in Atacama
Life on Mars...
The RealWorld Guide to the Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert is one of the world's harshest environments: its epic wind-carved valleys and colossal volcanoes are baked by the sun during the day and frozen at night. With barely a drop of rain all year, it's hard to believe that any life could survive here.
But survive life does, and even in this toughest of places you can find flamingos feeding around brightly-coloured mineral lakes, and guanacos (cousins of the llama) grazing on the scrub that just about survives in sheltered spots, while condors fly in the clear skies above. And, of course, people, who have somehow managed to live in this most uncompromising of environments for thousands of years. We usually think four or five days is about the right length for holidays in Atamaca, and the small town of San Pedro de Atacama is easily accessible from Santiago, or even by crossing the border from neighbouring Bolivia...
Holidays and Tours in Atacama
These are some of our favourite holidays in Atacama, but we can include it in any of our South America holidays:
7-day Atacama fly drive from £1250pp
Chile's Atacama Desert is one of the planet's most extreme environments but it's also perfectly-suited for driving holidays. This 7-day itinerary gives you all the time and flexibility you need ...
16-day holidays to Chile for £3395pp
Our Enchanting Chile itinerary includes everything that make holidays to Chile so enchanting: the very best of Patagonia and the Lake District, the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert, and Chile's beautiful Wine Country...
Where to Stay in Atacama
There's really only one game in town if you're looking for somewhere to base yourself while visiting the Atacama Desert, and that's the (very) small town of San Pedro de Atacama.
With your own transport it would be just about possible to base yourself in the bigger town of Calama, which is where most visitors arrive by air, but you would face long drives out to see everything every day, and Calama isn't the most inspiring of towns in any case.
Happily, although San Pedro de Atacama is small and isolated, there's everything here that you are likely to need during your stay in Atacama, from hotel, restaurants and bars, to small shops and even a small museum.
The hotels are dotted in and around the town, but the whole place is very walkable, and even the most outlying of hotels is only around a 20-minute walk into the centre. One good option is to hire a bike (some hotels provide them free for guests) so you can zip around that bit more quickly, although you want to be careful of the altitude (2,400m above sea level) on arrival and not try and audition for the Tour de Atacama!
What to See and Do in Atacama
Most visitors will take in the sights below as part of an organised tour, but just to give you an idea of what's in store in this (literally) breathtaking area, have a look at the following:
Also known by its Spanish name, Valle de la Luna, Moon Valley lies just outside San Pedro de Atacama, and is one of the major sights in the area. Here the rocks have been eroded by the wind into amazing rock formations which are at once grand and surreal.
The sunsets are especially spectacular as the rocks slowly change colour as the sun drops below the horizon, and almost all tours will include a chance to see this from one of the best viewpoints in the valley.
For many the most exciting part of a tour of the Atacama Desert is a visit to the Tatio Geysers. Situated well to the north of San Pedro, at a jaw-dropping 4,200m above sea level, over 80 different geysers steadily spray steam into the rarefied air. Most tours visit before dawn so that you can enjoy the stunning spectacle of the rising sun refracted through the geysers: this is hands down one of the most beautiful sights in Chile.
It's worth stressing that because you usually visit in the early morning, and because of the altitude, the temperatures are usually well below freezing so it's imperative that you wrap up very warm!
The different lakes and lagoons that are dotted around the Atacama Desert are one of the real highlights of the area. Not only are the lakes themselves beautiful, but they are magnets for wildlife, particularly the flocks of brightly-coloured flamingos which cluster around the edges of many of the lakes, feeding on the algae who live in the mineral-rich waters.
Each of the lakes has its own character, from the 'normal' waters of the Ojos del Salar (two freshwater lakes whose name means "Eyes of the Salt Flats"), to the bright white and red edges of Laguna Chaxa. You can also visit the huge Laguna Cejar and neighbouring Laguna Piedra, in which the mineral suspensions are so high that you can float in it, just like in the Dead Sea. Again, because of the prevailing temperatures, this is fine in summer, but you might not want to do it winter!
Flights To and From Atacama
The nearest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is in the Chilean city of Calama, roughly 100km to the north-west. The airport is served by regular connections to Santiago on both LAN and Sky. The small AeroDesierto airline also fly to Santiago plus twice-weekly connections to La Serena
Road and Rail Connections
San Pedro is more or less up in the 'top' north-eastern corner of Chile, so if you're staying in the country, the only real road out of town goes north-west to Calama, from where you can head down to the coast either northwards to Iquique, Arica and the border with Peru, or south to Antofagasta and (eventually) Santiago.
However, there are also routes heading south-east to Salta in Argentina, and north-east to the border with Bolivia at Ollague. From here you can continue on across the amazing Salar de Uyuni salt flats to the town of Uyuni itself, either on a daily scheduled bus service or as part of an organised tour, stopping to visit the Salar along the way.
Transport Within Atacama
The only way of getting to the various sights in the Atacama Desert is on private transport - there are basically no settlements big enough to warrant buses or shared taxis. You can hire cars in Calama (and self-drive is certainly an option here) but otherwise you will need to rely on organised tours to get around.
Within San Pedro de Atacama, everything is basically walkable or (at a push) bikeable - most hotels will provide/rent bikes to guests and this can be a quick way of getting around this very small town.
Weather & Climate in Atacama
If you look up the definition of 'desert', you might just find a nice big picture of Atacama staring back at you. Rainfall is almost non-existent here, and some parts of Atacama literally haven't seen a drop of rain in a century or more. There's a reason NASA have used Atacama to test their Mars rovers!
Because of the altitude, temperatures aren't as high as the sunny photos might seem to suggest, but you're unlikely to actually be chilly (no pun intended) at any point during the day and really any time of year is fine for a holiday in Atacama. At night the temperature does drop sharply, however, so if you're walking to and from restaurants in the evening you will definitely want a warm jacket.
Tailor-made Tours in Atacama
All our holidays in Chile are 100% tailormade, so if you'd like to customise any of the tours you see above, or just plan a trip completely from scratch then get in touch and let us know - we'll be delighted to help you plan your perfect holiday in Atacama!
Did you know?
The otherworldly climate of the Atacama Desert is so arid, and the geography so similar, that NASA actually used the Atacama to test its Mars Rovers? This might just be the closest you get to another planet!