The Atacama Desert is one of Chile’s best known locations. The driest place in the world offers a variety of otherworldly landscapes and attractions. Here is a complete list of what to do on a trip to San Pedro de Atacama.
With an area of 105,000 km² (40,540 sq. miles), the desert spans across five regions of Chile’s Great North and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east. Here you will find cone-shaped volcanoes, hot springs, steep valleys and lakes where you can float effortlessly.
We will focus on the heart of the desert and things to do in and around San Pedro de Atacama, located in the Antofagasta region.
Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama, your starting point
The city of San Pedro seems to have stood still in time. Here you will find little electricity and limited Wi-Fi, an authentic yet well-equipped place that caters to thousands of visitors each year.
We invite you to take a stroll through the maze-like streets of San Pedro, visit its gift shops and cafés, and be amazed by the history of its church built in 1557, located in the main square. While you’re here, you can visit the artisan’s fair and get some typical products from the area.
Stay in one of San Pedro’s many hotels, from where you can go on excursions to the surrounding attractions. You may also rent a bicycle, but always keep in mind the characteristics of the places you would like to visit.
1. Los Flamencos National Reserve
This 70,000 hectare (173,000 acres) reserve was created in 1990, and one of its aims is to protect wildlife species such as the Culpeo fox, vicuñas and pumas, and vegetation such as the Tamarugo and the Carob tree. It’s a must-see on your list of things to do in San Pedro de Atacama!
The Los Flamencos National Reserve is divided into several sectors and is distributed over a vast stretch of land, which includes a series of attractions such as the Valley of the Moon, the Tara Salt Flat, the Pujsa Salt Flat, the Atacama Salt Flat, High Andean Lagoons (Miscanti and Miñiques), Tulor Village or the Tambillo sector, with its 370-hectare (900-acre) forest of Tamarugo trees.
2. Sunset at the Valley of the Moon
With its ethereal lunar landscape and its mountains streaked with pink, the Valley of the Moon is one of the main highlights of the Atacama Desert. Here, Chilla and Culpeo foxes, thrushes, harriers, and other animal species abound.
Most of the guided tours to the Valley of the Moon stop at the Cordillera de la Sal mountain range. They proceed to a lookout point, perhaps one of the best places to enjoy the colors of the Atacama Desert sunset.
The Valley of the Moon is located 15 kilometers from San Pedro and can be reached by bicycle or car. Make sure you set aside at least 3 or 4 hours to make the most of your experience in this epic place.
3. Photographic tour of the Tara Salt Flat
The Tara Salt Flat is east of San Pedro, near the border with Argentina and Bolivia, and is one of the most memorable trips in the Atacama Desert. This place is made up of a huge plain with salt inlays and a thin layer of water on top. This combination creates magical reflections of the sky in a landscape that stretches for miles.
Take lots of pictures and play with the optical illusions of this place. Be prepared to photograph wildlife species such as flamingos, vicuñas, Culpeo foxes, Puna guinea pigs, Andean seagulls, golden plovers, pigeon ducks, and many others.
The Tara Salt Flat can be visited as part of a tour or with your own vehicle. It is an hour and a half from the village.
4. The Atacama Salt Flat, Chile’s largest
With a surface area of 3000 km² (1158 sq. miles), the Atacama Salt Flat is the largest in Chile. Underneath its surface lies a lake hidden by a salt crust, which gives it its unique ochre color. The salt flat is home to 40% of the world’s lithium reserves. Several species of birds live here, including the Chilean pink flamingo.
Note that your tour may include a visit to the Salt Flat and any other attractions in the Los Flamencos National Reserve that might be of interest.
5. Live the experience of floating in Cejar Lagoon and the Hidden Lagoons of Baltinache
The lagoons and ponds around the Atacama Desert are so rich in salt that you can float on them effortlessly. Most tourism companies offer daily excursions to Cejar Lagoon, located about 19 kilometers (12 miles) from San Pedro. This emerald lagoon contains high levels of salt and lithium.
The Hidden Lagoons of Baltinache, lesser-known yet no less spectacular, are located along a dirt road opposite the main road between San Pedro de Atacama and Calama.
6. Piedras Rojas, the desert’s red treasure
More than 4,000,000 meters (13,000 ft) above sea level and 150 kilometers (93 miles) from San Pedro is Piedras Rojas, a must on your route through the Atacama Desert.
Here you will find animals such as vizcachas (rabbit-like desert rodents) and foxes, as well as birds such as condors, rheas and flamingos. The landscape is covered by stones whose reddish hues are caused by the oxidation of the area’s iron deposits. Here you can also admire the Aguas Calientes Salt Flat with its breathtaking calypso color.
Near this sector you can find the Monjes de la Pacana, two towering stone pillars that overlook the desert like sentinels.
7. Toconao, Socaire, Camar and Machuca
38 kilometers (23 miles) south of San Pedro, are the oasis cities of Toconao, Socaire and Camar, where you can get a taste of how locals live in the inhospitable desert. Here you will find traditional crafts and woven fabrics made from sheep and camelid wool.
Machuca: These small Atacamenian villages are connected by a ravine that borders the Machuca River and connects with Rio Grande. You can traverse the crossing that links the two villages on foot, starting from Machuca. We recommend trying some llama anticuchos, skewers of llama meat, to build up energy before the trek to Rio Grande.
There is no public transport so you will need to hire a private vehicle. In Rio Grande you will find mud brick houses, dirt roads, a church and friendly locals. We recommend trekking from Machuca to Rio Grande instead of the opposite direction, to use the slopes to your advantage.
8. Mars Valley, adrenaline in the sand dunes
Only two kilometers (1.2 miles) from San Pedro, the Mars Valley stands out with its majestic dunes among the spectacular rock formations of the Cordillera de la Sal mountain range.
This valley, one of the Atacama Desert’s most interesting attractions, is the ideal place for adrenaline junkies. Its sandy stretches of more than 100 meters (328 ft.) are perfect for sandboarding and speeding through the desert.
You can also go to Death Valley by bike and practice mountain biking on your own or as part of a group tour.
9. High Andean lagoons: Miscanti and Miñiques
About 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of San Pedro are the High Andean Lagoons, two impressive blue lakes that act as a refuge for native wildlife.
You will be able to observe the guardians of the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons, two volcanoes bearing the same names looming over as protectors. If you’re lucky, you may see a red-gartered coot or a Chilean flamingo, two of the hundreds of birds that rest or make their nests on the banks of the lagoons.
10. Rainbow Valley
This valley of reddish, green and yellow soil is located about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from San Pedro de Atacama, near the petroglyphs of Yerbas Buenas. Its main attraction, apart from the various tones produced by the mixture of minerals, clay and iron, are the many rock formations resulting from erosion.
The Rainbow Valley is one of the most spectacular sites around San Pedro, a place where you can still find peace and quiet and enjoy solitude. While you’re there, make sure to visit the petroglyphs of Yerbas Buenas, with rock art from around 10,000 years ago.
11. Tatio Geysers and Baños de Puritama hot springs
About 80 kilometers (50 miles) from San Pedro is one of the Atacama Desert’s most famous landmarks: the Tatio Geysers, impressive columns of steam that spring from within the earth’s crust. This place is located at an altitude of 4,200 meters (13800 ft.), making it a one-of-a-kind spectacle.
Around the geysers you may see vicuñas, the world’s smallest camelids bearing the finest wool of this species. We suggest taking a tour and avoid going on your own due to the harsh road conditions. The geysers are located at a very high altitude, so it’s best to leave this visit until you have spent at least a couple of days in the desert.
On the way back to San Pedro, you can stop at Baños de Puritama, a hot spring oasis of well-built rock pools that descend through a gorge. They are about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Tatio geysers and 28 kilometers (17 miles) from San Pedro.
The facilities have changing rooms and bathrooms, and in high season we recommend booking your ticket on the Baños de Puritama website.
12. Pucará de Quitor and Tulor Village
About 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) outside of San Pedro is the Pucará de Quitor, a 12th-century pre-Incan fort that clings to a steep slope. It takes about fifteen minutes to reach the top on foot. The journey from San Pedro can be done by bicycle.
About 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) southwest of San Pedro is the village of Tulor, the oldest in the region. This village is estimated to have been built around 800 B.C. Theories suggest that its walls were well preserved thanks to the desert sand that covered them for centuries. It is a perfect place for archaeology fans.
Some of the houses have been rebuilt, and you can also see the walls that once formed the structures of this village. It is approximately 10 kilometers (6 miles) from San Pedro, and you can visit it on your way to the Valley of the Moon.
The Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world to look at the stars, where you can actually look up and see the Milky Way at first glance. That is why some of the world’s most important observatories have chosen to settle in this area.
You can either camp in the desert and admire the stars all night long, or go on a night hike. These tours depart from San Pedro and take you to a remote place where you can gaze at the sky with a powerful telescope.
You can also visit some observatories, such as ALMA, the world’ s largest observatory that is open to the public.
Now that you know what to do in San Pedro and its surroundings, you should know that you can visit this part of Chile all year round. Play and see this amazing video!