Guide to visiting the Atacama Desert

If you’re traveling around Chile, a visit to the Atacama desert is a must. It will feel like you’re visiting several countries in one week, because of how diverse the landscapes are! You can find beautiful lakes, salt flats, canyons, geysers and flamingo’s and alpacas. It’s easy however, to feel a little lost, because of the sheer amount of spots to visit in this desert. Here’s my guide on what to do in Atacama, where to stay, where to eat and how to get there. Basically everything you need to know!

Important! Since March 2023 you have to book tickets to many of the main attractions in advance. You can book Lagunas Altiplanicas here, Piedras Rojas here and Laguna Chaxa here.  Valle de la Luna has to be booked at least 24 hours in advance and that can be done here.

Another Destination: Curious about how to Hike Torres del Paine, go here!

What to do in the Atacama desert?

Laguna Chaxa & Three species of flamingo

Laguna Chaxa is one of the best places to spot flamingos. You can find all three species here! The three altiplano species are: James’s, Andean, and Chilean. We tried going for sunrise, which is the best time to see the flamingos, but found out we weren’t able to enter until 8. When we returned at the opening time it was still beautiful however and I loved seeing the flamingo’s in this insanely beautiful landscape.

Opening times: 8am-1pm, 2pm-6pm daily,

Entrance Fee: $8,000 CLP adults, Children:$4,000 CLP,  book in advance here

Valle de Luna at Sunset

Just ten kilometers west of San Pedro de Atacama you can see the otherworldly Valle de la Luna. An iconic set of rock formations created by tectonic forces four million years ago. Since it’s so close to San Pedro de Atacama, it’s a very popular place to visit and therefore often crowded. There’s several viewpoints from which you can watch the sun set over de valley. We ended up at ‘Mirador de Kari – Piedra del Coyote.’ It wasn’t too crowded the evening we were there, but I’ve heard it’s becoming increasingly hard to find a quiet spot. We did drive around a bit to see which viewpoint was the least busy. Make sure to take plenty of layers as it gets cold quickly in the evenings.

Opening times:9am-7pm Sun.-Fri

Entrance fee: $10,000 CLP adults/$10, children $5,000 CLP/$5 ; book at least a day in advance here

El Tatio Geysers

El Tatio is a geothermal field with many geysers and it’s located at 4,320 metres (14,170 ft) above sea level. It is the third-largest geyser field in the world and especially in the early morning the eruptions are impressive. The later you go, the less likely you are to see the geysers in full effect. This is why all the tours leave before sunrise. We had our own transportation and made sure to get there before the sunrise. Be aware that you need a high clearance vehicle and preferably a 4×4 for the unpaved roads. After about an hour of driving the winding road to this high elevation destination we were treated to some incredible eruptions from the geysers. As you can see on the photos, we were surrounded by the smoke coming from the geysers. Because of the high altitude it can be quite cold, so make sure to bring layers!

If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can take a tour to El Tatio. The tours leave two hours before sunrise in order to be there for the most impressive and photogenic time of the day. You can expect to pay around $40,000 CLP for a tour, which won’t include the entrance fee.

Opening times: 5am- 5pm daily

Cost: $15,000 CLP entrance fee/€15/$15,90

Visit the free ‘Puripobre’ hots springs instead of the Termas de Puritama hot springs

On the way back town from the El Tatio Geysers you can stop at the Termas de Puritan hot springs. However, if you want to visit natural hot springs in the river for free, instead of going to the tourist attraction, do this instead. Look for ‘Termas Bajas – Guatin‘ on google maps. From this viewpoint you can climb down a rock wall and you follow the river bank on the left. At some point you have to cross the river. The hike to the pools is around 45 minutes. The water was nice and warm and it was the perfect way to relax after an early morning. 

Visit Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques (lagunas atiplanicas)

Visiting the lakes can be combined with Piedras Rojas & Salar de Talar as its only a short distance away. The two beautiful lakes are surrounded by volcanoes and a very barren dry landscape.

Opening times: 9am-4pm; site closes at 6pm

Entrance fee: $10,000 CLP/~$10  adults and $8,00/~8 CLP CLP children entrance fee; book in advance here.

Salar de Talar/Piedras Rojas

Salar de Talar was one of my favorite landscapes in the Atacama desert! Such an impressive salt flat. its about a 2,5 hour drive from San Pedro de Atacama. Make sure to buy your ticket in advance as that is required these days.

Las Piedras Rojas opening times: 9am-4pm; site closes at 6pm.

Entrance fee: $18,000 CLP/~$19 entrance fee; book in advance here

Lagunas Baltinache

Swim in this incredible salt lake in the middle of the dessert! Floating here , with the barren landscape around you is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. It’s not far from San Pedro, but the road is extremely bumpy. You need a 4×4 to make the trip. We unfortunately got a flat on the way and we’re not the only ones. There’s nowhere to buy drinks or snacks, so make sure to bring some!

I highly recommend downloading offline maps. You can use either Google Maps or Maps.Me. Both apps have the ability to navigate offline and you’ll need it as mobile coverage is gone as soon as you leave town. Highlight the spots you want to visit, and make sure you include Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache. There’s another Google Maps spot called Laguna Baltinache. That’s the wrong spot, so make sure to save the right one!

Entrance fee: 10.000 Chilean Pesos/€11/$12 USD. A tour would cost you around $50 USD, 43.000 Chilean Pesos or €45 euros per person.

Opening times: 9am and 4pm


Unfortunatly I never got to do this tour, because it was cloudy the nights I was in San Pedro the Atacama. However, if the weather predictions show clear skies, take this tour! The night skies in Atacama are supposedly unmatched!

How to rent a car in San Pedro the Atacama?

Most important is that you rent a 4×4 to brave the roads in the Atacama desert. I ended up booking with Econorent and paid $460 for 6 days. Check that you have a spare tire and jack, because it’s not uncommon to get a flat on the unpaved roads.

How to get to San Pedro the Atacama?

You will most likely fly into the airport of Calama. Calama is located a little over an hour away from San Pedro. Personally I think it’s best to rent a car for your visit to the Atacama desert, but it is possible to take a bus from the airport. Just keep in mind that without a car you’ll end up spending a lot on tours. I’d advice finding some other backpackers to share the cost of the car.

Where to stay?


Aji Verde hostel: Great hostel with a kitchen and large garden. They have private rooms if you want privacy, but the dorms are fine as well. The staff was incredibly helpful and I really loved my stay here! This was the best budget option I could find when traveling to San Pedro the Atacama.

Mid range


Terrantai Lodge

Best restaurants in San Pedro de Atacama

Franchuteria: Great breakfast/lunch place. Tasty Croissants and sandwiches!

Ckunna: Definitely the best place for dinner. The outside patio is super cute and drinks and food were great.