The Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world, has a plethora of unique and awe-inspiring natural attractions, making it great for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventure.
You could easily spend a week in the Atacama Desert and not run out of things to do and see. Unfortunately, my time got cut very short in the Atacama Desert, due to Dakar, so I didn’t get to see or do nearly as much as I would’ve liked and I’m dying to go back.
Things to see and do in the Atacama Desert:
Laguna Cejar which is great for a visit in the summer (Jan-Mar) for a swim/float in Laguna Piedra, a salt lake as salty as the Dead Sea; swim in Ojos del Salar (Eyes of the Salt Pan), two freshwater “eyes” that are very close together; and a salt flat, which is great for sunsets.
All of the following photos are from a one day Laguna Cejar excursion:
Geysers del Tatio where you can see some of the highest geysers in the world, with over 80 active geysers. It’s best to visit at sunrise, when the geysers are the most active.
Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) with a surface that is said to resemble the moon and another great place to see the sunset.
Lagunas Altiplanicas (Altiplanic Lagoons) where you’ll visit jaw-dropping lakes and salt flats, with an almost identical landscape to parts of Bolivia (meaning it’s absolutely stunning and you absolutely must go, so if you don’t go to Bolivia, go to Lagunas Altiplanicas).
Stargazing in the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world to do astronomical observations because of the high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, dry air, and lack of light pollution. I booked a night to see the stars, but I had unusual bad luck because the tour got cancelled due to rare cloud cover.
Puritama Hot Springs consists of eight large pools of geothermal spring water for swimming and fun at the bottom of a canyon.
There’s also sandboarding, cycling, horseriding, climbing, and hiking for active adventures in the Atacama Desert.
Good to know:
San Pedro de Atacama is the town to stay in because it’s the jump off point for all the the desert adventures. It’s a very small and modest town, yet the prices are comparable to Santiago and it’s fairly expensive due to tourism.
The Atacama Desert can get extremely hot during the day and then quickly drop to very cool temperatures at night.
San Pedro is at a high altitude at 2400m above sea level, while many of the tourist attractions are well above 4000m, so you will most definitely feel the effects of the altitude.
Because of the constant sunshine and high altitude, the sun is extra strong in the Atacama Desert, so wear and reapply sunscreen throughout the day.
The Atacama Desert is a great gateway to Bolivia. You can book a 3 day/2 night tour to Salar de Uyuni (which is a serious must, along with the rest of Bolivia- see Why Bolivia Should Be On Your Bucket List). If you go to Bolivia, your first night will be spent at 4400m, so if possible, try to acclimatize in the Atacama Desert first.