The Atacama Desert: Tours And How To Plan Your Trip

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The full low down on all the different tours available in the Atacama Desert in Chile. How many day you should spend in San Pedro and how to book tours. | Dalton-Banks

There are numerous Atacama Desert tours that you can book before you arrive or when you get there. With a lot of information out there it can be hard to know how much time to spend in San Pedro de Atacama. In this blog post I’ll share the different kind of tours you can go on (from day tours to 3 day plus tours) and how to plan your trip to the Atacama Desert. I’m sharing all the things I wish I’d know before my trip!

San Pedro de Atacama is the best base to explore The Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Even the views from town are amazing!

In my 3 week trip to South America, I think the Atacama Desert was the biggest surprise for me. Yes, Machu Picchu is the most incredible site and I spent many hours post trek wandering how on earth it was built and pondering all the stories we’d been told about it’s history. It’s just amazing. But, the Atacama Desert completely took my breath away. It’s just so stunning – even when it’s snowing and you’re freezing to the bone. If you are anywhere near northern Chile please visit the Atacama Desert – you won’t regret it!

All these photos were taken across just 3 days. From bright warm sunshine to bitter winds and sleet!

The stunning landscapes of the Atacama Desert in Chile. A review of the different Atacama Desert tours.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is full of stunning landscapes. There are many different tours you can take from San Pedro. Here is a guide to the best tours in the Atacama Desert. | Dalton-Banks

We only gave ourselves 3 days in this other-worldly place. Which in hindsight was a mistake due to weather getting in the way of our plans. That’s why I thought it would be useful to share tips on how to plan your Atacama desert tours so you can make the most of your trip.

The Atacama Desert lies in the northern part of Chile, with the Andes mountains and volcanos lining this incredible area. This desert is very commonly referred to as the driest nonpolar place in the world. So, although we were travelling to this part of Chile in their winter months (we had planned our trip around a good time to do the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu) we knew it would be cold but we didn’t think we would get rained off! But, much to our frustration, we did.

We were in the driest desert in the world and we get rain and snow! I can’t even begin to explain how cold it was. Everyone knows the salt flats in nearby Bolivia are ridiculously cold, but we weren’t expecting this weather, so a few of the group weren’t prepared. Luckily, there are shops in San Pedro de Atacama where you can purchase good quality clothes for cold weather. It was all about the layers!

Even with the weather set back this is easily one of my favourite places in the world. And I will most definitely go back in the summer months to take in more of those stunning landscapes!

It can get cold in the Atacama Desert, make sure to bring lots of layers. We were caught out by the winter weather. Find other tips for booking tours in the Atacama Desert. | Dalton-Banks

Even in freezing temperatures, the Atacama Desert is still beautiful! A full review of all the different tours available to you when visiting the Atacama Desert. | Dalton-Banks

The Salar de Atacama, or Atacama Salt Flats are the largest salt flats in Chile. This as one of the many tours to book in the Atacama Desert.

Atacama desert tours

The Atacama Desert lies in the north of Chile and boarders Bolivia and Argentina. There are such a variety of tours on offer from San Pedro de Atacama so it’s a great base to explore the area from.

The unique landscapes and climates mean there will be something for everyone to enjoy. When I told friends about my trip, they didn’t know much at all about this part of Chile and often asked “what is there to do in the Atacama Desert?”. My answer – so much!

The best day tours from San Pedro de Atacama include: Chile’s largest salt flats, the El Tatio geysers, Valle de la Luna and some of the world’s best observatories. You can rent bikes and explore some of these areas on two wheels, though I would save that for the warmer summer months!

Atacama Salt Flats

The Salar de Atacama, or Atacama Salt Flats are the largest salt flats in Chile. They lie just 11 miles out of town so these are easy to make a visit to. You can arrange a tour or rent a car and go it alone. Most tour operators offer this tour with other trips. We stopped here on the way to Piedras Rojas.

The flamingos on the Atacama Salt Flats. A guide to the different tours you can book when visiting the Atacama Desert. | Dalton-Banks

Flamingos can be found at the salt flats, as they forage around the salty water for algae, be warned it can be a little smelly! But there are beautiful birds to witness.

El Tatio Geysers

This is probably one of the most popular excursions from here, but as its over 50 miles from San Pedro it’s a very early start at 4am. It’s one of the biggest geothermal fields in the world with more than 80 geysers. It’s important to get there for sunrise because that’s when all the action happens and as the sun rises across the geysers they come alive!

The El Tatio geysers are 4300m above sea level so make sure you take it easy the night before to help ease any altitude sickness you may have. Tours will include breakfast but still bring water and snacks and remember to layer up! Even in the summer months it can be extremely cold up there. And bring your swimming costume in case you fancy a dip in the hot springs afterwards to warm up!

This unfortunately was one of the excursions we couldn’t go on due to the bad weather. We heard from everyone we spoke to that it is an incredible sight to behold, so book this first!

El Valle de la Luna – The Moon Valley

This was my favourite tour of our whole trip to the Atacama Desert! El Valle de la Luna or the Moon Valley is literally out of this world. You could easily think you have just stepped foot onto Mars! And the experts think so too – both Nasa and the European Space Agency have used the area for testing Martian rovers because the landscape is so similar.

El Valle de la Luna – The Moon Valley. This part of the Atacama Desert is like stepping foot onto a different planet! This was my favourite tour we did whilst in the Atacama Desert. | Dalton-Banks

To take in these stunning lunar landscapes take an afternoon tour so that you can explore the sand dunes, rock formations and views at sunset. It may look like snow but its actually salt crystals. How beautiful does it look! Our tour guide was also an incredible photographer and helped us get to the best spots with the fewest people (as you can imagine it gets busy as sunset). Before heading up to the most incredible viewpoints to watch the sunset.

El Valle de la Luna – The Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert. We did a sunset tour and this was my favourite part of our whole trip! Full guide on Dalton-Banks.co.uk

The sun setting over El Valle de la Luna – The Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert, Chile. With volcanoes in the background. Full round up of the different tours in the Atacama Desert. | Dalton-Banks

El Valle de la Luna – The Moon Valley. The sunset tour which was our favourite tour whilst in the Atacama Desert. | Dalton-Banks

Woman watching the sunset over El Valle de la Luna – The Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert. list of different tours available when visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile. | Dalton-Banks

As I soaked up the last of the warm sunshine on my back I tried to savour every moment with the ever-changing colours and view in front of me. It’s the most magical thing I’ve ever seen.

Laguna Piedras Rojas

This lesser known spot means it’s also much quieter and so feels even more special. The red rocks lagoon is a stunning spot that we stopped at on the way to the Atacama Salt Flats. This is definitely worth it if you are close by. I loved the red rocks against lake and volcanos in the background.

Stunning landscapes at Laguna Piedras Rojas or the red rocks. We stopped here on our way to the Atacama Salt Flats.

Stargazing

This is one of the best places in the entire world to see stars and galaxies above us. The ultra-clean air and almost zero light pollution means the sky is laid bare most nights for you to see the stars and planets.

Make sure every night you look up! Honestly, it’s amazing what you can see with the naked eye. On two nights we saw the Milky Way so clearly. And the sky was full of stars and shooting stars too. There are three major international observatories because of the brilliant environment. There are many different stargazing ‘tours’ you can book. They all differ depending on how much of a star buff you are.

They range from groups of 20 where you share a few telescopes between the group and the guide will talk you through the night sky and what you can see before you. Usually ending with a hot chocolate or glass of wine. These are the cheapest kind to book. You can also book longer, more detailed tours where an astronomer will take you to one of the observatories and then talk you through the sky in more detail with a small group and better access to telescopes, most have 1 between 2 people.

I would highly recommend doing a bit of research and book a tour that doesn’t have a massive group. Talk to the different tour operators on the ground and get a feel for what you like.

Longer tours from San Pedro de Atacama

Uyuni Salt Flats – this is usually a three day tour to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. You can return to San Pedro or continue onto La Paz. These tours leave daily from town.

Salta and Humahuaca Gorge – cross the Andes on one of the highest passes in the world into Argentina and see this UNESCO heritage sight as well as some of the most incredible mountains views along the way.

Atacama desert tours, Chile. A round up of the different tours you can take when you visit San Pedro de Atacama. | Dalton-Banks

How to book tours from San Pedro

You can book tours before you arrive via many online tour operators or you can book when you arrive. There are numerous tour operators on the ground in San Pedro.

If you book ahead, make sure you can get a refund if the weather means it’s called off. We booked all our tours whilst there as we wanted to see what was what. If you book there, on the first day make your way around the different places and get a feel for which operators you like, what they offer and prices. Get things booked on the first day to make sure you can do the tours you want on the days you want.

Definitely read up about the different tours you can go on before you arrive so you’re clear on what you definitely want to do.

If you like to book things ahead of time then Viator is a great place to start.

Things to do in San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is a very pretty bohemian town with white washed buildings. The town itself is quite small but it is packed with tour operators, places to eat and drink, from cheap no frills places to high end places to enjoy a special dinner. And there are lots of cute little shops too!

You will probably fill your days with tours. But if you are staying in one of the luxury hotels be sure to book yourself into a spa treatment, especially after an early rise and the cold air!

The town of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. This is a great base to do your tours from when exploring the Atacama Desert.

The food in San Pedro de Atacama. There are lots of different restaurants and cafes to chose from in this town in Chile.

The pretty town of San Pedro de Atacama. Its a great base to explore the Atacama Desert from.

We also had a lovely afternoon exploring the town and its little shops. It won’t take long to make your way around, but it’s really rather pretty.

As you can imagine this town is a traveller hub, it’s a great place to meet new people.

Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

If you are going in winter make sure you check your room is heated well! Ours weren’t! Though where we were staying was super cute and only a 5 minute walk to the main streets in town so if it had been warmer it would have been great with its lovely hot tub and outdoor area.

Although there were heaters we could use in our rooms there wasn’t any extra bedding and we had one afternoon of very heavy rain which meant we were stranded in our rooms for a few hours and it was a little depressing! However, on the few occasions the sun came out, it was lovely and warm. Basically, prepare for all weather!

Because it has become such an important base to explore the Atacama Desert from, San Pedro has a great variety of accommodation from very basic hostels to stunning 5 star hotels. Make sure to book in advance if you are travelling during the busies summer months.

Find out which tours are the best to book in the Atacama Desert. Top tours in Atacama Desert.

How many days should you spend in San Pedro de Atacama?

The much asked question is: how long should you spend in San Pedro? We stayed for 4 nights with 3 full days. Because weather was not on our side, I wish we’d had an extra day so we were more flexible with a few of the tours.

But it depends what you are doing this stop around. If you have the time I would spread it out a little more and do 5 nights. Especially if you are travelling there in winter, just in case of the weather. It just gives you a little more flexibility and it means if you stay in one of the nice hotels you can really utilise it facilities in between tours.

But if you are travelling in the summer then I think 4 nights is enough with three full days, you can still fit in all the major tours, with the Geysers and sunset at Moon Valley being able to be done on the same day. Just give yourself some rest!

How to get to the Atacama Desert

The closest airport is Calama, about 1.5 hours drive from San Pedro. We flew from Lima, Peru to Calama, Chile. It was a very long travel day – I think we were travelling for nearly 14 hours in total as you have to fly via Buenos Aires as there is no direct flight from Lima. We also found flights in South America to be expensive! It’s much better to fly from Santiago which is only two hours away and much more affordable.

It was easy to pick up a taxi from the airport and it’s a beautiful drive through the stunning landscapes. You’ll be itching to jump out and start taking a million photos!


You might also enjoy if you are planning a trip to South America:

South America itinerary for 3 weeks travel

Postcards from Peru

Where to stay in Cusco, Peru


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A guide to the different Atacama desert tours. Chile. Adventure travel.

A guide to the different Atacama desert tours. Chile. How to plan your trip to northern Chile. Adventure travel.
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45 Comments

  1. October 8, 2018 / 6:54 pm

    What a trip, Vicky! And I love those photos of the incredible landscapes. Would love to travel round there one day..

    • October 11, 2018 / 7:13 am

      It really was such an incredible trip, Aaron! I can’t recommend it enough, even in the cold!

  2. October 9, 2018 / 8:52 am

    Atacama was a big surprise for us too on our South America trip. It turned out to be the unexpected highlight of the trip!

    • October 11, 2018 / 7:14 am

      Exactly the same for us. Every new place we went I was just like “wow”. Loved it!

  3. October 11, 2018 / 2:11 pm

    Your pictures are stunning. Chile has been on my list for a while now, but never thought of visiting this place. If I ever go to Chile, I will do my best to visit the Atacama Desert and the town you mentioned! #FarawayFiles

    • October 12, 2018 / 11:10 am

      Thank you Margie! Before we planned to visit Peru, I hadn’t really thought about Chile either. But the more we looked into it, the more we fell in love. Its so beautiful here!

  4. October 12, 2018 / 7:17 am

    This place looks amazing and I’ve never heard of it! We were tossing up about Chile / Argentina next year and we’re still undecided, but this is a place that looks like it’s right up our alley. Your photos are stunning. Good to know about the weather, it can often be difficult to know how long to stay somewhere if you have unpredictable conditions. Thanks for the tips. #farawayfiles

    • October 12, 2018 / 11:12 am

      Oh I can’t recommend it enough!! I wish we’d had longer to explore more of Chile. But Argentina also has lots to offer too. I would just avoid winter. But definitely go!!

  5. October 12, 2018 / 9:06 am

    What incredible images! We are planning a six-month trip travelling from North to South America and the Atacama Desert is firmly on the agenda. Planning to be there in the summer months, but with the altitude looks like we should be ready for any weather! Really useful post, thank you. #FarawayFiles

    • October 12, 2018 / 11:15 am

      Oh wow, what an amazing sounding trip!! I’ve spent any time in North America, so that’s on my list. Oh I’m glad the Atacama Desert is on the agenda. If you spend time traveling down the western countries of South America you will definitely encounter all weathers! That why I loved it so much. Even whilst doing the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu we went from snow to jungle!

  6. Clare Thomson
    October 12, 2018 / 1:12 pm

    Wow, just wow! It’s always so useful getting tips from people who’ve been there and shared their experiences. I hadn’t appreciated how stunning the Atacama Desert was until I saw all your beautiful pictures. Wonderful share for #FarawayFiles

    • October 17, 2018 / 12:49 pm

      Thank you Clare! It’s definitely a photogenic place. I said wow about 50 times a day when we were out there. I’d love to go back!

  7. October 12, 2018 / 5:06 pm

    The desert landscape is so lovely! The barrenness and shapes of the rocks appeal to me. Your photos are stunning!

    • October 17, 2018 / 12:49 pm

      Thank you Sharon! Its a very beautiful place, I couldn’t stop taking photos!

  8. October 13, 2018 / 1:28 pm

    This place looks incredible and your photos are fantastic. It appears that you have the whole desert to yourselves.

    I would love to do one of the stargazing trips. Thanks for sharing #farawayfiles

    • October 17, 2018 / 12:54 pm

      On some tours it really did feel like we had the whole desert to ourselves. It’s such a special place!

  9. October 13, 2018 / 2:35 pm

    The Atacama Desert looks unbelievable. Would love to visit. Your photos are amazing! #FarawayFiles

    • October 17, 2018 / 12:54 pm

      Thanks Nicky! Its such a beautiful part of the world. I definitely want to go back!

  10. October 14, 2018 / 3:49 am

    What an incredible experience. I love all the contrasts and changing weather patterns and the colours you captured in your photos. This guide is so useful too. I’d love to visit the Atacama Desert one day. Consider me inspired. Thanks for sharing on #farawayfiles

    • October 17, 2018 / 12:56 pm

      I’m glad I’ve inspired you Katy! 🙂 It is definitely a place of contrasts. I couldn’t get over it’s beauty!

  11. Trish @ Mum's Gone To
    October 15, 2018 / 4:13 pm

    This is so interesting to read as it’s a part of the world that is completely unknown to me. It reminds me of some of the landscapes we encountered in Iceland. Incredible photos!
    #farawayfiles

    • October 17, 2018 / 1:01 pm

      Yes, the really misty shots really remind me of Iceland. Somewhere I’d love to go soon! I didn’t know much about the Atacama Desert before I went, but as you can tell, I highly recommend it!

  12. October 17, 2018 / 4:33 am

    Wow, your photos of the desert are simply spectacular! I would definitely add Atacama Desert to my itinerary in South America in addition to Macchu Pichu, the salt flats in Bolivia and many other places 🙂 Your trip sounds amazing! #FarawayFiles

    • October 17, 2018 / 1:02 pm

      We had an awesome trip, though there was a lot we didn’t get to see. Next time I’ll definitely be going to Bolivia!

  13. October 18, 2018 / 1:00 pm

    You got rained out in the driest place in the world?! What are the odds of that?? I’ve never been to the Atacama Desert (actually never been to South America) and am still gawking at your photos. The landscapes in this region look otherworldly. I’m sorry you didn’t get to do the geyser excursion – it sounds amazing and reminds me of some of the geyser fields I’ve been to in Iceland, which were absolutely stunning. This is definitely at the top of my South America bucket list now!

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:25 pm

      I know, we were so unlucky with the weather! But even in the cold and wet it was beautiful! Definitely add it to the top of your list for when you go to South America. I’ve never been to Iceland, but now I want to go even more as I hear the landscapes are similar.

  14. October 18, 2018 / 3:46 pm

    Wow that must be an amazing 3 weeks trip in Southern America. Atacama Desert is new to me, I haven’t heard of it before but seeing all your photos they are incredible. The landscape is just perfect It should be on the top of the most visited place. Lovely travel!

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:27 pm

      It was such a fun trip! I didn’t know much about the Atacama Desert before I went, but it really is incredible!

  15. October 18, 2018 / 3:51 pm

    I’m from South America but have yet to get to Chile. This place looks otherworldly!

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:28 pm

      Well you definitely need to go then! Its honestly amazing. I’d love to explore South America more though. Where are you from?

  16. October 18, 2018 / 5:47 pm

    Wow!! To vist the driest non-polar place in the world must have been simply outstanding!! Atacama Desert is absolutely stunning!!

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:29 pm

      It is such a special, incredible place! I couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. I really hope to go back one day.

  17. October 18, 2018 / 6:23 pm

    I can’t get over the diverse terrain! Everything looks so different and somehow all look like they belong on another planet – bet it’s a photographer’s dream, haha.

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:31 pm

      Such a photographers dream. I took thousands of photos! Like you say it was so diverse every place we went. Just so beautiful!

  18. October 18, 2018 / 6:23 pm

    Wow this seems like a trip with a lifetime of memories and beautiful unforgettable landscape. The images are spectacular and I can imagine how they just represent just a portion of the beauty of the desert. I would love to see (well everything here) but especially the Salt Flats. Thanks for the amazing tips.

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:32 pm

      Oh definitely so many unforgettable memories. It was so spectacular – I can’t recommend it enough!

  19. October 18, 2018 / 10:29 pm

    LOVE LOVE LOVE how much info you gave and how inspiring your photos are, really truly wanting to get myself to SOUTH AMERICA NOW. Between you and this youtuber i’m binge watching, I feel so far from Sur America, and yet so close. Thanks and saving this for a future date. By the way may I ask what camera you use?

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:35 pm

      Thank you so much!! I love writing about travel to inspire others. It was unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. If you ever get to South America you definitely have to add Chile to your itinerary. I use the Canon Powershot G15. Had it for a while now and love it! Though you can’t change the lenses, but its nice and small so perfect for travel.

  20. October 18, 2018 / 11:46 pm

    Looks like a unique place hadn’t really considered going before but your photos have now inspired me. Would be easier if I still lived in Argentina.

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:37 pm

      Oh wow – where in Argentina did you live!? I’m my photos have inspired you to go – its such an awesome place!

  21. October 19, 2018 / 2:39 am

    I spent about 10 days in San Pedro de Atacama and loved it. Like you, I loved Moon Valley and also took a star gazing trip which was one of the highlights of my stay. It’s too bad it rained on your trip. We had temperatures over 100, so we were at the other extreme. Regardless, Atacama Desert is an experience people should not miss and you’ve done a great job providing tips!

    • October 19, 2018 / 3:38 pm

      Oh 10 days would have been amazing! I wish we’d stayed for longer. I’m so sad we didn’t get to do the star gazing. I’d definitely like to go back in the summer months to do more of the trips!

  22. October 19, 2018 / 10:10 am

    This seems like a dream trip. The pictures are so wonderful, the sunset at Atacama Desert is so amazing. Loved those cute flamingos too.

  23. December 4, 2018 / 10:25 am

    Must have been a great experience. Well-written post with great details, was a pleasure to read. The desert is beautiful, thank you for your photos!

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