One destination that should be on any traveler's list of must-visit desert landscapes is Chile's northern Atacama region. It's an arid, high-altitude desert filled with incredible natural wonders, including salt flats, geysers, lunar landscapes, painted mountains, and towering volcanoes. This quick six-day itinerary covers the highlights, including stops in the remote colonial outpost of San Pedro de Atacama, tours of the Moon Valley, stargazing, visits to natural hot springs, and traveling to indigenous villages.

Highlights

  • Stay in San Pedro de Atacama, base for excursions into the Atacama Desert
  • Tour the Moon Valley and marvel at its lunar landscapes
  • Visit the Tatio Geyser and nearby villages
  • Swim in the Puritma Hot Springs, a series of geothermal pools

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama San Pedro de Atacama
Day 3 San Pedro De Atacama - Moon Valley & Half-Day Astronomic Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 4 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 5 Puritama Hot Springs San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago & Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Santiago de Chile

Santiago is an eclectic, artistic, and historic city
Santiago is an eclectic, artistic, and historic city

Welcome to Chile! Upon arrival at Santiago International Airport, a driver will meet you and transfer you to your hotel. You'll have the rest of the day to explore the city at your leisure. 

Suggested activities include:

  • Hike to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, the most magnificent viewpoint in Santiago. When visiting any new city it's a good idea to get your bearings by surveying the area from a high vantage point. Pathways lead 850 meters (2,788 feet) up this central hill to a series of lookouts that offer wraparound views of Santiago. Enjoy the reconnoitering, and if you aren't the hiking type not to worry: you can catch a scenic gondola to the top.

  • Stroll the cobblestone streets of Barrio Bellavista. On the north side of Santiago, you'll find this trendy enclave, at once fashionable and bohemian. Brightly painted old houses adorned with graffiti art sit alongside modern shopping complexes featuring an eclectic array of eateries and bars. It's a great place to come for dinner out, a glass or two of Chilean red, and people watching from a patio table. 

  • Visit the Plaza de Armas, located in Santiago's historic center. There's a lot of history within the four corners of this expansive stone plaza, as it was founded all the way back in 1541. Also here is the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church dating to 1748 and whose towering twin bell towers dominate the north side of the plaza.

  • Snap pics in front of the Palacio de la Moneda. Chile's opulent Presidential Palace (known simply as "La Moneda") is just a short stroll from the Plaza de Armas, and like the plaza, it's filled with history. It was here in 1973 that Chile's armed forces, backed by the U.S. government, overthrew President Salvador Allende, kicking off a brutal right-wing military dictatorship that would last for 17 years. Today the country is under democratic rule, and visitors are welcome to visit the palace. 

For dinner be sure to get out of the hotel and enjoy a culinary adventure in the city. In recent years Santiago has emerged as a global foodie destination. Chilean chefs are reinventing traditional dishes like empanadas, cazuelas (stews), and seafood with ingredients harvested all the way from the northern deserts and southern Patagonian regions. You can find great restaurants and wine bars not only in the Bellavista neighborhood but also in the revitalized historic barrios of Yungay and Italia.

Day 2: Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama

Valley of the Moon, Chile
Valley of the Moon, Chile

After breakfast, you'll transfer by private car to the airport, where you’ll catch a flight to the city of Calama, in northern Chile. Upon arrival, another driver will meet you for the hour-and-20-minute drive to the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama. This is the embarkation point for all excursions and adventures into the Atacama Desert.

During the journey between these two places, you will see some of the most evocative and ancient landscapes anywhere in the world. This high-altitude desert abounds with seemingly endless salt flats, painted hills that change color depending on the light, towering Andean peaks, and the volcanic Domeyko Cordillera, whose flaming red mountains form the base of the Valley of the Moon.

Upon arrival at San Pedro de Atacama, you will check into your hotel and have the remainder of the day to enjoy the town however you see fit. The good news is that even if you're tired there's no need to worry—San Pedro is so small you can walk around the entire town in about 15 minutes.

Some recommended activities in San Pedro de Atacama include:

  • Visit the Church of San Pedro de Atacama. This little white-washed chapel in the center of town boasts a lot of history. Dating back to 1540, it's the nation's second-oldest church. Inside you'll find a three-tiered baroque altar, which is the only one of its kind in Chile. 

  • Tour the town. San Pedro is notable for its abundance of adobe homes and businesses. It's unique in Chile in that there is quite a bit of pre-Spanish indigenous influence. Just strolling the dusty streets you get a sense of the pre-Hispanic Atacameño culture that once thrived here. Today you'll find many souvenir shops selling basketworks, ceramic pottery, and artisan crafts.

  • Dine out in San Pedro. There isn't much to do in the town of San Pedro except plan your excursions and eat out. Luckily the town has plenty of restaurants to cater to every taste, from funky cafés and vegetarian diners to Chilean steakhouses, Italian pizzerias, Mediterranean restaurants, and pan-Asian-inspired eateries.

Day 3: San Pedro De Atacama - Moon Valley & Half-Day Astronomic Tour

Las Tres Marias Rock Formation
Las Tres Marias Rock Formation

Today you'll enjoy two amazing tours that showcase the best that the Atacama has to offer. Start your day with a tour of the highlights of the iconic Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). In the evening, take advantage of the clear desert skies for a breathtaking stargazing expedition. 
 
Moon Valley Tour

This is an opportunity to visit the amazing geological formations in the Atacama Desert. You'll travel to the nearby salt caves at the Cordillera del Sal, a mountain range formed millions of years ago in an old lake bed. You'll also witness unique geological formations like the “Three Marias" (Las Tres Marias), which were formed from a million year of erosion of the salt and clay of the landscapes. The highlight of this tour is witnessing the Atacama sunset, which is a veritable light show featuring breathtaking landscapes and colors of the mountains, with the Licancabur Volcano looming overhead. Don't forget to bring your camera!

Half-Day Astronomic Tour

The Atacama Desert skies at night are some of the best in the world for star-gazing. The combination of the high altitude, arid dryness, and lack of superficial light transform Atacama into the perfect platform to gaze at star constellations, planets, and galaxies. You'll also visit the world-renowned Ahlarkapin Observatory—"Ahlarkapin" being an indigenous Kunza word of the Lickan Antay people that means "bright star."

At Ahlarkapin you'll enjoy a presentation that expounds on the science of astrology while also detailing the significant role stars play in the culture and worldview of the Atacama people. You'll then have an opportunity to view these celestial bodies through the lens of one of the biggest private telescopes of the world. It's an unforgettable adventure through the southern skies and one of the best seats on planet earth in which to view our marvelous cosmos.

Day 4: Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village

Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers
Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers

Today's an early start as you'll depart the hotel at 4:30 am for the 1.5-hour trip to the Tatio Geysers. Getting a jump on the day will pay dividends, though, as seeing the sun rise over the Atacama Desert is a singular experience. Also, sunrise is the best time to visit Tatio. The contrast between the cold outside temperatures and the boiling water of the geothermal field beneath the earth's surface causes the pillars of steam here to rise as high as 10 meters (30 feet). 

At an altitude of 4,320 meters (14,173 feet), the Tatio Geysers are the highest in the world. So take your time and admire these otherworldly landscapes, snap plenty of photos, and at the appropriate hour breakfast will be served on site. Another option is to take a relaxing soak in a natural geothermal pool—mother nature's jacuzzi.

On the return drive to San Pedro, you'll stop at Machuca, a small, humble village on the Altiplano whose residents have bred llamas and harvested Yareta (moss-like evergreen plants that can survive for thousands of years) for generations. It's a small but welcoming town, comprised of only about 20 homes and a simple chapel. That said, some locals sell crafts, and you can admire the llamas in the area as well as the flamingos that reside in nearby marshlands.

You'll then return to San Pedro for lunch and can spend the remainder of the day relaxing in town.

Day 5: Puritama Hot Springs

The Puritama Hot Springs
The Puritama Hot Springs

This half-day tour takes you 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) northeast of San Pedro de Atacama to the Puritama Hot Springs. This series of eight large geothermal pools are known for their sodium sulfate waters, which are heated by the surrounding volcanic elements. These hot springs have been used for centuries, beginning with the early Atacama people who took advantage of their medicinal properties. These warm waters are a palliative for a number of ailments, including arthritis, stress, and fatigue. So take a long hot soak and swim around at your leisure as the 33ºC/91°F water rejuvenates your body.  

At the end of the outing, you'll transfer back to your hotel in San Pedro.

Day 6: San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago & Departure

Moon Valley at sunset
Moon Valley at sunset

This morning, you'll have free time to relax and explore San Pedro de Atacama on your own. In the afternoon, transfer to the Calama airport for your flight back to Santiago. Upon arrival in Santiago, transfer to the international terminal for your flight back home. ¡Buen viaje!

Map

Map of Atacama Desert Highlights - 6 Days
Map of Atacama Desert Highlights - 6 Days
Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Oct 8, 2019