This journey in the Atacama desert takes you to some of the most spectacular desert scenery on the planet. You’ll see sputtering geysers, salt flats where flamingoes roam, and gorgeous sunsets over otherworldly rock formations. This Chilean adventure is for active-minded travelers, with biking and hiking among astonishing Andean landscapes.

Highlights

  • See the steaming Tatio geysers erupting on a geothermal field 
  • Watch the sunset over the bizarre rock formations of the Moon Valley
  • Spot flamingos while exploring the Atacama Salt Flat
  • Learn about the ancient Andean cosmos on a stargazing excursion  
  • Float effortlessly on the turquoise waters of the Cejar Lagoon
  • Bike to Death Valley, a dramatic terrain of jagged rocks and towering sand dunes

Overview

This eight-day trip to northern Chile is a great destination for adventure lovers. You’ll head off on bike rides to chiseled red-rock canyons, hike to the top of rocky hilltops, and soak in sparkling blue lagoons. By night, you’ll go stargazing beneath one of the world’s clearest night skies. The destinations are often evocative, including Death Valley, the Devil's Canyon, and the Moon Valley. 

On this trip, you’ll also learn about the indigenous beliefs and cultural traditions, with llama trekking and visits to native settlements and ancient archeological sights. Your base for the trip will be in San Pedro de Atacama, a charming village packed with great restaurants, outdoor cafes, and colorful handicraft stores.

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights  Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama San Pedro
Day 3 Bike ride to Pukara de Quitor archeological site and Devil's Canyon, visit Toconao village and Atacama Salt Flat San Pedro
Day 4 Bike ride to Coyo to learn about Atacamenian traditions, evening stargazing tour San Pedro
Day 5 Swimming in the Cejar Lagoon, afternoon tour and sunset at the Moon Valley San Pedro
Day 6 Visit traditional Socaire village, hike to top of Cerro Kapur San Pedro
Day 7 Experience the Tatio Geysers, hike around Copa Coya hill San Pedro
Day 8 Transfer to Calama airport - Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Santiago de Chile

Hike or take a gondola up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal

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, where you can get your bearings by surveying the area from a high vantage point. Pathways lead 2,788 feet (850 m) up this central hill to a series of lookouts that offer wraparound views of Santiago. If you aren't the hiking type, not to worry: catch a scenic gondola instead.

  • Stroll the cobblestone streets of Barrio Bellavista. On the north side of Santiago, you'll find this trendy enclave, at once fashionable and bohemian. Stroll past colorful houses adorned with graffiti art and choose between an eclectic array of eateries and bars—great for people watching. 

  • Visit the Plaza de Armas, a stone plaza located in Santiago's historic center dating to 1541. There's also the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church dating to 1748 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 a short stroll from the Plaza de Armas. 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. Visitors are welcome.

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

Dramatic rock formations of the Death Valley

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: Cycle to Devil's Canyon and archeological sites, Atacama Salt Flats 

Atacama Salt Flat, a habitat for flamingoes 

After breakfast, you will depart the hotel by bicycle towards the Salt Mountain Range, through the Catarpe Valley. Your first stop will be at the Pukara de Quitor, an old fortress built by the Atacamenian people. These ruins are where the Atacameños fought to preserve their independence from the Inca Empire and later the Spanish.

Afterwards, you will continue biking towards the scenic Devil's Canyon and will be riding at an average height of 8000 ft. (2438 m). After crossing the San Pedro River, you'll arrive at the Canyon, which has narrow, quartz-flecked corridors and a sandy bottom in places. The ride is a gentle climb until you come out of the labyrinth on to the Catarpe plateau

The return journey follows the natural course of the San Pedro River until you reach the village and homeward to your hotel.

Difficulty: Easy
Altitude: 8530 ft. (2600 m.) above sea level
Distance biked: 15.5 miles (25 km.) along dirt road

In the afternoon you will depart from San Pedro in a van to the town of Toconao. Once here you will visit the main plaza, the church, and the historic bell tower, all historic symbols of this town.

After taking in the village sights, you will continue towards Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. This is where the Atacama Salt Flat is located and offers amazing bird watching. This national reserve is formed by a gigantic depression that occupies some 1200 square miles (3000 sq km) at an altitude of about 7545 ft. (2300 m).

The Salar is the biggest salt field in Chile and its large quantities of salt make the surface white and rough. You can get great panoramic views of the salt field as there is little on the dry horizon to obscure your view. Several lagoons have formed here, providing a habitat for Puna, Chilean and Andean flamingoes. Here you will watch another spectacular sunset, then head back to your hotel in San Pedro.

Difficulty: Easy
Altitude: 8530 feet (2600 m) above sea level

Day 4: Indigenous community experience, walking with llamas, astronomy

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert

After breakfast, you will bike towards Coyo, one of the historic settlements in the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. The morning will be dedicated to a Likan Antay experience. The Atacameños, or Likan Antay, have inhabited the desert for thousands of years and have learned discovered many of its secrets.

Wildo, a community member, will share with you the story of his ancestral background and describe lifestyles among the desert people. You will learn about growing corn and alfalfa crops here, the raising of livestock, craft making, and other traditional Likan Antay practices.
For lunch, you will taste typical Atacamenian recipes. Afterwards, you will cycle back to your accommodation for a short rest.

In the afternoon you will bike again to Coyo to visit the house of Sandra. There you will set off on an ancestral caravan with llamas. This excursion allows you to experience the thrill of walking with llamas in the Atacama Desert. A local guide will teach you more about the history of the desert and Atacamenian relationship to llamas and travel. After sunset, you will ride back to your hotel.
 
Later that night, you will join a small group for an astronomy excursion. The Atacama sky is one of the best in the world for stargazing. Local guides will teach you about Andean and occidental constellations and how to understand the cosmos according to the ancient inhabitants. Peering through modern telescopes, you will see spectacular objects in the universe.

Difficulty: Easy
Altitude: 7874 feet (2400 m) above sea level
Distance: 19 miles (29 km) round trip

Day 5: Float in the Cejar Lagoon & a cycle to the Moon Valley

Cooling off in the mineral and salt-laden Cejar Lagoon

Today you'll travel by bike towards the Cejar Lagoon, where you’ll get the chance to swim in a picturesque turquoise lagoon. Owing to the high salt content here, you'll be able to float quite easily. 

Afterwards, you'll go to the small twin lagoons of Ojos del Salar, then continue to the Tebinquinche Lagoon for a picnic.
Following lunch, you’ll be driven back to San Pedro de Atacama.

Bike distance: 21 miles (35 km) along dirt road
Difficulty: Easy
Altitude: 7874 feet (2400 m) above sea level

In the afternoon, you’ll bike from San Pedro de Atacama towards Moon Valley, a valley of statuesque, rocky formations. Salt covers the surface in a dry, parched layer, giving the landscape a lunar aspect. You'll visit the statues of salt called Las Tres Marias, a salt mine and salt caves. Then, you'll walk past sand dunes until you reach the summit of a big dune. You'll watch the sunset in this valley known for its spectacular colors. Afterwards, you'll return to your lodging in San Pedro de Atacama.
 
Difficulty: Medium
Altitude: 7874 feet (2,400 m) above sea level
Bike distance: 21 miles (35 km) along a mix of asphalt and dirt road

Day 6: Capur Salt Flat Hike

The saltwater lake of Talar

On the fifth day, you’ll depart towards Socaire village, located at an altitude of 10,826 ft. (3300 m.). There you'll acclimatize and have a look at the small church of San Bartolomé.

Afterwards, you'll continue towards Cerro Capur (Capur Hill) and set off on a four-hour hike to the top. Atop the 14,996 ft. (4571 m.) summit, you'll enjoy fabulous views of the salt lakes of Aguas Calientes and Talar, with Andean Volcanoes in the distance.

Once you descend the hill, you'll enjoy lunch against the backdrop of striking colors of the Andes Mountain Range. You'll also get a closer look at the salt lakes. These are a wondrous habitat for a variety of avian species, such as the Chilean flamingo, the small parina, and the horned crane, among other birds.

Difficulty: Hard.
Altitude: 13,123 ft. (4000 m.) above sea level
Distance: 3.72 miles (6 km.) 
Time Hiking: 4 Hours

Day 7: Tatio Geysers - Copa Coya Mount

Hiking amid the desert landscape near Copa Coya

Today, you'll depart by van to the Tatio Geysers. At an altitude of 14,271 ft. (4350 m.), the valley has a wild landscape shaped by sputtering fumaroles and steaming geysers of volcanic origin.

After taking in the surreal landscape, you will set on a hike from the geothermal field around Copa Coya hill. This hike offers another dramatic perspective of the Tatio Geysers. This is one of our favorite hikes in Chile, with surprising views amid amazing rock formations and bizarre landscape. It ends with a well-deserved lunch near the steam columns.

That night, you'll enjoy a farewell dinner back in San Pedro.

Difficulty: Hard.
Altitude: 14,271 ft. (4300 m.) above sea level
Distance: 5 miles (8 km)
Time hiking: 4 hours

Day 8: Transfer to Calama Airport - Departure

The low-slung town of San Pedro de Atacama

After breakfast, you will have time to walk around town and browse for souvenirs for family and friends. You'll then be provided with a transfer to Calama airport for your return journey.