Hiking the Atacama Desert - 10 Days
- Zip down a sand dune in the Mars-like Valle de la Muerte
- Soak up the view while floating effortlessly in the Cejar Lagoon
- See one of the world's clearest night skies during an astronomy tour
- Hike amid the mesmerizing colors of the aptly named Rainbow Valley
- Spot flamingoes in the Salar de Atacama, Chile's largest salt flat
- Watch steaming geysers in the high-altitude geothermal field of El Tatio
- Learn traditional farming and craft making while visiting an Atacamenian village
An ideal itinerary for active travelers, this 10-day trip offers memorable hikes that take you on spectacular adventures around the Atacama, which contains many highlights of northern Chile. There’s much to experience here, from watching sputtering geysers to trekking through cacti-filled canyons. Jaw-dropping views await at seemingly every turn, and there are plenty of opportunities to relax after a day’s memorable outing — including soaks in hot springs and a high-altitude lagoon.
On this trip, you’ll base in San Pedro de Atacama, and spend each day exploring a different facet of this geologically rich region. Aside from seeing the great natural wonders of the Atacama, you’ll also visit traditional villages in the region and learn about native Atacamenians who have lived here for centuries. San Pedro itself is a traveler’s mecca with adobe-lined streets sprinkled with colorful restaurants, cafes and handicraft shops.
|Day 1||Arrival in Santiago de Chile||Santiago|
|Day 2||Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama||San Pedro|
|Day 3||Hike in Cuchabrache - Hike in the Valley of the Moon - Stargazing||San Pedro|
|Day 4||Village Visit - Atacama Salt Flat||San Pedro|
|Day 5||Hike Puntal del Inca to Guatín - Soak in the Puritama Hot Springs||San Pedro|
|Day 6||Machuca Village - Rio Grande Village||San Pedro|
|Day 7||Quebrada de Nacimiento - Talar Salt Flat - Altiplanic lagoons||San Pedro|
|Day 8||Hike Rainbow Valley - Soak in Cejar Lagoon - Sunset at Tebinquinche Lagoon||San Pedro|
|Day 9||El Tatio Geysers - Hike Copa Coya Mount||San Pedro|
|Day 10||Transfer to Calama Airport - Departure|
Day 1: Arrival in Santiago de Chile
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 with colorful houses adorned with graffiti art, and 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
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: Hike in Cuchabrache - Hike in the Valley of the Moon - Stargazing
After breakfast, you'll depart San Pedro de Atacama towards Catarpe. This lush valley is located in the middle of the Cordillera de la Sal, and is nourished by the rushing waters of the Rio San Pedro. You will follow the river until reaching the area known as Cuchabrache.
Once here you will start hiking to the summit plateau. From the top, you'll have spectacular views of the valley contrasted by the dry Cordillera de la Sal and towering volcanoes in the distance. This is a great opportunity to experience views enjoyed by few visitors on one San Pedro's less traveled hikes.
Afterwards, you will walk for about 2.5 hours experiencing spectacular geological formations. The hike ends when you reach a tunnel that was once part of an old road to Calama.
Altitude: 8530 ft (2600 m) above sea level
Distance: 3.1 miles (5 km)
After lunch, you will drive towards a different section of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range). This range was formed during the Oligocene geological period, which was marked by the mass extinction of living species, probably caused by a meteorite. After the cordillera's formation, the area became arid with rainfall blocked by the Andes in the east and by the coastal range in the west.
The area is known for its natural sculptures that have been eroded by wind, sun, and rain over millions of years. Rich colors dominate the landscape, with diverse minerals creating the variety of stratifications and colorations.
The hike starts in the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) at the famous Coyote Rock, a strange rock formation offering an unrivaled vantage point over the mountain range. You'll walk two hours by the Kari George, admiring beautiful views of the Atacama. Along the way, you'll see statuesque rock formations and a fine blanket of salt that gives the valley its lunar aspect.
You'll eat dinner back in San Pedro de Atacama. Then you'll head out for a star-filled astronomy outing. At the start of the tour, you'll get an overview of the Andean night sky, followed by open-air star-gazing and guided observations by telescope. Overnight in San Pedro de Atacama.
Altitude: 7874 ft (2400 m) above sea level
Distance: 3.10 miles (5 km)
Day 4: Visit a traditional village, Atacama Salt Flat
In the morning, you'll visit a traditional indigenous village. Atacameños, or Likan Antay, have inhabited the desert for thousands of years and hold many secrets of survival in the harsh landscape. During the visit, a community member will relate the story of his own family and describe the traditional Atacameño lifestyle. You will learn about the cultivation of corn and alfalfa crops, animal farming, craft making and other activities. For lunch, you'll enjoy a traditional Atacamenian meal.
In the afternoon you will drive to the village of Toconao. There you will visit the central plaza and the historic church, which has become a symbol of this peaceful settlement.
Afterwards, you will continue on to the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos, gateway to some incredible bird watching. This national reserve is formed by a gigantic depression of more than 1350 sq miles (3500 sq. km.) located 7545 feet (2300 m.) above sea level. It's part of the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt field in Chile.
The highlight of this tour is a visit to one of the salar's enormous lakes. Fed by mountain rivers and melting snow, the nutrient-rich lake attracts various wildlife, including three types of flamingos that inhabit the area: the Puna, the Andean and the Chilean. Before heading back to San Pedro, you will watch the sunset, which are often spectacular in this part of the Atacama.
This evening you'll have time to explore the town on your own.
Altitude: 8530 ft. (2600 m.) above sea level
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Day 5: Hike Puntal del Inca to Guatín, Soak in the Puritama Hot Springs
In the morning, you'll head northeast for a scenic hike that starts at Punta del Inca. You'll follow the course of the river up through the ravine until reaching the settlement of Guatín. There you will enjoy a picnic lunch.
The hike then winds along a slope through ancient settlements and 100-year-old cacti. It's a scenic, rocky trail that leads toward the Puritama Hot Springs. At the springs, you can relax in rejuvenating mineral water and refuel with snacks.
Explore San Pedro on your own this evening.
Altitude: 10,498 to 11,811 ft (3200 to 3600) above sea level.
Distance: 5.6 miles (9 km)
Time hiking: 4 hours
Day 6: Hike 7 Miles from Machuca village to Rio Grande village
On day five, the outing begins in the village of Machuca, situated 13,123 ft. (4000 m.) above sea level. The hike begins with a descent through a desert moor towards a picturesque gorge, passing through lands used by shepherd caravans. You'll stop for lunch midway through the hike at an abandoned homestead called Peñaliri.
After lunch, you'll continue hiking downriver until reaching the village of Río Grande for the return drive back to San Pedro de Atacama. In the evening, you can explore the restaurants and craft markets of San Pedro.
Altitude: 13,123 to 10,498 ft (4000 to 3200 m) above sea level.
Distance: 7.45 miles (12 km)
Day 7: Quebrada de Nacimiento, Talar Salt Flat, Altiplanic Lagoons
Today, you'll head up to the traditional village of Socaire and visit the small church of San Bartolomé. Afterwards, you'll hike through the Nacimiento Gorge, with its striking rock formations created by ancient lava flows. Following the two-hour hike, you'll continue by vehicle to the entrance of the Chaour trail. This leads to a fantastic salt flat called Talar.
Heading back toward San Pedro, you'll stop at the photogenic waters of Miscanti and Meñiques. These sparkling lagoons have an intense blue color and make a gorgeous setting for a short hike. Against a backdrop of Andean peaks and towering volcanoes, these lagoons provide a habitat for a variety of species. With luck, you'll spot the Chilean flamingo, the small parina, the Baird's Sandpiper and the horned crane, among other birds.
After the hike, you'll head back to San Pedro de Atacama for a bit of downtime. Later that night, you'll join the group for dinner around 8:30 pm.
Altitude: 14,927 to 10,826 ft above sea level (4350 to 3300 m)
Distance: 7.76 miles (12.5 km)
Day 8: Hike Rainbow Valley, Soak in Cejar Lagoon, Sunset at Tebinquinche Lagoon
After breakfast, you’ll enjoy a day of hiking in the Rainbow Valley, one of the most beautiful and least visited destinations in the region. Throughout the walk, you'll pass cacti and hills of violet, gray, red and blue, colored by the rich mineral deposits.
You'll have lunch back in San Pedro, then grab your swimsuit for the next activity: a trip to the Cejar Lagoon. After a short walk in the area, you can take a dip in the water. Not unlike a mini Dead Sea, the turquoise lagoon has a high salt content, making it very easy to float.
Afterwards, you'll stop by two small watering holes known as Ojos del Salar, and then continue on to Tebinquinche Lagoon. There you'll have a cocktail and enjoy one of the best settings in Atacama to watch the sunset.
Altitude: 10,498 ft. (3200 m) above sea level
Distance: 3.1 miles (5 km)
Day 9: Tatio Geysers, Copa Coya Mount
Today you'll set off after breakfast for one of San Pedro's most dramatic sights, the Tatio Geysers. At an altitude of 14,271 ft. (4350 m), this geyser field is full of sputtering and steaming fumaroles of volcanic origin.
After taking in the dramatic scene, you'll take a hike from the geothermal field around Copa Coya hill. This hike follows old Rutas Llareteras, offering extraordinary views over the Tatio Geysers. The hike finishes with a well-deserved lunch overlooking Tatio's steam columns.
That night, you'll enjoy a farewell dinner back in San Pedro de Atacama.
Altitude: 14,271 ft. (4350 m) above sea level.
Distance: 5 miles (8 km)
Day 10: Transfer to Calama Airport - Departure
On your last day, you'll have breakfast followed by a private transfer back to Calama Airport.