The Atacama Desert: A place so arid, so naturally red, it stands in for Mars for NASA scientists. 

A birders’ paradise, where huge flocks of 3 different types of flamingoes ignore you and your camera to concentrate on eating. 

Introducing the post, a graphic features two pictures of the Atacama Desert: the top, the textured, moon-like peach, white, and dusty rose peaks of the Valley of the Dead, and the bottom, the bright blue water of the salt flats, with long-legged water fowl in the distance grazing on microscopic shrimp that thrives in the salt water. Pin

A starry night sky that is the real life version of the one Van Gogh painted, but literally life-size. 

This is the Atacama in northern Chile. It’s spectacular.

And man, is it easy to get it wrong. 

I, unfortunately, did a lot wrong on my trip. Here are the tips I wish I’d had. 

  1. Planning Your Time
  2. Finding a Guide
  3. The Best Places to Eat
  4. Doing Your Research
  5. Seeing Stars
  6. Packing Properly
  7. Taking Great Photos
  8. The Bolivia Extension, and why it’s a big deal

Want to see more photos of the Atacama Desert? Check out our report on our current project, the Atacama Desert Travelogue.

1. Atacama Desert: Planning Your Time

Many packages to the Atacama offer 4 days and 3 nights, and certainly you can hit the highlights in that time.

But the shorter trip can feel a bit like you’re in a herd and basically doing what everyone does: The Valley of the Moon, the Salt Flats with the flamingoes, and the Tatio Geysers, as well as some stops that are pretty much ways to get money from tourists.

Don’t get me wrong: The Valley of the Moon and Salt Flats and Tatio Geysers are all wonderful. Don’t skip them.

Looking down on the Valley of Death in the Atacama desert, pink, sepia, white, and brown sand and rock stand out in textured relief, a blue sky in the background with volcanic peaks topped with snow.Pin
The surreal beauty of the Valley of Death, across the main road from the Valley of the Moon.

But seeing them with too big of a group, where you’re hustled along to the next Instagrammable spot and not getting a whole lotta background, doesn’t allow that optimum time to soak up the vastness, majesty, and just pure weirdness of these places. For that, you need a small group or even a private guide who knows the territory. (More on that below.)

An extra 2-3 days allow you to explore some spots that may be harder to get to. You can be more active, either in a hike, sandboard, or on horseback. Most importantly, you’ll have extra nights to spend under the glorious night skies. 

2. Atacama Desert: Finding a Guide (and booking ahead)

Book your trips ahead.

Seriously.

No matter how spontaneous and fly-by-the-seats-of-your-travel-pants you may be, you want to book ahead in the Atacama.

Here’s why.

San Pedro de Atacama, the little oasis town in which you’ll most surely be based, is basically one long dusty street of trip touts and restaurants with mostly overpriced food (with a few exceptions).

Caracoles Street in San Pedro de Atacama is a long dusty unpaved street lined with stucco buildings, with snow-capped volcanoes rising in the distance.Pin

There are roughly one million cheap and not so cheap tours—at least, it feels that way. The choices can overwhelm, and you’re likely to say yes out of sheer exhaustion.

Once at your meeting point, you’ll get bundled with a bunch of other people into a van that has run the same route again and again. 

Worst case scenarios are the tours offered in multiple languages. The guides are so busy switching between 3-4 different languages—a truly admirable gift—that the commentary kicks into automatic, with little time for the awesome personal stories that help you connect to a place in a memorable way.

A much better experience is to arrange your tours in advance, and pay what you can afford. Note that many tour guides charge a flat fee for 1 to 4 or 5 people. If you want to split the cost and don’t mind approaching strangers at your hotel, you can potentially find some good travel companions. 

A wine and cheese picnic in the Valley of the Moon in the Atacama Desert, arranged by Rutas Andinas. A table set next to a white van is covered with squares of cheese, wine glasses, and juices in glass pitchers. A guide smiles as she pours from a bottle of malbec.Pin
Rutas Andinas set up this nice wine and cheese spread in the Valle de la Luna.

This is the truth: You get what you pay for.

We wish we’d known about Tours by Locals. We haven’t tried them and they’re not an affiliate, but when we go back? We’re going with them. 

We’re also intrigued by kimkim and their local expert approach. 

Invest that extra time and money in finding a great, dedicated local expert, one who will, in return, invest in helping you find the unique magic of this place. 

3. Atacama Desert: The Best Places to Eat

We found that the simpler the meal—pizza, empanadas, ice cream—the happier we were.

Chile is South America’s (at time of writing and for quite a while) most stable economy. Much of that wealth comes from the ground beneath your feet; an entire war was fought to have rights to the Atacama for the mineral riches below its surface. 

That makes it seem expensive, especially compared to many other South American countries. This gorgeous salad had very little flavor and cost a ton. That said, it IS pretty.

Curly lettuce rises like a bouquet from a plate that also features thinly rolled zucchini, pieces of walnuts, dark sun dried tomatoes, and squiggles of bright green dressing. From a restaurant in the Atacama Desert in Chile.Pin

You’re in a desert. Things are shipped in. Not that far, because Chile’s a very thin country. But it doesn’t make a ton of sense to splurge on seafood that will either cost a fortune because it was caught that morning and then rushed over, or, far likelier, is less than perfectly fresh, and still costs a fortune.

Ask your tour guide rather than your hotel; the good tour guides tend to steer you toward affordable, more authentic places. (Your hotel will want you to eat in their dining room as much as possible. It’s a safe option, but gets pricy very quickly.)

Our two favorites: Truly wonderful empanadas from Emporio Andino (and ridiculously affordable), at the end of Caracoles, the main street:

….and Las Delicias de Carmen, which has excellent pizza and a fun, super casual atmosphere, about a half block off the main drag.

As always, there are no guarantees that these places will be there. But they do appear to have survived the pandemic. Yay!

A huge golden empanada sprinkled with sesame seeds peeks out of a bag from Emporio Andino, an excellent and cheap place to eat in San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert, Chile.Pin
Empanadas from Emporio Andino in San Pedro de Atacama are delicious, big, and reasonably priced.

4. Atacama Desert: Doing Your Research 

The documentary Nostalgia for the Light is a fine introduction to the brilliant night skies of the Atacama, as well as the terrible shadow cast by Pinochet. 

Ariel Dorfman’s book Desert Memories is the absolute best primer on the Atacama. Most famous for his book Death and the Maiden, Dorfman exiled himself from Chile during the Pinochet years, returning afterward to reconcile himself to the fate of disappeared friends while exploring the good, bad, and ugly parts of the  Norte Grande, Chile’s upper third that includes the Atacama. The context that you’ll find here is invaluable, and will make your trip that much more rewarding. 

Beyond the Atacama: Everyone appreciates when visitors know at least the basics about a place they’ve chosen to visit; Chileans are, of course, no exceptions. Your attempt to understand even the most basic points of relatively recent, very dark hours is a gesture of support and respect for your hosts.

To that end:

An entertaining history lesson on how the country finally ousted Pinochet, Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated No is powerful and a testament to any revolution’s need for creativity.

And since you’ll likely spend a day or two in Santiago prior to flying to Calama for your trip, the powerful Museum of Memory and Human Rights will give you context and tremendous respect for the Chilean people. The picture I took of one of the “No” ballots continues to give me chills every time I look at it.

My favorite Chilean fiction of late is Nona Fernández’s extraordinary novel The Twilight Zone. Using the American series, which she watched as a child growing up in Pinochet’s Chile, as a jumping off point, Fernández creates a powerful, poetic narrative about the lives destroyed and saved in that terrible time.

And of course, there are the poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, and the prolific novelist and memoirist Isabel Allende—just the beginnings of the wealth of Chilean literature. Check out our reading list on Bookshop.org; when you click on a link and buy, you support independent booksellers and this site. Thank you!

5. Atacama Desert: Seeing Stars

The night sky over the Atacama is a true wonder of the world.

At night in the Atacama Desert, black silhouettes of volcanoes stand in sharp relief against a rose and violet sky dotted with stars, a gold, purple and white nebula stretching into the distance like a rainbow.Pin
In the Atacama Desert, the night sky is filled with stars, color, and light.

So get the best night sky tour you can afford, optimally signing up in advance. 

But don’t stop there. Make sure that, wherever you stay, you can easily get to a place somewhere within the grounds of the hotel or Air BnB itself to simply lie down and watch the show. Under a couple of big blankets, to be sure.

A lounge chair in an AirBnB back yard or on a balcony may do as well, and possibly better, than a pool at a fancy resort with too many lights around it. Ask in advance. You won’t be sorry.

6. Atacama Desert: Packing Properly

We repeat: In order to watch those stars, you’ll want to be warm.

Ditto if you get up to see the Tatio Geysers at around 4 in the morning—and you definitely should.

A man checks his camer in front of the  billowing Tatio Geysers in Chile, a blanket wrapped around his windbreaker. The Atacama Desert gets very, very cold.Pin

Hotels usually offer thick cushy blankets. A poncho makes a great and very useful souvenir. Just pound this into your head: Deserts, including and maybe especially this one, get incredibly and counterintuitively cold at night. Be prepared, and set yourself up to watch as many stars as you can. 

7. Atacama Desert: Taking Great Photos

There is one massive factor that can get in the way of great pictures in the Atacama Desert:

Light.

Whether it’s glaring sun or the incredible night sky, the lighting conditions in the Atacama Desert are extreme. If you’re used to just sort of casually snapping shots using one hand on your phone, you may have a bunch of stuff you simply can’t use.

This is super frustrating, because you’ll see some things here you just won’t see anywhere else.

Whether or not you want to bring a higher-end camera than the one on your phone, we recommend (and wish we’d taken) a course dealing specifically with photographing outdoors—like the ones available from Creative Life. Courses are fun, there are Fast Class options, and you’ll be SO glad you took them.

In the Atacama Desert in Chile, a woman's long shadow stretches from the bottom to the middle of a landscape of peach, ocher, ivory, and sepia desert rock and sand, a brilliant blue sky overhead and snow-capped volcano on the horizon. Pin
It took several tries to get the shadow just right in this photo I took with my iPhone.

8. Atacama Desert: The Bolivia Extension, and why it’s a big deal

You will see many opportunities to go to the Uyuni Salt Flats across the border in Bolivia. Understand that this is no small undertaking. First off, if you’re from the US, you’ll have to pay a fairly steep entrance visa fee, around $160 at time of writing. Secondly, this isn’t exactly glamping.

So just know that this isn’t as simple as popping over the border into a blissful day on white sands that catch prisms of rainbow-hued light. It’s kind of a big deal, and you need to be prepared for it.

Do You Have Tips for Visiting the Atacama Desert?

We’d love to hear from you about your own experiences in the Atacama, or to help you find answers to your own Atacama Desert questions. Drop Nan a line or leave a comment.

Thanks for reading!

a shareable graphic encouraging viewers to visit the Atacama, featuring a long shadow against the sunset towns of the landscape, scarf billowing in the wind. Pin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.