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.
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.
- Planning Your Time
- Finding a Guide
- The Best Places to Eat
- Doing Your Research
- Seeing Stars
- Packing Properly
- Taking Great Photos
- 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.
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.
No matter how spontaneous and fly-by-the-seats-of-your-travel-pants you may be, you want to book ahead in the Atacama.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!