Lunar landscapes, salt lakes dotted with fluorescent flamingos and geysers spurting clouds of steaming water into the frigid dawn air: this is the Atacama Desert. Located in the far north of Chile, this region is so different in climate and terrain from the rest of the country that you’ll wonder whether you’ve landed somewhere else on earth completely. But this really is still Chile and organising a series of Atacama Desert tours is the the best way to explore the region’s top highlights.
Tips for Atacama Desert tours
Finding and booking top-quality Atacama Desert tours is a surprisingly easy undertaking. Bear in mind that, as one of Chile’s top three tourist destinations (the other two being Easter Island and Torres del Paine National Park), prices of tours here are some of the highest you will encounter across the country. That said, bargains are to be found, but the singular magnificence of the Atacama Desert makes it worth the expense.
Plan up front
Many tourists visiting the Atacama Desert will book their tours through an agency in Santiago or as a part of a package deal for their entire trip to South America. This is perfect for those with a tight schedule and who want peace of mind to know that everything is booked, planned and ready to go when they arrive in San Pedro de Atacama – the region’s main town.
Those with more flexibility and a desire to grab some bargains will find that booking through a local tour operator in San Pedro de Atacama is a cheaper option. By visiting a handful of the numerous tour offices that line the town’s dusty main street, you can quickly get an idea of prices and what type of package deals are on offer. By planning beforehand which attractions you want to see, you can often get an agency to giveyou a deal on taking a number of Atacama Desert tours with them – and save yourself a sizeable sum.
Consult the lunar calendar
With its dry and mild climate, the weather in the Atacama Desert is fairly predictable and long spells of hot, sunny days and cloudless nights make it a globally-renowned place for stargazing.
However, while weather conditions are pretty much guaranteed, the lunar cycle can be a major impediment to the revered – and necessary – clear skies. So double check when the moon will be at its fullest, as Atacama Desert tours to observatories won’t run at this point in the month.
Have some time to acclimatize
With the town of San Pedro de Atacama sitting at 7,900 feet (2,400m) above sea level, and many of the surrounding attractions situated at even higher altitudes, a period of time to acclimatize is essential. If you’re flying directly from Santiago, the change in height can bring on headaches, dizziness or lethargy – all perfectly normal signs of altitude sickness. For a speedy recovery, give yourself a day or two to adapt, drink plenty of water and don’t overexert yourself.
Types of tours to choose from
Bring a bathing suit for a tour to any one of the thermal waters that are scattered across the Atacama Desert. One of the most popular is Termas de Puritama, a series of eight naturally-formed geothermal pools filled with crystal clear spring water that is heated to a pleasant 92.3 °F (33.5 °C).
Shimmering bodies of deep blue water and shallow pools topped with a crusted layer of salt are another star attraction in the Atacama Desert. Laguna Cejar, a lagoon with salt content so high that you can float on the surface, is the only one where you can actually swim, but the ethereal beauty of Laguna Tebenquiche at sunset, the flamingo-speckled waters of Laguna Chaxa and the breathtaking vistas of salt-rimmed Laguna Miscanti and Miñiques are still guaranteed to blow you away.
Moon Valley and the El Tatio geysers steal the show when it comes to dramatic landscapes in the Atacama Desert. Admire sunset or sunrise over the lunar red of Moon Valley with a half-day tour or watch the spurting clouds of water evaporate into steam at the world-famous geysers.
As one of the best places on the planet to peer into outer space, stargazing tours in the Atacama Desert are the cherry on top of a trip to San Pedro de Atacama. A whole host of agencies shuttle tourists out to stretches of desert where conditions are ideal for peering through telescopes to watch nature’s finest cosmic lightshow.