Reasons to go to the Atacama Desert

  • Hike in alien landscapes that feel like the closest thing to being on Mars
  • Stargaze in state of the art observatories in the best place on earth for astrotourism
  • Connect with deep history through the hidden petroglyphs of the Rainbow Valley
  • Watch the spectacle of the El Tatio geysers explode with steam from a frozen high altitude landscape
  • Watch flamingos in lagoons that emerge shimmering from the surrounding salt flats

About the Atacama Desert

A male hiker standing on a mountain ridge in the Salt Mountains of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile

Trekking through the Salt Mountain Range in the Atacama Desert

The dramatic landscapes of the Atacama speak of an equally dramatic history. Back in geological time the whole area lay under an ancient ocean, something of a surprise for visitors arriving in the hub town of San Pedro de Atacama (San Pedro for short) which sits at 2400m, but a boon for the salt miners who turned this into a boom area in the 20th century.

Long before this, the area was home of the Chinchorro and Atacameño people, who arrived here around 12,000 years ago and developed a sophisticated farming culture centred on the desert oases. San Pedro and nearby Calama are still Atacameño towns today. In the 15th century the region was the most distant outpost of the Inca empire in Peru, while a century later it was claimed by the Spanish conquistadors.

The Atacama only became Chilean in the late 1880s, when it was claimed from Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, and so it was Santiago that grew rich from the boom years of salt, nitrate and copper mining here. In the 21st century, San Pedro is now a key centre of north Chile's tourist renaissance.

What to see & do in the Atacama Desert

Vallecito & Moon Valley

Tiny figures of hikers explore the vast red sandy rocks of Vallecito in Chile's Atacama Desert

Exploring the rocky alien landscapes of Vallecito

The Atacama's salt mountains are one of its most distinctive natural features, and give rise to landscapes that feel like another planet altogether. By far the best places to experience them are Vallecito and Moon Valley, both close to San Pedro. Moon Valley attracts more visitors but feels a little over-managed at times, so we recommend heading to Vallecito – it's just as awe inspiring and a lot less crowded.

You won't be the only ones to wonder if alien life might be lurking here: NASA come here to test equipment for their Mars missions, while the Stars Wars team filmed parts of The Mandalorian series in the area (the fact that its star Pedro Pascal is from Chile is, we're sure, just a happy accident).

This region is a historic salt mining area and its detritus can still be found here: look out for the abandoned miners' bus artfully bleached and rusting near the abandoned mine on the way to Vallecito.

Rainbow Valley petroglyphs

Close up of a petroglyph in the Atacama Desert. The image is of a pregnant fox, containing a baby fox inside her

Petroglyph showing a pregnant fox

The pretty churches of San Pedro speak to the Atacama's Spanish history, but the region has actually been occupied by people for several thousand years. The petroglyphs found near the Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris) are witnesses to this enduring presence. The rocky outcrops here were home to the Lican Antai people, who used them as shelter more than 4000 years ago and left behind an astonishing collection of petroglyphs to mark their presence.

The oldest drawings are of guanaco, followed by cages to hold them. Later, human images appeared, followed by an intense and intriguing series of petroglyphs of guanaco interspersed with flamingos and even a pregnant fox.

The Rainbow Valley is so named for the astounding milieu of colours created by the collision of three separate mountain ranges, with sedimentary, volcanic and plutonic rocks mixed together in technicolour chaos. The mix of geological and human history on display here is simply astounding.

Swoop Says background image

Swoop says

Four days is the perfect amount of time to spend in the Atacama. There's so much more to do in the desert than you'll first imagine – plus the extra time will help you acclimatise for the incredible high altitude spectacle of the El Tatio geysers.

Guatin canyon hike

In Guatin canyon in Chile's Atacama Desert, a guide shows a group of hikers a Cardon cactus, growing on a slope of rocky scree

Ancient Cardon cactus in Guatin Canyon

If you climb up from the endlessly flat desert plains surrounding San Pedro, the landscape suddenly changes to one of rocky gorges and canyons filled with streams and rivers flush with the snowmelt of the Andes, and dotted with the tallest and grandest cactus on the planet. It's perfect hiking country.

The Guatin Canyon hike offers one of the best introductions to Atacama hiking. Take a half day to navigate through this steep-sided gorge with some easy rock scrambling and jumping on stepping stones across the river. It's home to the Cardon Cactus, which grows just a few centimetres a year – the tallest are over 7m tall and several centuries old. The microclimate means that Guatin is also a great place for birdwatching.

Astrotourism

A group of people stand silhouetted outside a telescope observatory near San Pedro in Chile's Atacama Desert. The night sky is full of stars, with the Milky Way clearly visible.

Stargazing from one of San Pedro's observatories

The Atacama Desert has some of the highest, driest and clearest skies anywhere on the planet. More than two thirds of the world's most advanced observatories are based here, which means there's no better place to be for astrotourism.

An excursion to the one of the observatories on the outskirts of San Pedro reveal the true beauty of the night sky. Experienced guides give a tour of the solar system, the Milky Way, the constellations and the deep space nebulas, and teach you how to capture them on camera. Seeing the rings of Saturn and its moons with your own eyes for the first time is a truly exciting and humbling experience.

Even if you're only a casual stargazer, don't forget to look up at night wherever you are: you won't believe the celestial show happening above your head.

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Peter says

I've never been anywhere with more unworldly beauty than the Atacama Desert. The moment you get here you understand why NASA chose this place to test out their Mars Rover.

Peter StanleyJones Patagonia Specialist

El Tatio Geysers

It is dawn. The El Tatio geysers explode with steam into the freezing air. There is a colourful sunrise on the horizon, framed by mountains. This is the altiplano above Chile's Atacama Desert.

Dawn at El Tatio geysers

If looking at the stars in the Atacama is like staring into deep cosmic time, visiting El Tatio Geysers (Geiseres del Tatio) leaves you feeling like a witness to the birth of the planet itself. Over 70 geysers announce themselves with steamy explosions, while a hundred fumaroles (vents) let their volcanic gasses hiss out from deep below the earth. This impressive geological show is one of undoubted highlights of any Atacama visit.

It's a full day excursion to be well-prepared for. El Tatio is around 4300m above sea level so you'll need to acclimatise, plus the altitude means freezing temperatures so you'll want to wrap up warmly. Most visits arrive pre-dawn, when the contrast between the sub-zero air and the super-heated steams offers the most dramatic spectacle.

With a pre-dawn start, you'll also witness the altiplano scenery painted with deep reds, browns, yellows and greens as the sun rises – followed by a stop by the Vega del Tatio wetlands, where you take your breakfast in the company of flamingos and other waterbirds.

Flamingo lagoons

Two flamingoes feed in the salty lagoons of Chile's Atacama Desert.

Flamingoes at Laguna Chaxa

It may feel like a contradiction to come to the desert to see waterbirds, but the flamingos of Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos strut their stuff here in salty lagoons in a pink-feathered demonstration of the Atacama's incredible wild diversity.

There are two lagoons that can be visited in an easy half day trip from San Pedro: Laguna Cejar and Laguna Chaxa. At Cejar its possible to float Dead Sea-style in the ferociously saline waters. Chaxa is the place for the flamingos, where you can three different species: the Chilean, Andea and James flamingos all sift the briny waters here for shrimps. Water bird such as plovers and avocets also make up this extraordinary saltwater ecosystem.

Trips here typically include a visit to Toconao, a small traditional town inhabited by the Atacameño people. It's a good place to stock on locally made woolly socks, hats and gloves for chilly high altitude adventures. Toconao is surprisingly green thanks to its river, which makes the contrast with its vast flat salt crust surroundings even more of a shocking contrast.

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What our customers think of Atacama Desert

The desert was beautiful, like living in a moonscape. We loved the town and the star gazing was like no other place on Earth. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Jerry Gold - USA

Beautiful. Great sandboarding for the kids. Lots of wild animals and of course the flamingo🌈🦩 Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Ken Knara - USA

Standing on top of an empty Atacama Desert hill. Seeing no end to an horizon. And in absolute silence, surrounded by absolute beauty. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2021

Hans Van Tartwijk - USA

Atacama surpassed our expectations. It’s an extraordinary place and we loved spending 9 nights in total as we managed to see and do everything we wanted. The highlight was climbing the volcanoes. Read the full review

Travelled: January 2020

Karen Proudman - Australia

What a fantastic contrast to the Patagonian area. We had the perfect sunset at Death Valley, the sunrise swim in the hot springs at the Tatio geysers was definitely a highlight and the geysers and scenery stunning. Read the full review

Travelled: December 2018

Lena Altinger - Australia

The Atacama was a great place to start our trip. We loved the high steppes and the wildlife, the geology, history and the views. We were glad of our extra day to visit some archeology sites.

Travelled: December 2016

Martha -

Review:

Where to stay in the Atacama Desert

Although the Atacama stretches for 1000km between the Pacific Coast and the Andean Mountains, you don't have to range so far to check out its major attractions. Instead, the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama is the ideal perfect place to base yourself. Swoop has access to a wide choice of accommodation here, ranging from elegant boutique hotels and charming guesthouses to luxury resorts that have their own guides to help you plan each day's excursions into the desert. 

How to get to the Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama does not have its own airport, but  it can be reached by air via Calama's El Loa Airport (code CJC), roughly one hour away by private transfer. Licancabur looms large on the road to San Pedro, symbolically welcoming you to the region. The airport has daily flights to Santiago (two hours). 

By road, it's just over 1550m from Calama to Santiago – about 22 hours by sleeper bus. 

To reach Argentina, there are direct buses from San Pedro to Salta (480km, ten hours). 

For Bolivia, there are direct buses on the remote high altitude backroads to Uyuni (450km, ten hours). It's a spectacular route but very rugged – strictly one for the adventurous.

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