3 day itinerary for the driest desert in the world, Atacama Desert in Chile.
Easiest way to arrive to Atacama, is to fly to Calama. It is the closest town with an airport, only about 1,5h drive away from San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is the main village of the area where majority of the visitors decide to stay. There is many options for hotels, restaurants and travel agencies.
Transport from the Calama airport to San Pedro is easy arrange when flying in. There is multiple companies driving the route all day. You can also find rental car companies from here.
Day 1 – Pukara de Quitor
For the first day we head to the archeological site of Pukara de Quitor, only couple kilometers from the town of San Pedro. The fortress is build around 1200 century, pre-incan ages, by the Atacameño-people.
Besides the ruins, you can have a walk up to a viewpoint which is worth doing. Only remember to pack enough water with you and cover yourself from the sun. During the early afternoon, the sun gets burning hot. The walk takes couple hours to go there and back.
After exploring the ruins and having a lunch picnic there, we head back to the town where you can find many hotels, restaurants and also tour agencies if you don’t have a chance to explore Atacama by yourself. It is also good for souvenier shopping.
It is worth it to have a stroll around the beautiful and unique looking desert town. Check also the church of San Pedro and if you are into history, you can find a museum displaying ceramic work of the Atacameño people, the first inhabitants of the area.
Day 2 – Valle de la luna
For sure, Valle de la Luna aka Moon Valley is on everyone’s list who comes to Atacama. It is famous by the moon like landscapes, sand and rock formations, shaped by wind and water over the times. The place is just majestic and a true masterpiece of nature.
Entrance to the Moon Valley is not far from San Pedro. Some people choose to go there by bikes but to be honest, for me it would be too rough. To see all what Moon Valley has to offer, you would probably have to cycle few hours one way, under the sun without any shelters for rest. We saw quite a few people trying to hitchhike with their bikes on our way back.
Little while after the entrance is a stop for Cavernas de Sal, Salt caves. It is a really cool path among the rock formations leading up to beautiful viewpoint. It is also a refreshing escape from the sun for a while. The cave gets quite dark so I recommend taking a flashlight with you, a phone with one will do as well.
Along the road was few viewpoints, salt mines and the Tres Marias, three stone pilars glittering with the salt. We saved the best for the last, huge sand dune in the middle of the way. It is the best spot for watching the sunset as we were told by the lady at the entrance.
You could admire the moon valley up from the dune. The salt looked like snow on the ground and the valley looked like out of a space movie. With the sun going down, the temperature started to drop as well. Even with many people gathering on the spot to view the sunset, there was some majestic silence in the place. The rough beauty of the desert amazed me and made me feel so small. What a place to visit once in a lifetime!
Day 3 – Laguna Chaxa & Antiplanicas
Early in the morning we packed ourself early in our rental and head south to Laguna Chaxa to see some flamingos. 63 km away from San Pedro, Laguna Chaxa is the easiest place to visit to see the flamingos of the Natural Reserve area.
The salt lagoons has a mirror effect and the landscapes are quite magical, flamingos slowly strolling around. There is at least three different species of flamingos, James’s, Andean and Chilean flamingos which you can recognise by different looks. Only downside of the place was exotic smells of sulfur but wouldn’t miss seeing the lagoons because of that. But the flamingos definitely have lost their sense of smell a long time ago.
You can find lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques from the highlands of Atacama. Two beautiful cristal clear lagoons surrounded by volcanic mountains. You have also a good chance to see some rare vicuñas, relatives of llamas and protected by law, roaming around on the fields.
After three full days there would have been even more to see in Atacama like example Tatio Geysirs, Death Valley, Salar de Tara, but unfortunately we had to move on. Bus tickets in our pocket we returned our pickup to the rental car office in San Pedro and head to pack our bags. Next, Uyuni in Bolivia!
HINT: Traveling together with 3 or 4 people, I recommend checking rental cars, what can end up being cheaper than arranged tours. Plus you have the comfort of independence.
Atacama Desert is a beautiful and unique destination. It charms with its rough nature and unforgottable landscapes.