Wanderlust Wendy

Chile’s Atacama Desert: Road Trip Across the Driest Place on Earth

At the end of our whirlwind Workaway adventure, we treated ourselves to an epic trip up North in the Atacama Desert. We had decided against Patagonia since we didn’t have sufficient time to do proper hiking and had already spent ample time on the Argentina side

As fate would have it, the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, was flooded two weeks before our scheduled arrival. I was following forums on TripAdvisor closely to see if our trip would still be feasible. We had met travelers in Valparaiso who had been evacuated during the flood. 

Fortunately, since it is a desert, the area dried up quickly after the torrential rain. We went ahead and boarded our flight from Santiago to Calama. The region is vast with so much to explore, so we rented a car to give us maximum flexibility for exploration.

Tips: For road trips, always pack a lunch, or at least bring snacks, and be sure to have podcast episode and music pre-downloaded on your device. I also download an offline version of Google Maps since many places are without cellular reception.

Day 1: Settle into San Pedro de Atacama & Chasing Sunset at Death Valley

San Pedro de Atacama has long been a transit hub for traders. These days, it’s the base for tourists traveling through the region. We booked our week-long stay at Barros Nativo* and planned to take day trips toward a different direction each day. 

After our time in Argentina, we’ve come to really love renting cars in a foreign land. It’s more cost-effective than going on various tours each day. But more importantly, a vehicle provides the freedom to chase all the sunsets and allow the flexibility to stray from beaten paths. 

Our first sunset was at Death Valley. We hadn’t planned to watch the sunset here, but on our drive, we chanced upon it and couldn’t help but to stop and admire the view. The grounds cracked from the dry climate, but still, a large body of water that remained from a recent flood. 

*Disclaimer: Hotels.com is an affiliate. I receive a small commission at no cost to you if you book through this link.

Day 2: Road Trip Up North to El Tatio Geyser

We head North to El Tatio Geyser, a volcanic hot spring at 4,320m above sea level. This natural wonder is supposedly much more impressive in the early morning when the temperature difference is higher. We didn’t want to deal with the crowd, and wanted to catch some extra sleep, and decided to go a little later. 

On our drive, quite a few tour buses were heading back in the opposite direction. I was glad we had evaded that crowd. Upon arrival at the park, we paid the entrance fee and were then free to roam around. The hot springs were bubbling, and there were still some impressive splashes. We were quite happy to be able to wander without other tourists. 

Even if you aren’t impressed by volcanic hot spring, the drive northward is still very worthwhile. We encountered plenty of vicunas roaming about, with snow-peaked mountain range surrounding us. One can’t help but express an ample amount of gratitude when driving down such open roads and feel so close with nature.

Day 3: Laguna Baltinache & Pukará de Quito

Take the Road Less Traveled 

The long day of an expedition up North had us feeling a little tired. We decided to stay a bit closer to San Pedro and headed Southwest toward Laguna Baltinache. Soon after we turned off of the paved highway, the non-paved road leading to the Laguna was destroyed. We couldn’t continue with our tiny sedan. 

Instead, we followed random tire tracks, without an idea where they will lead. Then, a winter wonderland revealed itself in front of us. Instead of snow, the white was crystallized salt. I was giddy and could feel what the explorers before us had sensed when they stumble upon new territories. 

We parked the car and began to roam. There was not a single soul around. No other cars. Just us, with beautifully formed rocks layers with salt. Truly otherworldly. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be amazed by a bunch of rocks, nature has its way to surprise and delight. 

Explore Ancient Architecture at Pukará de Quito

In the afternoon, we explored Pukará de Quito, an ancient terrace architecture that dates back to three thousand years. We took the steps all the way to the top, and the view near sunset was magnificent. Well-worth the climb. Despite being an actual tourist site, we were still mostly alone. 

Day 4: Tuyajto Lake & Salar de Talar

We tacked another long driving day, heading South in the early morning to see some beautiful lakes. Passed over some of the more popular lakes that cost money, and instead, stopped at Tuyajto Lake and Salar de Talar. The water here is high in salt content, and under the morning light, it gives a stunning reflection.

In the afternoon, we took off driving again. On the way to Laguna Chaxa, we stumbled upon roads that are probably not meant for tourists. At one point, we came upon a salt flat that led to a factor, and the entire scene felt undeniably apocalyptic. 

En route back to San Pedro, we stopped in Toconao, a sleepy village, for a break. I love exploring a town like this to picture how life carries on here. Travel teaches us to live; it shows us that there is more than one way to form a meaningful life. 

Tips: Guidebook suggests many other beautiful lakes to visit in the area, like Laguna Miniques or Laguna Miscanti. We passed all the spots that require an entrance fee. One, because those spots tend to have a lot of tourists, and two, because $10 here and $15 there really adds up. There are so many places to see nearby, that we felt the free sites suffice. 

Please do travel responsibly. These entrance fees pay for maintenance. Going off of the beaten paths is great, but be sure to always pick up after yourself, and don’t leave any traces behind. 

Day 5: Sand storm and sunset at Mirador de Kari; Star-gazing at Luna Valley

On our final day, we explored San Pedro a bit during the day and then headed to catch our last sunset at Mirador de Kari. Just as we reached the area, a strong gust of wind swept through, creating an impressive sandstorm.

The golden hour took on a different hue with dust on the horizon. While dust particles may seem minuscule, they really hurt when coming at you in a strong wind. We couldn’t stay out for long, and mostly enjoyed the scenery from within the comfort of our car. 

After the wind passed, the sky was clear. The Atacama Desert is known for the star-gazing, and we headed out to the parking lot at Luna Valley to see the sky. You can star-gaze anywhere, but the farther you can get from the town and its light pollution, the better. 

Good Eats

Since we were in the middle of the desert, food was understandably quite pricey since all the ingredients needed to be brought into the town. We snacked a lot, but in between, found some pretty decent places for a few nice meals. 

Franchuteria

A lovely French café with a really cozy setting and courtyard setting. Pricing is definitely on the high side, but it offers a delicious treat to take a break in between drives or to start the day with its coffee and fluffy croissant. 

La Picada Del Indio

Came upon this restaurant only on our final night in San Pedro, and wish we had found it earlier. Really great value with a wide selection of food that is delicious and hearty. Highly recommend this place for your meals during your stay in San Pedro de Atacama.

La Parada del Desierto

This little chicken restaurant was right next to our hostel. We were so delighted with the food. It’s grilled chicken and fries. Nothing fancy, but so delicious and affordable. It wasn’t listed on Google, so I added it to give it some love!

Estrella Negra

A decent vegetarian place with a reasonable set menu. Good flavors that offer a lighter alternative to some of the heavier meal options in town.

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