Red and rust-colored rock formations contrast with white salt flats while volcano peaks rise in the distance, making the Atacama Desert in northern Chile seem otherworldly. As one of the driest places on the plant, the Atacama has little human development, save for the small, rustic town of San Pedro de Atacama. For those who crave off-the-beat-path adventure and beautiful, eerie landscapes, an Atacama adventure is the perfect travel experience.
Two top Chilean ski resorts—Portillo and Valle Nevado—are affiliated with world-class accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama, making an Atacama adventure an easy and affordable tack-on trip. In addition to providing accommodation recommendations and how to get there tips, we’ve outline some of the best Atacama excursions and must-see sights—which can be easily arranged via the hotel’s activities coordinators.
Where to stay
Valle Nevado has recently partnered with the Alto Atacama Lodge and is offering 15% off an all-inclusive package. Guests at the Alto Atacama are treated to stunning accommodations, facilities and a garden, all designed with the local culture, traditions and art in mind. With an awarding-winning spa and elevated onsite dining, you’ll have a hard time leaving its luxurious grounds.
Prices start at $2,411 per person and include minimum 3 nights’ lodging at Valle Nevado and minimum 3 nights’ lodging at Alto Atacama, all meals, lift tickets, daily desert excursions and round-trip airport transportation from Calama to the Alto Atacama. Call for details.
If you’re planning a Portillo ski trip, add a couple nights’ stay at the resort’s sister property, Tierra Atacama. The hotel’s charming design takes hints from the natural environment and provides comfortable, inviting commonplaces. Guests will especially enjoy loafing by the boutique-inspired pool and on the many patios, which provide incredible center stage views of the majestic Licancabur Volcano. The hotel’s restaurant will please with wholesome, authentic Chilean and Andean cuisine.
What to do
Sandboard the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)
In Chile, shredding isn’t just reserved for the snowy slopes. You can sandboard the giant, 300-plus-foot sand dunes in the arid Valle de la Muerte. A 10-minute drive from San Pedro, the sand dunes provide an opportunity for a unique activity and great vantages of the surrounding valley and desert. Guided, English-speaking excursions are available and come in handy—since sandboarding isn’t exactly easy.
Stargaze with an astronomer
Thanks to its lack of development and prevalence of clear nights, the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. The Atacama is home to a gamut of cutting-edge observatories, too. There are plenty of stargazing tours, most notably is the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations. French astronomer Alain Maury leads groups far into the desert away from even the slightest of light pollution and invites them to take in the star show through a series of telescopes.
But truly, no equipment is required to make out thousands of stars and the very defined Milky Way veil. That’s how incredible stargazing is in the Atacama.
Bird-watch on the Salar (Salt Lakes) de Atacama
Photo: Nicolas de Camaret/Flickr
A host of salt lagoons and lakes, fed by the San Pedro River and other Andean snow-melt streams, dot the Atacama Desert floor. There is no outlet for the water, which is why such a high salt content has developed. The entire salt flat encompasses about 1,200 square miles, making it the third largest in the world. These lagoons provide a habitat for many aquatic birds, particularly Flamingos, Taguas and Guallatas. For the best bird-watching, head to Los Flamencos National Reserve.
Guided trips are available, but require a very early wake-up for an optimal experience.
Explore the ancient village of Tulor
After just a short drive from San Pedro, you can experience Atacameñan culture dating back 2,800 years. Established sometime around 300 AD, the Tulor settlement consists of 22 clay adobe structures. An array of archaeological items from human and animal bones to ceramics and seashells were found buried among the ruins. Tulor was built upon an ancient oasis fed by the San Pedro river, but was abandoned when water supplies dried up and the desert infringed upon the community.
Guided tours are available. The site has been managed as an eco-tourism destination, but erosion and sand encroachment threaten to destroy this piece of Mesolithic history, making it all the more important to experience it sooner than later.
Float in Cejar Lagoon
Rid yourself of desert dust by enjoying a float in the popular Cejar Lagoon, just south of San Pedro. Situated in the Salar de Atacama, this small, natural pool contains such large quantities of salt that floating is the only option—if you can brave the 64°F water.
There are onsite showers, which is recommended after your refreshing saline bath. Tours are available.
Experience El Tatio geyser field at dawn
Photo: Julieet the french girl
We can assure you that the 4:30 a.m. start amidst cold temperatures is well worth it. A tour bus will take you north of San Pedro into the Andes all the way to 14,107 feet, where you’ll find the highest geyser field in the world: El Tatio. As the morning rays pierce the white columns of steam, you’ll understand why you woke up so early.
In addition to the geysers, you’ll likely be treated to a variety of wildlife, including, vicunas, viscachas, ñandúes and a variety of birds that live among the llaretas (a Chilean plant), giant cacti and paja brava grass. At El Tatio, you’re also within perfect striking distance to soak in one of the many surrounding hot springs.
Relax in the Puritama Hot Springs
Maintained by the Explora Atacama resort, the Puritama Hot Springs are comprised of a variety of 91°F thermal pools. So while they’re not scorching hot, their blue-green waters are plenty relaxing. Surrounded by desert vegetation and rugged, red ridges and ravines, the Puritama Hot Springs provide a complete delight of the senses. Locals have used the hot springs as treatment for purification, spiritual cleansing, rheumatism and muscular pains.
An onsite bathhouse/dressing room and wood bridges simplifies the logistics of enjoying these natural wonders. The pools are open to the public, but are rarely crowded.
Watch the sunset from the Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon)
Photo: Danielle Pereira
Located about nine miles west of San Pedro, the Valle de Luna provides a stunning spectacle as the sun sets. The lunar-like landscape, which gives the valley its name, comes alive at the sun dwindles. The changing light sets the rocky formations and mountainsides aflame in a pinkish glow. But it’s the Andes that demand the lion’s share of attention. Top off the experience with a popular local libation: pisco sour.
How to get there
The Atacama Desert is just a two-hour flight from Santiago, making it possible to experience before or after your ski-trip portion of the journey. Desert-bound travelers will fly from Santiago’s Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SCL) to the Calama’s El Loa Airport (CJC), where they’ll hop in a hotel shuttle to your preferred San Pedro accommodations.
It’s possible to fly direct to Santiago via the following U.S. cities: Dallas, New York and Miami on American Airlines, Houston on United Airlines, and Dallas, New York and Miami on LAN.
Ready to book a complete mountain to desert Chile trip? Our 65+ Mountain Travel Experts are standing by at 800-610-8911. You can also get started by filling out a form for a free custom quote.