Hoping off a 5 hour bus trip from Antofagasta, we were excited to explore San Pedro de Atacama and surrounding desert. The Atacama was definitely one of the highlights of our trip!
We had reserved our 4×4 Wicked Camper a few months before we arrived and it was one of the best decisions we made on the trip. We reserved this for 3 night, 4 days and it gave us ultimate freedom in the desert to go and sleep wherever our hearts desired (apart from when Matt thought it was a great idea to lock the key inside the car in the middle of the night). Hiring a Wicked Camper was expensive, but totally worth it!
As soon as we picked up our car we made a very ‘Matt and Sam’ decision to go from 2700m in the township straight to 5000m to the base of the volcano Cerro Toco. It was a VERY step road up to the volcano and our 1300cc car spent 90% of the time struggling up in 1st gear. Once we arrived at the car park we hopped out and realised we were not acclimatised for 5000m whatsoever. We chewed coca leaves, drunk electrolytes and walked slowly but nothing would stop the breathlessness and headaches. We made a very sensible decision to take a few photos then make our way back to town. Note – there are day tours from the township if you don’t have your own car and these also include oxygen and a few hours acclimatisation at the car park before walking.
The “twin” lagunas
These unnamed lagunas are situated half way between Laguna Cejar and Laguna Tebinquinche. When we arrived there were many cars and tour groups hanging around but no one swimming. We both jumped straight in (as our wicked camper guy told us they were great for swimming) and within minutes over half of our spectators had joined us. These are ‘fresh water’ lagunas however, like anything in this desert, we still came out feeling salty.
Recommended to us for sunset, this place did not disappoint. We paid a 2000 peso entry fee each, parked up and settled in for a very beautiful sunset. It is a very picturesque spot and there were even a few flamingos showing off there too. By the time 7pm came around it felt like half the tourists of San Pedro were there. We thought it was a perfect time to cook up some mince and salad wraps and sit at our chairs and table with a lovely bottle of Chilean red whilst everyone looked over at us with jealousy.
After the sun had dropped below the horizon, we headed outside the controlled area (as you can’t camp anywhere where you have to pay) and found a small laguna near the twin lagunas to set up camp for the night.
Piedras Rojas translates to ‘red stones’ which is a fitting name for this place. Located 150km south of San Pedro de Atacama, Peidras Rojas is an absolutely stunning place to visit and looks nothing like anything else you see in this desert. Surrounded by red ‘moon-like’ hills and a bright blue salt lake, this is a place that photos just cannot do justice! Snow capped hills and multi coloured mountain faces in the background made the bumpy 3 hour drive worth every minute. It is at an altitude of 4000m above sea level so not only is the place itself stunning but so is the drive to get there.
Lagunas Miscanti (the big one) and Miniques (the small one) make up Lagunas Altiplánicas which basically means high plateau lakes. These are 30 minutes north of Piedras Rojas back towards San Pedro. On our drive up the road we were lucky enough to be have an inquisitive fox who came up and ran right alongside our car. Both Miscanti and Miniques are an amazing deep blue colour and are framed perfectly by the yellow/green colour in the hills behind. There were large amounts of flamingos in both of these lagunas and we also made friends with a cheeky black-headed gull who came to find some lunch.
Cañon de Gautin
Home for our second and third night in the camper, Cañon de Gautin was one of our favourite places we went to. It is 30 minutes north of San Pedro Atacama on the road towards Geysers el Tatio and Termas de Puritama. Surrounded by hundreds of cacti, some 4-5 metres tall (they grow only 1cm a year so they were VERY old), the place even had streams running right through it which was not what we expected in the middle of the Atacama dessert. This place also happened to be the location where Matt thought it would be a great idea to lock our car keys inside the car in the middle of the night. With the help of some fellow Wicked Campers the following morning we were reunited with our keys by midday and we even got a lift to Termas de Puritama from them too. We were definitely quite a sight being bare-footed, with the few belongings that weren’t locked in the car, slung over our shoulder in a pillow case! Matt seemed to find the humour in it, but Sam took a bit longer to come around!
Termas de Puritama
Termas de Puritama are hot pools located 30km northeast of San Pedro de Atacama at an elevation of 3475m above sea level. The 15,000 peso entrance fee seemed a bit steep but once we got down to the pools we didn’t regret it one bit. It was a short 500m walk from the car park down into a gorgeous canyon, the pools are approximately 35 degrees celsius so you can spend a decent amount of time in them without overheating. There are 8 pools connected by a beautiful wooden walkway and the water was extremely clear when we got there so be sure to take a Go Pro or waterproof camera if you have one. A good tip is to not lock all your belongings in the car the night before so that you have some swimwear and towel readily available.
Valle de Luna- Moon Valley
Valle de Luna was without a doubt our favourite site that we visited in the Atacama Desert. For only 3000 pesos it was an absolute bargain for the amount of areas we saw and the vast beauty of it. It’s only 13km west of San Pedro de Atacama so many people opt for a day trip here on rented bikes. We met a few who did it and they said it was great and budget friendly but also super time consuming (it takes an entire day). The valley was formed over years from wind and water and gives a very realistic feeling of being on the moon. There are caves to walk through which was our first stop (bring a head torch). These were fantastic and slowly climbed up in height until they reached an opening on the top of the rock of which you truly feel like you are walking on the moon. As usual we had many stares and comments about our rocking climbing in jandals, shorts and t-shirts.
We drove on a little further to the beginning of the walk up to ‘The Big Dune’ and made our way up. We turned many heads with our bare feet (as usual), however, we felt everyone else was missing out on enjoying the warm sand between their toes. It was about 20 minutes up and the views were insane over the entire valley. The Big Dune was equally as impressive and all we wanted to do was slide all the way down it.
Another must see in Valle de Luna is the Amphitheatre, just purely for the impressive size of it. We spent around 3 hours in Valle de Luna before heading up to the lookout point (included in the entrance fee) for sunset. We parked up our camper in a perfect lookout point and started cooking dinner – of course with a bottle of wine too. More and more tours slowly started to show up and we created many envious stares of people seeing us cozied up with our glass of wine and once in a life time views of Valle de Luna. It does get super packed her for sunset so find a good spot before the crowds rush in.
El Tatio is a field of geysers located a couple of hours north of San Pedro de Atacama and is the third largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere. We stayed overnight in Cañon de Gautin again which meant we got a 30 minute head start, considering we woke up 4.30am, the extra 30 minute sleep in was amazing. The drive to El Tatio was dark and VERY bumpy but we arrived by 6am, paid the 10,000 peso entry fee and got set up for sunrise. To be completely honest – coming from New Zealand we are accustomed to geysers so it wasn’t as impressive to us but we can imagine it being for people who have not seen the wonder of geysers before. It was still a beautiful spot and we enjoyed walking around for a few hours. Once again we set up our camp cooker and made a hot cup of coffee and enjoyed the view, whilst tour groups looked over at us in envy.
Although we personally didn’t find El Tatio to be incredibly amazing, we did however, find the drive back to town STUNNING. We had no idea what we had missed on our drive up in the dark but we we thrilled with what we saw on the way back and made many many stops along the way. This included hundreds of flamingoes in a laguna a few metres from the road, a small town where we had llama kebab and also some incredible canyons that passed deep into valleys.
Valley de la Muerte
Also known as Death Valley, this site is most popular for its sand dunes of which people sand-board on. We unfortunately ran out of time to sand-board due to certain car key issues…. So we just planned to drive through the valley to the car park and walk to the top for the view. The beginning of the drive was gorgeous with massive rock formations on both sides of the road. Part way up we were waved down by a man asking for help as they had driven their car too far and got stuck in the sand dunes. We of course paid back the good karma from the day before and spent a few hours helping the family out. In the end we didn’t quite make it to the top however, all of what we did see was fantastic and we were glad to pay-it-forward as well.
San Pedro de Atacama township
La Picada del Indio
We were recommend this restaurant by our hostel and we were lucky we got there early (8pm) as only half an hour after we arrived there were literally lines down the street for people wanting to eat there. We both had 5000 peso menu of the days which did not disappoint. Definitely a great restaurant if you are wanting a budget-friendly but delicious meal.
The cemetery was colourful and full of life and very different to cemetery’s we are used to back home in NZ. It makes for a good walk around and is also situated right next to some very cheap fruit and vege markets.
The one and only petrol station in the region is located in a very awkward part of town off Toconao street. This often has long lines of people waiting and does NOT have toilets and showers as advertised.