A Self-Driving Guide to Atacama Desert in Chile: Itinerary & Must See Spots

During our four months travel across South America, one place that we kept reminiscing about was our road trip to Atacama desert in Northern Chile. Despite all of the stunning places we have visited during our travels, nothing matched the experience of driving through the vast and unspoilt expanses of this unique part of the continent.

We spent a total of 5 days in San Pedro de Atacama, traveling in all directions to see as much as possible. Still, we felt we only scratched the surface. 

This self-driving guide shares our itinerary and must see spots – you’ll see just how much there is to enjoy in Atacama Desert!

A self-driving guide to Chile’s Atacama Desert: Itinerary & Must see spots

What to know before visiting Atacama Desert

– Expect to pay entrance fees to all parks. Tickets range from $3,000 CLP – $17,000 CLP per person.

– Regardless of the season you visit, pack clothes for hot and cold weather. It gets cold at night.

– If you are a budget traveler, avoid eating out in San Pedro de Atacama (food is extremely overpriced). Cook meals at your Airbnb/hostel instead!

Driving in Atacama Desert

Before the trip, we researched and decided that hiring a car in Calama and staying in San Pedro de Atacama was the best way for us to explore the area. We rented our car (4×2 Hyundai) from Econorent in Calama (city, not airport) and were pleased with the price & service.

Chileans love their highways and they built stunning routes through the incredible landscapes surrounding San Pedro de Atacama.

Driving in Atacama is pure joy but there are considerations you must be aware of when choosing the car and planning each of the day trips. 

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How long to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

There is no shortage of places to visit around San Pedro de Atacama. For us, the must see spots consumed 5 full days.

Where to go in Atacama Desert: Itinerary & Driving Routes

Conveniently, the roads around San Pedro basically spread out in four cardinal directions. This makes it fairly straightforward to allocate a full day exploring attractions along a particular route. Driving on the roads in Atacama itself is a big part of the experience. Each route presented opportunities to enjoy unique landscape and an abundance of wildlife, including flamingos, vicunas, foxes, donkeys and more.

The biggest challenge is to choose what to see among the many beautiful sites on each of the routes. Below itinerary is what have managed to do and would consider unmissable on a road trip to Atacama Desert.

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Our Atacama Desert Itinerary

Day 1: WEST | Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), Laguna Baltinache
Day 2: SOUTH | Salar de Talar, Laguna Miscanti, Socaire
Day 3: EAST | Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos
Day 4: NORTH | El Tatio Geyser
Day 5: Salar de Atacama


Day 1: EXPLORE WEST | Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) & Laguna Baltinache

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Lagunas Baltinache

Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is by far the most visited site in San Pedro de Atacama and we decided to tick it off early on. It’s best to explore the valley in the afternoon to catch the dramatic sunset and avoid the heat. For the morning we chose to drive up to Laguna Baltinache to try out the weightless bath experience in one of its 7 salt lakes.

Top Tips & Things to Know

  • Reaching Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache involves reaching and driving on the gravel B-241 road for about 1 hour. There are 7 small lagoons and it is possible to swim in the one at the far end. Since this is not a well known site we had the whole place to ourselves!
  • After Laguna Baltinache, we drove back to San Pedro to check out the city center and have lunch before heading back out at around 5pm. A 5 minute drive away, we started the Valley de la Luna visit by exploring the salt caves, the Amphitheater and an abandoned mining settlement before parking nearby and climbing the Great Dune at 6.30 pm to see the sunset.
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Sunset at Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) with Licancabur Volcano in the background

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Lagunas Baltinache

Day 2: EXPLORE SOUTH | Salar de Talar, Laguna Miscanti & Socaire

Aguas Calientes Atacama Desert Chile

Aguas Calientes

One of our favorite full-day drives combined the stunning Laguna Miscanti and Salar de Talar followed by a visit to the so called Altiplanic Lagoons (Lagunas Altiplánicas).

On the way back it’s also possible to visit Laguna Chaxa but we left it for another day.

Top Tips & Things to Know

  • Wake up early to start the 2.5hrs drive south on Ruta 23 towards Salar de Talar. It’s best visited between 10-12 p.m to catch the noon light illuminating the colorful background rocks. The route is scenic with towering volcanoes on one side and vast expanses of salt flats on the other.
  • On the way, don’t miss the Tropic of Capricorn sign for some pictures.
  • After enjoying Salar de Talar, you can continue driving for another 10 minutes and found the milky blue Laguna Tuyajto.
  • On our return towards San Pedro de Atacama, we stopped at Laguna Miscanti for 1 hour, followed by a delicious lunch at Cocineria Santiago and a quick stop at ancient church in Socaire.
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Aguas Calientes

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Laguna Miscanti

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Laguna Tuyajto

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Day 3: EXPLORE EAST | Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos & La Pacana Caldera

La Pacana Caldera viewing point

We heard a lot about the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos being a must-visit attraction in Atacama. It turned out that this is actually a huge all-encompassing area to the east of San Pedro and is best explored on full-day drive via Ruta 27.

This is another spectacular day during which we spotted many wild animals, including the largest flock of flamingos we have ever seen at Pacana Caldera!

Top Tips & Things to Know

  • Start the 2-hour drive early and take in some close up view of the magnificent Licancabur Volcano. The gradual ascend up to the high plane had a number of viewing points for us to stop and marvel at its perfect cone-shaped form.
  • Stop at Monjes de la Pacana for some off-road fun (no 4×4 required!) amongst some curious shaped stones before parking at La Pacana Caldera viewing point. We walked down into the salt flat at Pacana Caldera and kept walking until we saw what was probably 200-300 flamingos at the far end of the flats. Not a single soul around us. Magical.
  • We drove towards Mirador Salar de Loyoques but it was not as special.
La Pacana Caldera viewing point, Atacama Desert, Chile

La Pacana Caldera viewing point

Day 4: EXPLORE NORTH | El Tatio Geyser

The views on the way to Tatio Geyser

Since this is one of the highest altitude attractions (4300 m), we left it for the latter part of our trip. This drive normally involves leaving at 4 am to reach the geysers at sunrise when the fumes are at their highest. The actual road is not as bad as we read, but it involves driving in the dark. We chose to start the drive to El Tatio at 10am, as were more interested in the drive itself rather than the geysers. The route proved to be another unforgettable experience, with alien landscapes and we even saw the fuming volcano.

Top Tips & Things to Know

  • We drove out on B-245, which is mostly sealed (70%) with some stretches of gravel (30%). There were dramatic elevation changes and sharp curves so we had only averaged 60kmph.
  • We stopped at Machuca to grab some lunch food and take a few shots of grazing vicunas.
  • We reached the geysers at noon, and there was literally no one. We managed to negotiate the entrance price down since the fumes were already at their weakest. The thermal baths which are normally full of people were empty and we had the whole place to ourselves.
  • Optional: It’s also possible to drive out to Termas de Puritama, a slightly expensive but less crowded alternative to thermal baths in El Tatio
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Little towns on our way to El Tatio Geyser

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El Tatio Geyser

Day 5: EXPLORE SALAR DE ATACAMA

On our last day we decided to head out to the vast Salar de Atacama. 

Top Tips & Things to Know

  • We started with the short 30 min drive to Laguna Cejar on Ruta 23 in the morning to beat the crowds. Unfortunately, this area is privately owned and the steep price (15000 CLP) being charged didn’t seem like a good value for. Since we already visited the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache we ended up not going in.
  • We headed further south and visited Laguna Chaxa which was excellent for photo taking and flamingo spotting.
  • We then continued on B-355 and kept driving until we reached B-241. The landscape here was mostly flat and slightly monotonous after a while but we did stop to fly a drone.  

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Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama

We had our own car so we didn’t make it a priority to stay in San Pedro city center (plus, accommodation prices were much steeper there). Instead, we booked this Airbnb located located 15min by car from downtown. If you want to experience peace & quiet and unobstructed views of the Licancabur Volcano right from your breakfast table, look no further! Given that San Pedro is extremely expensive, having our own kitchen was great.

Rooms start at $28 USD. Check reviews and book here.


New to Airbnb? Here’s $40 free credit to get you started! 


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The views of Licancabur Volcano from our Airbnb

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A self-driving guide to Atacama Desert_ itinerary & must see spots

Heading to South America? Check out these articles to help you plan your trip:

A Complete Road Trip Guide to Salta, Argentina: Itinerary & Driving Tips

A Unique Homestay on Peru’s Lake Titicaca

9 things to know before hiking Peru’s Colca Canyon without a tour

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    April 4, 2019 / 2:19 pm

    What a great post. We are going the Atacama desert in October and I’ve been looking for a blog about self-driving in the desert. Self-driving seems like the best option for seeing everything, especially if you have a limited amount of time. We will definitely be using your tips and directions on our journey :).

    • inbetweenlattes
      Author
      April 4, 2019 / 2:47 pm

      Thank you, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip. If you have any questions, let me know!

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