Our Itinerary & Experience
Day 1: An overnight visit in Santiago
We started our trip out by flying to Santiago Chile before catching a flight to Calama. If you opt to spend a night before moving on to the Atacama, check out The Aubrey Santiago. It’s a quaint and well-appointed boutique hotel with a good restaurant and lounge so you can stay on the property if you wish. From the Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, the drive is about 30 minutes. You’ll get a great perspective of the infrastructure investment the city has made in well-planned road and tunnel systems designed for direct routes around the city.
Day 2: Moving on to San Pedro de Atacama
Eager to move on to our Atacama Desert destination, we returned to the airport the next day to catch our morning northbound flight from Santiago to Calama, which happens to be one of the larger cities of northern Chile. The lifeblood of the city is nitrate and copper mining. One such mine is called Chuquicamata (or just Chuqui) and it is one of the world’s largest open pit copper mines.
Because Awasi Atacama had no vacancies the first night of our stay in San Pedro de Atacama, we reserved a room at the resort next door, Hotel Noi Casa Atacama, which arranged transportation from the airport at $75 per person for the 2-hour drive. We were grateful to reach our destination after the anxiety ridden drive with the driver, who was sleepy and swerving on the road.
Arriving at the hotel at 3:00 PM, we were greeted by the front desk host, who spoke very little English. Fortunately, she was fluent in French. Because the hotel’s restaurant was closed in the afternoon, we ventured into town to get a late lunch at a wonderful local restaurant just around the corner from the hotel, called Tierra Todo Natural, which had a healthy and tasty menu for visitors.
After a light lunch with ice cold drinks, we headed back to the hotel to freshen up and take a quick siesta before the stargazing tour we booked that evening. The incredible stargazing tour, hosted by Jorge Corante was the highlight of our evening. We highly recommend this night excursion – it is a must do. His tour is run out of a fenced off area next to his home. He has it set up with powerful telescopes and camera equipment. The best part is his enthusiasm and knowledge of the nights sky, that’s absolutely contagious. After providing a brief history; coordinates and orientation; general learning sky; Andean astronomy and cosmology; and observation and astrophotography (all catered to your knowledge level).
Day 3: Pukara de Quitor & Guatin
Eager to get to the next hotel, we went to the Hotel Awasi Atacama first thing to see how early we could check into our room. Without a doubt, Hotel Awasi Atacama was the highlight of our Atacama adventure into the desert of northern chile. The hotel was an inviting oasis of tranquility, amazing food, friendly faces and exceptional service that could rival if not exceed any world-class high-end resort. The hotel is centrally located downtown in the city of San Pedro de Atacama, which has a population of around 5000 people. The town lies at an average of 7,900 feet above sea level which can take a few days to adjust to if you plan on hiking up the many active volcanos. All guests are assigned an experienced private guide who will stay with them for the duration of their stay at the hotel. The guide helps you plan out and execute every detail sounding your excursions into the desert. Our guide was Mario (in case you’d like to ask for him). Anything you wanted, he happily replied “certainly, indeed.”
Because they are so accommodating to guests, we had to wait for the prior ones to check out. The staff were incredibly responsive and immediately grabbed us two mountain bikes to go on a 2-hour adventure to the Pukara de Quitor while they fetched our bags and prepared the room for us to return.
Pukara de Quitor is located in the Ayllu of Quitor, about 2 miles from San Pedro. This fortress dates back to 1,000 AD and was built on many levels going up small hill. The views of the mountains and salt flats at the top were astounding. This a relatively easy trip and a good way to get better understanding of the city and surroundings. After hiking around the area, we hopped on the bikes and rushed back to meet Mario, the tour guide assigned to us for the duration of our stay.
Mario sat down with us in Awasi’s beautifully appointed dining area to plan out our excursions. We opted for more adventurous excursions to explore and be as active as possible. He ran through our excursion options, helping us select the best ones during our stay. Aside from a healthy list of half and full day options for outdoor adventure and beauty, it also provides a chill and relaxing environment for people that really want to escape. Some guests we spoke with were hiking a different volcano a day with some up as high as 18,000 feet.
Following a break for fun cocktails and lunch, we dressed in t-shirts and long pants for the hike down the Guatin canyon where cacti and bushes line the lukewarm river that comes from the Puritama hot springs (see Day 6). Very similar to saguaro cacti found in southwestern U.S., these majestic cacti reach to the clear blue sky above. This excursion was a great way to get acclimated to the elevation and upcoming hiking adventures.
Of note at the Awasi hotel are the meals. This night, we were pleasantly surprised to have some incredible selections with a healthy list of wines to choose from. Dinners are hosted in a common area where all guests get a chance to relax and socialize. We learned a great deal about other guests and their experiences at Awasi.
Day 4: Tara Salt Flats & More Stargazing
The next day started early with another wonderful breakfast in the common area followed by a full-day trip to the Tara Salt Flat, situated at an elevation of about 16,000 feet (4,680 meters) above sea level. Unaccustomed to the elevation, we found ourselves a little breathless, but managed to push on. Along the drive across the open desert towards Bolivia (Paso Hito Cajón) and Argentina (Paso Jama) to our first stop Licancabur Volcano.
There, we started our hike at the incredible rock formations of Pakana Monk on the far outer edge of slat flats. Massively giant boulder-like rock formations, singled out by time dot the vast landscape without a hint of human civilization within sight.
We continued on to the huge cliffs that open up to the salt flats. The flats were stunning in a rich detail of colors and hues of bright greens, blues, and white. A stark contrast to the surrounding desert with its own desolate beauty. The animal life was very diverse and abundant. We passed the fertile lowlands of Quepiaco river where we could see small llamas (called vicuñas), flamingoes, and wild ducks.
Along the way, we stopped and walked around taking pictures of the flamingoes, wild ducks and the awesome otherworldly landscape. There, our guide made us a wonderful lunch on a bench overlooking the the flamingoes and wild vicuñas. Like the stargazing tour, this excursion is one not to miss because of its diversity and beauty in this alien landscape.
Normally, guests of the Awasi hotel are limited to one full-day or two half-day excursions. Understanding our energy level, they added another private stargazing tour. While the stars were still impressive, the tour guide’s presentation seemed canned and could have been more educational. We highly recommend opting for Jorge’s tour still.
Day 5: Tatio Geysers & Cejar Salt Pond
Our 5th day started with an early wake-up call at 3:00 AM for an early drive to El Tatio Geysers, which we had been eagerly anticipating. On the drive up, the moon hovered in the horizon above the mountains and volcanos so clearly that it seemed like you could reach out and touch it.
Of course, you’re probably wondering why the early departure. The short answer is that the best time to see them is at sunrise when the caldera, once an active volcano, gives off steam that condenses and rises like towers of steam in the bitterly cold morning air. The steam plumes disappear as the sun rises causing the air to warm up. And at about 14,000 ft (4320 meters), the air gets darn cold at 17º F (-8º C) to be exact. For that reason, we bundled up in our best Patagonia gear.
The El Tatio geysers are a geothermic Dante’s Inferno, with fumaroles and such. Some geysers spew forth pillars of steam and smelly mineral water. Others the size of cauldrons bubble. Others hiss like steam kettles. As the sun rose above the caldera, the geysers subsided giving us a great opportunity to enjoy the great breakfast Mario prepared in the warmth of the sun. It was truly a beautiful morning.
After our return from the Tatio Geysers, we had a little time to grab cocktails and lunch at the all-inclusive Awasi resort. We managed to squeeze in a little time to explore San Pedro de Atacama as well. The old town quaint and charming. This place really has not been touched by large corporate interests yet.
You will not find a Starbucks or any major consumer branded chain which is refreshing. You will find local jewelry stores, tourists, local people, handmade crafts, tour operators, outdoor parks, restaurants, fun local taverns, museums and hippies from around the world that love the low key culture and active lifestyle. We browsed around local shops to see if we could find some fun things to bring home. Aside from the Yerba Matcha tea cups and stuffed llama toys, it was a lot of the same stuff everywhere. The sun became so intense, we popped in the Archeological Museum of Father Le Paige, which was somewhat interesting and a great way to get out of the sun.
After town we jumped on the bikes and headed down to Cejar Pond on local the salt flat by town. The salt flat has three ponds, of which two are reserved for wildlife and the other one is for people.
All the ponds are interconnected through a underground cave system, which has yet to be explored as it is almost impossible to go underwater with the high salt content of the ponds. The salt really does keep you very buoyant. We unsuccessfully tried to sink, but couldn’t get the water over our shoulders. The rumor is that Jacque Cousteau’s son tried a few years back and was also unsuccessful. This unsinkable phenomenon is found in the Dead Sea, but with water that is striking clear with many different shades of blue. Just be sure to keep the water out of your eyes and wounds as the salt will sting!
I don’t think we had ever seen such a crystal clear blue pond before, especially in such an exotic landscape with the volcanos in the background. The water was a perfectly lukewarm temperature, but on this very windy day it was chilly when you got out of the water. So we enjoyed our holiday celebration, floating with Santa hats and drinking the local beer, Austral. Couldn’t have been more picturesque.
Day 6: Puritama Hot Springs
Before we had to check out, we wanted to sneak in one more excursion that would be relaxing ahead of the long trip back home. We drove back near Guatin, but instead hiked north to Puritama through a beautiful canyon covered in Rica Rica and Alfalfa down the river into Guatin. In our typical fashion, we hiked briskly anticipating the refreshing hot springs.
When we arrived at the springs cascading down the canyon’s falls, we changed into our swim trunks and jumped in. As promised, the naturally lukewarm springs were refreshing. We enjoyed a fantastic afternoon snack prepared by our amazing guide Mario before getting back into the truck for our final return to Awasi.
As we packed for our complimentary drive with Mario back to the hotel, we couldn’t help to capture the moments with a couple of our favorite people at Awasi, Veronica (the manager) and Mario (our tour guide). We then got a chance to stop at the Moon Valley with it’s popular Coyote Rock (named after Wylie-Coyote) for one last “cerveza” with Mario.
In fact, the stay was so incredible that we would, without any hesitation recommend to anyone wanting an amazing visit to the Atacama Desert. We can tell you all day about how great the Awasi team is, but these photos speak for themselves. They really care and enjoy what they do. It translates to an incredible experience in one of the most amazing places in the world. Many thanks to Awasi.
- San Pedro de Atacama is an oasis located 2,443 meters (8,015 feet) above sea level, connected with the Calama airport (Chile) by a 100 kilometer road (62 miles). Elevations reach up to 15,000+ feet in some areas. Be prepared to take time acclimating or bring altitude medicine.
- Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes (salares), sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes.
- The Atacama Desert is commonly known as the driest place in the world with average rainfall of about 15 mm (0.6 in) per year. Calama, the nearest town with an airport has recorded periods of up to 4 years without rain. Some areas in the Atacama have never received rain in recorded history.
- In spite of the geographic and climatic conditions of the desert, a rich variety of flora has evolved here. Over 500 species have been gathered within the border of this desert. These species are characterized by their extraordinary ability to adapt to this extreme environment.
- Because of its high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference from the very widely spaced cities, this desert is one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations.
- The Chilean currency is the Chilean peso (CLP).
- While hot in the day, the dry desert air gets very cold at night – pack for hot and cold days.
- Even though it’s hot, daytime hikes often require pants because of thorny bushes.
- Especially in summer, using sunblock, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and long sleeves is essential.
- In winter, the radiation levels are more tolerable, and you can actually sunbathe. In summer, however, don’t attempt it at all! Especially if your skin’s white. The bare minimum UPF for sunblock lotion is 45, 60 and upwards being much better.
- The idea is to pack for every climate, which includes things like: water bottle, bathing suit, sandals, comfortable outdoor clothing, comfortable shoes, trekking shoes, backpack, mountain clothing, windbreaker, fleece/sweater, winter clothing.
- A stargazing tour will give you some of the best views of the heavens you can find on Earth.
- The Tara Salt Flats will give you an incredible perspective of the diverse terrain of the Atacama Desert.
- Floating in the Cejar Salt Pond is a surreal experience, particularly in the middle of a desolate desert.
- Hotel Awasi Atacama
- Explora Atacama
- Hotel Awasi Atacama (for guests only)
- Tierra Todo Naturale
- The nearest airport when flying is in the nearby town of Calama (CJC).
- From the airport, most arrange for a private or semi-private car. Some hotels offer this service for free. Be sure to ask because prices can vary.
- San Pedro de Atacama is a very walkable city when it’s not very hot at mid-day. Mountain bikes can be a great way to explore the town and a few miles outside.
- Brush up your Spanish, it’s the predominant language in the area. Because San Pedro de Atacama is so tourism oriented, some people speak multiple second languages. You’ll likely find someone who speaks English, French, or German.
- The Government-observed religious holidays include Christmas, Good Friday, the Feast of the Virgin of Carmen, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Feast of the Assumption, All Saints’ Day, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as national holidays. The government has recently declared 31 October, Reformation Day, a public national holiday, in honor of the Protestant churches of the country.
- Owing to its otherworldly appearance, the Atacama has been used as a location for filming Mars scenes, most notably in the television series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets.