Atacama Desert

Atacama Tour

The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is a very special place. To start with it contains some of the driest places on earth. There are coastal areas where the residents can't remember the last time it rained! Most of the cities are situated on the coast including the clean, modern and vibrant Iquique. Deserted beaches stretch for miles and offer great photo opportunities.

Slightly inland as the Andes begin to rise up from the coast small amounts of precipitation do fall and life can be found. There are 120 species of cactus found in the Atacama along with scores of beautiful desert flowers.

The "altiplano" or high plain is a feature unique to the Atacama. These high plains vary in elevation from 10,000 to 16,000 ft. The air at these altitudes is cool and thin. Here we find the majority of fascinating natural and archaeological sites the region is known for. Desert towns such as San Pedro de Atacama and Putre serve as bases to explore the altiplano. This was as far south as the Inca empire reached and signs of their inhabitance are all around. "Pukarás" or fortresses are exciting to explore and give an insight into the military workings of the Incas.

Wildlife abounds in the altiplano. The salt flats are home to flocks of birdlife including three species of flamingoes. Vicuñas (llama family), rheas, Andean fox and puma are all found here.

Small villages tucked away in desert oases are a wonderful cultural experience. Atacamanian people still live in these seldom visited towns and a peek into their way of life is a special experience. Brilliant blue skies are of course normal throughout the desert but temperatures can vary dramatically. Sunrise at the geysers is usually below freezing while the beaches are almost always warm and dry.

San Pedro de Atacama- This unique desert village is an important jumping off point for several of our destinations. We'll spend up to four nights here depending on individual itineraries. The town itself is quite touristy but remains largely undiscovered by American tourists. Because of the tourists San Pedro boasts excellent hotels and restaurants. The town is also referred to as "artsy" due to a large number of galleries and street music. There are several sights worth a visit in and around San Pedro. A wonderful museum houses artifacts from various ancient cultures including the Atacamanians and Incas. The Pukará de Quitor is five minutes from town and is a great example of a hillside fortress. Hiking in Devil's Gulch is a good way to explore the areas geology.

Valley of the Moon- Bizarre geologic formations and brilliant colors give this valley its name. During the day it's mostly hot and dry but at sunset the hills spring to life with spectacular colors and shadows. Moonrise in the valley is nothing short of emotional.

The Coast- The largest cities in the desert are on the coast but in between lie hundreds of miles of deserted beaches. Blue waves contrast the parched landscape as we explore a remote white sand beach. Tidepools literally crawl with critters. Starfish, crabs and minnows hide in the rocks as we approach.

The Salt Flats- This trip has a great variety of sights. Several picturesque mountain churches await your photos. Laguna Chaxa is loaded with flamingoes almost everyday. Lovely high mountain lakes and salt flats teem with vicuña and fox and offer an incredible contrast in colors between the blue waters and red mountains. Snow capped volcanoes up to 20,000 ft. surround us all day.

Chuquicamata Copper Mine- The largest open pit mine in the world, "Chuqui" provides about 40% of Chile's GNP. Mammoth trucks haul copper ore up out of the open pit mine 365 days a year. An hour long tour gives us a close-up look at the mine's inner workings.

Desert Villages- In one day we'll have the opportunity to see four remote desert villages. Hidden away in the bottoms of valleys or tucked into the trees in an oasis, these villages seem to have been left behind by time. Indigenous Atacamanian residents carry heavy loads on their backs and wear brightly colored clothes typical of the region. Photogenic churches sit patiently as time passes them by.

Geysers of Tatio- Prepare for an early morning. The geysers are best viewed at sunrise as the steam condenses against the cold morning air. Terrific photo opportunities abound as the first rays of the sun touch the steam plumes. Don't run for your photo though: at 16,000 ft. the air is a bit thin!

Flora and Fauna- The far north holds many natural wonders. Exotic cactus species cover steep hillsides and desert wildflowers are too numerous to count. Lauca National Park is home to healthy populations of vicuña, fox, flamingoes and vizcachas. What's a vizcacha? Come to the Atacama to find out!

Cities- Iquique is a beautiful coastal city supported by its fishing and mining industries. A year round pleasant climate and clean beaches make this one of Chile's nicest cities. Tasty seafood is popular fare at numerous restaurants and an excellent choice after several days in the mountains. Your five-star hotel, Terrado Suites, is on the beach and next door to the casino.

Archaeological Sites- The Humberstone ghost town was the site of a prosperous nitrate mining operation. Now it’s a photographers dream. Cerros Pintados or “the painted hills” are a prime example of geoglyphs, giant designs and figures drawn on hillsides with rocks.  There are several ruins from different eras all very close to San Pedro.


Sample Itinterary:
There are several ways to design a tour of the Atacama and you will work out your details and itinerary directly with David.  

Day 1: Arrive Iquique, Chile. Museums, historical sites, beaches and duty free as time permits.

Day 2: Travel from Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama. Stop to see the Humberstone ghost town and Painted Hills archaeological site. Later pass through the city of Calama before arriving in San Pedro for a great dinner.

Day 3: Best to stay near San Pedro and get acclimated to the altitude. Museum, church, ruins, hiking and the Valley of the Monn are all close by.

Days 4, 5, 6: Explore the altiplano for three full days. Volcanoes, salt flats, wildlife, hiking, photography, desert villages, mountain lakes, geysers.

Day 7: Return to Iquique via the Chuquicamata copper mine and the spectacular coastal road.

Day 8: Depart from Iquique


Please see our Lodging page for a description of accommodations.