Sights in the Atacama Salt Desert, Chile

The Atacama salt desert in northern Chile stretches from the Pacific to the Andes and is considered the driest desert in the world. The landscape, which is as barren as it is fascinating, can be crossed by bus, by car - or on a llama.

The Atacama Salt Desert in northern Chile stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes mountain range and is one of our top 10 sights of Chile. It is considered the driest desert in the world, with average rainfall of once or twice a decade. In some places, rainfall has never been measured at all, because the Andes catch any rain clouds.


PICTURES: Atacama Salt Desert

Photo gallery: Atacama Desert

Best time to visit the Atacama Desert

On the way to San Pedro de Atacama, accommodation and starting point of tours through the breathtaking Atacama Desert in Chile - © Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock
© Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock

The main tourist season for the Atacama Desert is December to February, in the South American summer. However, torrential rains can occur at this time (about every 5 to 10 years), which are becoming more frequent due to climate change. With a bit of luck, these can make the entire desert bloom, but they can also make many paths impassable. It is also nice and warm in October/November or March/April and the weather is particularly suitable for hiking.

In July and August it is freezing cold in the Atacama. Temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius are not uncommon here, and there are no flamingos to be found at the frozen lagoons. The starry sky is even more gigantic than usual in the freezing cold.

On the road in the Atacama Desert

Lonely road sign in the Atacama Desert in Chile - © Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock
© Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock

Visitors can cross the Atacama Salt Desert either with a tour group in a coach or on their own with a rental car. The advantage of hiring a car is that you can stop at any time and enjoy the fascinating panorama. The big disadvantage, however, is that you will probably have to wait a very long time for the towing service in case of a breakdown. Special nature enthusiasts can venture a trip through the desert on the Lama.

The bleakly barren but equally astonishing landscape of the Atacama Desert is often described as lunar-like and has therefore already been chosen for the prototype test of the future moon rover. As one can imagine, the very sparsely populated desert is rich in mineral resources, the extraction of which forms one of Chile's economic bases.

The dry air above the desert is ideal for sky observation. Some of the largest observatories in the world are also accessible to amateur astronomers here. Here, for example, is the ESO's La Silla Observatory, to whose telescopes we owe some important astronomical discoveries.

San Pedro de Atacama

After the red-brown Atacama Desert, the snow-white church of San Pedro de Atacama is a real feast for the eyes, Chile - © Alberto Loyo / Shutterstock
© Alberto Loyo / Shutterstock

The starting point and conclusion of many Atacama trips is the small oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. The city can be easily reached by bus or car via the asphalted road between the city of Calama and the neighbouring state of Argentina. It is located at the northern end of the salt lake Salar de Atacama, 2,440 metres above sea level and is inhabited by a total of about 4,000 people.


The area around the city is fed by the waters of the Rio San Pedro, which is why you will find some greenery here. In the centre of San Pedro de Atacama, which is easy to walk through, there is a pretty church, one of the oldest in Chile, with a roof made of cactus trunks. For those interested, there is also an archaeological museum.

In the city you will also find a selection of nice hotels and restaurants where you can recover from the exhausting trip through the desert.

Valle de la Luna

The snow-capped peaks of the two volcanoes Licancabur and Juriques stand out against the Valle de la Luna in the Atacama Desert, Chile - © Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock
© Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock

The Valle da la Luna about 15 kilometres outside San Pedro is definitely worth seeing. In the dust-dry moon valley, the beautiful natural spectacle of sunrise and sunset over the bizarre landscape is a unique experience. The alien-looking rock formations change the further you hike into the valley and offer breathtaking photo motifs.

Puritama Valley

The Puritama River provides water in the desert and the Puritama Valley boasts lush greenery between red rock faces. There are even some hot springs at the end of the valley - so amazingly, you can take a bath in the middle of the driest desert in the world.

Chuquicamata - world's largest copper mine

Chuquicamata, the world's largest copper mine in northern Chile - © Carol Meneses / Fotolia
© Carol Meneses / Fotolia

The Chuquicamata mine about 15 kilometres from the city of Calama is the largest copper mine in the world and represents an important economic sector for Chile.

History of copper mining in Chuquicamata

The mine's rich copper deposits were discovered after the Saltpetre War (1879 - 1884), which Chile fought against Bolivia and Peru with financial help from Great Britain. Before the war, the town of Calama and Chuquicamata belonged to Bolivia. In 1915, a few years after the war, mining of copper began in the Chuquicamata mine.

In 1912, three years before mining began, the mine was taken over by the American company Guggenheim Bros. and handed over by the latter to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, also an American company, in 1923. It was not until 1971 that the mine became the property of the Chilean state-owned company Codelco (Corporacion Nacional des Cobre de Chile), as a result of the constitutional reform under the government of Salvador Allende.

Economic blessing and environmental curse

Work vehicles at the Chuquicamata copper mine, Chile - © Carol Meneses / Fotolia
© Carol Meneses / Fotolia

Every day, an incredible 180,000 tonnes of rock with a copper content of 1.5% are mined in Chuquicamata. From this, about 2,500 tonnes of high-percentage copper can be extracted.


Today, only open-pit mining is carried out at the mine. It is about 4 kilometres long, 3 kilometres wide and 850 metres deep. The extracted copper is first brought by rail via Calama to the port of Antofagasta, from where it is transported by ship mainly to China. Since Chile has 40% of the world's copper reserves, it owes a large part of its national income to it.

About 2,000 workers are employed in the mine. Due to the high fine dust content, however, occupational diseases such as dust lung, asthma or cancer often occur. Due to this severe exposure, the inhabitants of Chuquicamata, which used to be a small town, were relocated to Calama in 2004, where a separate residential area was built for them.

Their former houses are still standing today, as if they would be occupied again tomorrow. However, the number of tourists who visit the mine every year has not been decimated.

Che Guevara once described the Chuquicamata mine as the symbol of the working class. Today, it stands more for environmental pollution (more and more arsenic and other dangerous substances enter the surrounding area with the waste water), but also for a wealth of raw materials and an economically valuable multitude of tourists.

Visit to the Chuquicamata mine

The Chuquicamata offers visitors a unique experience in the world's largest open-cast copper mine. If you want to visit the entire site, you have to plan a whole day for the guided tour. Equipped with protective clothing, you then go to the various viewing platforms, whose gigantic panorama only reveals the true dimensions of the huge mine craters.

The workers can be observed during dismantling, and a stopover in the maintenance and repair hall of the almost terrifying monster machines is also planned. The programme is accompanied by informative lectures and vivid presentations and is absolutely recommendable not only for technology freaks!

Laguna Chaxa

Laguna Chaxa in the nature reserve Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos in northern Chile - © Nataliya Hora / Fotolia
© Nataliya Hora / Fotolia

The Chaxa Lagoon is located about 50 kilometres from San Pedro de Atacama in the nature reserve Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. It is one of the so-called "water eyes" located in the Salar de Atacama, the approximately 3,000 square kilometre salt lake in the Atacama Desert.


The lagoon, which is also salty, is fed by many underground springs. If it weren't for these underground water veins, the lagoon would simply dry up, because you usually wait in vain for rain in the Atacama Desert.

Because the underground water constantly dissolves minerals and salts from the volcanic rock, the water does not evaporate, but the salt and mineral content constantly increase. Salt, water and the desert temperatures formed the bizarre landscape of the Laguna da Chaxa into an unreal sea of shimmering blue puddles and shiny white salt crystals. The road leading to the Laguna de Chaxa consists exclusively of salt for the last few kilometres.

Countless flamingos at Chaxa Lagoon

The colourful flamingos, which feel at home in these environmental conditions, add to the perfect photo motif. About 200 of the salmon-coloured animals cavort around the salty water holes. The Chilean, Andean and James flamingos feed mainly on krill, small shrimp-like creatures that they fish out of the salty water.

Flamingos are very shy, however, so if you want to observe or photograph them, make your way to the lagoon early in the morning to spend a few undisturbed minutes with the elegant birds. Too many tourists scare the flamingos away.

A paved circular path that divides the lagoon into two halves leads near the partly open, partly closed salt bubbles. In between, you can catch a glimpse of one of the lizards hiding between the salt plates now and then.

From the circular walk you also have an ideal view of the shore walls under water, which shimmer in all the colours of the rainbow due to the deposits of salt crystals and minerals.

There is also a volcano in this area, the Lasar volcano, whose last eruption in 1993 is captured in a large panoramic photo. At that time, the eruption lasted 36 hours, and the ash even reached Brazil due to the strong westerly wind.


Laguna Miscanti and Miñiques

The two picturesque lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques are located on the edge of the Atacama salt desert at an altitude of about 4,300 metres. They are majestically overlooked by the Cerro Miscanti mountain and the Miñiques volcano, which once separated the two lagoons by a lava flow after an eruption.

PICTURES: Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons

Photo gallery: Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons

Approach to the Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons

Laguna Miscanti at approx. 4,300 metres altitude in the Antofagasta region in northern Chile - © forcdan / Fotolia
© forcdan / Fotolia

A visit to the lagoons with their incredible panorama is a must. If you want to explore them on your own, first take a public bus that runs three times a week from San Pedro de Atacama late in the evening to the unspoilt Atacama village of Socaire. This gives you the opportunity to get to know the simple life in the Atacama Desert.

If using public transport and spending the night in Socaire is too tedious, you can also rent a car, provided you have an international driving licence. The two lagoons are much easier to reach via a guided tour, which is unfortunately a bit more expensive.

Onward journey from Socaire to the lagoons

Dreamlike view of Laguna Miscanti, Chile - © ezk / franks-travelbox
© ezk / franks-travelbox

From Socaire, you can either hire a car or take a taxi (you can hire drivers to take you to the lagoons) to an altitude of over 4,000 metres, where you can marvel at the impressive deep blue lagoons with a white salt streak visible on their shores.

The mountains near the two lagoons reach about 6,000 metres in altitude. It is possible to book tours in San Pedro de Atacama to climb them. The indescribable view from its summit compensates for all the physical exertion!

Right next to the lagoons is the refugio of the Lican Huasi organisation, which has its headquarters in San Pedro. These hostels are spread all over the Andean villages, and one can also be found in Socaire.


Spectacle of sun and stars

The two picturesque lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques are located at an altitude of about 4,300 metres in the Antofagasta region in northern Chile - © us Medic / Shutterstock
© us Medic / Shutterstock

A natural spectacle not to be missed is the truly spectacular show of sunrise and sunset, when the entire surroundings and the volcano turn deep red. It is also definitely recommended to take a look at the sky after sunset, because the Atacama Desert is known for the world's clearest starry sky.

El Tatio Geyser Field

The El Tatio geyser field is the highest geyser field in the world (approx. 4,300 metres), Chile - © med / Fotolia
© med / Fotolia

The El Tatio geyser field in northern Chile is the highest geyser field in the world (approx. 4,300 metres). It is located about 100 kilometres north of San Pedro de Atacama. The geysers, located on the icy plateau in a crater of the El Tatio volcano, emit huge plumes of steam that are thrown up to 50 metres into the air. The hissing, smoking wonderland is one of our top 10 sights of Chile.

PICTURES: El Tatio geyser field

Photo gallery: El Tatio geyser field

Visit El Tatio: best in the early morning

El Tatio geyser field is the third largest geyser field in the world, Chile - © ezk / franks-travelbox
© ezk / franks-travelbox

The grandiose spectacle of the water-spewing holes in the earth is not for late risers. The activity of the geysers drops sharply as soon as the sun rises. At night, temperatures of around minus 10°C are measured between the geysers.

When the sun rises above the mountain peaks, it is reflected impressively in the steam clouds of the geysers, but only while the air is still cold. After that, the steam disappears and only a slight bubbling remains in the geysers. It is therefore advisable to leave San Pedro de Atacama at 4:30 in the morning, because the drive to the geysers, mostly on gravel roads, takes about 2 hours.

Play of colours under clouds of steam

After the usually spectacular sunrise, the colourful deposits of the geysers emerge, El Tatio, Chile - © Evgeny / Fotolia
© Evgeny / Fotolia

After the spectacular sunrise, the colourful deposits of the geysers come to light. You can also warm up then with a bath in the warm springs.

However, anyone moving around the El Tatio geyser field should exercise caution, as no barriers have been set up here yet and you would do well to keep a safe distance from the water fountains.

In the geyser field you can also find some rusted machine parts that have been used twice in the past to try to draw energy from the geysers. Both times, in 1920 and 1967, these attempts were unsuccessful.

Attention: Prevent altitude sickness!

The Diamond Lagoon in the Atacama Salt Desert, Chile - © Nataliya Hora / Fotolia
© Nataliya Hora / Fotolia

Before setting off for the lagoons and the geysers, it is essential to acclimatise to the higher altitudes for a few days, otherwise you may get altitude sickness, which starts with headaches, nausea and a general feeling of malaise. If you ignore the symptoms, they will get stronger over time and can end in a life-threatening condition.

To prevent the onset of this condition, one should ascend as slowly as possible (300 to 500 metres of altitude per day; if one plans to climb to over 5,000 metres of altitude, it is advisable to spend a week at around 3,000 metres of altitude beforehand). This gives the body time to get used to the changed conditions.

Related links:

Info about La Silla Observatory