This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Atacama Desert Adventure Travel Guide

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest and most dramatic places on earth and tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama offer many adventures including climbing volcanoes, exploring the famous Valley of the Moon, desert hikes, and more. We spent more than a month exploring the Atacama Desert during these active tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

Licancabur Volcano from Toco volcano

Licancabur Volcano on the left towers over the town of San Pedro de Atacama and is visible from nearly every vantage point, including this stellar view from the top of Cerro Toco.

Atacama Desert facts

The Atacama Desert covers the northern third of Chile stretching 1,000 miles (1,600 km) between the Andes and the sea. This epic expanse ranks as one of the largest and driest deserts on earth. Some parts of the Atacama Desert have never registered any rainfall at all.

lagunas altiplanicas active tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Dramatic scenes along the Lagunas Altiplanicas Route.

The Atacama region includes coastal cities like Antofagasta and Iquique as well as gorgeous natural desert landscapes that are most easily accessed from the high-altitude oasis town and tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama.

Many of the most popular places to explore in the Atacama Desert around San Pedro de Atacama are within the Los Flamencos National Reserve which is managed by local communities whose members set the rules and regulations for visitors.

This means there is no uniform set of rules, entry procedures, fees, or regulations about visiting. One site within the reserve may require prior reservation while another does not. It all depends on what the community in charge of that sector decides. Also, many hikes in the Atacama Desert–including some in this post–are far from town, largely unmarked, and often cover a one-way route which means hikers need a guide to show them the way and transport to get to the trailhead and pick them up at the trail’s end.

vicuna atacama chile

Life abounds in the Atacama Desert, including small herds of vicuña which are diminutive wild camelid cousins of the alpaca.

For all of these reasons, most visitors to the Atacama Desert book day trips from tour operators in San Pedro de Atacama that include any necessary reservations or entry fees plus a guide and transportation.

Active tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Whether you want to work up a sweat on the trail, pick your way to the top of a volcano, or visit high-altitude lakes you can do it. We visited the Atacama Desert in 2017 and again in 2024. During those two visits, we spent a total of 42 days exploring the Atacama Desert. Here are some top active tours in San Pedro de Atacama. Interested in more laid-back ways to see the region? Check out our post about easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

Explore Valle de Luna

Perhaps the most famous Atacama Desert destination is Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon) where more than 33 million years of relentless wind has sculpted the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Range) into sensuous shapes and created towering dunes.

Valle de Luna active tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Extreme amounts of wind and time have sculpted Valle de Luna in the Atacama Desert.

This landscape comes in practically every shade of brown, red, and orange and–if you squint–it does resemble the surface of the moon. Simply driving into Valle de Luna will deliver spectacular views. However, we recommend getting out of your vehicle and walking along the trails offered at each stop to really explore Valle de Luna.

amphitheater valle de luna 2017

In 2017, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama just after a notable rainfall and the precipitation brought natural salts and minerals to the surface of the desert giving the impression of snow (bottom) versus the same location photographed in much dryer conditions in 2024.

We first visited Valle de Luna in 2017 when there were few rules or regulations established at this popular stop on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama. When we visited Valle de Luna again in 2024 we found that community members that administer this part of Los Flamencos National Reserve have put a host of rules and procedures in place.

Now, community members are posted at four organized stops within the valley. Each area has marked trails and strict closing times after which no one is allowed to enter. Bathrooms have been added. And all Valle de Luna visitors get a map and a briefing before entering the valley.

valle de luna hike atacama desert

A sandy hiking trail in Valle de Luna.

Foreigners pay 10,200 CLP per person (about US$11) for a combo ticket granting entry to Valle de Luna and entry to the nearby Kari Viewpoint (aka Piedra del Coyote or Coyote Rock) which is part of Valle de Luna but is accessed through a different entrance. Tickets for these two sites can be purchased separately, however, it’s cheaper to get the combo ticket and watching the sunset from Coyote Rock is a great place to cap off a day in the desert (more on that in our post covering easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama). Valle de Luna and Coyote Rock hours of entry vary with the seasons based on the time of sunrise and the time of sunset. Remember that there are four stops within Valle de Luna and three of them offer opportunities to hike and explore. Give yourself enough time. Your entry ticket is only good for one day.

Once you’ve got your ticket and your map, a gravel road takes visitors 7 miles (11km) from the entry office into the valley itself to a spot called Tres Marias which is the furthest point visitors are allowed to visit under current rules.

sand dune san pedro de atacama

A classic desert dune in Valle de Luna.

The first stop you’ll encounter as you drive into Valle de Luna is the Higher Dune Trail. Here, trails take visitors up to one of the best viewpoints in the valley, then down an enormous dune. If you don’t feel like you’re in a desert here, then you never will.

Cordillera de la Sal Atacama Desert

The Amphitheater formation in the Cordillera de la Sal is a Valle de Luna highlight.

Next, you’ll reach The Amphitheater which offers more sandy trails connecting dramatic spots like the Mirador Achaches with panoramic views of The Amphitheater formation and the surrounding Cordillera de la Sal where wind and time have altered the shape of the hills into low-slung forms that look like like slanted wedges or bellows.

hike achaches mirador valle de luna active tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Hiking up to the Achaches Mirador viewpoint near The Amphitheater formation in Valle de Luna.

At a stop called La Mina (The Mine) press your ear to a scraped area of salt-encrusted earth and rock where you can sometimes hear natural cracking sounds as temperature changes affect the earth. Some believe you can also hear the ghosts of dead miners who used to work in this abandoned salt mine as they bang their tools inside the rock. A short trail takes you up and over a low ridge and past some rusted equipment which was left where it lay when the mine was abandoned.

tres marias valle de luna

Tres Marias, named for the eroded spires, is the final stop in Valle de Luna.

The fourth and final stop within Valle de Luna is called Tres Marias (aka The Guards) which offers a very short loop past vertical spires made of gravel, clay, salt, and quartz. These formations are estimated to be a million years old and this spot is believed to have been used by Indigenous cultures as a ceremonial site.

hiking valle de luna

The true beauty of Valle de Luna is best seen on foot.

in 2017, during our first visit to the Atacama Desert, we did a fascinating hike south from the Achaches Mirador near The Amphitheater across a pristine and secluded area of Valle de Luna. The trail was unmarked, but it does appear on online maps. The trail was a bit longer than 3 miles (4.8 km) one-way and it allowed us to explore what lies off the well-traveled road through Valle de Luna. However, with the new restrictions and rules at Valle de Luna, we’re not sure if this trail is still open to visitors.

Climb Lascar Volcano

lascar volcano summit active tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Eric at the crater on top of 18,346 foot (5,592 meter) Lascar Volcano. Yes, he’s wearing crampons.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:  The Explora group of all-inclusive luxury adventure lodges in South America has exploration in its blood as they proved during our stay at the Explora Atacama in 2017. When Eric discovered that trekking to the top of 18,346 foot (5,592 meter) Lascar Volcano was on the menu, of course he wanted to go. However, no other guests wanted to tackle this extremely difficult outing (Karen was busy horseback riding). No problem. Explora simply arranged the excursion just for Eric along with a guide, a vehicle, and a driver. Eric’s adventure through snow, ice (he was glad to have crampons), and volcanic gas to reach the top of this towering active volcano remains one of the most memorable adventures he’s had (and that’s saying something).

Lascar volcano caldera

Peering into the belly of the very active Lascar Volcano.

If you like mountains, views, and physical challenges consider this full-day activity which is one of the most active non-expedition adventures in the Atacama Desert. If you can’t afford to stay at the Explora Atacama, Lascar Volcano summit trips are offered by local tour operators as well.

Be aware that Lascar is one of the most active of Chile’s 43 volcanoes and is constantly releasing dangerous gasses. Shortly after Eric arrived at the summit, the wind shifted and he and his guide were forced to make a hasty retreat away from the crater. And, as this dramatic video shows, hikers were surprised by an eruption as they approached the summit of Lascar in December of 2022.

Hike to the Puritama Hot Springs

puritama river hike active tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Hiking along the Puritama River to the bucolic Puritama Hot Springs.

Even in one of the driest places on earth, there is water and none is more inviting than the naturally heated pools of the Puritama Hot Springs (35,000 CLP or about US$38 per adult). Located within the Puritama Conservation Reserve, the subtly developed Puritama Hot Springs complex has eight soaking pools surrounded by reeds and endemic grasses. There are also changing facilities, a cafe, and a shop.

Puritama hot springs

A soak in the volcanically heated waters of the Puritama Hot Springs is the perfect reward after a scenic hike in.

You can drive directly to the hot springs that are located about 18 miles (30 km) from San Pedro de Atacama. Or you can take a 3.2 mile (5.1 km) one way hike to the springs through a sloping valley past cactus, red rock, and waving grass along the Purtiama River. If you do this hike from a lodge or with a tour company transport will be waiting for you at the hot springs. Otherwise, arrange for a pickup at the hot springs to return you to San Pedro de Atacama.

The Rainbow Valley hike

Rainbow Valley hike San Pedro de Atacama

Natural mineral deposits splash color across mountainsides seen during the Rainbow Valley hike in the Atacama Desert.

The 2.2 mile (3.7 km) round trip Rainbow Valley hike, located about 55 miles (90 km) from San Pedro de Atacama, is not the most physically challenging hike in the Atacama Desert and, despite the name, the scenery is not the most spectacular either. However, this relatively light in-and-out hike through the Rainbow Valley (Valle de Arcoiris in Spanish) is a pleasant stroll that isn’t over-visited. Rainbow Valley hikers have the chance to see multi-hued mountainsides splashed with colors caused by naturally occurring minerals in the soil. If you do the Rainbow Valley hike with a tour company you’ll likely also make a stop at the nearby Yerba Buenas Petroglyphs where you can see pre-Hispanic carvings on rock faces depicting daily life and local fauna–mostly llamas with a few flamingos and (mysteriously) a monkey thrown in.

The Rio Grande hike

green rio grande valley atacama-desert

The Rio Grande area amazes with a remarkable amount of greenery.

When we did the 10-mile (14 km) Rio Grande hike we could hardly believe our eyes. Parts of this valley, carved by the Rio Grande, are lush and green and verdant which comes as a real shock after days and days spent in the sandy palette that makes up most of the Atacama Desert.

Rio Grande hike San Pedro Atacama

The Rio Grande trail passes the remains of structures and riverside fields.

This undulating and enjoyable trail is also notable for a cultural reason because hikers pass the remains of the old Rio Grande village including stone houses and fields created near the life-giving river. Note that this is not a loop trail, so unless you hike in and then back out you’ll either need to be picked up at the end of the hike by your tour van driver, or you’ll have to walk along a road for a bit to return to your own vehicle at the trailhead parking area.

Hike up Cerro Toco

Cerro Toco Volcano San Pedro de Atacama Chile

Us on top of the 18,401 foot (5,610 meter) Cero Toco volcano.

Want an “easy” way to reach more than 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) in one short hike? Then head for Cerro Toco. This stratovolcano, about an hour’s drive from San Pedro de Atacama, rises to 18,401 feet (5,610 meters) and here’s the “easy” part: you drive up to 16,682 feet (5,086 meters) and hit the trail from there which leaves just 1,706 feet (502 meters) of vertical elevation to climb to the top.  It took us a little over an hour to ascend the 1.75 miles (2.8 km) to the summit. It was steep and snowy in places, but not difficult overall (though the air was pretty thin so be sure you are well-acclimatized, as we were). At the top, we got spectacular views of Bolivia and of the perfect cone of Licancabur Volcano. We’ve been this high in the Himalayas, but only after days or even weeks of walking. At Cerro Toco you can have breakfast, bag an 18,000+ foot peak, and be back down in time for lunch during one of the most satisfying active tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

Enjoy the Lagunas Altiplanicas Route

Laguna Miscanti

Lovely Laguna Miscanti on the Lagunas Altiplanicas Route in the Atacama Desert.

The full-day adventure to Laguna Miscanti, Laguna Miñiques, and the Salar de Aguas Calients/Piedras Rojas combines scenic drives and scenic strolls at two high-altitude lagoons and one very high-altitude salt flat.

Laguna Miniques

Salt and minerals ring Laguna Miñiques on the Lagunas Altiplanicas Route in the Atacama Desert.

These areas are administered by members of the Socaire community and visitors must reserve online  (15,000 CLP per person or about US$16 for entry to the two lagoons and the salt flat or you can buy a ticket just for the lakes, or just the salt flat). With your online reservation made, visitors must drive about an hour out of San Pedro de Atacama on the paved highway (CH-25) to the town of Socaire stopping at a roadside ticket office to pick up your entry tickets. From there, continue on the paved road to a marked turn-off for the lagoons. When we visited this area in 2024, the 2.5 mile (4 km) dirt road that accesses the lagoons was in terrible condition with many severely washboarded sections and a few steep and rocky sections.

piedras rojas san pedro de atacama

Part of the 2-mile (3 km) loop trail through the stunning scenery at the Salar de Aguas Calientes and Piedras Rojas on the Lagunas Altiplanicas Route in the Atacama Desert.

After passing through yet another Socaire community checkpoint and receiving a detailed briefing and a long list of rules, you’ll continue on the dirt road down to Laguna Miscanti. A bit further along you’ll find Laguna Miñiques. Both lagoons, located at 13,582 feet (4,140 meters), are favored by flamingos and there are a few short flat trails, though some of the trails were closed when we visited. There are also modern bathroom facilities at these lagoons.

Salar de Aguas Calientes Atacama

Colors collide at Salar de Aguas Calientes and Piedras Rojas.

Exit along the same dirt road to return to the paved road (CH-25) and continue toward Sico Pass and the  Argentina border for about 25 miles (40 km) to reach the Salar de Aguas Calientes and Piedras Rojas at just shy of 13,000 feet (3,950 meters). Here, a sea of white is punctuated by pools of celery green water and red rocks (piedras rojas). A 2-mile (3 km) path loops around the arresting scenery. Be prepared for strong sun and even stronger wind and allow at least an hour to walk the loop. You’ll be taking slow steps at this altitude and stopping frequently to take photos. There are dry toilets near the parking area, but don’t expect cell service.

Other Atacama Desert active tours in San Pedro de Atacama

horseback riding San Pedro de Atacama

The varied terrain makes horseback riding in the Atacama Desert a pleasure.

Tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama also offer sand boarding, bike rental, horseback riding, and off-road buggy rental.

Bonus: Salar de Uyuni road trip

volcano licancabur bolivia

Our truck on the Southwest Circuit in Bolivia where the Licancabur Volcano looms large.

San Pedro de Atacama is virtually on the border with southern Bolivia and many tour operators in town offer guided multi-day vehicle adventures over the border into Bolivia to explore the geysers, lagoons, and landscapes of the so-called Southwest Circuit up to the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat). Though this is essentially a short road trip, we consider it an active adventure (we did it in our truck) because of the extremely high altitude, extreme weather, remote location, and unmarked dirt tracks that travelers encounter in this region  Note that US passport holders need to purchase a special visa to enter Bolivia and there may be vaccine requirements and other logistics to consider as well.

Atacama Desert travel tips

Here are some nuts-and-bolts Atacama Desert travel tips to help you make the most of your time in this top destination in northern Chile.

Atacama Desert weather

In 2018, the American Council on Science and Health found that the Atacama Desert routinely registers the highest levels of UV radiation on earth with readings often at 11 (considered dangerous) and up to 20 during the summer months.

Solmaforo UV level Atacama

This UV station in the Atacama Desert showed an extreme (purple) level of UV radiation and this is very often the case.

With that searing UV level in mind, a wide-brimmed hat, high SPF sunscreen, sunglasses that block UVA and UVB light, and plenty of water are required during all explorations.

While some parts of the Atacama Desert have never registered any rainfall at all, it does rain in the Atacama Desert. The area around the tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama receives an average of 6 inches (155 mm) of rain per year which falls almost exclusively between January and March.

Even when it’s raining, temperatures can be very high so expect and prepare for hot daytime temperatures year round. During the South American winter months, nighttime temperatures dip way down.

Atacama Desert elevation

Most travelers looking for active adventures in the Atacama make San Pedro de Atacama their base camp. Remember that this town sits at 7,900 feet (2,400 meters) and many of the top sites in the Atacama Desert are even higher than that. For example, if you are exploring the altiplano you will be between 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) and 16,000 feet (4,876 meters). If you are climbing one of the volcanoes you can find yourself well above 18,000 feet (5,486 meters). Be aware of the elevations here, and don’t plan on climbing any volcanoes until you are acclimatized. Give your body a chance to adjust to the altitude naturally by taking it slow and drinking plenty of water (and not much alcohol) and don’t attempt strenuous hikes or climbs until you feel acclimatized, which will take a few days.

Getting around the Atacama Desert

Atacama Desert sites and trails are all located outside of San Pedro de Atacama–some are 100 miles (160 km) away–and there is no local public transportation in San Pedro de Atacama. Public buses run to and from the city of Calama, where the airport is located, but that’s pretty much it. If you don’t have your own vehicle, your transport options include booking tours through one of the tour companies in town which include transportation or renting a car or a camper in Calama or in San Pedro de Atacama (reserve well in advance) so you can drive yourself. If you have the budget, the luxury all-inclusive lodges that are among your choices of hotels San Pedro de Atacama all include activities, guides, and transport in their rates.

 

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