This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Atacama Desert Adventure Travel Guide

In the Atacama Desert, even van trips and soft adventures–like visiting archaeological sites, spotting flamingos in salt flats, and witnessing one of the world’s largest geyser fields–are thrilling. Use our adventure travel guide to explore the Atacama Desert with these easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

Flamingos Laguna Caxa easy tours from San Pedro de Atacama

Flamingos feed in Laguna Caxa in the Atacama Salt Flat within the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

Atacama Desert facts

In our previous post about active adventures in San Pedro de Atacama we shared a number of Atacama Deser facts including the size of the Atacama Desert (it covers the northern third of Chile stretching 1,000 miles/1,600 km between the Andes and the sea), and it’s standing as the largest and driest deserts on earth.

San Pedro de Atacama contrasts

Green lowlands and arid hills help define the contrasting landscape around San Pedro de Atacama.

In terms of travel logistics, it’s also important to know that many of the most popular places to explore in the Atacama Desert around San Pedro de Atacama are within the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos (Flamingos National Reserve) which is managed by local communities whose members set their own rules and regulations for visitors. For example, one site within the reserve may require prior reservation while another does not.

It’s possible to explore the Atacama Desert on your own in your own vehicle, but most visitors to the Atacama Desert like to leave the logistics to one of the many tour operators in San Pedro de Atacama by booking group or private excursions that include any necessary reservations or entry fees plus a guide, and transportation.

Laguna Lajia easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama

The Laguna Lejía salt lake sits high on the altiplano at more than 14,450 feet (4,374 meters).

We spent a total of 42 days exploring the Atacama Desert–first in 2017 and again in early 2024. Here’s our adventure travel guide about easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

Easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama

There are certainly plenty of active tours in San Pedro de Atacama that get you out out into the Atacama Desert on foot or even up to the top fo soaring peaks. However, travelers looking for laid-back ways to explore the Atacama will find plenty of satisfying van tours and no-sweat day trips to choose from. Here are our favorite easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

Enjoy sunset at Coyote Rock

Kari Viewpoint Coyote Rock easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Watching sunset over the Atacama Desert from the Kari Viewpoint (aka Coyote Rock) is a popular way to end a day of exploration.

Kari Viewpoint (aka Piedra del Coyote or Coyote Rock) is a popular spot at sunset because the blufftop location gives visitors views for miles over the Atacama Desert. Coyote Rock, on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, is operated by the same community that administers Valle de Luna. You can purchase a Coyote Rock entry ticket when you visit Valle de Luna or from the ticket booth at Coyote Rock. Visitors must enter Coyote Rock before sunset (that time varies with the seasons) and must leave as dusk is falling (ditto).

Visit the Pukara de Quitor archaeological site

Pukara de Quitor easy tours in san pedro de atacama

The Pukara de Quitor archaeological site offers a rare glimpse of ancient Atacameñan culture.

Though the Atacama Desert is best known for natural beauty, human habitation in the Atacama region dates back more than 10,000 years. The Quitor people represented an early Atacameñan culture and the Pukara de Quitor archaeological site, just a few miles from central San Pedro de Atacama, is an enduring testament to their advanced abilities. This walled city on a hillside is reached via a somewhat steep trail. This settlement was strong enough to repel rival groups whose members were anxious to steal the Quitor’s superior pottery and metalwork. The city also proved a formidable match for Spanish conquistadors who came calling in the 1500s. It took the Spanish 20 years to conquer Pukara de Quitor. Even today, hundreds of years after the walled city was first established in the 12th century, visitors can clearly see the remains of stone walls and foundations. Remains and facts about the Atacama’s earliest inhabitants are scarce. Anyone interested in the cultures of the Atacama should visit Pukara de Quitor.

Visit the Tulor archaeological site

Tulor archaeological ite easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Little is known about petite Tulor archaeological site.

Little is known about the civilization that created what’s left at the Tulor archaeological site. However, carbon dating tells us that the complex was created between 380 BC and 200 AD. A pair of dwellings have been recreated and a raised boardwalk gives visitors a vantage point over a network of circular walls made of clay. Archaeologists also found boreholes which are circular places where members of this ancient civilization dug holes in search of water. Human remains have also been found at the site.

Take in the Tatio Geyser Field

tatio geyser trail

Karen heads out on a marked path around some of the geysers and fumaroles that add up to make the Tatio Geyser Field the third largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

One of the most popular easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama is a van trip to see the Tatio Geyser Field. Also known as the Copacoya Geysers, this place is home to 8% of all of the geysers on earth and ranks as the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest one in the Southern Hemisphere. Located at the foot of a string of stratovolcanoes 50 miles (80 km) from San Pedro de Atacama, this area is covered with geysers and gassy fumaroles that produce hissing noises and giving off dramatic amounts of steam.

san pedro de atacama geysers

The 80+ geysers and 100+ fumaroles within the Tatio Geyser Field produce a near constant show of steam.

Experts believe the name “tatio” comes from a Kunza language word that has been translated to mean “to appear” or “oven”. The word may also mean “grandfather” or “burnt”. Geothermal prospecting has been going on in the area since the 1920s. More recently, a local power company attempted to mine geothermal power from the geyser field but that project was abandoned after an explosion in 2009.

tatio geyser basin

Visitors explore the Tatio Geyser Field near sunrise.

Most trips to the Tatio Geysers depart San Pedro de Atacama extremely early, travel for about 2 hours on often very rough dirt roads to reach the site, then serve (a sometimes rudimentary) breakfast at the geyser field. Visitors can stroll along marked pathways to view some of the 80+ geysers and 100+ bubbling fumaroles before returning to San Pedro de Atacama along those same bad roads. Be prepared for high altitude (the Tatio Geyser Field is at 14,710 feet/4,320 meters) and changing weather (layers are best).

tatio geyser sunrise

Mountains above, naturally heated water below at the Tatio Geyser Field.

Our video, below, shows you why so many visitors choose a trip to the Tatio Geyser Field as one of their easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama.

 

Pro tip: Though afternoon trips may also be offered, the Tatio Geyser Field is best visited in the early morning when the air is still cold enough to accentuate the appearance of the steam.

Stroll around Laguna Cejar

Laguna cejar salt lake

Eric floating on the super-saline Laguna Cejar.

Meander along the short flat trail to reach Laguna Cejar, located about 12 miles (20 km) from San Pedro de Atacama, to enjoy a classic Atacama scene as the brown and white expanse of the Salar de Atacama salt flat meets the blue waters of the lagoon which, in turn, is often dotted with pink flamingos. Like the Dead Sea, the water of Laguna Cejar is super saline and, therefore, buoyant. When we visited this lagoon in 2017, visitors were allowed to get into the lagoon and float around effortlessly, but we hear that swimming/floating is no longer allowed.

Spot flamingos at Laguna Caxa in the Salar de Atacama

salar de atacama Laguna Caxa

The Salar de Atacama salt flat may look inhospitable, but flamingos come in droves.

In a region full of otherworldly terrain, the Laguan Caxa area of the vast Salar de Atacama (Atacama salt flat) stands out because of its nubbly surface of earth and salt and because it’s a hot spot for flamingos. This shallow pool of water collected on the surface of the salt flat at 7,560 feet (2,305 meters) provides the perfect conditions for microinvertebrates which attract rare Andean flamingos and more common Chilean flamingos which spend all day gobbling up the tiny critters with their shovel-like bills. Located within the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos (Flamingos Natural Reserve) about 40 miles (63 km) from San Pedro de Atacama, this area is administered by members of the nearby Tocanao community.

flamingo salar de atacama

Flamingos flock to Laguna Caxa in the Atacama Desert, attracted by ample food.

At Laguna Caxa there’s a short flat trail that takes visitors to an observation point and then onto the salt flat for a closer view of the flamingos that flock here.

Visit the Monjes de la Pacana formations and the Salar de Tara

Monjes de la Pacana atacama

The massive Monjes de la Pacana formations jut up out of an otherwise flat high-altitude plateau.

The Salar de Tara (Tara Salt Flat) is located 95 miles (150 km) from San Pedro de Atacama above the basin of the Vilama Volcano at 14,435 feet (4,400 meters). In addition to various species of flamingos, this area is favored by other birds including Andean avocets, puna plovers, yellow-billed pintails, and Andean geese in addition to Andean foxes.

el indio monjes de pacana

Wind and time have eroded away softer rock to reveal harder spires that some say resemble monks.

This 18 square mile (48 square km) salt flat, bordered on one side by a massive wall of eroded rock called the Catedral de Tara, is a dramatic location in and of itself–but there’s more. On your way to the Tara Salt Flat, you’ll pass the Monjes de la Pacana rock formations. These wind-carved spire-like formations (called monjes–which monks in Spanishbecause the towering formations look a bit like stoic clergy members) shoot into the sky punctuation the otherwise flat landscape.

rock pillars monjes de pacana

Whether solitary or in clusters like this formation, the Monjes de la Pacana are impressive sights in the Atacama Desert.

Bonus: to reach this area, you’ll travel up, up, up, toward the Jama Pass and the border with Argentina on a good paved road. Along the way, you’ll reach up to 15,942 feet (4,859 meters) as you travel across an enormous plateau with epic views of the nearby volcanic peaks in Bolivia and Chile, and grazing vicuña (the wild camelid ancestor of the alpaca) on the sides of the road. Make sure you’re acclimatized. And make sure you bring your camera.

Take a hot air balloon ride over the Atacama

easy tours in san pedro de atacama balloon trip

Up, up, and away in a hot air balloon over the Atacama Desert for a unique perspective on this massive natural area.

When we were in San Pedro in 2017, a company called Balloons Over Atacama was offering hot air balloon rides over the Atacama Desert. Our morning flight started with coffee and excellent croissants from the famous French-run Franchuteria bakery in San Pedro de Atacama and ended with celebratory champagne.

Hot air balloon over San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama and part of the surrounding Atacama Desert as seen from above during our hot air balloon trip.

In between, we spent time floating over the Atacama Desert where winds took us close to the Valley of the Moon. The wind shifted, however, preventing us from flying over the Valle de Luna. Still, this slow, silent, and serene form of transportation provided a birdseye view of the landscape and the chance to contemplate just how beautiful this desert is.

Update: When we returned to San Pedro in 2024, Balloons Over Atacama was no longer in business and, sadly, no one else was offering this unique way to explore the Atacama Desert by air.

Lagunas Baltinache

Tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama also offer van trips to the seven lakes in the Lagunas Baltinache area (sometimes called Lagunas Escondidas). However, in 2024 we were told the road to Lagunas Baltinache was in awful condition and that five of the lakes are now dry, so we decided not to go.

Atacama Desert travel tips

There are a few important things to know about the Atacama Desert to ensure your explorations go smoothly in this top destination in northern Chile.

Atacama Desert weather

UV radiation readings in the Atacama Desert often reach 11 (considered dangerous) and register up to 20 during the summer months. And that’s not just us talking. In 2018, the American Council on Science and Health found that the Atacama Desert routinely registers the highest levels of UV radiation on earth.

Solmaforo UV level Atacama

This UV station in the Atacama Desert shows a UV radiation level in the purple zone with is considered extreme. You’ve been warned.

Whenever you’re outside, it’s a great idea to combat that searing UV level with a wide-brimmed hat, high SPF sunscreen, sunglasses that block UVA and UVB light, and plenty of drinking water.

Yes, rainfall is notably scarce in the Atacama Desert (some parts have never registered any rainfall at all). However, it does rain in the Atacama Desert. For example, 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.

But don’t rely on the rain to cool down the temperature, which can be very high. Prepare for hot daytime temperatures year-round. On the other hand, during the South American winter months, nighttime temperatures dip way down low.

Atacama Desert elevation

Atacama snow

Weather and elevation are two important factors in the Atacama Desert. For example, during a mid-summer heatwave in San Pedro de Atacama, an overnight storm at 15,000+ feet dumped snow in the mountains above town.

It’s important to remember that San Pedro de Atacama 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). Be aware of the elevation here (even the low point is high) and don’t exert yourself until you’re acclimatized. It can take a few days for your body to adjust to the altitude naturally and you can help that process by taking it slow and drinking plenty of water (and not much alcohol).

Getting around the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is enormous and many of the sites visited during easy tours in San Pedro de Atacama are located many, many miles outside of town. There is no comprehensive 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 that include transportation through one of the tour companies in town or renting a car or a camper in Calama or in San Pedro de Atacama (reserve well in advance) and driving yourself from site to site. If you can afford it, the luxury all-inclusive lodges that are among the San Pedro de Atacama hotel options include activities, guides, and transport in rates for hassle-free comprehensive exploration.

 

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about Adventure Travel in the America

 


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