There is no better way to explore the Atacama Desert in Chile than by renting a car and driving out “into the great wide open, under them skies of blue” as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would say. Having the freedom to stop to take photographs, have a picnic lunch or simply take a moment to marvel at the snow capped mountains without anyone else around you is just magic.
The roads are very easy to navigate and you can often count on two hands the number of cars you will pass during a whole day of exploring. If you’re arriving into Calama, pick up a rental car at the airport from Econorent who were by far the cheapest on our visit- 3 days in an automatic cost roughly $180USD (note, the car pictured wasn’t the one we actually booked. The cheapest cars were unavailable so we got upgraded). We reserved a car online about a week before arrival and had no problems whatsoever.
Before leaving Calama make sure to visit the supermarket to stock up on snacks and water for your road trip. San Pedro can be pretty expensive and there is less choice in the shops there than at the supermarkets in Calama.
The best place to base yourself for your day trips into the Atacama Desert is San Pedro. Yes accommodation is pricey but the only petrol station close enough to the Atacama Desert is located there and there’s a good mix of restaurants and shops in which to while away your evenings.
There are a number of spectacular sites to visit on your roadie but here are our Top Picks in no particular order…
1. Valle de la Luna
Entry fee: 3,000CLP/$5USD per person
The best time to visit Valle de la Luna is in the late afternoon, well before sunset. We set out at around 5:00pm and found that we had a good amount of time to explore before the sun went down at around 8:00pm. We suggest driving to the furtherest most point of the park (the salt mines) and working your way back. Be prepared to stop frequently to capture the startling landscape which NASA say resembles Mars- it’s all sand dunes, salt flats and terracotta coloured boulders. Climb to the top of the sand dune and watch the colours of your surroundings change as the light fades. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
2. Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques
Entry fee: 3,000CLP/$5USD per person
You might think you’re looking at a painting when you drive over the hill and down into the park where Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques are located. Vicunas graze by the edges of the lakes and you might see the odd splash which disturbs the surface of the water but otherwise, the lakes are utterly still. This is is the perfect spot to park up your car and to have a picnic. It’s mesmerising.
3. Laguna de Chaxa
Entry fee: 2,500CLP/$4USD
Surrounded by salt flats, Laguna de Chaxa is home to 3 species of flamingo. The bright plumage of the birds contrasts with the blinding white of the salt flats and the deep blue of the lake- it’s about as picturesque as it gets! Combine this visit with a dip at Ojos del Salar (mentioned below).
4. Geyser del Tatio
Entry fee: 10,000CLP/$15USD per person
It’s an early start if you’re to make it to Geyser del Tatio for sunrise but it’s worth it we promise! It’s a 2 hour drive to get to the geyser field, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere so we suggest leaving between 4:30am and 5:00am. At 4,320 metres you’re sure to feel the effects of altitude so make sure you don’t visit Geyser del Tatio until you’ve had a couple of days to acclimatise in San Pedro and its surrounds. After witnessing the spectacular change in light and the furious bubbling of the geysers, pop over to the hot springs for a dip. One of the highlights of this trip is the mind blowing landscape on the drive back- especially those giant cactuses! P.S remember to rug up as it is VERY cold at Geyser del Tatio- on our visit it was 3 degrees celsius/37.4 Fahrenheit.
5. Ojos del Salar
Bypass Laguna Cejar where they charge a hefty 15,000CLP/$25USD for a float in the salt water lake and drive instead to Ojos del Salar. Located out in the middle of the salt flats you can take a dip in this slightly salty pool for free and pretty much have the place to yourself. Sure, you don’t float, but it’s refreshing, the location is idyllic and you won’t be sharing the pool with a million other people.
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