Camping in the Atacama Desert in Chile: 4 Day Itinerary
The Atacama Desert. The driest place on earth. The clearest night skies in the world. A vast open space whose beauty lies in its barrenness. Hemmed in by the Andes in the east and the Pacific in the west, it’s a 1,000km stretch of nothing, yet everything.
You can find more wildlife here than you might expect: from llamas and vicuñas, to donkeys, foxes, and flamingos. The views and ecosystems are just as varied. In a single day you can experience volcanoes, salt flats, sinkhole lagoons, lush valleys, and rugged, rocky, lunar landscapes.
What better way to explore the region than by road tripping and camping under the stars?
Table of Contents
- Why Camp in the Atacama Desert?
- Planning Your Route
- Where Do You Camp?
- Renting a Campervan
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Day 3
- Day 4
- Other Attractions To Consider
- The Question You’re All Thinking…
- Packing List for Camping in the Atacama Desert
- Tips for Camping in the Atacama Desert
Why Camp in the Atacama Desert?
The vast majority of people who travel to the Atacama Desert will book accommodations in San Pedro and then take day tours to see what they want to see. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach and is likely what I would’ve done if I’d been travelling solo. But since I had a travel partner, and he could drive stick, we decided to go the more flexible route of a self-guided camping trip.
This gave us the chance to make our own schedule to be able to avoid most tourist crowds. We could stay as long or as little as we liked at a place with the freedom to explore anything that caught our eye.
Planning Your Route
When I was first planning out our Atacama camping adventure, I’d been hoping to be able to plot some type of circuit rather than a hub and spoke trip, however, it was not to be. Like it or not, the small town of San Pedro de Atacama is going to be the centrepoint of your adventures.
It contains not only the only ATMs and gas station in the region but also 99% of the restaurants, shops, and accommodations so you’ll find yourself in town at some point each day of your trip. Our daily ritual was stopping at the Copec station to fill up our van with fuel and our water jugs with water, and then off to explore.
For our first and last night, we found campsites close to or on the way to our first destination of the morning. On our second night, we camped near the place where we watched the sunset because we didn’t want to drive around in the dark.
Where Do You Camp?
There are no campgrounds in this particular part of the world. If you choose to camp, you’re going to be free camping. Your campsite is wherever you can pull your van off the road. Be careful of sandy spots because it’s quite easy to sink and get stuck.
The Maritimer in me kept thinking we should be looking for a spot with some privacy or cover but let’s face it, they don’t call it a desert because it’s filled with treed lots. The bonus is that there are few people so even if you can see for miles around, you probably won’t see any people. You’re more likely to have a wild donkey as a dinner guest than a human.
Renting a Campervan
We worked with Wicked South America to rent a 3-seater campervan for 4 days / 3 nights. They also have smaller, 2-seater vans, 4WD vehicles with pop-up tents. You’re going to need to know how to drive a manual.
Each van has a unique paint job and is kitted out with just about everything you’ll need for your trip. Cooking needs are taken care of with a pot, frying pan, plates, bowls, mugs, and cutlery, along with a cooler, single burner butane camp stove, and large water bottle for the sink. You’ll get folding chairs and a table as well for dining al fresco. We ate our breakfasts this way but ate at the table inside the van for suppers when the wind picked up.
Be sure that your van has all the tools needed to change a tire. Flat tires happen and while each rental comes with 24h roadside assistance you may be stuck somewhere without a cell signal. Your rental should also have a high vis vest and a tow rope at minimum.
We had an older model Mitsubishi Delica decked out in a Condorito paint job, which we affectionately named Mitsu.
Arrive in San Pedro de Atacama
Most likely you will have flown into Calama, about a 90min drive from San Pedro. Grab a TransVIP shuttle and head to Wicked South America in San Pedro de Atacama to pick up your wheels for the next four days.
Give yourself an hour for paperwork and the tour of your new temporary home.
Next, I’d recommend you hightail it the 15 minutes to Valle de la Luna to see if you can secure a reservation for the sunset visit. They’re limited and you’ll need to get it in advance. If you have no luck, buy one for the next night and explore San Pedro today instead.
Back in town, stop by a shop to get food supplies. We made Supermercado Ketal our go-to, but don’t let the word supermercado fool you. These stores are tiny with limited supplies so I hope you’re not a picky eater. You only need to pick up enough food for a day or two since you’ll be swinging through San Pedro on a regular basis.
We went with a simple pasta and sauce on our first dinner, tuna and avocado sandwiches with a side of fruit for lunches, and created the ultimate pun on our second dinner: chili on a chilly night in Chile. I’m quite proud of that one.
The last necessary stop of the day is at the Copec Station. It’s the only gas station in the region so you’re going to become very familiar with it. Fill up your van with fuel and use the water spout outside near the main building to fill any water jugs you have. Make use of the facilities if need be – it’ll cost CLP$ 300 but they’re spacious and clean. No showers however. Finally, get yourself a hot dog (called a ‘completo’ in Chile) and top it with mayo and avocado from a pump. Seriously. Best gas station hot dogs.
Valle de la Luna
If you were lucky enough to get a sunset reservation, head to Valle de la Luna for 6pm (times may vary throughout the year to match sunset). There you’ll check in to get your map and directions from a guide.
From there you’ll self guide through the otherworldly landscape filled with sharp, craggy rocks being swallowed by sand dunes. It truly feels like you’re on another planet, or indeed, the moon. Marvel at the towering Amphitheatre formation. Spot the figures in the Three Marias. Listen for the cracking of salt in the old Victoria Salt Mine.
Then, about an hour before sunset, head to Duna Mayor where you’ll climb to the top of the giant sand dune to watch the sky blaze with colour and the sun sink past the horizon. Be forewarned: climbing sand dunes is hard work so bring water. The best part about visiting Valle de la Luna independently is that you won’t need to rush back to a bus and can, instead, enjoy the entire sunset.
There’s a large white cross on a hill just outside of San Pedro that makes for a decent camping spot for the night. There’s a large enough flat area to park your van and, though there’s no cover, you’ll be far enough away from the main road below to feel like you have some privacy at night. It can be a popular spot with stargazers.
- Wicked South America
Campervan and car rentals
- Valle de la Luna
Price per person: CLP$ 3.000
Reservations needed early for sunset visit
- Driving Distances
San Pedro – Valle de la Luna – 6km
Pukará de Quitor
Start your day with a quick tour of the 12th century archeological site of Pukará de Quitor, just 2.4km from the previous night’s campsite. The stone fortress is built on a slope and inside, area different areas that would have been used as homes, animal shelters and warehouses, all connected by a maze of corridors with stairs. It was declared a National Monument in 1982 for being a key testimony in the development and evolution of indigenous communities in the Antofagasta region.
Head up the road to Laguna Cejar. The main attraction here is a sinkhole lagoon so salty that you can float effortlessly. It’s like the Dead Sea, but much less crowded. The cool water will feel refreshing in the desert heat, though be sure not to rub your eyes or get in if you have any open cuts because that will sting like you wouldn’t believe. Give yourself at least a half hour to float around and enjoy the scenery. We spent almost an hour in there.
There are change stalls and outdoor shower facilities here so you can rinse the salt off but you’re limited to 3 minutes and no soap is allowed. They’re monitored to ensure the rules are followed.
If you want to see flamingos, this is the spot. Laguna Chaxa is the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos’s most easily accessible flamingo-breeding site. Here you’ll find three types of flamingo (Andean, Chilean, and James) as well as other birds so be sure to bring a zoom lens. iPhone photography just doesn’t cut it here. Have a chuckle watching the Chilean flamingos stomp in circles to stir up food while the Andeans amble about in lazy lines.
Once you’ve had your fill of flamingos, explore the path through the salt crusts and read about how the salt flats work. Mother Nature is amazing.
Keep an eye out for any spots between Laguna Chaxa and San Pedro where you can pull off the road. If you want to back track a bit, we found a spot at the junction of B-355 and B-371 where trucks had been moving dirt around to create a bit of a berm between the “clearing” and the road.
The treed area of El Tambillo, where they’re planting trees to help fight climate change, could provide some shelter as well.
- Pukará de Quitor
Price per person: CLP$ 3.000
- Laguna Chaxa
Price per person: CLP$ 2.500
- Laguna Cejar
Price per person: CLP$ 10,000 9am-2pm and CLP$ 15,000 2pm-6pm
- Driving Distances
Cruz Papal – Pukará de Quitor – 2.4km
San Pedro – Laguna Chaxa – 63km
Laguna Chaxa – Laguna Cejar – 58km
Laguna Cejar – San Pedro – 28km
Who needs Aspen? Add a little adrenaline to your Atacama camping trip with a sandboarding excursion. Join a guided tour out of San Pedro in the morning, strap on a board, and learn how to skim down the steep sand dunes.
Yerba Buenas Petroglyphs
Hop back in your campervan and head 60km northwest from San Pedro to the Yerba Buenas Petroglyphs. Here you can wander around rock formations and look at the artwork of a long ago civilization. There are dozens of images etched into the stone dating back as early as 500 CE. See if you can count the number of llamas that appear.
Valle del Arcoiris / Rainbow Valley
From Yerba Buenas it’s only another 5km through the valley to Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley). The road crosses the Rio Salado several times, but there are no bridges. Thankfully, the river is very shallow and there was only one spot that was a bit tricky with a silty bottom.
Rainbow Valley gets its name from the variety of colors that can be seen in the hills of the valley; earth colors, red, beige, green, white, yellow, combined with white salt and blue sky. The colors show the richness and different concentrations of clay, salts and minerals.
From a distance I saw one of the brown hills topped with white and green and it reminded me of my Copec hot dog with mayo and avocado so I nicknamed it Cerro Completo. ;)
There’s a small parking lot but I’d recommend driving through the valley as there are marked paths and the distance can be long and hot on foot. There’s so little traffic that it’s no problem to just stop your car and get out to explore.
Park your van away from San Pedro tonight and wonder at how many stars fill the sky at night. Download a stargazing app before you go so you can identify the constellations. We visited in November and had to wait until quite late to catch a glimpse of the Southern Cross but it was worth it.
The moment I stepped out of the van for the first time after dark took my breath away. The sky looked like black velvet studded with twinkling diamonds. There were so many stars! The isolation of the Atacama Desert makes it one of the best spots in the world for stargazing.
It’s also a great place to experiment with a little astrophotography and light painting. I really wish I’d charged up both of my camera batteries earlier so that I could really play.
We spent our third night in Mitsu, the campervan at Cañon de Guatín (also known as Cactus Canyon), on the way to the Tatio Geysers. It’s a somewhat popular area and recommended by Wicked South America. It makes a great launch point for the pre-dawn drive to the geysers the next morning.
It’s at 3,000m (9842’) elevation so it gets quite chilly at night, even in summer so pack some warm sleeping clothes.
- Sandboard San Pedro
Price per person: CLP$ 20.000
Times: 9:00 am to 12:30 pm and 4:00 pm to 7:30 pm.
Duration: 3.5 hours
- Yerba Buenas Petroglyphs
Price per person: CLP$ 3.000
- Valle del Arcoiris / Rainbow Valley
Price included with Petroglyphs
- Driving Distances
San Pedro – Yerba Buenas – 61km
Yerba Buenas – Valle del Arcoiris – 5.3km
Valle del Arcoiris – Cañon de Guatín – 83km
Geysers del Tatio
Set your alarm for 4:30am and be ready to roll out from Gautin by 5am since you want to arrive at the Geysers del Tatio just as they open at 6am. You’ll be making the drive up to 4,320 metres (14,170 ft) elevation, in the dark so go slow and take your time. There are some dangerous twists and turns and steep drop offs that you’ll only really notice on your way back down in daylight.
El Tatio is the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Wander through the field of 80+ geysers and try not to get hit by the spurting columns of hot water or get lost in a cloud of steam. Don’t forget your hat and gloves! Pre-dawn temperatures are frequently below freezing. Watch your footing too as sometimes the ground can be a little icy before the sun comes up.
Keep an eye out for vicuñas as they can sometimes be spotted in the area.
If you’re brave, stop by the hot spring on site after you’ve had your fill of bubbling geothermal vents. There’s no extra cost and there are change rooms on site but it can get busy. The hot spring itself is more warm than hot, but if you can snag a spot in the shallow end, brush back a little sand on the bottom and feel how hot the ground is.
On the way back down the mountain, stop into the small village of Machuca for cheese empanadas and a skewer of grilled llama meat. Not only are the furry animals cute, they’re also delicious. Take a wander up and have a look at the church while you’re there.
Puritama Hot Springs
If you didn’t take a dip in the hot spring at the geysers and are regretting it or you’re just a hot spring fiend, make a final stop at the Puritama Hot Springs. This is one of the pricier attractions in the Atacama. The springs here are also more warm than hot but the pampas grass growing around the pool gives it a certain magical feel. Plus, if you’ve been camping for 4 days, the freshwater dip makes a nice hippie shower.
Return to San Pedro
Your final leg will take you back to San Pedro where you’ll say goodbye to your campervan, get a TransVIP shuttle back to Calama and wrap up your camping trip in the Atacama Desert.
- Geysers del Tatio
Price per person: CLP$ 10.000
Geysers are most active in the 2 hours immediately after sunrise
Price: llama skewer CLP$ 3.000, empanada CLP$ 1.300
Do not take photographs with locals in them without asking their permission
- Puritama Hot Springs
Price per person: CLP$ 15.000 until 2pm, CLP$ 9.000 after 2pm
- Driving Distances
Cañon de Guatín – Geysers del Tatio – 58km
Geysers del Tatio – Machuca – 34km
Machuca – Puritama Hot Springs – 29km
Puritama Hot Springs – San Pedro – 28km
Other Attractions To Consider
This is not a comprehensive itinerary that will cover all there is to see in the north of the Atacama Desert so here are a few more attractions you may want to consider if you have more time.
- Piedras Rojas
- Ojos del Salar & Laguna Tebinquinche
- Laguna Baltinache
- Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques
- Valle de la Muerte
- Viña Santa Romina in Toconao
- Valle de Jere
The Question You’re All Thinking…
Where do you use the bathroom? Well… wherever we could. I made use of bathrooms whenever we came across them. At the Copec in San Pedro, at the entrance for various attractions but sometimes you just gotta go. There are rarely other people around so get comfortable popping a squat in the great outdoors. If that makes you uncomfortable there are products out there to let you pee standing up with minimal undressing. Regardless, don’t leave anything behind. Put your used toilet paper in a bag and throw it out at the next garbage can.
How did you keep clean? I hate feeling sweaty and dirty so this was a bit of a challenge for me. A combination of dry shampoo for my hair and cleansing wipes for my body and face helped. I was able to get a 3 minute no-soap shower at Laguna Cejar, and had a dip in the hot springs at El Tatio. I got Kirk to help me wash my hair on the 2nd morning with some water heated on our camp stove and we attempted a nighttime spongebath on the 3rd night but our stove ran out of gas so it was quite chilly.
Packing List for Camping in the Atacama Desert
Your Wicked campervan will come equipped almost everything you need but there are still a few things you’ll want to bring yourself:
- Toilet paper, wipes, plastic bags for disposal (dog poo bags work well)
- Dry shampoo, hair ties, headbands, Buff, ball cap
- Sunscreen and bug spray
- Battery operated lights: headlamps, flashlights, fairy lights, etc.
- Thermal base layer, warm socks, packable down jacket, hat, gloves
- 12v cigarette lighter plug adapter and power bank
- Swimsuit and towel
- LifeStraw water bottle
Tips for Camping in the Atacama Desert
- Leave the El Tatio geysers until the end of your camping trip. They’re at a high elevation so you don’t want to zoom there straight from sea level. Give yourself at least a day or two at San Pedro’s 2400m elevation before climbing higher.
- There’s more cell service available than I anticipated however there are still large pockets of road where you’ll get no service so be sure to look up maps and directions ahead of time.
- Consider using an offline maps app like maps.me and plotting your destinations while you have service
- Carry cash. While there are some shops and restaurants in San Pedro that take cards, you’ll more likely need to pay entrance fees in cash.
- Just because a road has a route number doesn’t mean that it’s paved or that it much resembles a road at all. Many of the ones we drove on were no more than dusty paths. Be wary of loose sand. Vans can sink.
- Consider packing a tarp and some rope to create some cover from the sun.
- Drink more water than you think you need. The air is so dry that you won’t sweat, despite the hot temperatures.
- Use more sunscreen than you think you’ll need. The sun is harsh at altitude.
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February 28th, 2023 at 12:44 pm (#)
Hoping to travel to the Atacama this year, this was super helpful! Thank you so much for all the details, beautiful photos, and the map!