Chile, Latin America, Travel

Experience Chile’s Atacama Desert – Among salt lakes, flamingos and snow-capped volcanoes

Atacama Desert with Licancabur


Once before you’ve probably dreamed of an incredibly clear and starry sky, right? In Berlin, where we both live, a night sky like that is nearly impossible to find because of the intense light pollution. Maybe you’ll find a darker place in Brandenburg, but the night sky in the Atacama Desert is an absolutely huge difference. It really feels as you could look directly into space. This is beyond words. But that was not the only reason why we decided to fly to the other side of the world. When we talk to others, they usually wonder: “Chile? Why did you get there? “Honestly, I’m not sure anymore. My destination should be as far away as possible and I (Stine) wanted to improve my new Spanish skills.

Today my Spanish skills are just pathetic and almost forgotten, but the images and memories are still remaining. Not just in my head, but also under my skin. The Atacama desert enchanted and impressed us so much that Stine had a souvenir tattooed on her arm. Maybe this gives you a small impression how incredible this trip was for us.

Information about the Atacama Desert

  • World’s driest desert
  • 105,000 km² area
  • Along the Pacific coast
  • Age: about 15 million years

atacama desert at sunrise

Atacama best travel time

The Atacama Desert can be visited all year round, as the weather and temperatures are almost always the same. The Chilean winter starts in June and ends in August. It is very cold (-20 °C/ -4 °F), especially in the higher regions at night. At this time the wildlife, including flamingos, are rarely present but the geysers are more spectacular in the morning.

Chile Language

In Chile, only Chilean Spanish is spoken, which has many own words, which are very different from the “European Spanish”. The pronunciation was sometimes very difficult to understand, especially as my Spanish skills were very limited. English is hardly ever spoken. Only in touristic places like San Pedro you can talk in English. The tours are mostly offered in Spanish and are reluctant translated into English.

Cash / Credit Card in Chile

It’s best to have a credit card with the possibility to withdraw money abroad without fees. You will save yourself expensive money changes before the trip. Just in case we have exchanged about 50 euros in advance to have some cash on arrival. Your credit limit should also cover the car hire deposit (now we know better).

Chile Vaccination

No vaccinations are required for entering Chile. However, the standard vaccinations prescribed in Germany should always be up to date. It’s best to carry your vaccination certificate with you on your journey – just for health emergencies. We also had a hepatitis A vaccine and a vaccine for cholera, which afterwards was completely overrated by the tropical institute. Inform yourself in your local tropical institute before the trip.

Cheap flights Chile

We’ve booked our flight from Berlin to Santiago de Chile directly on the Air France website for around 800 euros (price for round trip p.P.). This unfortunately included a two-hour stop in Paris. We did not want a flight with a stop in the US because extra costs for a visa (there is no transit zone) would have been incurred. Find out in advance if you need visa for stopovers. For the flight from Santiago to the Atacama Desert (Calama) we flew with Sky Airline. We paid about 150 euros (round trip p.P.) but you can get the same flight with the Sky Airline for about 60 Euro.

Transportation Chile

Chile is completely criss-crossed with a perfectly functioning bus network, which brings you super cheap from one place to another. If you do not mind long bus trips, you can even drive directly from Santiago de Chile to Calama (about 23 hours).

We booked for 2.5 weeks in June. We spent 8 days in Calama and San Pedro, which was way too short. The other days we spent in the capital of Chile in Santiago de Chile. Why? As the flights up north to Calama usually lead anyway over the capital you can take the chance to visit the city. If we had the chance to plan this trip again, we would book a flight directly to Calama. Even though there may be a stopover in Santiago you should spend your precious time in San Pedro because the capital in my opinion is not that spectacular.

Visa Chile

Travelers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland receive a residence permit for tourists (Tarjeta de Turismo) at the border. With this visa you can spend up to 90 days in Chile. You can extend your trip for another 90 days simply by leaving to another country (e.g. Peru) and just reenter. It is also possible to renew the Visa at the Chilean foreigners authority Extranjería. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months before you enter Chile. An entry with an ID card is not possible.

Our journey

After arriving at Calama Airport there are several vans and buses waiting to take you to the city of Calama or San Pedro. I highly recommend asking other passengers to share a van or a taxi. Almost everyone there wants to either one of the two destinations and thereby you will save a lot of money. That’s how we went to Calama, which was a mistake from a present-day perspective. In Calama, there is not much to discover and the tours in the desert start almost exclusively from San Pedro, which is about one hour bus ride away. So every day we had to buy a bus ticket and ride the long way to San Pedro de Atacama. There you can book tours in English on every corner, of course for European prices (from 40 euros upwards), but what you experience is worth every penny. We discovered quickly that many tours started early in the morning to take advantage of the rising sun. The star tours only start in the evening (as it makes sense) and will last until midnight. The last bus back to Calama runs at 8 pm which made it necessary to book a small room to stay in San Pedro for night tours. Due to the lack of time, we set ourselves the following program.

Our tours (each approx. 45 – 60 Euro):

  1. Ojos del Salar, Laguna Cejar and Laguna Tebinquinche until sunset
  2. Observatory (Warm clothes – Temperature about 0 °C / 32 °F)
  3. Geyser – El Tatio (warm clothes -15 °C/ 5 °F – Patagonia)
  4. Termas De Puritama (hot springs – swimwear!)

Now the impressions of our tours – Caution! Spoiler!

ojos del salar

Ojos del Salar

laguna cejar

Laguna Cejar 

The salinity of the Laguna Cejar is 40%, which is higher than the salinity of the Dead Sea. You float on the water and the salty crust that forms on your skin is a spectacular. The water is damn cold in the upper 10 cm, but below it is relatively warm. The turbulences inside the water created by the temperature difference are incredibly fascinating, even if we shivered in the clear water. Attention, do not be frightened of the small crabs everywhere in the water they are totally harmless.

Atacama Desert with Licancabur

Laguna Tebinquinche – Reflection of the vulcano Licancabur

laguna tebinquinche salt

Laguna Tebinquinche – Endless roads through the desert covered in salt 

laguna tebinquinche flamingos

Laguna Tebinquinche – Flamingos in the wilderness

laguna tebinquinche evening

Laguna Tebinquinche

The most beautiful spot for taking photos was the Laguna Tebinquinche for us. If you are lucky it is windless and you can use the great reflections for your motives. We had several hours to walk the paths and enjoy the absolute silence of the desert. A very nice feeling. Only now and then the silence gets unwinded by voices from miles away. We even saw some flamingos in the distance. Depending on the season, you can see whole swarms.

star gazing chile atacama desert

View of the night sky in the Atacama desert

In the Atacama Desert you have the best view in the universe. When the nights are cloudless, it is so dark that the sky becomes a sparkling, seemingly endless blanket. During the Star Gazing tours, you will be guided to an observatory from where you can explore the night sky through various telescopes. Mostly hot chocolate and snacks are served and a short lecture is held where you can ask all your questions.

geysir el tatio before sunrise

Geysir El Tatio – The geysirs are coverd in outrages beautiful colours while the sun is rising

geysir el tatio at sunrise

El Tatio – Slowly the bitterly cold night vanishes

geysir el tatio

The tour to the geyser El Tatio started already at 4.30 a.m. in the morning, because the activity of the geyser is the strongest due to the temperature differences at this time. It was shivering cold and warm clothes were an absolute must. Only when the sun throws it’s rays over the landscape, the shivering has slowly come to an end. The backdrop of the rising sun over the steaming and seething earth is breathtaking.

termas de puritama

The Termas de Puritama rounded off our journey. Here you will find various warm natural pools. Depending on the altitude, the temperature of the warm springs with their crystal clear water changes. Fishes swim curiously around in the water and the visitors can capture them with underwater cameras.

Car rental Atacama Desert

We recommend to use the offered tours and desist from exploring everything on your own. We wanted to hire a car to save money and in the end we are happy that unfortunate circumstances have kept us from doing so. At that time our credit card could not be sufficiently charged. As we arrived in the desert in one of the tour vans, we realized that there were no paved roads or street signs and the area of ​​the desert seemed almost endless. On the way are no gas stations, nor the possibility to buy water. If you are not well prepared and appropriate equipped, a fun trip can easily become an absolute horror trip. Maybe we had a little guardian angel – I can not imagine how we should have found even one of the attractions without local knowledge and a proper navigation. You underestimate the vastness and the dangers of the desert. So be careful please!

Long story short

  • If possible book a direct connection to Calama. Staying in Santiago de Chile is less worth it
  • Share a taxi with other passengers in Calama
  • Go straight to San Pedro – do not stay in Calama
  • Book your favorite tours rather than going on your own (DANGEROUS)
  • Definitely book a star gazing tour and bring a good camera for long time exposures
  • Clothes for warm (30 ° C) and cold (-15 ° C) temperatures

A secret

Since visiting the observatory I definitely believe in extraterrestrial life … I think it’s crazy, but when you get to see that sky and listen to the extraordinary, scary stories of the guides, your mindset changes abruptly. Our starry sky shines and twinkles in every nook and cranny and suddenly you not only feel extremely small, but you become ruthlessly aware that you are no longer alone in this great infinite. But shhhht, that stays with us, okay?

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