Give Me The Fish (GMTF): The Atacama Desert is fricking cool. If you’re going to check out anything in Chile, it’s a must-see place. Even more so, if you’re into going on badass adventures, bring some warm clothes, grab some camping gear, and rent out a 4×4 vehicle.
*If you just want some important details or Tips and Tricks, head to the bottom of the page
Day 1, Into The Atacama Desert
So, there we were boarding a plane in Temuco, Chile and we’re seriously hoping that no one checks the size of our bags. As is our typical standard operating procedure, we are only bringing carry-ons. The problem is, when we showed up to take this regional airline, we find out their carry-on sizes are not the same as the international sizes.
And, checking our bags on a small-time airline with plans of making multiple connections in a place we’re only staying for a couple of days seems like a bad idea.
Hiking through the Atacama Desert with zero gear sounds not so fun.
We know we’re probably being a little overdramatic about the whole bag thing. But, we are a little biased. On our last trip, when we went to Vietnam, they had armed security guards weighing people and their bags and measuring every single piece of luggage going on the plane. Then they politely escorted people away. Not that we know why they were escorted away, but either way, not worth it.
Fortunately, we were never checked.
So, off to Calama, Chile to start our adventures in the Atacama Desert.
Two planes later we are being thrown left and right as we start descending into the wind vortex of the Atacama Desert.
I was half smirking and half hoping the flight would end as I watched the person over from me ask for a barf bag.
Finally, the “ride” ended. We get into the airport and headed down to get our rental 4×4.
What Is A “Confirmation” Anyway?
We roll up to the rental car company and tell the guy my confirmation number. And, he’s like “I don’t have that”, but in hand gestures and broken English.
In even more broken Spanish, I tell him I confirmed it online.
He proceeds to tell me that they don’t process requests on Mondays and that they need at least 48 hours in advance.
Being a little peeved and now showing him the confirmation on my phone, and using Google translate. I’m trying to figure out what else they have.
It’s like I’m back in the Middle East, “ inshallah, inshallah”.
Finally, he tells us the only thing they have is a “sedan”.
All of my plans for spending the next 4 days off-roading and wild camping across and throughout the Atacama Desert seemed to be falling through.
Once outside, we find out it’s a brand new Volkswagen and it only has 20,000 km on it.
No turning back now, we grab it and head out. It’s 2:30 PM and we are discussing if we should change our plans.
We figure that we’ll try to stick to our plan, but probably skip the wild camping part. So, we stop by the grocery store, load our cart with massive jugs of water, sausage, hard cheese, and vegetables and start the one to one-and-a-half-hour drive to reach the heart of the Atacama Desert, San Pedro De Atacama.
Valle De Luna Is Overrated
To see everything, and not wanting to waste any time, we head straight to Valle de Luna, our first stop in the Atacama Desert.
The place is way more touristy than we thought it would be.
It’s setup like a standard national park in the U.S. We show up and have to immediately go check in with the ranger.
They charged us a small fee and then gave us a map and told us where to go.
Two hours later we are back on our way out. It was alright, it wasn’t the coolest thing ever.
It was essentially a bunch of really tall sand dunes. And, while the views were cool, I thought we saw better ones on the roads coming in.
We finish up around 7:30 and head to our Air BnB.
AirBnBs Outside San Pedro De Atacama Desert Do Exist
We had booked the Air BnB when we had realized that our 4×4 plans were falling through.
Turns out, we booked a place in the middle of nowhere, literally.
Soon we are on unpaved roads with potholes that would easily bottom out the car if I twitched the wrong way. They are literally 3-4feet across on a 12ft across the road. And, in some places even narrower.
All while blindly following Google to a grid coordinate, compliments of our host. No street names and no addresses.
I keep having to slam on the brakes as we round corners and out of nowhere ground just gives way.
Or, on the flip side, flooring it when the potholes are too big to avoid and too deep to drive through…if I don’t have clearance and I don’t have traction, all I have is momentum.
But, with a few bone-jarring jumps and vegetation scrapping past our cars fresh paint, we made it through.
But through to where is the question. We soon realize that we are completely lost. I call the woman’s number, because thankfully there was service, and let her know that we have no clue where we are, but we think we are close to the right coordinates.
She is really nice and agrees to meet by the rusty helicopter… yes, this is a real thing.
10 minutes later she rolls up in a lifted SUV, we say hi real quick and she is off flooring it down the road with us giving chase in the dark, with a decidedly non-lifted sedan.
A few close calls later and a few more scrapes on the car and we get to her place.
Not Quite As Cool As Wild Camping In The Atacama Desert, But Cool All The Same
The woman has to open up the gate that they have surrounding the compound, and then we both pull through.
Turns out, her coordinates were off… by a mere couple miles.
Her place is cool. It’s powered off of solar panels and they have an underground well for their water, which is pumped by small electric motors.
She then proceeds to walk us to the back of the property and shows us a random hut behind her place.
She then tells us that she and her husband built it themselves out of, as she put it, “trash and mud”.
It doesn’t look near as bad as it sounds. I mean, hell, it even has running water. But, she tells us that the solar panels can only charge up a limited amount of power during the day, so she recommends if we are are going to shower, to shower very quickly and do it in the morning.
That way we can all have lights at night.
She gives us the key that works for a bathroom style lock and says good night.
We head in to find out that hut isn’t fully enclosed. With spiders and bugs throughout, a sink that didn’t fully drain, and a shower curtain made of a PVC pipe that was very delicately balanced on a drywall screw driven into the hardened mud.
But, saying we’re planning on initially wild camping, this is pretty good and I think it’s kind of cool, but the wife… not so much.
We eat some of our sausages and pass out, we have plans to be up in 5 hours so we can be out the door by 5 AM.
Day Two, Off To Laguna Miscanti And Laguna Miniques
The next day our first stop was to Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques. They are 13,500ft up in the Andes’ mountains anhd just at the edge of the Atacama Desert. And it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive.
We head out early and eat some of our hard cheese and sausage along the way, and quickly find out that the highways are built extremely well.
Except where the highway just disappears into the desert and random detour signs that point straight off the road aimed at seemingly aimless bulldozer tracks.
And of course, that path isn’t smooth either, with its potholes and loose aggregate.
The first few were of these death traps were admittedly a little terrifying, but as we got more comfortable it started being entertaining to see 4×4 vehicles stopping to go full wheel lock before they head off, and out of nowhere we just floor it and dune buggy past them knowing that the only thing we have is sheer momentum.
A few fishtails, some bone-jarring crunches, and minor jumps, and we make it through all the detours and eventually turn off onto the road leading up to the Laguna’s.
It’s so steep, that I have to keep the car in first gear to avoid the car from stalling out.
30 more minutes of weaving on the switchbacks and we’re finally there.
The place is stunning and there are only a few other people up there.
Off To The “Devil Mountain” Of The Atacama Desert
Next, we head towards Lascar.
Lascar is one of the highest volcanoes in the area and it’s supposed to be a hard walk/climb, but doable if you have a day and you are in decent shape.
You are also strictly warned by every blog post in existence that you cannot get there without a 4×4 vehicle.
But, screw it, there isn’t really an easy way to get this place, but fortunately, this blog showed us the correct coordinates and the turn off point.
Using those directions, we made our way out, once again dune buggying over and around potholes, across beaten roads, and through what seems like what was a trail at some point, but kind of was, kind of wasn’t.
This is the point we start realizing the car is starting to squeak and has a slight list to the front and right.
Oops, I think our suspension is starting to get blown.
Nothing we can do about it now.
As we start getting close to the volcano, we start seeing rocks blocking the road.
“Damn it,” I think. I heard that the area might still be under an exclusion zone due to the activity at the volcano and I’m guessing that the rocks moved to block the road is it. Regardless, I don’t think we can make it past them and there is no way we’re going to be able to make it up through the extremely loose sand on the sides of the road anyway, at last not from starting at zero.
I’m laser-focused on the map trying to find another route to get to Lascar, but the only other way seems to be up, seems to be from the north, but you have to cross a stream to get there.
And even though, at this pont we’ve gone a few places where non-4×4 vehicles shouldn’t go, I’m not going to risk fording a couple foot deep creek bed. And, especially with my wife, I’m not sure it’s worth it to take the three and a half to four-hour detour to find out.
I’m super bummed, but we decide to start heading back.
On the way back we decide to check out Salar de Atacama.
This place was also extremely touristy but was totally worth it.
It’s crazy how salty the lakes are and the colors that come off of it are awesome looking. Taking photos from our phones couldn’t do it justice, but it’s almost like rainbow colors are coming off the banks. Largely due to the salt and the vegetation on the banks that interact with each other.
Then, of course, we also went swimming. This was awesome because you would be a sitting on your back and your feet would be out of the water and your head would be out of the water because you could not push them under without a lot of effort. Needless to say, it was pretty salty.
After that, we called it a day, and head back to our little hut eat some more sausage and pass out until the next day.
Day Three, Off To The Ande’s
Once again, we head out early to reach Los Flamencos National Park. A national park at the North East Corner of the Atacama Desert.
We were specifically told not to go here with our sedan and was part of a rental agreement, but I’ll be damned to miss any more of this vacation because the rental company screwed us.
So, we go once we are driving across the desert and climbing from 5,000 ft up to 16,000 ft.
On the way up we decide to drive up to the observatory area and possibly hike up to the volcano up there called Licancabur.
Unfortunately, it snowed the night before, so as we go u,p we’re slipping and sliding as we’re heading up these steep mountain passes. I know I can’t stop because if I do there’s no way that the car will be able to start again.
45 minutes of heading up this mountain pass and I have to make a tight turn to miss a pothole, and the right wheel loses traction (I’m guessing the blown suspension on that side didn’t help). And, I start hearing the wheels start to spin. I turn into it hoping to save momentum on some of the harder ground, but I’m stuck on a slick patch of ice.
I keep driving up a foot and then sliding back a foot.
Now I have the pleasure of driving in reverse half a mile down the road before I get a place where I can turn around without driving off the edge.
We head to the bottom peeved that we were still seven or eight miles away from the top.
At the bottom, by the highway I convince my wife to let us stop and see if somebody else is heading up that way, I’m hoping we can hitchhike up.
Unfortunately, no one with a four-wheel-drive vehicle shows up, so, after waiting 30 minutes we head to Los Flamencos National Park.
Once again another long drive up and into the Andes. Leaving the warm Atacama Desert to the sub-freezing mountains. Where we’re going is right on the border of Bolivia and Chile.
We were held up by some semi-trucks carrying loads and some motorcyclists that were terrified because the ice was a little bit slick.
Turns out a lot of these people aren’t very used to snow, but I will admit the roads are pretty narrow and there are very sharp drop-offs on the other side.
As we go, we are driving on the road and we see some turn offs that no ones at so we decided to just pull off and take a hike out to the lakes from there.
So, off we go creating our own trails and going to go see some of the cool lakes and hike out there being able to get within 50 yards of Vicuna and the flamingos that are out there.
Eventually, after making a few excursions we go to Salar de Tara. To be honest the detours we took on our own were way cooler than the places that the tourists guides and the guidebook we had recommended.
As usual, the “cool” places to see, that the tour guides tell you about, aren’t necessarily the best places to be, it’s just the most popular ones.
We headed back to the observatory area hoping that maybe the roads melted out enough.
Where we were it was 28°, but the observatory was at a little bit lower and altitude and we were hoping it’s warmer.
It’s already starting to get late as we finally get up to the observatory area The roads looked a bit better, and we started heading up.
It was going well, easily getting past the point we got stuck at before, but right before I cross the hill a guy in a 4×4 vehicle stops in the middle of the road when he sees us coming.
He doesn’t pull off to the side of the road, he just stops in the middle at the very top with us going up and him coming down.
It wasn’t until I stopped when he finally continued down the road. If I wasn’t in a foreign country and tend to try to avoid international incidences I probably would have got out and smashed his car. In fact, thinking about it now, I probably should have done it with my car.
Fortunately, with a little bit of playing around, I managed to get the car to stop slipping and make it the rest of the way up the road.
Once again, we get stopped on the slick road, about 2 miles from the top.
It was a sweet view and worth making it up as far as we did, but we never made the observatory, it was late and there is no way we were going to be able to hike up the top and back down before it got dark.
And unfortunately, there was no place for me to turn around which meant I was going to be driving this whole thing in reverse.
After that, we headed back to our little hut and passed out until the following day.
Day 4 And The Last Day In The Atacama Desert
We get up around 3:30 and head out, the place we’re going to is called Geyser Tatio. This is at the Northern edge of the Atacama Desert.
Everything we’ve read and heard said you had to be there by sunrise.
Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how bad the roads were. Once again, it’s pitch black while trying to dodge potholes while still having to keep up between 60 and 100 km an hour if we want to get to this geyser on time.
So we continue on this bone-jarring journey of our car shaking, squeaking, and squealing. Feeling like we are going to break down at any moment.
We finally make it up there, and the geysers are amazing. We actually got there right when it opened and there were only two or three other vehicles there.
We decided to go the opposite path that the rangers told us to go.
It was a good choice. We had the hot springs all to ourselves and got to chill by some geysers with no one else around. It was freezing cold at a toasty 26°, but the water was warm.
Unfortunately it’s time to leave the Atacama Desert and head all the way back to Calama.
We stopped at San Pedro to get gas and grab some food and then we head to the airport and back to Santiago.
The following day we would head back to the States
A Few Take-Aways And Tips/Tricks If You Do Decide to Head To The Atacama Desert
- Cell service is spotty, but Google Maps does work if you download the maps before you head out
- This Map is cheesy but helps with day planning.
- No legal camping allowed, but if you want to do wild camping head to the iOverlander site/app, works worldwide too.
- If you plan on getting a 4×4 (highly recommended) confirm it at least a week out. It’s easiest to just rent it from the airport.
- While the cities in Chili have clean water, the rural areas not necessarily. We brought this Steripen with us and used it for all the water we got in the countryside. It’s small and kills all the bacteria in 90 seconds. I love this thing.
- Bring Warm Clothes, we were there in the middle of their summer and it snowed.
- There is only (1) gas station in the area, but it is google-able.
- Despite what half the blogs say, it is super easy to travel in this area without going on tours. I think it’s much better because if you are willing to get up early enough, you can miss all of the crowds.