My Favorite Hikes and Excursions in the Atacama Desert

In the backdrop of spectacular volcanoes rising 20,000 feet, the Atacama Desert covers 40,541 sq. miles, stretching 621 miles from Peru’s southern border into northern Chile. The desert rises from a thin coastal shelf to the Andes and is known to be the driest place on earth! There are sterile stretches of the desert, where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it. The bare, super-dry places are just part of a landscape that’s open secret is water. A line of snow-laden, volcanoes along the eastern horizon feed a lacework of narrow stream valleys, oases, and salt lagoons, which sustain native Atacameño hamlets with well-kept colonial-era churches. In spite of the inhospitable environment, unique wildlife, including llamas, vicuña, and flocks of pink flamingos live here. Interestingly, temperatures in the Atacama are relatively low, compared with those elsewhere in similar latitudes (the average summer high from December – February is in the low 80 degrees Fahrenheit). Before getting into the details of this fantastic place, let me introduce myself! My name is Pauline and I am a Project Manager at Kipling & Clark. This particular trip was my first to South America and I left with memories to last a lifetime.

During my six days and five nights in the Atacama, I was able to explore many different parts of this otherworldly place. Through the excursions at both Awasi and Explora, I was accompanied by expert guides who took me on new adventures daily. Each time, I was surprised that I was experiencing yet another new landscape, emphasizing the incredible diversity of the Atacama. An important note for those traveling here is that the altitude does take getting used to! My critical tips are; drink a lot of water, eat light meals, avoid alcohol, and listen to your guides. Day by day your body will acclimatize, allowing you to conquer excursions in the altiplano (high plain) towards the end of your trip. As you will see perusing my favorite excursions below, incredible hikes and sights can be found at any altitude.

Valley of the Moon

Valley of the Moon

My first Atacama excursion was a hike through the Valley of the Moon. My private Awasi guide Caro and I were driven to the hike’s entrance point and set off on an hour-long journey. This particular hike avoids the crowds of tourists visiting the typical viewpoints of the valley and instead takes you through a more secluded trail (we were the only ones in sight!). Along the way, I marveled at the moonlike landscapes, the salt that had washed down from the winter’s rains crunching under my feet, and the various rock formations that resemble the backs of dinosaurs. This is an ideal first hike as you acclimate to the altitude.

Floating in Laguna Cejar

Laguna Cejar

On my last morning at Awasi, my guide Caro and I drove to Laguna Cejar. One of the most spectacular in the world, this salt lagoon allows swimmers to float on its surface due to the high concentration of salt. The highlight of coming here in the morning is how serene and empty it is, there was only one other person in sight! The downside is that the water is quite cold prior to the afternoon sun. Despite the cold dive into the lagoon, floating peacefully in the water and later sitting on the edge of the lake staring at the majestic Andes Mountain Range rising above it, was well worth the goosebumps.

Dunas de la Chula Horseback Ride

Dunas de la Chula

Known for its horses, Explora has over 20, all raised and trained in Colunquén, a ranch in Central Chile that belongs to the Ibáñez family, owners of Explora. No matter your experience level, there are excursions for anyone interested in experiencing the Atacama on horseback. As a beginner, I thoroughly enjoyed my two-hour afternoon ride through the dunes near La Sal Mountain, which offers great viewpoints.

Hiking through Puritama River Creek
Explora's Private Hot Spring

Puritama Hot Springs (Termas Banos de Puritama)

About 19 miles northeast of San Pedro are the Termas Banos de Puritma. They sit on a portion of 19,770 acres of land owned by Explora, which is in the process of being declared a nature reserve for future conservation. The hike to the hot springs began in Guatín Canyon and continued three miles along the giant cacti and among the rock walls and vegetation of Puritama River Creek. Upon arrival at the hot springs, I faced the most difficult part of the hike, walking the final few minutes up steep steps to reach Explora’s private spring, exclusive to its guests. My hard work was rewarded as I stepped into the warm (91 °F), relaxing waters of Puritama. Here, there was time to relax and enjoy the surroundings before driving back to the lodge.

El Tatio Geysers
El Tatio Geysers

El Tatio

The majestic geysers of El Tatio marked the highest elevation I would experience in the Atacama. The air is definitely thin at 14, 170 feet, but more than worth it to see the world’s third-largest geyser field, home to 80 active geysers. These natural phenomena are created when underground rivers of cold water hit warm rocks, heating the water and pushing it up through the ground. This cycle repeats at various intervals as the water heats up.

The early morning, bumpy drive from my home base at Explora to the geyser fields took a bit over an hour. En route, I was able to see a beautiful sunrise and the various landscapes as we climbed higher into the mountains. Along the way, Andean Flamingos, vicuna, and many species of birds came into sight and my guide and driver stopped for photo opportunities so that I could enjoy a closer look through binoculars. Upon arriving at the geyser field, my guide and I strolled around taking in the sights before heading to Explora’s secret spot just a short drive away. This secluded location is remarkable and resembles how Earth must have looked in prehistoric times. Here, the guide, driver, and I dug into a delicious spread, al fresco dining, in what tops my list of most beautiful breakfast views.