Four Days in the Atacama Desert: The Only Itinerary You’ll Ever Need

Updated on February 7th, 2019 at 07:07 pm

There is something so magical about the Atacama desert. Last Thursday, my friends and I hopped on a plane from Santiago to the desert for quite easily one of the greatest weekends of my entire life. This is how we spent four days in the Atacama Desert. We created a pretty great itinerary that I think you’ll like too.

Four Days in the Atacama Desert: Atacama Lakes
Desert explorations. Photo cred Rebecca Olsho

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Four Days in the Atacama Desert: Day One: Coca Leaves and Cejar Lagunas

Upon arrival we were told to be careful of altitude sickness by drinking lots of water and chewing on coca leaves. The Atacama desert is over 2,000 meters above sea level and coming there straight after being used to only about 1,000 meters above sea level can be hard to adjust to. Not to mention that the weekend led us on some adventures where we ascended to more than 4,300 meters above sea level. I was also warned to take extra good care of my new tattoo (yep I got a tattoo in Santiago) because the sun and sand can really mess up fresh ink. So the following photos have pictures of me with a scarf around my arm. That was my protection, plus a bandage underneath. And not to worry, it is healing beautifully.

Four Days in the Atacama Desert
Coca leaves

I haven’t stayed in many hostels before but I can honestly say that Hostal Rural is the most unique, lovely, wonderful and amazing hostel I have ever stayed in. It is so colorful and hippie-esque with hammocks and a ‘Chill Out Zone’ cave with fabric hangings as a make-shift roof and paintings all over the walls by the locals. Our hostel manager, Nacho, was the bomb and also gave us discounts on all of our tours. The whole place had such a relaxed vibe and everyone was super friendly.

Four Days in the Atacama Desert: Coolest Hostel Ever
The Hostel ‘Chill Out Zone’

Our first day in the desert we decided to take a trip to Cejar Lagunas. The Cejar Lagunas are a set of salt lakes in the desert, one of which was swim-friendly. However don’t let the fact that it’s a ‘desert’ fool you. The water was freaking cold. If you were willing to brave the cold you could lay back in the water and float due to all the salt!

Four Days in the Atacama Desert: The Only Itinerary You'll Ever Need
Hanging out in Cejar Lagunas. I couldn’t float in the salt water as I had just gotten a new tattoo (hence the wrap around my arm).

Day Two: Altiplanic Lakes and Sand Boarding

We woke up early. Too early. In fact we thought our tour to the Altiplanic Lakes started at 6am so we all got up at 5am and got ready. Of course there was a miss communication of some sort because after walking around San Pedro (the little town in the desert we stayed in) for about an hour and deciding to give up and go back to bed, we realized the tour was actually at 8:30am. If anyone we woke up that morning by running around like chickens with their heads cut off is reading this, I am sincerely sorry. Anyways we did get to the Altiplanic Lakes after all which were about 4,000 meters above sea level and absolutely stunning. Also it was extremely cold. When you’re that high above sea level, even the driest desert on earth is going to be chile. I mean chilly… (Sorry, not sorry for the bad pun).

Altiplanic Lakes

That afternoon was definitely one of my highlights because we got to do something that has been on my bucket list for a while now. We went sand boarding. All the equipment is the same as snowboard equipment except you board down giant sand dunes. I cannot believe I actually got to do this. It was kind of tricky seeing as I’ve only snowboarded once before, and I definitely did a few barrel rolls down the dunes. However I don’t care that four days later I still have sand in places I wish I didn’t because it was so incredibly fun.

Sand boarding; Photo cred Rebecca Olsho

After sand boarding our guide took us to Valle de la Luna to watch the sunset accompanied by pisco sour (Chilean alcohol) and snacks (chips and peanuts). Once we got there I really had to pee and I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy the sunset until I was free to empty my incredibly small bladder. Too bad they don’t have banos (bathrooms) in the middle of the desert. I ended up walking for quite a while to some rocks that looked big enough to hide behind. As I was taking care of business I heard people talking close by but thankfully no one saw me watering the thirsty desert ground. After I was able to enjoy the beautiful sunset. It really was gorgeous and I miss the smog-free view already.

From left: Me, Ben, Rebecca, Julian, Marisa, Gina and Thomas

Day Three: El Tatio Volcano, Geysers & Valle de la Luna

This time we woke up really really early this time. Like 4am early to go see the El Tatio volcano and geysers. This was the highest point we visited, resting at 4,300 meters above sea level. Now I’m not a science-y person so forgive me if I explain this wrong but something about the volcano and the earth forces hot water and minerals out of holes in the ground… Yep I butchered that explanation but basically there’s a bunch of steam and hot water squirting out of the ground everywhere that looks absolutely magical early in the morning. Also there was one place where we could swim in the hot water, which was lovely since it was so cold up there. All the other places were too hot and dangerous to swim. In fact our guide informed us that the locals like to call the hot water “sopa de turistas” (tourist soup) because so many people have died entering the geysers.

Desert Geysers Atacama Desert
El Tatio geysers
Geyser Sunrise near the geysers Geyser swim; Photo cred: Rebecca Olsho

Now after this we decided to do a tour to Valle de la Luna because we thought it meant we could watch the stars. If you’ve been reading my blog at all you know that things usually don’t go according to plan which is perfectly awesome. We ended up hiking through Valle de la Luna a bit and even exploring some amazing salt caves. Again I really had to pee at the salt caves but there was a bathroom this time! I told my friends to make sure the bus didn’t leave without me, and since they are really good friends, they made sure the bus drove right past me as I was running out of the bano trying to catch up.

Now I don’t know if it was all the sun, the altitude, the desert heat or the fact that we hadn’t slept in like 15 hours but by the time we got to see the Three Mary’s (three rock formations that apparently look like women praying) my fellow exchange students and I got super slap happy. I don’t know how we survived on so little sleep but after watching the sunset at Valle de la Luna again we decided to go on one last tour to an observatory where we could stargaze. We had a wonderful guide who pointed out the constellations Scorpio and Capricorn to us. He also showed us the Milky Way and let us see the moon, Mars, and Saturn through a giant telescope. It ended up being one of my favourite tours by far.

Day Four: Heading Back to Santiago

Today we woke up at a reasonable hour and although none of us wanted to we hopped on a van back to the Calama airport. I made friends with a Chilean woman and her 11 month old daughter on the plane. She said she had been to Canada before so we talked about studying abroad and stuff. Now I’m back in rainy Santiago. My hair and skin are so happy here because there is actually moisture in the air. However my lungs, although happy about the lower altitude, are not happy about the pollution here. I do wish I could have spent more time in the Atacama desert because it quite literally took my breath away but I am also glad to be back in Santiago. First thing I did when I got back was go to my favorite cafe, Cafe Palermo. And now finally I’m ready for a long deep sleep.

All about dat desert life. Photo cred Rebecca Olsho

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About The Author

April Thompson

Updated on February 7th, 2019 at 07:07 pm

April is the founder and main author for Just Leaving Footprints. She has written for numerous blogs and publications such as Explore Magazine and Snow Pak. April loves writing about sustainable tourism, and promoting other sustainable travelers on her Facebook Group and Instagram Community, Ladies for Sustainable Travel. Currently, April is living and teaching English in Mexico City with her husband Arturo and they don’t plan on stopping their travels anytime soon.


  1. mollywoodsquares | 24th Sep 14

    I’m so glad you took altitude sickness precautions! I got altitude sickness in Ecuador and it was so so awful!
    Thanking of you, Apes!

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