Stunning Desert

Most tourists take guided tours to explore the Atacama Desert. As a consecuence, many of the buses of different agencies meet at the same time at the same attraction and the magic of desert gets lost… With your own rental car you are flexible and you can discover all the amazing attractions of the Atacama Desert independenlty and without the typical schedule. Well planned with the right partner, a rental car trip to the Altiplano region is safe and uncomplicated.
Our sample itinerary is meant for „Atacama novices“ and covers a moderate time – after all, there is so much to discover in the rest of Chile!
It’s best to plan your trip in Chile with your own rental vehicle in stages and to cover the long distances with domestic flights. Car-Rental-Chile makes it possible: We will be happy to advise you on domestic flights and assist you with the booking process.

First of all, a few tips on trips with a rental car to the Atacama Desert:
Some highland roads are remote gravel roads where you rarely see other vehicles. There may be poor cell phone reception, so in case of a breakdown you should be well prepared. In order to make sure you do not have to worry about emergencies, Car-Rental-Chile offers additional accessories such as emergency kits, extra spare tires, and tools.
Please be aware, that most of the roads are made of gravel, sand or stones, so we recommend careful driving. Keep in mind that, on gravel roads you can only go about half as fast as on asphalt.

Always bring about twice as much mineral water (be careful with tap water in Northern Chile) as you need and don´t forget to put warm clothing or blankets in the car – in the evenings, the temperatures in the desert drop very fast.
Also, make sure to fuel your rental car at every opportunity, because gas stations are few and far between in some areas.
Be careful with the altitude! Some attractions are at about 4,300m altitude. Travellers with health issues or those having suffered from altitude sickness before, should rather refrain from visiting those attractions – health comes first!

Accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama range from simple campsites to extravagant luxury hotels. Make sure to book your accommodation with some advance, since this is a very popular vacation spot – among Chileans as well as foreign tourists.


Sample Itinerary for a Rental Car Trip to the Atacama Desert:

Calama – San Pedro de Atacama
Pick up your rental car at the airport in Calama. Please have your driving license and a credit card ready, since a copy of the card must be deposited as a guarantee. The copy will be erased upon return of the car, if there is no damage.
Unless you have already brought everything, buy your excursion provisions and mineral water in Calama. There is no supermarket in San Pedro de Atacama, only small shops with limited variety and slightly higher prices.

Drive eastwards to San Pedro de Atacama. On this route you will pass the “Cordillera de la Sal” (“Saline Mountains”) – they really consist of salt – and a valley with the very inviting name of “Valle de la Muerte” (“Death Valley”), before you reach the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. Stroll through the town and let the day fade out in one of the many nice restaurants or at the plaza.

Overnight stay in San Pedro de Atacama. Distance covered about 105 km on asphalt.

Breakfast “on the moon” and a Day full of History
A visit to the famous „Valle de la Luna “ (“Moon Valley”) at sundown is one of the must see in San Pedro de Atacama. The big con: Everybody does it and you will have to share the valley and the view with many other tourists. Profit from the flexibility of haveing a rental car and enjoy a breakfast picnic there instead! The rising sun also casts beautiful shadows into the lunar landscape and the feeling of having the desert for yourself is just priceless!

After getting up early, there’s still plenty left of the day to visit the interesting Anthropological Museum Padre Le Paige. Later in the afternoon, when the other tourists return from their tours, set off again to explore the nearby Inca fortress Pukará de Quitor (about 3 km to the north), or the archaeological site of Tulor, the remains of a village built around 800 BC (about 10 km to the south-west), or even both.

Overnight stay in San Pedro de Atacama. Distance covered about 50 km on gravel roads.

A Bath in the Desert
Take it easy this morning and go for a nice excursion in the late morning or around noon, to the „Termas de Puritama“ („Puritama Hot Springs“), around 28 km northeast of San Pedro. The hot springs are located in the Guatin Cañon, which contains the confluence of two rivers: one carries earth and minerals in warm waters while the other one originates in the Andes. Immerse into this extraordinary mixture of hot spring water and clear melt water in the natural pools of Puritama and just relax!

We recommend this tour in the morning or in the early afternoon, because the place often gets crowded around 3 pm and because it is cold in the gorge where the pools are, as soon as the sun is no longer directly above.
Enjoy the rest of the day strolling over the craft market and having dinner in a cozy restaurant.

Overnight stay in San Pedro de Atacama. Distance covered about 60 km on gravel roads.

Geysirs of El Tatio /
Ballooning / Stargazing
We recommend to visit the Geysers of Tatio with a guided tour, since they are quite far and the road is in a relatively poor condition. Additionally, you have to leave very early (about 4 am) to experience the sunrise at the geysers.
When the morning sun rises over the hot springs, the steam rises up to 10 meters into the sky. The light of the rising sun provides beautiful rainbow effects and forms an impressive contrast to the surrounding peaks. You have the opportunity to relax and warm up from the iciness of the morning in natural hot pools, before returning to San Pedro around noon.
Please be aware that this tour takes you to altitudes over 4.300m. Travellers with health issues or those having suffered from altitude sickness before, should rather refrain from it.

Those who do not like to get up so early or may have problems because of the altitude, can take a morning balloon ride over the desert – a unique and unforgettable experience! We recommend to book this some time in advance.

Relax in the afternoon before going to a real must-see in the Atacama Desert: Join a stargazing tour in one of the observatories. Almost nowhere in the world you will find the sky so clear and the view of the stars as amazing as here. Some of the most important international observatories are located in the Atacama Desert, and astronomers from all over the world come here to research. You will be amazed by this incomparable view of the stars!

Overnight stay in San Pedro de Atacama.

Lagunas Altiplanicas
Get behind the wheel again this morning and head south with your rental car. Since you have your own rental car and no schedule, you can make an early stop in the small village of Toconao to see the green village square with large cacti and the white bell tower with its fascinating construction of cactus wood. Many of the guided tours stop there in the late afternoon, so then it may get crowded.
A little further south you pass the highland village of Socaire with interesting terraced fields. About 30 km after Socaire you will reach the highland lagoons Miscanti and Miñiques with the eponymous, almost 6000 m high volcanoes in the background. The lagoons are of a deep blue and framed by a white rim of salt crystals. Yellow highland grass gives an impressive contrast to that, this is a perfect spot for landscape photography! It is totally quiet in this majestic place. If you are lucky you will even see Guanacos.
On the way back, you will see the guided tours coming, who first went to see the flamingos in the Salar de Atacama. Go there now, as the other tourists are gone, that’s the advantage of exploring the Atacama Desert by rental car!
The Salar de Atacama is a salt lake of 3000 sq km, its surface covered by a thick layer of salt crystals, caused by the evaporation of the lake’s water. This is where the world’s largest lithium deposits are found, but the Salar is also home to the Andean, Chilean and James flamingo, who feed on the micro organisms that live in the lagoons.
Please be aware that this tour takes you to altitudes over 4.200m. Travellers with health issues or those having suffered from altitude sickness before, should rather refrain from it.

Overnight stay in San Pedro de Atacama. Distance covered about 390 km on both asphalt and gravel roads.

San Pedro de Atacama – Calama
Say goodbye to San Pedro de Atacama today and drive your rental car through the Atacama Desert and the Cordillera de la Sal back to Calama. If you have enough time, make a nice stopover at the Kari Gorge, about seven kilometers from San Pedro. You can shoot spectacular photos on top of the “Piedra del Coyote” (“Coyote Stone”) there.
Drop off your rental car in Calama and take your return flight. Distance covered about 105 km on asphalt.