Known for its clear skies, stunning landscapes and unique activities, the Atacama Desert is a great place to explore with kids.
With its towering volcanoes, colourful lagoons and rugged canyons, the desert offers plenty of unique activities, suitable for everyone in the family.
Here are some of the best things to do in the Atacama Desert with kids.
Things to Know Before Visiting the Atacama Desert
- It’s dry. REALLY dry. In fact, outside of the outside of the polar regions, it’s the driest place on earth!
- Because it’s so dry, you will want to have lots of water, lip chap and maybe even saline nose spray. I wish I’d brought that for my kids.
- Some organized tours have age limits. But if you have your own transportation, kids are still allowed into almost all attractions and activities in the Atacama Desert.
- The Atacama Desert is pretty high in altitude and with the dry air, you may experience a bit of altitude sickness. A few attractions are at even higher altitude, and aren’t recommended for kids to visit.
- Although it’s the desert, nights may be chilly while days can be extremely hot. Be sure to pack clothing for both temperatures.
- The Atacama Desert is an amazing experience. Be prepared and you’ll have a fantastic time!
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Things to Do in the Atacama Desert
1. Explore the Town of San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is a good spot to use as a base, as it’s the largest town in the area and it’s central to many of the popular things to do in the Atacama Desert.
It feels like a typical desert town, with adobe buildings and dusty roads.
Along the main roads, you’ll find many shops, where locals sell their handicrafts, including basketworks and ceramic pottery crafts that the indigenous people have created for centuries.
The town has a number of market stalls, restaurants and cafes, as well as plenty of tour companies offering activities in the area. Kids will love exploring the town and checking out all the different things on offer.
Tourist agencies, restaurants, and accommodations are also plentiful along the main streets.
In the centre of town, the Plaza de Armas is a large, shaded square with plenty of benches to rest and watch the daily life of the town. Cafe Peregrino is a great spot to enjoy a cold drink and watch the activity in the town square.
And be sure to see the Church of San Pedro de Atacama. Made of indigenous adobe material, it’s one of the most iconic buildings in the town and occupies one side of the Plaza de Armas. It’s open to the public and admission is free. It’s also said to be second-oldest church in Chile, and is definitely worth a visit!
2. Visit the Valle de Marte
Named Valle de Marte for its resemblance to Mars, this otherworldly place is one of the most unique things to see in the Atacama Desert.
Located about 3.5km from the town of San Pedro, the Valle de Marte is made up of strange rock formations, a huge sand dune and plenty of amazing viewpoints.
Fun fact: Nasa and the European Space Agency tested their Mars rovers here.
You can hike to the top of the dune for a fantastic view of the surrounding landscape, but it is a a good workout climbing through the sand!
It’s also a popular place to sand board down the dunes, but although the boys would have loved to try, they were a bit young, so we just opted to watch.
The Valle de Marte is also a popular places to go hiking in the Atacama. You could explore the valley for hours, but if you’re visiting with kids, you might want to limit how long you hike for.
Once you enter, there’s a path that leads up to a large, flat area where you’ll have some stunning views of the valley and surrounding landscape.
Be sure to bring plenty of water and wear good footwear. The sand can be very hot, especially during the middle of the day, so a closed shoe or boot is good choice, rather than sandals.
Entrance fee is CLP $3,000.
3. Take a Dip in Laguna Cejar
One of the most popular things to do in the Atacama Desert is to take a dip in a colourful lagoon. And one of the most popular places to do this is Laguna Cejar.
With its stunning blue-green water, it looks like something you’d find on another planet.
The water is so salty that you can float effortlessly, and although it leaves a heavy salt crust on your skin after you dry off, there are fresh-water showers to rinse off after your dip.
Laguna Cejar a popular tourist attraction and can be done on your own or booked with a tour agency in town.
If you prefer to book ahead of time, Viator offers a half day tour to Laguna Cejar.
4. Visit the Valle de la Luna
Another of the most popular places to visit in the Atacama Desert is the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley.
As its name suggests, this place looks like something you’d find on the moon.
With its strange landscape of salt and clay and formed over millions of years by wind and water erosion, the landscape looks like it’s straight out of a lunar landscape.
Although we had read that you could climb and play on the sand dunes, there are signs asking to stay off of the dunes.
You can drive in and hike around the valley, and the hikes are even accessible for kids. The boys were 4.5 years old and were able to do the Grand Dune hike with a few rest stops. Although be aware that at the top, there are no railings or barricades at the edge!
One of the best times to visit is at sunset, as the setting sun reflecting on the sand is something to see.
If you prefer to take a guided tour, Viator offers this half-day tour.
Entry fee is CLP $3,000 (kids under 5 are free).
5. Visit the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache
The Hidden Lagoons of Baltinache are similar to the Laguna Cejar and are a great place to take a dip in a salt water pool.
There’s a series of seven pools, although it’s only possible to take a dip in the first and the last pool.
There’s a path between the pools and it’s a few minutes walk to the last pool. While it’s worth taking a dip there, you might want to head back to the first pool, as it’s the least crowded.
Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache are less busy and not as expensive as the more touristed Laguna Cejar.
Tours are available in town, but it’s easy enough to do on your own if you have a car.
If you are going on your own, it is a bit of an interesting drive to get to. Once you turn off the highway, it’s a very long, and VERY bumpy dirt road to the lagoons.
I feel like it took us hours to drive that dirt road, as I drove really slow in order not to scratch or dent the rental car, but in reality it’s only a few kms. It was well worth the drive!
CLP $5000 for adults, children under 5 are free.
6. See the Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Part of Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Salar de Atacma, Laguna Chaxa is one of the best places in the Atacama to see flamingos.
Paths. lead around this huge salt lake where you’ll see flamingos feeding in the water. The best time to see them is early morning or late afternoon. And if you’re there at sunset, the views are spectacular!
**Los Flamencos National Reserve closes for a few weeks each year, which unfortunately was when we were in San Pedro (March).
We were pretty disappointed and this was one of the things the boys were really excited to see, but you can also see flamingos on the way to Machua (see below).
7. Visit Lake Tebenquiche
Similar to Laguna Chaxa but less visited, this salt flat is now a nature sanctuary.
A path circles around the edge of the lagoon, where you’ll have fantastic views of the mountains reflecting in the lake, which is really a salt pool.
There is no shade, so be sure to protect yourself from the sun and bring plenty of water.
Although some tours do stop at Lake Tebenquiche, it’s not a busy place and it’s perfect to walk around with kids. You can walk the entire loop, which takes over an hour, or you can park and walk a short distance to a viewing area.
And in the evening, it’s one of the best places around San Pedro to watch the sunset.
8. Take a Dip in the Termas de Puritama
The Puritama Hot Springs are a series of eight geothermal spring water pools, located at the bottom of a canyon.
Originally only used by locals, but now open to visitors, it’s a popular spot to visit on the way back from El Tatio Geysers (see below)
Waterfalls link the pools and there are picnic areas so bring a lunch or snack!
Entry fee is CLP $15,000.
9. Drive to Machuca
Machuca is a small village, with less than 50 inhabitants, consisting of a few buildings and a historic church.
The town is a popular stop on the way back from El Tatio Geysers, where a small restaurant serves grilled llama meat skewers and excellent empanadas.
We drove up this way to see some flamingos (as the Laguna Cejar was closed) but along the way we also came across lots of vicunas, which are a cousin of the llama.
In fact, we had one start to cross in front of our car and then continue walking up the middle of the road, calm as can be!
But the flamingos were the highlight of the drive to Machua. You’ll see them on the side of the road and there are also a few good viewing spots before you reach Machua.
There are three types of flamingos in Chile: the James, the Chilean and the Andean.
The Chilean flamingo is closely related to the American flamingo and is the typical pink colour that you associate with flamingos.
The Andean is slightly different, with a pale pink or almost white body and a black triangle at the back. It’s the largest of the three flamingos in the Andes and one of the rarest flamingos in the world.
Can you tell which one this is?
10. Go Stargazing
High in elevation, dry and unpolluted, with the clearest skies in the world, the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky.
You can take an organized tour from San Pedro or head out by yourself and admire the stars.
We chose to head out on our own, as we had a rental car and I wasn’t sure how long the boys would stay awake.
We didn’t have to go too far before we found a great spot to spread out a blanket and watch the stars. I haven’t mastered the night shots though, so you’ll have to use your imagination.
Nearby is the ALMA Observatory, which is the largest observatory open to the public, although only on weekend.
A Few More Things to Do in the Atacama Desert
(with older kids)
11. Visit Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques
Part of los Flamencos National Reserve, these two lakes are separated by a lava stream and surrounded by volcanoes and mountains.
Los Flamencos National Reserve is huge though, and these two lakes are about a 2 hour drive from San Pedro. The lakes are also high in altitude at 4,200m, and it’s not a spot that is recommended to visit with young kids (because of the altitude).
12. See El Tatio Geysers
El Tatio is the world’s highest geyser field, with over 80 active geysers.
The best time to visit El Tatio is just after the sun rises, as the geysers are most active then.
And although you’re in the desert, it’s chilly that early in the morning, so make sure to dress warmly!
There are plenty of tours offering guided visits. Viator offers this tour to El Tatio Geysers, which includes breakfast and transportation.
**It’s not recommended to visit with young children, as it’s even higher in altitude than the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
13. Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs
One of most important groups of petroglyphs in the area, these drawings carved into the red rock are evidence of a civilization from long ago.
Created by the Atacameno people around 500CE the petroglyphs were a way to document their experiences. More than a thousand prehistoric petroglyphs can be found on these rocks.
14. See the Colours in the Rainbow Valley
Often combined with a visit to the Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs, the Valle Del Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley, is about 90km from San Pedro.
It gets its name from the variety of colours that are seen in the surrounding hills.
The red, green, white, yellow and brown colours from the various minerals combine with the white salt and blue sky for a very unique view.
If you are driving back to Calama, Rainbow Valley is on the way, or you can visit as a day trip from San Pedro de Atacama.
Other Incredible Things to See in the Atacama Desert
Although it’s still part of the Atacama Desert, Antofagasta is about a 3.5-4 hour drive from San Pedro. The town is located right on the ocean and has some good beaches, which is a welcome change from the dry climate of San Pedro de Atacama.
The drive to Antofagasta is an epic one along Route 5, which is part of the Pan American highway. Along the way, you’ll pass the Tropic of Capricorn marker (and the road is so quiet that it’s easy to pull over for a photo).
16. The Hand of the Desert
One of the most well-known attractions in Antofagasta, and the entire reason we added Antofagasta to our Chile itinerary, was the Hand of the Desert.
Another hour’s drive from Antofagasta, the Hand of the Desert is an impressive statue rising from the desert sand. While it was a long drive to get to it, it was well worth the detour to see it!
Tips for Visiting the Atacama Desert
How to Get there: Most people fly into Calama airport, and although that’s technically the Atacama Desert as well, it’s an hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama, which is where most of the attractions and activities are located. Transfers run from the airport to town, or you can rent a car from the airport to explore the area on your own. We found it to be cheaper as well, and more convenient, especially travelling with kids, but the main reason we rented a car was to go and see the awesome Hand of the Desert!
Atms: Make sure to take out money BEFORE leaving Calama airport. There are a four ATM’s in San Pedro, but don’t rely on those to always be working. Most tourist agencies, shops and restaurants will only accept cash, although if you look hard, there are a few that accept credit cards.
Gas: There’s only one gas station in town and nothing in between Calama and San Pedro OR any of the attractions you may be visiting by car. Make sure the tank is filled up before you go!
Weather: The weather is mild and dry and mostly sunny year round, but whether winter or summer, the UV is high. Bring a hat, sunglasses and a bottle of water, everywhere you go!
Water: Bottled water is a must! It isn’t advised to drink the tap water, even for the locals, so make sure to stock up on bottled water, unless you have a water filter. And it’s warm and dry, so you will go through a fair bit of water! Almost every store in town will sell water, and most will sell the large 4L jugs as well.
Again, it’s Dry: I mean, of course, it’s the desert, right? I had thought about having plenty of water, but I hadn’t thought to bring lip chap or a saline nasal spray, which would have been helpful for the kids.
Camera: Be sure to bring a camera, as the scenery is absolutely amazing. If you’re going stargazing, be sure to bring a tripod as well.
Where to Stay in San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama has a wide range of accommodations, from camping to hostels, guest-houses, and even some luxury hotels.
For a luxurious stay, check out the Ittai Hotel, only a few steps away from the centre of San Pedro de Atacama. The hotel features a swimming pool, which is a great feature when you’re staying in the desert. Rooms are spacious and breakfast is included, and there is a tour desk offering excursions and information.
The Casa Algarrobo is also a good choice for families. It’s centrally located near the San Pedro Church and also offers an outdoor pool and terrace. Wifi, free parking, and breakfast are included in the rates. An airport shuttle is also available if you’re not renting a car to drive in the Atacama Desert. Check out photos and amenities here.
There are also plenty of budget-friendly guest houses in San Pedro de Atacama. A good choice that’s close to the downtown area is La Rukka Hostel Boutique. Located a short walk to the church and main square, La Rukka Hostel Boutique has free wifi, a garden and private parking is included. There’s also a tour desk which can arrange any local tours.
How to Get to the Atacama Desert
Since Chile is so long and narrow, travel time between areas is long. Yes, you could get to the Atacama Desert in a car or bus but it would take around 20 hours to drive from the capital city of Santiago.
A much quicker way is to fly into the Calama airport, which is about an hour’s drive from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Transfers are readily available from the airport to the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama Desert is an ideal place to visit year-round, but the best time to experience it is in the summer.
From December through February, temperatures are mild and the days are generally sunny. However, summer is technically the rainy season in northern Chile but since the Atacama is the driest desert in the world , it sees relatively little rain.
Autumn, from March to May, is also an excellent time for tourists to visit the Atacama Desert. The days are warm and sunny, but the nights can be quite cold and May is considered shoulder season with good deals on accommodations and tours.