Atacama Desert, Chile

Nestled between the deep-blue curve of the Pacific coast and the snow-dusted Andes, the Atacama is the world’s driest non-polar desert – a vast, alien horizon of russet-hued rocks, sweeping salt plains and cacti-spotted hillsides. It’s terrain is hardly flora-and-fauna friendly, so it’s unsurprising most of the Atacama is uninhabited, making it an ideal spot for crowd-weary travellers: you’ll only have the endless horizons and Milky Way-strewn skies (this is one of the world’s best stargazing spots) for company. Explore the out-of-this-world Valley of the Moon, known for its lunar-like rock formations; sandboard down Death Valley’s giant dunes; walk the El Tatio geyser field with its billowing clouds of steam (watch out for the native vicunas, wild brothers of alpacas); of hole up in the small – and only – local town, San Pedro de Atacama with a traditional pisco sour in hand.

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When to go

The desert’s not for rain-lovers or snow-seekers (obviously); but the temperatures aren’t scorching: the mercury normally doesn’t rise above 25°C. Try to book for either autumn (October to November) or Spring (March and April) as there are fewer tourists and clearer skies – ideal for stargazing.

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Getting there

  • Planes

    Most international carriers, including British Airways, operate frequent flights to Santiago (www.ba.com). From here, domestic airline Latam Chile fly up to five times daily to the mining town of Calama; it’s then an hour’s drive to San Pedro de Atacama (www.latam.com).
  • Automobiles

    As there isn’t much by way of public transport, a car will be invaluable if you plan on exploring the desert solo – in other words, without the help of tour guides, who’ll often provide their own transport. Hire a motor from the airport in Santiago and take the Panamericana Norte to San Pedro de Atacama (you may want to stop off in Caldera or Bahía Inglesa, as the full journey takes a mammoth 17 hours). If you’re coming from Calama, there are various minibus services to San Pedro de Atacama which cost between $3 and $10.