Explore the Atacama, driest desert on Earth

  • Cost: £3250/person for 13 days/12 nights (part board; all breakfasts, 8 lunches, 4 dinners per itinerary)
  • Start Point: Santiago, Chile
  • End Point: Arica, Chile
  • Dates: For upcoming dates, click Join this Adventure on the right or email us.
  • Group Size: 6–12
  • Bespoke Tour: We organise this trip as a private trip to fit your dates and your interests. Please email us for details and a quote.
  • Guide: Your guide is Chris Carter, an archaeologist who has worked in this region of South America for over twenty years. His PhD is based on research carried out on coastal sites in far northern Chile

Atacama Desert in northern Chile is regarded as the driest place on earth—in some areas it has never rained in modern recorded history. Over the whole area of >100,000 square kilometres the average rainfall is just 15mm per year. The desert is flanked to the east by the Andes, with several peaks over 6000 metres, and runs right to the sea in the east where the shore line is skirted by high cliffs and few areas of coastal plain. Despite its aridity, many archaeological sites in the region have been continuously occupied for over 10,000 years.

Apart from its rich cultural history, the sweeping high grassy plains of the high puna (an area above 4000 metres elevation) are dotted with lakes, both salt and fresh, and rich in wildlife that includes rheas, flamingoes, giant coots, Andean geese and vicuñas. On the Pacific coast the Humboldt Current brings a huge food source for humans and animals alike—Inka Terns, Humboldt Penguins and otters are commonly seen!

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Atacama Desert Adventure Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Santiago by mid-afternoon. Meet your tour leader and fellow travellers in the early evening for a welcome drink and introductions followed by dinner. Overnight Santiago (D).

Day 2: To San Pedro de Atacama. We fly to Calama and drive to San Pedro de Atacama at an elevation of 2438 metres. We travel to the Valle de la Luna for sunset over a beautiful lunar landscape. Overnight San Pedro de Atacama (B, D).

Day 3: We visit Pukará de Quitor, an ancient stone fortress built around the 10th century by the Atacameño people, and the Inka ruins of the Catarpe Valley. Returning to San Pedro we visit the Gustavo Le Paige Museum named after a Belgian Jesuit priest who collected and studied the archaeological nds of the Atacama Desert. Overnight San Pedro de Atacama (B).

Day 4: Around San Pedro de Atacama. We study the spectacular geology of the Rainbow Valley and the 3000 year old petroglyphs at Yerbas Buenas. Overnight San Pedro de Atacama (B).

Day 5: The High Andes. A trip to the high altitude Miscanti and Miñiques Lakes at 4200 m elevation, where flamingos, giant coots, Andean geese, gulls,and vicuñas roam. After lunch we return via the Salar de Atacama, a vast highly saline pan charged by groundwater where three species of flamingos live. We may also see avocets and dotterels.Overnight San Pedro de Atacama (B, L).

Day 6: Iquique. We drive across the pampa to join the coast at Tocapilla before turning north to the port busy town of Iquique. We lunch at Tocapilla and dinner is in Iquique where seafood is a local speciality. Gulls, cormorants and pelicans occur along the rugged pacific coast. Overnight Iquique (B, L, D).

Day 7: To Arica. We travel north, detouring to Pisagua. Once a thriving mining port it is now a virtual ghost town. We walk out to Punta Pichalo through archaeological sites and 19th century guano mines. South American Sea Lions and seabirds abound. We continue to Arica where we overnight (B, L).

Day 8: Arica. We visit the Museo de Sitio Colon 10 to see the 32 Chinchorro mummies on display. The mummies are laid out in the sand complete with funerary decorations visible through glass panels in the floor. We drive to the Azapa Valley to see more of the world’s oldest known mummies before returning to Arica via Lluta Valley and its restored pre-Colombian geoglyphs and petroglyphs. Overnight Arica (B, L).

Day 9: Caleta Vitor & Codpa. Driving to Caleta Vitor, we visit archaeological remains over 9,000 years old. We see remains left by the Inka and earlier groups that once resided here. If possible, we visit a sea-bird colony to see Peruvian boobies, Inka Terns, Humboldt penguins, cormorants and possibly a marine otter or two. After a picnic lunch we drive inland to the village of Codpa, an Hispanic village famous for the production of fruit and wine. Pre-Colombian sites are also found in the area. Overnight Codpa (B, L, D).

Day 10: To Putre. From Codpa we drive further inland to the high valleys flanking the highest mountains in the area. These valleys were occupied from Pre-Colombian times and the Spanish colonised much of the area as it was agriculturally productive. We stop at Zapahuira for lunch before walking a section of Inka trail, the Capac Ñan (Royal Road) which linked the entire Empire with Cusco. This trail was also used by Pedro Valdivia when he explored Chile and claimed the area for Spain. We may see guanaco and a number of finch species in this area. Afterwards we drive on to Putre, the administrative centre. Situated at 3500 m, the village is surrounded by ancient, stone-lined agricultural terraces. Overnight Putre (B, L, D).

Day 11: Parque Lauca. We drive east almost to the Bolivian border where 140,000 hectares of altiplano make up the Lauca National Park. A highlight is a visit to the beautiful Lago Chungará (4500 m elevation), one of the world’s highest lakes, backed by the postcard-perfect Volcano Parinacota. Wildlife includes vicuña, viscacha (a large and endearingly rabbit-like rodent), the Bolivian large-eared mouse and many birds including Andean geese, Puna teal, giant coot, sierra and plumbeous finch and possibly flamingo. Overnight Putre (B, PL, D).

Day 12: To Arica. We depart Putre on foot along the quebrada to the village of Socoroma, an Hispanic village likely established by the Inka. After rejoining our bus at Socoroma we return to Arica via a stunning drive through the Lluta Valley. We have our farewell dinner in the evening. Overnight Arica (B, L, D).

Day 13: Transfer to airport for onward flights. For those wishing to join the tour to Northern Peru, flights to Lima are available from Tacna, a 45 minute drive over the border from Arica.

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Getting there

While we recommend starting and finishing this expedition in Puerto Ordaz, we can arrange to meet you in Santa Elena, Caracas or any other city in Venezuela. Or in Boa Vista or Manaus in Brazil.

Adventure Rating: Relaxing

Some light walks at high elevation are required during this adventure. They are not strenuous in nature but participants may feel the effects of altitude.

Participants must be capable of walking on uneven ground, carrying a day pack with water, camera, weather protection and snacks.

Possible extensions

- Combine this adventure with the Andes to Amazon Adventure which takes place immediately following the end of this one.

To get a quote for any extensions, simply mention which extension(s) you are interested in when you apply to Join this Adventure!

Simplified Canoe to Angel Falls Map

What's Included

All transport during the itinerary
Professional guide
Porters for group logistics
Accommodation (on a twin/double basis)
All main meals during the itinerary

Note: single room upgrade is available at extra cost

What's Not

International flights
Personal porters (if requested)