San Pedro De Atacama

Salar de Agua Calientes and Piedras Rojas (red rocks)


  • Eroded sandstone formations in Valle de Luna.
  • Floating in the high salinity water of Laguna Piedra.
  • A fun day of soaking in Purilbre.
  • The Mongolia looking landscape and abundant fauna at Machuca
  • Awe inspiring scenery of Salar Aguas Calientes and Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques.
  • Stargazing tour.

Time of Visit: February to March 2024

Duration of Visit:  Five days


The Atacama Desert is considered the driest deserts in the world.  But do not ignore this destination just because it is dry.  We were pleasantly surprised to see beautiful places and do a significant variety of activities.

San Pedro de Atacama, is a small town that serves as the gateway to some of Chile’s most breathtaking attractions, including the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), geysers, and high-altitude lakes. It is also one of the best places to do stargazing.  

The Atacama Desert is a large area.  Visitors need to rent a vehicle or sign up for a tour so see the different attractions within a couple of hours of San Pedro de Atacama.  We rented a passenger car and we were able to go to Valle de Luna, Lagunas Cejar Y Piedras, Puritama and Purilibre, Machucha, Piedras Rojas and Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques .  You will need a high clearance vehicle or sign up with a tour if you want to visit the geysers.  We did not as we have seen so many geysers in our travels.

Places Visited

Valle de Luna

Sand pattern on the dune at Valle de Luna
Driving Valle de Luna

Valle de Luna is a large park with various eroded sandstone formations and dunes.  There are four attractions in the park.  Two of the attractions involve an hour and half of walking to a couple of viewpoints.  It gets fairly warm in the summer so dress accordingly (an umbrella would be good).  The hikes do involve modest elevation gain (less than 100 feet) but part is sandy which requires more effort to climb.  But the views are rewarding.

The park is open at 9 AM and the last entry is 12 PM (11 AM if you are on a bike). Entry tickets can be purchased at an electronic kiosk at the park entrance or on-line. For whatever reason, the kiosk prices are lower than the on-line prices.  Our cards did not work at the kiosk and on-line.  We had to resort to paying with PayPal.

Mirador de Kari Piedra del Cayote

Vibrant sunset colors near Mirador de Kari Piedra del Cayote

Included in the Valle de Luna entry fee is entry to the Mirador de Kari Piedra del Cayote for sunset viewing.  The mirador provides sweeping views of the martian-like landscape below.  Sunset at the mirador was like no other for us.  The clouds were just bursting with colors as the sun set on the horizon.  Come at least thirty minutes before sunset and leave when the rangers says it is time to leave.  You may miss out on the colorful horizon if you leave early.

Lagunas Cejar Y Piedras

Laguna Piedras is the only lake visitors are allowed to swim
Floating in Laguna Piedras

Lagunas Cejar Y Piedras actually has three lagoons.  The third lagoon is called Baltinache. All the lagoons have high salinity water.  Lagunas Cejar and Blatinache can only be viewed from a distance while Piedras is where visitors are allowed to swim.  This is the main attraction though there were some flamingos on Blatinache.

The staff only recommends swimming for no longer than 30 minutes because of the high salt content.  The water is naturally buoyant.  People just float without even trying.  The water is cool also making it very refreshing on a hot day.  There are changing stalls and outdoor showers to rinse off the salt.  So do not forget to bring your swimwear, change of dry clothes and towel. Sunscreen on the face is only allowed.

The admission ticket can be purchased at the entry gate or on-line (www.  It cost 15K CLP for an adult foreigner (10K CLP for seniors). 

Best way to reach Lagunas Cejar y Piedras is to drive about 14 kms south of the intersection between CH 23 and CH 23 bypass (south of town).  Take a right on an unsigned well compacted dirt road and follow it until reaching the entry gate (on Google Maps shows Campo Piknik and Campo Sur being on this well compacted dirt road).  This is a longer route compared to the Google Maps direction which took us through a 10 km bumpy and washboard dirt road that is just ripe for giving an impatient driver a flat tire.   


Purittama is a hot spring resort about an hour drive from San Pedro de Atacama.  The entrance fee is a hefty 35K CLP which was just not too convincing to pay.  If you decide to get a soaking here, the road is smooth up to the small barrio of Guatin.  Then it is about 8 kms of dirt and gravel road that is still passable with a regular compact car.

Termas Bajas – Guatin (Purilibre)

A hike down and along the canyon is needed to reach the Purilibre soaking pools
One of the many soaking pools in Purilibre

A good alternative to Puritama is what locals refer to as Purilibre (Termas Bajas on Google Maps).  It is only less than five minutes drive from Guatin on Ruta B-245.  Here you can soak your body in a clear flowing stream at the bottom of a shallow canyon. The water is neither warm nor cold, but just right on a warm sunny day.  

There are several soaking pools in the stream, ranging in size that can hold a couple of people to a dozen. It takes about five minutes to reach the first pool which is not that obvious unless you look down the canyon from the trail. The trail continues on and down the canyon. Visitors will next cross a wooden bridge that is hidden by the tall grasses.  Then the trail parallels the stream’s East side.  The next pool becomes visible about 10 minutes later.  Several pools followed until we reached the short waterfall.  We did not go past this point but observed that some people continued and did not come back after 20 minutes.

We observed during our visit that the parking lot was half full when we arrived at noon but became full at 4PM when we left.  We suspect that the place is busier later in the afternoon so that the soaking pools have shade from the canyon walls.


Mongolia like scenery on the way to Machuca

Machuca is a small community tucked in the mountains at an elevation of 4,015 meters above sea level (13,170 feet).  Visitors that go to the Geysers of Tatio will pass through this tiny community.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to enter the community premises according to a local (she said “no” to my question “puedo entrar” pointing to a car barricade placed on the local street).

But the attraction is not the barrio but the wildlife and scenery along the way.  The scenery turned more like Mongolia with the terrain turning more green than bleak brown.  It is much cooler here also.

Laguna Flamingos about a kilometer before Machuca
Llamas at Machuca

We saw flamingos from about 10 meters (30 feet) away on Laguna Flamingo.  They were either walking in the lake or floating on it.  Most of the time their heads were in the water to feed.  Before crossing the culvert to reach Machuca, there were several llamas grazing away on the roadside.  Their ears and backs were decorated with colorful threads that look like ribbons.  And if your timing is impeccable, you may get as lucky as we did, where there were guanacos and burros grazing as well.

Salar de Aguas Calientes (Piedras Rojas)

Salar de Aguas Calientes and Piedras Rojas

The most awe inspiring places we saw in the Atacama Desert are Salar de Aguas Calientes  and Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques.  Piedras Rojas is about a two hour drive, without stopping, from San Pedro de Atacama.  The place is just magical.  Here, you will see the bluish-green and white color of the Salar de Aguas Calientes.  On one side of the salar are the red rocks (piedras rojas).  The attraction is located in a valley surrounded by multi-colored mountains.

Best time to visit the salar is in the morning according to the guard.  The place is tranquil but cold being at an elevation of 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level.  In the afternoon, the wind blows continuously hard but becomes warmer (you would still need a jacket though). 

There is a walking footpath bordered by stones that visitors are required to follow.  It takes about 1.5 hours to complete the trail that begins and ends at the check-in office.  The last  entry is at 4:30 PM.

Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques

Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miñiques

Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques are picturesque alpine lakes surrounded by mountains.  Most visitors go to the lakes first as it is the first attraction to see off Ruta 23.  However, it takes about 30 minutes to travel the approximately 7 kilometers of sandy, jaw jarring washboard and sometimes rutted road between Ruta 23 and the check-in office.

The staff at the check-in office gave us a briefing on where we could go and not go while pointing to a diorama.  Essentially, visitors are not allowed to get near the lakes and must stay within the stone bordered trails.  It is actually better to be far from the lake so that the beauty of the entire place can be appreciated.

Buying Admission Tickets for Piedras Rojas and Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques

Visitors must pre-purchase entry tickets online at .  There are three types of tickets.  One for just Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques, the second is for Salar de Aguas Calientes and the third is for both attractions.  If you plan to do both, it took us an hour to drive between the two attractions.  If we were going to do it over again, we would get the earliest check-in time and see the salar in the morning when it is not windy.

Stargazing Tour

The very expensive photoshoot

We have mixed feelings about the stargazing tour that we did.  It just boils down to how well the guide speaks English.  Our guide was from Bolivia and spoke English.  However, we had a difficult time completely understanding what he was saying.  We could hear the words but were unable to understand the message.  So we just tuned out, reclined our anti-gravity lounge chairs and looked at the beautiful constellation above us.  At least we learned what the Southern Cross stars look like.

So our stargazing tour ended up as an expensive photo shoot and snacks with drinks.

The tour group did have a couple of telescopes for us to look at.  But since there was no moon during our tour, all we could see through the telescopes looked like lighted dots.  Nothing really exciting.  In hindsight, we would have been content with just driving a few miles outside of town where the light pollution was low and would have seen the same thing.


At first glance, the Atacama Desert may look bleak and unexciting.  But there are many hidden gems that the driest place on earth hides.  The eroded sandstones at Valle de Luna reminds us of our home state of Arizona.  Floating effortlessly in the highly saline water of Laguna Piedras was very enjoyable and a nice way to cool off during a hot day.

Purilibre is another soaking spot that is free for everyone.  All you have to do is drive there and take a short walk.  Continuing on Ruta B-245 takes visitors higher in elevation to the sleepy barrio of Machuca.  Flamingos can be seen feeding in Laguna Flamingo just before the barrio.  There were also guanacos, llamas and burros. Plus the high alpine scenery resembles pictures of Mongolia.

Visiting the Salar de Agua Calientes and Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques was breathtaking.  Finally, seeing the constellation in the Southern Hemisphere was a nice way to end our trip to San Pedro de Atacama. A very memorable trip indeed.