Spring Break in Chile Part Two – the Atacama Desert with Kids
We traveled to Chile for spring break largely because of Patagonia – one of the most beautiful destinations anywhere. But we quickly determined that Patagonia, and Torres del Paine National Park specifically, wouldn’t hold more than a few days’ worth of activities for the kids. So we added on Chile’s Atacama Desert for the second half of our trip.
My post on Patagonia is here. In a perfect world we could have traveled directly from Patagonia to Atacama, but given their locations, that travel day would have involved a 4-hour drive from Tierra Patagonia to the Punta Arenas airport, a wait at the airport, a 3-hour flight to Santiago, a layover in Santiago, a 2-hour flight to Calama and then a 1-hour drive to Tierra Atacama. That’s a minimum of 12 hours depending on how the flights lined up – not an optimal travel day for anyone, and even less so when kids are involved. So we opted instead to fly from Punta Arenas to Santiago and spend two nights (one full day) in Santiago.
It was a good layover – the airport is close to the city so the transfer is only 15 minutes or so, and we based out of the Aubrey Hotel in the Bellavista neighborhood. We took the metro to Los Dominicos Village and spent a few hours exploring and getting lunch (empanadas of course), and otherwise relaxed at the hotel’s rooftop pool and wandered around Bellavista. We had an excellent dinner at Barrica 94, went to sleep, headed back to the airport and flew on to Calama.
San Pedro de Atacama / Tierra Atacama
Given the flight and transfer time involved with Tierra Patagonia, the kids really appreciated that getting to the town of San Pedro de Atacama and our hotel, Tierra Atacama, only required a 2-hour flight and 1-hour drive.
Just like in Patagonia, we started our visit by arranging excursions. Juan Pablo (JP), Tierra Atacama’s excursion expert, recommended five excursions for us over three days, starting with two shorter half-day trips to get us acclimated to the altitude (2,500m). The hotel recommends those excursions for everyone. Then he scheduled two more half-day excursions our second day and an early-morning sunrise drive on day three. We would have the rest of day three free to relax and go into town.
We left the hotel at 9:15 our first morning with two other guests and drove a few minutes to Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). Juliet, our guide, first took us to an overlook and then led us to the desert floor where we walked through Moon Valley and learned about the dunes of the Atacama – some of which are rearranged every day by the wind and some that see the wind only every 5-10 years – as well as the salt and gypsum everywhere. The kids found this more interesting than my wife and I and rated this their third favorite activity in the desert and fourth favorite overall thing that they did in Chile.
Atacama Salt Flat
After a break for lunch, we drove out again with Juliet to the Atacama Salt Flat (Salar de Atacama), roughly an hour from the hotel. In theory this sounded great (salt flats and flamingos!), with snacks and drinks set out at sunset. In reality, the flats were rough and fairly uninteresting and there were very few flamingos around, other than as specks in the distance. We had snacks and drinks early and then headed back to the hotel before sunset. This was our least-favorite activity.
Puritama Hot Springs
The next morning things improved considerably. We drove maybe 45 minutes north to the Puritama Hot Springs with JP. The hot springs consist of eight warm pools, cascading into each other via waterfalls. This is a definite tourist attraction and we weren’t alone, but we still loved everything about our morning at the springs. We tried out five of the pools, all shallow to various extents and all beautiful. Pool two was our favorite, as it meandered far back through tall grasses. Five was the kid-friendliest, since it was uncrowded and the easiest for short legs to navigate. This was our second-favorite activity in Chile.
Again after a lunch and some downtime at Tierra Atacama, we left with our guide Matti for Valle de la Muerte, less than 15 minutes from the hotel. This was our favorite spring break activity. The excursion started with an hour-long walk along the top of the valley, with the stunning volcanoes of the Andes in the distance. As we walked, the sand dunes of the valley got closer and closer to the top of the ridge until we were able to step right off and run down. This was kid heaven – dunes that you could run down without having to climb them in the first place. I tried my best to keep up with the kids and get photos, but really I was just enjoying the sand as well. At the bottom of the dunes we walked for maybe 10 minutes to the point where the van was waiting to take us back to the hotel. Note to Tierra Atacama: the canyon was stunning at sunset and it would have been more enjoyable to walk out the canyon for 20 minutes or so rather than drive through it. If we had had an extra day, I would have loved to have done this entire excursion again but with a sunset walk at the end.
El Tatio Geysers
An hour and a half from the hotel are the El Tatio geysers – the third largest geyser field in the world. We woke up very early and left at 6:00am with Juliet, arriving well before sunrise. The steam of the geysers is most visible in the morning when the air is cold, so that’s the time to go – and seemingly everyone in San Pedro de Atacama knew this and was on the road with us heading to the geysers. I enjoyed this excursion, mainly because of the photography at sunrise. My kids, not so much. It was simply too early and too cold and they didn’t think that the long drive was worth it. We had a nice breakfast that Juliet and our driver arranged, complete with coffee and juices, but the kids preferred the heat of the van to walking around with me.
The excursion got better on the way back to the hotel, when we saw more animals than we had seen the previous three days combined, including vicunas and guanacos (both llama-like animals) and viscachas, which resemble rabbits. The kids would have loved this excursion if it skipped the geysers and just focused on the animals!
San Pedro de Atacama
While not an official excursion, the small town of San Pedro de Atacama is only five minutes or so from Tierra Atacama. The hotel is happy to arrange transportation to/from town upon request, so we took advantage of that and roamed around the town for two hours our last afternoon. We actually could have stayed longer and had drinks somewhere, but otherwise two hours was plenty to see the central area and markets. Definitely spend a little time in town. Tip: the Pisco sour ice cream is very good, and only for adults!
Thoughts on Tierra Atacama
Tierra Atacama was a perfect place to stay. We were impressed by the food, the design of the hotel (it’s a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World), the pool and the stars at night – so many stars! And while it’s not a hotel designed for kids, our kids loved it, and we were completely comfortable with them roaming around by themselves. The central game and computer area is a particularly nice touch – my kids spent most of their downtime there playing Jenga or at the pool.
We stayed for four nights, but easily could have done five nights. The desert really impressed us. We would have loved to have done the Death Valley sand dunes hike a second time, and as we were packing up the kids all said that they weren’t ready to leave.
I discussed overall trip finance in my Patagonia post. For this portion of the trip, we purchased five Santiago to Calama round-trip tickets for $1,153 on Sky Airlines. We would have preferred LATAM to Sky as LATAM is an American Airlines partner, but the Sky schedule lined up better with our onward United flight to Houston. Tierra Atacama was $1,800/night after our 20% discount for booking seven total nights at Tierra properties (three at Tierra Patagonia and four at Tierra Atacama). Note: I received a media rate for part of our stay. The best time to visit price-wise is July 1 to September 9, both in 2017 and 2018, as that’s their low season and kids stay free. Pretty much everything is included in their standard rates, including airport transfers, food, wine and excursions. Premium wines are extra.
Be prepared for everything! We were in shorts and t-shirts some days, but needed sweaters, winter coats and gloves for the visit to El Tatio geysers. Light hiking pants and shirts worked well for the desert walks.