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We flew into Calama and rented a 4 wheel drive truck at the airport. While having the truck was nice, we could have easily done this trip with a regular sedan as many roads are paved or high quality compacted dirt roads.
Here are the highlights and best things to see and best things to do in the Atacama Desert:
Laguna Cejar actually consists of 3 lagoons and you are only allowed to swim in one, Laguna Piedra. The salt concentration in Laguna Piedra is so high that you will float on the water just like on the Dead Sea. That is a lot of fun, as you cannot sink. It also makes it difficult to swim as your feet will be above the water. The lagoon is deep for the most part and if you stand upright, then your shoulders will look out of the water and you will not sink even though your feet don't touch the floor.
There are changing cabins and restrooms with running water and showers so you can rinse the salt off. Be alerted that you are not allowed to put sunscreen on before you go in the water and that you are not allowed to use shampoo or soap etc. when using the showers.
The Geysers del Tatio are the world's highest elevation boiling pots and mini geysers at about 4,300m. They form the largest geyser filed in the Southern Hemisphere and the third largest in the world after Yellowstone in the United States and Dolina Geizerov in Russia.
We decided to self-drive and left our hotel at 4:45am with the sunrise scheduled for 6:38am. The drive is mostly straightforward and can be done with a regular sedan, even though there are a several fairly steep climbs. Be aware that you are going from 2400m above sea level to 4200m. The lower air pressure at 4200m will exhaust you quicker than in San Pedro de Atacama. We did the drive in late November and it was around freezing at El Tatio before sunrise, while it was 45F (7C) in San Pedro de Atacama.
We arrived at 6:15am and the geyser field was only visible a few minutes before we arrived. We actually saw the sun about 25min after the official sunrise, because it had to get above the mountains that encircle the geyser basin. Most tour buses appeared to arrive at around 6:50am.
Interestingly, the geysers fume output appeared to triple or quadruple for maybe 15min starting shortly before the sun peeked over the mountains.
After those 15min, the output was back to how it was when we arrived before sunrise.
I have been to Yellowstone and the geysers in Iceland, and I can say that El Tatio is different - the geysers are constantly fuming or erupting (hot water is spilled maybe 1ft to max. 2ft high) and not erupting on any schedule - and I think it is definitely worth seeing them. If you don't want to get up super early, then don't hesitate to go there later in the day.
After sunrise, the temperature quickly rose to above 50F, which is much more bearable but still cool.
There is also a warm pool where you can swim – and I did. The pool is fed by 2 small hot springs which heat the water to only luke warm temperatures. So, don't expect a nice warm or hot pool. Some changing cabins are near the pool.
Both lagoons are about a 2h drive from San Pedro de Atacama. The highway is paved and when you turn off the highway to the lagoons you will drive on a compacted dirt road which is in good shape and an easy drive. Just be aware that the road is often only wide enough for 1 car, so you will need to be careful when you encounter the occasional car that goes in the opposite direction. The scenery gets more and more beautiful the longer you drive.
Both lagoons are close to each other and you can either hike or drive between them. There is limited parking at Miscanti lagoon, but a nice parking lot with great views at Miniques lagoon. We got there in the late morning. There were a couple of tour buses already in the park and several others arrived after us. It seems everybody camped out in the parking lot for lunch and it was packed. After lunch, however, everybody except us left. Right after everyone left, several animals came out and actually came fairly close to where our truck was parked. I am so glad we stayed.
This lagoon is a few miles further down the road from Laguna Cejar in a barren landscape without plants. The road actually ends there. It is one of my favorite sites in the Atacama Desert. The water is light blue to turquoise. There are white salt crystals under and above the water surface, outcrops of salt and crystal sheets can be seen on land. The parking lot is right behind the entrance where you pay 2,000 Pesos per person. From the parking lot there is a path that leads for several hundred feet along the lagoon and comes very close to the lagoon in some places. The path leads to a second parking lot that only tour buses are allowed to drive to. When we were there, we saw 2 white flamingos that were less than 100 feet away from where we were. The lagoon can be accessed with a normal sedan, no 4 wheel drive or high clearance vehicle needed.
We stayed here for 4 nights. The hostal is close to the bus terminal, the only gas station in town and a 5 min walk to main street with tons of restaurants, stores and travel agencies.
We had room 4, which is a small room with one window looking into the courtyard and a small bathroom.
There is no TV in the room, liquid hand soap in a dispenser and a large bottle of shampoo was provided. The shower has a low water pressure and you only get hot water if you let it run for several minutes.
There is 1 Chilean double power outlet near the 2 beds and a small closet. The room comes with 2 chairs and a small table. The door has cracks and allows the room to cool out at night and heat up during the day. There is a fan in the room, but no heating or air conditioning. The window can be opened; there is no mosquito net to keep insects out.
Breakfast was included; it is available from 7:30-9:30am. It consists of 3-4 Chilean breakfast rolls, hot water, hot and cold milk, a fruit juice (sometimes orange, sometimes pineapple), 3 types of sliced sausages (bologna and ham and salami), sliced cheese, 2 types of cereal and strawberry and peach yogurt, dry muffins, crackers and cookies. They have a good selection of tea bags incl coca tea and instant coffee powder. On the breakfast table are typically also bananas, an apple and a mandarine. There is also a TV in the breakfast room.
Every evening, we were asked if we eat breakfast in the breakfast room of leave early (the El Tatio tours start at around 5am). On the day we left early, they gave us a bag with 4 energy bars and 2 apples.
Wifi is fast and very reliable!
Room cleaning is only before noon. They gave us fresh high quality towels every day, except for 1 day where we started late and asked them to not make our room and on day 2 where they forgot to make our room.
You only get 1 room key and that only fits in the door to your room. Most of the time when we got back to the hotel, we had to ring the door bell and they let us in within a few seconds.
There is limited parking in town. You can, however, park your car on the opposite side of the street in front of the hostal.
The room was clean, but had a smell on the first day. The building had a corrugated metal roof and you will hear some klicking noise from it throughout the day (and night).
Nobody speaks English, so make sure to have a translation app handy if you don't speak Spanish.