The northern tip of Chile, the Atacama Desert and its surroundings, offers a fantastic setting for a road trip, particularly off-road. The Pan American Highway crosses the region from north to south with tarmac roads dissecting the Atacama Desert, the Pampa del Tamarugo and Chile’s Altiplano.
But what better way to experience the overpowering landscapes and to meet Aymara indigenous people in their ancient villages than by leaving the beaten track. Whether you travel by your own vehicle, rent a 4WD or an all-terrain vehicle, enjoy this beautiful road trip.
An Atacama Desert Road Trip – Iquique – Colchane – Volcano Isluga National Park – Iquique
This trip roughly covers 680 kilometers and takes two or three days.
Type of Car – A 4-wheel-drive or 2-wheel-drive?
Large parts of this trip are no problem driving with a regular two-wheel-drive vehicle. The asphalt is of good quality and also parts of the tracks in the Volcano Isluga National Park are doable with a regular vehicle. However, parts of the Quebrada de Aroma and Volcan Isluga National Park may demand a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle.
One never knows what the weather may do, or has done. Especially during the summer months (Dec-March) rain on the Altiplano may cause floodings that may be destroy roads and tracks. Especially during these months check with the traffic police (carabineros) or CONAF headquarters about road conditions.
If you don’t travel with your private vehicle, rent a car in Iquique, a town with many car rental agencies offering a wide range of cars, vans and pick-ups. Ask the rental company if they have a detailed map of the region. Other options may be to buy a ap at a gas station or bookstore, or to visit the Tourist Information (Sernatur) at Anibal Pinto 436 and ask for their regional brochures and maps. (Paper maps, I believe, still give a better impression of a full region than the online versions.)
Stage 1 – Atacama Desert Road Trip – Iquique to Humberstone
From the center of Iquique, the road quickly ascends into the dunes of the Atacama Desert. Fifty kilometers east are the ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura. Both nitrate mines are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a visit is recommended.
Stage 2 – Atacama Desert Road Trip – Geoglyphs & Petroglyphs
About thirty kilometers north of Humberstone lies Huara, and a short detour of 14 kilometers eastward on Ruta A55 takes you to Chile’s largest anthropomorphic geoglyph: the Giant of Atacama. Worth to check out!
A geoglyph is a large design or motif (generally longer than 4 meters) produced on the ground and typically formed by clastic rocks or similarly durable elements of the landscape, such as stones, stone fragments, gravel, or earth.from: Wikipedia
Return to Ruta 5 and drive north, traversing the Atacama Desert until a sign indicates Ariguilda. The right turn leads into the Aroma Canyon, which is a fabulous landscape with a kaleidoscope of colors and a pure joy to drive through. A sign indicates where you can find petroglyphs. Time to get out of the car and explore for a bit on foot and clamber around the rock faces in search of these testimonies of the past. Easy to identify are the lizards, horses, and llamas.
A petroglyph is an image created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, or abrading, as a form of rock art. Outside North America, scholars often use terms such as “carving”, “engraving”, or other descriptions of the technique to refer to such images.from: Wikipedia
Stage 3 – Atacama Desert Road Trip – Puchuldiza Hot Geysers & National Park Volcano Isluga
The road meanders through the canyon with a stream running at the bottom and cacti growing high in the dry mountains – an intriguing contrast in landscapes. The road reaches an altitude of about 2500 meters, after which it passes through the ancient towns of Iyalla, Jaiña, Chiapa. Check out the old buildings and churches, shaded by few trees. From Chiapa the road leads to the asphalted A55 to Colchane.
A recommended side trip along the way is to the Puchuldiza (4200 meters), to visit the hot geysers. It lies left of the highway into the hinterland. Tip: take take a hot bath. We wild camped here, which was tough at that high altitude but the light and sprouting springs were amazing at sunrise.
Stage 4 – Atacama Desert Road Trip – Puchuldiza Hot Geysers & National Park Volcano Isluga to Colchane
Before reaching Colchane, take a left to check out the ceremonial village** of Isluga. Colchane is a town near the border with Bolivia and lies at 3711 meters – you are now deep in the Andes Mountains. From here drive southeast and visit the ceremonial village of Caraguano (thermal bath). The highest pass lies at 4600 meters, where you can pay your respect to the Pachamama Shrine. From here the path meanders down through more mind-blowing scenery of streams, grasslands meandering through grasslands with grazing alpacas.
** A ceremonial is a village largely or entirely deserted; people have left for a better life on the coast or a city and only return occasionally for a local festivity or ceremony.
Stage 5 – Atacama Desert Road Trip – Completing the Circle to Iquique
After leaving the park, you reach a valley in a canyon called Comuna de Camiña. Here several villages make a living from agriculture and sell their surplus in Iquique. After so much barren landscape the valley is incredibly green. Soon you are back on the asphalt and the trip to Iquique is just straight ahead.
Practical Information on an Atacama Road Trip
- The Atacama Desert is empty and safe; we had no problem finding a place for wild camping and felt safe.
- What to bring:
- Enough fuel, finding a petrol (or a gas station) along the way is minimal.
- Camping equipment or rent a car in which it is possible to sleep. (Colchane offers accommodation).
- While it can be hot during the day, expect temperatures to drop at night, especially at night, so bring enough warm clothes.
- Stock up on water and food because the villages along the way may not have any supplies. Whereas some travelers have no problem drinking water from the tap, or from the springs found on the Altiplano (high plains, others may prefer to buy bottled water or – better and be nice to the environment – bring a water filter.
- Rent a car in Iquique, a town with many car rental agencies offering a wide range of cars, vans and pick-ups. Although in Colchane, you are right on the border with Bolivia, note that Chilean car rental companies generally don’t allow crossing borders – check the small print before doing so.
- If you want to learn more about traveling in Chile (or the rest of the world) in your own vehicle, check out my other website, landcruisingadventure.com, which is dedicated to overlanding (= independent, long-term travel with private vehicle).
Additional Reading (North & Central Chile):
- Touring the World’s Largest Copper Mine in Chuquicamata, Chile
- Visiting the Ghost Towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura (Chile)
- The Andacollo Festival in Chile
- Stargazing in Chile – Cerro Mamalluca