MOON VALLEY AND DEATH VALLEY
Probably the most photographed geological wonder of the Atacama, with its mystical rock formations and Mars-like landscape, this is on absolutely everyone's list. It's generally a late afternoon tour in order to catch the sunset over the canyon, and it's only about 20 minutes' drive out of San Pedro, so easy to squeeze into any itinerary. For the energetic, you can grab a map, hire bicycles in town and pedal out there. Unmissable and unforgettable.
This tour has a pre-dawn start, which means you'll be braving sub-zero temperatures until the sun comes up, so rug up. The reward is the sight of boiling water jets gushing up to 10 metres high from the belly of the earth amid clouds of steam. If you've never seen geysers before, then definitely make this your first experience. It's the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere, located 4320 metres above sea level, and framed by volcanic peaks.
RED STONES, ALTIPLANIC LAGOONS & SALAR SALT FLATS
This full-day tour was an absolute highlight for me, the scenery a combination of salt flats, wetlands, turquoise lakes, volcanoes, a road that hugs the snow-capped Andes and the final breathtaking destination: the surreal red landscape known as Piedras Rojas juxtaposed against the piercing white salt flats, azure blue lagoon and mountains in the background. The whole day is just one giant feast for the senses.
As the tour doesn't start until about 8pm or 9pm, it's an easy one to fit into a packed schedule. There are various tour operators, as it seems any budding astronomer with the funds to buy a powerful telescope can set themselves up, so research your options carefully. Away from the lights of town in the darkness of the desert, the sky is a blazing carpet of stars. It was fascinating to see planets like Jupiter, the largest in the solar system, up close. Even in shoulder season (autumn and spring our time), it's freezing at night, so pack on the layers.
This half-day tour takes you back a good way along the main highway you travelled if you flew into the nearest airport, Calama, so that was a bit disconcerting to start with, given the rather bland desert landscape. But once you take the turn-off to Valle del Arcoiris, things pick up. You'll see herds of guanacos (South America's native llama), as you wend your way through the windy sealed roads leading down into the valley. It's pretty "off road" from there, but you'll enjoy breakfast nestled among rock formations sporting vibrant reds, browns, purples, greens and yellows. It's an intriguing rainbow formed by mineral deposits.
CEJAR & TEBENQUICHE LAGOONS
You can't come all the way to the Atacama and not experience the odd sensation of floating on top of a salt lagoon. Cejar has change rooms and showers – and you certainly need them, because after 20 minutes soaking in sodium and lithium I was stinging! This late afternoon tour concludes at the vast salt flats of Tebenquiche, where flamingos feed on the shore of the lagoon and the sunset casts russet shadows across the salt crystals, grasslands and mountains beyond. A spectacular finale.
Isobel King travelled at her own expense.