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The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is a beautifully desolate, dramatic landscape. Sandwiched between the Andes and the Chilean coastal range, the Atacama Desert receives little to no rainfall and is one of the driest places in the world, resulting in other-worldly terrain. Some parts of the region resemble the surface of Mars while the area west of San Pedro de Atacama is known as the Valley of the Moon. There is so much to see and do in the 140,000km square area, drawing in thousands of visitors each year. Find out the best time to visit the Atacama Desert, so that you can start planning a trip to this amazing destination on your next Chile trip.
- The Atacama Desert is one of the driest regions on the earth; just to get some perspective — it is 50 times drier than the Death Valley in California. Some areas of the desert have not seen any rainfall in over 400 years.
- Its unique location between two mountain ranges is responsible for the extreme aridness; the desert lies entirely in a rain shadow region and the ocean currents and winds from the Pacific blow cold dry air further into the Atacama Desert.
- High season: December – February (Summer)
The most popular season for visiting the Atacama Desert are the summer months of December, January, and February. The pleasant day temperatures and warmer nights make for a wonderful time to explore the desert.
- Low season: June – August (Winter)
Winter brings low night temperatures and the possibility of winter storms, making the months from June to August less ideal for a visit to the Atacama Desert.
- Shoulder season: September – November (Spring) / March – May (Fall)
Fall and spring in the Atacama Desert are shoulder seasons accompanied by good temperatures and fewer tourists.
Here is a closer look at the various seasons:
December to February / high season
High season in the Atacama Desert means perfect temperatures but lots of visitors. The temperatures are magnificent for spending a day in the dry desert and the sky is exceptionally clear. Most visitors make the oasis region of San Pedro de Atacama their base and the area’s few hotels are often expensive and full in the high season. Guided tours are difficult to come by, as most of the tours to Atacama Desert book up fast.
- Average temperature: 5 – 24° C (41 – 74° F)
- Season: Dry / summer
- Highlights: High season is the perfect time to visit the majority of tourist sites in the Atacama Desert. The night sky is clearest in the summer and offers spectacular stargazing opportunities. Visitors should expect crowds at most sites.
July to September / low season
Winter is the low season with below freezing temperatures recorded at night. However, winter sometimes brings afternoon rains and the desert landscape blooms with 200 different species of endemic flowers.
- Average temperature: -1 – 20° C (30 – 69° F)
- Season: Dry / winter
- Highlights: Low night temperatures are perhaps the biggest downfall for a visit to the Atacama during this season. Sought after activities like seeing the sunset in the Moon Valley are followed by below freezing drop in temperatures; making winter less than ideal for a visit. Also, Altiplanic winter can bring rainy afternoons and thunderstorms.
September to November and March to May / shoulder season
The months from September to November and March to May are considered shoulder season for visiting the Atacama Desert. These seasons are best to take advantage of pleasant temperatures and desert atmosphere.
- Average temperature: 2 – 22° C (71 – 36° F)
- Season: Dry / spring & fall
- Highlights: Shoulder season is a perfect time to visit Atacama because of the lower number of tourists. The temperature doesn’t go below freezing at night and is best suited for night activities like star-gazing and night photography. Visitors can enjoy the silence and stillness of the desert and tourist sites like the hot geysers away from the crowds in the high season.
Apart from being the driest desert, Atacama is also one of the oldest deserts in the world. The area has been dry for more than 40 million years and the dramatic landscape is without greenery, buildings, infrastructure or pollution. A photographer’s dream and a traveler’s paradise, Atacama’s mesmerizing landscape is sure to delight even the most experienced of travelers. Summer is undoubtedly the best time to visit the Atacama Desert to get the most out it, and its popular activities. However, considering the shoulder season for a fantastic holiday in the desert isn’t a bad idea either.