If you’re planning a trip to South America this year, you’ve got a lot of amazing options when considering destinations. But if you’re looking to be totally wowed by natural wonders, the choices generally come down to two places: Patagonia vs Atacama Desert.
Patagonia has breathtaking mountains, endless steppes, unusual wildlife, and stunning glaciers and icefields. It’s home to Torres del Paine, the most visited national park in Patagonia, and Los Glaciares, home of the Perito Moreno glacier. Its natural landscapes are some of the most beautiful in the world.
The Atacama Desert is equally stunning, but in entirely different ways. Vast salt flats, lunar-like landscapes, active geysers, and crystal-clear blue lagoons occupy about 600 square miles in Atacama in northern Chile.
Wondering which one is right for you? Answer the following questions to help narrow down your choice—then let us know in the comments where you want to go.
How long can you stay in Patagonia vs Atacama?
If you have just a week or less, your best bet is to choose just one or the other. There are so many sights and experiences in each destination, you really can’t do both in such a short time.
In a 7-day overland safari of Patagonia, for example, you can visit Los Glaciares National Park, explore the Patagonian steppe on horseback, go ice trekking on the Perito Moreno glacier, and have four days to see the countless amazing sights at Torres del Paine National Park. Of course, if you can do the 9-day option, you’ll have extra time to explore Puerto Natales and the Fjord of Last Hope, but you can get a taste of Patagonia in seven.
Another option, especially if you visit during winter months, the “secret season,” is to spend a week tracking pumas in Patagonia with our expert guides. Winter is prime wildlife viewing season and your best chance to catch a glimpse of these amazing cats. And it’s a great way to get to know the secret side of Patagonia and Torres del Paine.
You can do Atacama in four or five days—you can see the El Tatio geysers, the sparkling altiplanic lagoons, Moon Valley, and Death Valley, and still have time for other excursions. The great thing is that, if you have 10-12 days, you can easily see both. You can start with a few days in the Atacama Desert and then travel on to Chilean Patagonia and end your journey in Argentina on a 7-day Patagonia safari.
Do you have a passion for wildlife?
Patagonia is famous for its diverse wildlife — the pumas, the guanacos, the deer, and the culpeo foxes, amazing birds like the rhea, the massive Andean condor, and the colorful flamingos, and an endless array of fish and reptiles. It’s an amazing place for a wildlife photo safari.
There are animals in Atacama, but there is far less biodiversity than in Patagonia because of the harsh conditions in the desert. It’s one of the driest places in the world, averaging much less than an inch of rain per year. You may encounter the occasional rodent or fox, a vicuňa or two, and a variety of interesting birds, but if wildlife is what draws you, Atacama may disappoint.
On the other hand, if stargazing excites you, there’s nothing like the night skies in the Atacama Desert. It has the clearest skies on earth, and in fact, the Alma Observatory, the largest astronomy project in the world, is based in the Chilean desert.
What type of outdoor adventures do you prefer?
In Patagonia, pretty much anything goes. You can hike—everything from easy day hikes anyone can handle to the most demanding climbs in Torres del Paine’s rugged terrain. You can ride horses across the Patagonian steppe, ice trek over a glacier (or kayak Grey Lake through the “iceberg graveyard”), try your hand at fly fishing, go zip-lining at Cerro Frias, catalog the birds at Laguna Nimez, or even hunt for fossils, just to name a few.
In the Atacama Desert, you can also go horseback riding, ride a bicycle through Moon Valley, try your luck sand boarding down the sand dunes, float in a saltwater lagoon, trek across a geyser field, hike through Death Valley, and enjoy the best stargazing of your life.
The outdoor adventurer in you will be happy in either destination, but there’s more variety in Patagonia.
What natural sights excite you the most?
There’s really no comparing the natural landscapes of Patagonia and Atacama. Patagonia’s national parks are stunning and diverse. Bordered by the southern Andes and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and filled with rivers, lakes, and streams, Patagonia has everything from arid deserts to rain forests and everything in between.
You can find lush fields and fjords, and barren pampas-covered steppes. There are stark, snow-capped mountains and eerily beautiful glaciers and ice fields. It’s a place to delight everyone from solo travelers to families.
Atacama is less diverse but no less beautiful in its own way. You’ll see endless salt flats, seemingly extraterrestrial peaks and valleys in Moon Valley and Death Valley, miles of alluring and ever-changing sand dunes, and the unexpected blue of the altiplanic lagoons. And there’s nothing like the night skies in Atacama.
Ultimately, though, you don’t have to choose!
Let’s be honest—for most people, a trip to Patagonia vs Atacama desert is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Why not just do it all? In 12 days, you can get to know the best of Patagonia—and explore the Atacama Desert. You can even add a few days to enjoy an urban escape in Santiago or Buenos Aires, or a weekend in Chile’s charming Wine Valley, and make it an amazing full two-week tour.
If time is not an issue, and you’ve got a few extra days, add in a trip to Iguazu or Easter Island or Ushuaia, the city at the end of the world.”
The point is, you really don’t have to choose—it’s possible to create your own custom itinerary and see everything on your South American bucket list.
Ready for your own South American adventure?
Is Patagonia calling your name this year? It’s the perfect time to plan your trip—and we have some great Patagonia travel deals (including some last-minute specials if you’re ready to go now). Why not get in touch today and see how easy it is to bring your dream trip to life?
If you’re not quite ready to book, but want to learn more about planning a trip to Patagonia vs Atacama, sign up to our 100% free email course. You’ll learn everything you need to know about planning a South American adventure and deciding between Patagonia vs Atacama… or both!