Covering 286 square miles (740 square kilometres), Los Flamencos National Reserve (Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos) is home to some of the most stunning scenery in the Atacama Desert. Between the Andes and Chile’s Pacific coast, the park has glittering salt flats, wind-sculpted moonscapes, and high-altitude lagoons surrounded by wild flamingos.
Los Flamencos National Reserve includes different protected zones around the Atacama Desert region: the salt lakes of Pujsa, Tara, and Aguas Calientes; the Altiplano lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques; Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna); the tamarugo forests of Tambillo; and vast Atacama Salt Lake.
Most visitors opt to explore the reserve on a day tour from San Pedro de Atacama. With its dramatic landscapes, Moon Valley is the most popular destination, with most tours stopping at the Great Dune to watch the sunset. Full-day tours also run to the salt flats and lagoons, offering plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities, and stop at desert towns like Toconao or Socaire along the way.
Things to Know Before You Go
Pack sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water as there’s little shade in the desert, but bring warm clothing for the evening hours too, as temperatures can drop quickly, even in summer.
Most of the desert roads are unpaved and the terrain uneven, so a 4WD is advisable, and comfortable walking shoes are a must.
Cell phone service is scarce throughout the desert, and Wi-Fi is only available at a few hotels in San Pedro de Atacama.
How to Get to There
Most people visit Los Flamencos National Reserve from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. There’s no public transport to the valley itself, although taxis, shared taxis, and tours run from here. The closest airport is in Calama, from which buses run to San Pedro de Atacama, 60 miles (98 kilometers) away. You can rent cars in town, but to explore farther than Moon Valley, it’s most convenient to hire a guide or join a tour.
When to Get There
The most popular time to explore is during the summer months (December–February). Winter (June–August) visits can be equally rewarding, although temperatures can plummet below freezing at night. When to visit depends on what you want to see—Moon Valley is most impressive at sunset, while morning and late afternoon are the best time to spot birdlife around the lagoons.
Wildlife of Los Flamencos National Reserve
Los Flamencos National Reserve takes its name from its huge number of wild flamingos, and there are three different species to spot—Chilean, James’s, and Andean flamingos. There is also an abundance of other bird life, especially around the lakes, including hawks, swallows, Andean seagulls, condors, and rhea. Other common sightings include vicunas, culpeo foxes, and viscachas.