By Allie Almario
Chile is a very popular destination for those adventurers seeking the wild and the wonderful, the remote and the scenic. And tucked away in Northern Chile is one of the most stunning deserts in the world, the Atacama. To some, it resembles Mars, so not surprisingly, NASA used this desolate location for testing some of its equipment for projects on its mission to Mars.
PRO TIP: To get to the Atacama Desert, fly from Santiago, Chile to Calama, a quick two-hour flight (a popular choice is LATAM airlines). From the airport, it’s about a 90-minute to two-hour drive to the small village of San Pedro de Atacama, the main adventure hub in the desert and where most accommodations are located. Try to arrive early in the day to take advantage of the scenic drive to your hotel.
The Atacama Desert
Known primarily as being the oldest and driest non-polar place on earth, the Atacama receives less than 1 mm of rainfall per year. There are even spot areas in the desert that have no recorded rainfall — ever.
Its location in the shadows to the west of the Andean mountains blocks moisture from reaching the desert. As a plus, this means that the weather here stays relatively mild year-round. Temperatures average 60-65 degrees.
Astronomy buffs flock to the Atacama. Because of its high altitude (16,570 feet) and dry weather, two of the world’s top observatories are located here on the plateau. Even better, the desert averages 300+ cloud-free nights annually. The ALMA (Atacama Large Millimenter Array) has just over 65 telescopes run by a cadre of international scientific organizations. At the European Space Observatory, scientists have discovered some of the solar system’s most important data using one of the world’s largest telescopes.
Hiking in the Atacama is a must. Set aside at least half a day to explore the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna). Trek among the reddish hues of the mountains, eerie rock formations and never-ending vistas. You’ll never find large crowds here. It’s best to schedule the Valley of the Moon towards the mid-afternoon so you can end the day watching the sunset.
El Tatio Geysers
Another must is the El Tatio Geysers. You may balk at the 4:00 AM wake-up call, but we promise it’s well worth it. The early departure is timed so that you can have a wonderful outdoor breakfast before you walk among the amazing geysers, which tend to erupt before 10:00 AM. Dress warmly! It’s surprisingly chilly that early in the morning.
It helps that your next stop is usually the hot natural springs, located not too far away from the geysers. Pack a towel and a bathing suit, then find a spot to take a dip in among the different small pools to float in the waters. It’s a rare and heavenly treat!
Explorations around the rugged landscapes and salt flats mean you might find remnants of abandoned adobe churches, caves with preserved petroglyphs, flocks of flamingos or lagoons tucked away in remote valleys. Most excursions are in four-wheel vehicles, so prepare for some long, bouncy, dusty rides on mostly dirt trails.
As for lodging, you will find spectacular all-inclusive luxury resorts that offer everything from heated pools, outdoor showers, massages (a treat after a day of hiking!), and gourmet restaurants. Less expensive, three-star small hotel options are located among the unpaved streets of the village where gift shops and restaurants offer unusual treats (llama-stuffed empenadas, anyone?). Many of the hotels are built as adobe buildings, with natural woods incorporated into eco-friendly designs that blend in well with local surroundings.
PRO TIP: You can travel almost any time of the year to the Atacama, but we like to recommend shoulder seasons – September to November or March to May. You’ll find pleasant temperatures, less people and perhaps some special hotel offers.