Where to go

Atacama Desert

The famously arid desert of the Atacama is the main draw to the area.

Volcanoes in the Atacama Desert
Volcanoes in the Atacama Desert

Along with the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, there is no doubt that the Atacama Desert is one of the huge draws for anyone considering a trip to Chile. This vast and arid region, stretching 600 miles south from the Peruvian border, is known as one of the driest places on the planet and, it has been reported, there are regions in the Atacama that have not seen a drop of water in over 300 years! With stunning scenery, and plenty of walking to be done, this is somewhere that needs to be seen to be believed.

On the whole, for those tourists that are keen to see the Atacama Desert, the best place to head for is the small, adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama. Once a subsistence village, used as a base for salt extraction, it was "discovered" in the 70s by archaeologists that were studying mummified remains in the volcanoes that overlook the Atacama region to the east. Word quickly spread of its beauty and the many things to see and do in the area and, today, it is a town very much on the move.

San Pedro de Atacama has a few sites of interest, in particular the small square with one of the oldest churches in this area of the world, still featuring the original cactus wood roof that is traditional in the area. For those into history, San Pedro also has a small museum where it is possible to see some of the archaeological finds that were made in the region…although the main mummies etc that were found here have long been moved across the border to the remarkable MAAM museum in Salta, Argentina.

The Atacama Desert itself is actually a high plateau (the average altitude is 2,240m) that sits between the towering Andes and the Coastal Cordillera. It is this nestled position that has meant that much of the potential moisture from the Pacific has already fallen on the western side of the slopes and thus never makes it across to this bleak and parched place.

There are a great many activities and locations to take in while in the Atacama, the best of which are outlined below:

Valle de la luna

Actually located within the boundaries of the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, the Valle de la Luna does exactly what it says on the tin. The valley is made up of a series of remarkably formed rocks and flowing sand dunes that give an ethereal and “moon-like” quality.

For many, the attraction of coming here is to see the changing colours as the sun sets over the Atacama…but, in our opinion, there is plenty to see and do here and it is also well worth heading here out of this period in order to have this strange place all to yourself.

Reserva Nacional los Flamencos

Officially a much larger area than just the salt flats and the small lagoons that make up the central area, this is, none-the-less one of the best afternoon trips in and around the Atacama Desert. As the sun sets over the western mountains a kaleidoscope of colour is thrown across the Andes to the east.

While it is not as impressively “white” as the Salars in nearby Bolivia, the Atacama salt deposits are still the third largest in the world and, at its centre, interlinking lagoons provide feeding grounds for the many different sub-species of flamingo that live here.

El Tatio Geysers

Probably one of the longest day trips out of any of the hotels (at approx 8 hours), a drive up to the Tatio Geysers is a very early get up…but it is well worth it. The 2 and a half hour drive up into the Andes as the sun is beginning to rise is, in itself, a superb experience. At around 4,400m in altitude, the temperatures at 730am are still well below freezing which provides the ultimate contrast of the hot geysers against the clear blue of the sky.

Walking

There is an absolute wealth of both difficult and easy walks to be done all around the Atacama Desert. For those that are more adventurous it is possible to scale the Toco volcano that surveys the Bolivian altiplano and the Atacama Salt flat to the south…right through to less tricky, but no less rewarding, explorations into giant cacti studded ravines or walking to salt filled pools. There is certainly something for everyone here and we defy you to try and cover it all in even a week!

Other activities

There is a very good reason that the Atacama Desert has become so popular…and it is because there is simply so much to see and do…all with a spectacular backdrop throughout! Again, every ability level is catered to and, considering the altitude, it is worth bearing in mind that many of the activities will tire you out so you may decide just to relax and get a massage at times!

When to go to the Atacama Desert:

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    At a glance…The Atacama Desert

  • Size: 105,000 sq km
  • Location: North Eastern Chile
  • Recommended time: 3 to 6 nights
  • Time to visit: July to March
  • Go here for: Nature and walking
  • Further reading...

  • › Top 5 Things to Do in the Atacama Desert
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