This post belongs to the South America Natural Wonders series, in which we will cover many South America destinations that are worth visiting because of their natural beauty. In the first entry we’ve told you everything about one Argentina’s most important coastal nature reserve: Peninsula Valdes. Second up Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert covers more than 40,000 square miles in the northern half of Chile, mostly consisting of endless sand, rocks and salt flats. That does not mean it’s not also one of the most interesting and impressive places to see in the world. A visit to the Atacama Desert is a spectacular highlight on all tours to Chile.
With the desert continuing right up to the Pacific Ocean the few cities that are located in the region tend to be directly on the coast with the almost sole exception of San Pedro de Atacama which is located around a rare oasis. San Pedro de Atacama is a small oasis in the middle of the spectacular Atacama Desert, its location makes San Pedro de Atacama the perfect stop in northern Chile. From here the Salar de Atacama, El Tatio Geysers and Valle de la Luna are just a short drive away. The town itself is not more than a small network of streets, lined with adobe buildings and a postcard-perfect church. These beautiful churches are a very typical element in villages throughout the whole Northern Argentinean and Atacama region.
Average rainfall in the Atacama can be as little as 0.04 inches per year and some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. According to the New York Times Almanac there is even evidence to suggest that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971. Things can sometimes change however and in 2011 an extreme cold front from the Antarctic brought more than 30 inches of snow to the Atacama in a few days making for a unique and probably never to be repeated sight for the few lucky visitors who managed to be in the region at the time.
Because of its high altitude, little light pollution and almost nonexistent clouds, the Atacama Desert is one of the prime locations for astronomical observatories like the European Southern Observatory in Paranal, south of the city of Antofagasta. Don’t worry, the Atacama Desert isn’t only intriguing at night time, there’re several other interesting landscapes and national parks to be visited during your tour to San Pedro de Atacama.
Salar de Atacama
Covering an area of 3000km2, the Salar de Atacama is also known as the country’s largest salt flat. The Salar is ringed by volcanoes and impressive lagoons teaming with unexpected wildlife like flamingoes and many other birds.
El Tatio Geysers
The Atacama Desert is one of many extremes and so are its most important sights. The Tatio Geysers are with 4300m world’s highest geyser field. The best time to climb this high-altitude geyser field is during the morning. The sounds and hissing and gurgling steam and the wide variation of colors created by the first sun rays that shine on the landscape make this to an unforgettable visit.
Valle de la Luna
Whereas the El Tatio Geyser field is best to be visited during morning time, the landscape of eroded salt mountains of the Valle de la Luna gets really impressive and photogenic at sunset. This weird collection of rock formations may be found strange by some, but it thanks its name to the lunar-like forms that are eroded by eons of water and wind.