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Atacama Desert
Travel Guide


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Atacama desert at a glance

Experience a place unlike any other in the high, arid plains of northern Chile. Where this thin, coastal sliver of the South American Pacific meets Bolivia’s border is a seemingly impossible landscape, an otherworldly realm where the land appears to marry the moon, the stars and all the layers that hide beneath the surface of the earth. This is the Atacama Desert, a remote wilderness that captivates visitors with its vast desert plains, volcanic peaks, glistening white salt flats, undulating pink and orange rock and sand formations, icy turquoise lagoons and idyllic beaches. Atacama’s greatest secret is that, despite appearing deserted and inhospitable, it’s actually home to a surprising array of wildlife, flora and fauna. The Chinchorro, an ancient culture that traded with the Inca in Peru, also called the Atacama home nearly 8000 years ago, their legacy visible in the mummies that remain.

Our Atacama desert Experts Recommend:

  • Explore the Moon Valley
  • Altiplanic Lagoon & Atacama Salt Lake
  • Tatio Geysers & Natural Hot Springs
  • Puritama Hot Springs

Experiences around Bariloche

What not to miss

The Atacama Desert has many stunning sights to visit during your stay. The town of San Pedro de Atacama is the starting point for many on their journey into this lunar-like desert, and this genuine oasis has been a beacon of civilization for many years in this harsh and barren land. San Pedro has now grown into a central hub for the area, from where people undertake their adventures to this ethereal corner of the universe to marvel at its wonders. Some of the region’s highlights are the Moon Valley and the El Tatio geysers. The Moon Valley, or Valle de la Luna in Spanish, is part of the Salt Mountain range and one of the most unique places in the world. Low peaks formed from salt and clay rise in sloping spikes from the desert floor, forming walls in some parts that are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, minus the water - incredibly, rain has never, ever been recorded in some parts of this highland desert. The El Tatio geysers are another unmissable spot in Atacama. Located at 4,200m.a.s.l., these are some of the highest geysers in the world, as well as being the world’s third largest collection of geysers. For both the Moon Valley and the geysers, it is best to visit them in the morning, when you can sit and watch the jaw-dropping sunrise illuminate this cosmic landscape. A trip to Atacama would not be complete without visiting the Altiplanic Lagoons, where you will pass through abandoned mining villages up in the highlands, take in the glittering sight of the salt flats and see some curiously coloured bodies of water with clusters of pink flamingos standing at their edge.

Explore the Moon Valley

This fantastic excursion allows you to discover the Salt Mountain range and the fabulous views it offers over the valley. Visit the Mars or Death Valley with its spectacular scenery and intriguing rock formations before continuing to the “Three Marias” an interesting geological formation located next to a former salt mine. At dusk, climb a large sand dune in the Moon Valley for spectacular views of the sunset over the Andes Mountains.

Altiplanic Lagoon & Atacama Salt Lake

Leaving your hotel from San Pedro de Atacama, relax for a scenic drive to one of the world’s largest salt flats, arriving at the Chaxa Lagoon, a spectacular section of the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flats) that lies within the Reserva Nacional Los Flamenocs (The Flamingos National Reserve). Explore the area for approximately an hour, capturing the vibrant color of flamingos on film. Home to a diverse variety of wildlife, you’re sure to spot some fascinating creatures during your stop. Continue on to the Miscanti and Miniques Lagoons, volcanic bodies of water situated at an elevation of 13,780 feet (4,200 meters). Created by the cooling of molten lava, the lagoons provide a visual spectacle with their dramatic landscape and volcanic backdrop; explore the area on foot during a relaxed stop in the area. Next, travel to the provincial village of Socaire to feast upon local specialties inspired by regional produce. Famed for its unrivalled culinary skills, the restaurant provides an appetizer, main course, desert and drink that is sure to pleasure the palate. Revitalized, venture to the village of Toconao; admire the quaint village church and browse the craft shops for artisan treasures before returning to San Pedro de Atacama.

Tatio Geysers & Natural Hot Springs

This excursion promises thrilling observations of the astounding natural wonders of the geothermal field of El Tatio. Depart from your hotel before dawn and enjoy the desert sunrise during a scenic 2-hour trip north. Arrive at the geyser field as the sun completes its ascent and casts a spectacular glow over one of the biggest geothermal fields in the world. We will be able to observe the huge steam columns that rise to the sky that are best appreciated in the cold dawn air as the sun rises over the Andes. You will set off on guided walks along the mud craters and small bubbling geysers that will make you feel like you’re on a trip to Mars. Optionally you can soothe your muscles in the warming waters of a natural hot spring. Plunge into the inviting 95°F (35°C) water to combat the 40°F (5°C) temperature outside; change into your bathing suit then enjoy a relaxing 50 minutes in the pool. On our way back to San Pedro, we will stop off at Machuca village, a picturesque shepherd’s village located at more than 4,000 meters (13,120 feet).

Puritama Hot Springs

Once a sacred spot for the Incas, the Puritama springs now belong to Hotel Explora’s five star resort, located at the bottom of a canyon in the foothills of the Andes, at 3.200 meters. Due to volcanic activity further up, warm water seeps out of the rock face and over the centuries a series of jacuzzi-style pools have been formed, inviting the visitor to a relaxing soak. Surrounded by the brown-red canyon walls, blue skies and green vegetation that make up the austere environment of the Atacama desert, the water of these natural spas is said to have healing qualities. As the blinding sun hits the pools of water and shady spots scarce, Puritama should only be used as a two or three hour option to recharge batteries in between tours and travel. The Puritama Hot Springs may be visited mornings and afternoons, subject to weather conditions.

Fast Facts on Atacama desert

USEFUL TRAVELER INFORMATION

This section is a quick overview to help in planning your trip to Atacama desert.

When to go

The Atacama Desert is a land of extremes, and this too is true of the temperatures. Temperatures in the desert fluctuate wildly from day to night, with daytime temperatures sometimes soaring to 40º C (104º F), then plummeting at night to 5º C (41º F). The desert gets an incredible amount of sunny days throughout the year, with almost 90% of days enjoying full sunlight. As this is the driest place on earth, rain-averse travelers will rejoice in knowing that the chance of rain during your stay is highly unlikely. The best time to visit the desert is in summer between December and February, but this is also when crowds are largest and prices are highest. The extremely low temperatures during winter put many travelers off, but you will have the area to yourself if you decide to visit between June and September.

How to get there

Practically every visitor to the Atacama Desert will first stop in the town of San Pedro de Atacama before commencing their journey to this otherworldly region. Flights operate from Santiago to Calama, the closest city to San Pedro and the flight time is around two hours. Alternatively, there are many buses that go to San Pedro, but the travel time is long and the trip is not the most comfortable. This is the most economic way, but not at all hassle free. Just speak to one of our travel experts and they can advise you on what the best way to get to the desert is depending on your travel goals.

Infrastructure

Given San Pedro de Atacama’s remote location and position as one of the top three destinations in Chile means that tourism providers in the area can charge what they like, so it is quite an expensive destination. Having said that, it can provide an opportunity to indulge in staying in a nice hotel and availing of its facilities. Most of the hotels and attractions of the town are within walking distance in the centre. However, it will be necessary to join a tour or hire private transport to take you into the desert itself, but just speak to one of our travel experts and they can advise you on the best option for you.

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