Atacama Desert | Chile

[ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE] — I am seriously months (and many countries) behind on posts; damn work keeps getting in the way. So forgive me, dear reader, as I try to catch up…..

The Atacama Desert. Good lord. I’ve read about it, saw films about it, including this remarkable one, and was just totally consumed with getting there.  So I combined it with a Fire & Ice Tour of both the Atacama and Patagonia, with layovers in Santiago.

Nestled in the upper right corner of Chile, one of the longest and skinniest countries in the world, is this freak of nature — the driest place on our planet, only  few hundred miles from the Pacific, where some places have no registered rainfall since they started measuring such things, over 400 years. It is a remarkable place, unlike any other, with landscapes like the surface of the moon. In fact, they have even practiced for Mars exploration vehicles here in the Atacama.

Butted right up against the Andes and a string of a dozen or so volcanoes that make of the Ring of Fire, the altitude quickly goes from nothing to 16,000 ft. It has it’s own microclimates, from section to section, so you get to see lots of different ecosystems — from barren lunar landscapes to salt flats and flamingos to hot spring oases, to steam-spewing geysers at 12,000 feet above sea level — so it’s not just some boring stretch of miles of sand dunes.  It can be surprisingly cold or super hot, all in a single day. There is almost zero humidity so, like space, the temperature can change from where the sun shines, cold to amazingly hot. With no humidity, there is not much in the atmosphere, so distances can be distorting — I’ve read that some people get lost in the hot sun and head for a clump of trees, only to get there and realize that it is a foot-high bush, not some oasis.

Because there’s no atmosphere, this is the star-gazing capital of the world; no humidity + no lights = perfect for seeing stars. And they are amazing. It’s like having a big holely blanket over your head, peppered with thousands of pin pricks. Stunning when there’s no moon. That’s why there are a number of observatories (covered in the documentary cited above), including the world’s largest telescope array, ALMA, which they are just now completing, over two miles up in the mountains.  It’s a massive scientific undertaking that I was hope to see, but they’re not ready for humans yet. Here’s a great 60 Minutes segment on ALMA.  Watch it and you’ll see why I’m giddy about this place. Nothing compares to being there.

Now, about the nice sheets. There are several luxury hotel chains here that specialize in The Adventure — The Tierra Hotels, Awasi Hotels, Explora, etc. — and they all come with guides that take you to all the cool spots, a different adventure every day, in places with no signs, no instructions, no guides, so do this. I stayed at the Tierra Atacama Hotel outside San Pedro and it was perfect (more about that in a separate post), everything is included, food, local wine, guides, everything. Do this. It is is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life. I can’t imagine trying to do it by yourself as most of the places are unmarked and you end up turning off a dirt road that looks like a dead end and the pop out staring at an amazing scene.

The best part: nobody really knows about this place….which I like…. and you’ll feel like you have the entire planet to yourself and some excellent foreign travelers who are there to discover, just like you. In these pics, you’ll see there aren’t many people except a handful of other intrepid explorers, that’s because there aren’t any other people, really. This place is cool.

Because it has it’s own microclimates, I’ve been told that you the temperatures are pretty constant and you can visit any time of the year. I was there in late November, which is basically Spring there, and it was perfect. I can’t imagine going at the peak of Summer, it would be scorching hot.

To get to the Atacama, you take a quick flight from Santiago to Calama, then it’s about 98kms to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, which is the base for almost all the hotels and outfitters.

Here is some more info and articles to read:

Extreme Science, Wikipedia, Britannica….because how many encyclopedias do you own?

And don’t believe me, check out these awesome hashtags on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from other visitors to the Tierra Hotels to learn more. #travelstory #tierrahotels

And here is Tierra’s Facebook page.



Atacama Desert Devil's Canyon - 002

Continuing on this tour/route, most of the guides wing you around to Devil’s Gorge nearby, where you start out seeing these 1,000 year old petroglyphs of other people who were way before us. I forget all the symbolism, but you can look it up. But these look like llamas or alpacas or vicunas….


Atacama Desert Devil's Canyon - 006

This is the real deal.



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