[ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE] — The Atacama Desert. Good lord. 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. It’s only a few hundred miles from the Pacific, but has some areas with no registered rainfall since they started measuring such things, over 400 years.
It’s also the oldest desert on earth, been rainless for close to 3 million years. I love this line from Wikipedia “Studies by a group of British scientists have suggested that some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.”
Dry. It’s dry here.
The Atacama Desert is in Chile’s arid northeast corner, right next to Bolivia and Argentina. (From CBS News website.)
I’ve read about it, saw films about it, including this remarkable one, and was just totally consumed with getting there. So in 2013 I combined it with a Fire & Ice Tour of both the Atacama and Patagonia, with layovers in Santiago. I combined all my previous individual posts into this upgraded, comprehensive overview of the best hikes and sites.
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. Some mountains top 20,000ft. It has its own microclimates, 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 14,000 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 lush oasis.
Such a great idea to market this place as “The Driest Place On Earth.” When I heard that, I was like Must. Go. Now. I’m such a sucker…
The vast valley is surrounded by 13 soaring volcanoes, some topping 16,000ft. At this high altitude, it’s perfect for stargazing, which is why there are some of the world’s largest telescopes on top of those mountains, from 14,000ft and higher.
Every day is an adventure in the Atacama. You can go it alone, as many do, but most of the sights and trails I saw are unmarked. Much better to get a local guide or group tours in San Pedro de Atacama or even better, pick one of the outstanding adventure hotels like the Tierra, Explora or totally luxe Awasi, which is more for millionaires — all three have all inclusive packages that include guided trip (and sister hotels you can pair up for the same experience in Patagonia). They each provide awesome guides for free, who take you out, pack a gourmet lunch and know everything about everything.
Each day, they ask “What do you feel like doing today? Long hike? Short hike? Salt flats? Some geysers? Stargazing tonight?” And off you go in small groups with other like-minded peeps from the hotel. Never was a guide guy myself, I prefer to get lost on my own, but the Tierras changed my outlook, took travel to a whole new level for me.
The Tierra Hotel can book stargazing sessions at am outdoor viewing room across the street, complete with massive telescopes and a guide that explains the heavens. This is just a lousy time-lapse laying my camera down on a rock. But in person on a moonlit night, the stars are incredible, like a big studded carpet weighing down on your head. Many places have amateur stargazing with experts and good big telescopes. Make sure you do this.
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.
And with this altitude and no humidity, there’s no atmosphere. Which makes the stargazing the best in the world, with the biggest telescopes in the world all around these mountains, including the world’s largest telescope array, ALMA, over two miles up in the mountains. It’s a massive scientific undertaking that I was hoping to see, but when I was there in 2013 they weren’t allowing tours, but I see now that some observatories do on select days. Look into it. 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.
The best part: nobody really knows about the Atacama, certainly when I was there in 2013….which I like. 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 so damn cool.
You can ride horseback down there, which I wish I did. You can see the tracks along the dunes to the left. I’ve seen pictures, it looks amazing. You can also find places that’ll take you sandboarding. Not my cup of mate.
This is Chile’s Death Valley, Valle de La Muerte, and supposedly this valley is the driest place on the planet. It’s just outside San Pedro and usually paired with a trip to Valle de Luna (next section below).
When they say the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, they don’t mean “just a little bit of rain”…they mean like, never. Over 400 years of recorded history and it hasn’t rained once right here. Nothing really grows. No bugs. Like on the moon, nothing decays. Everything frozen in time for millions of years. Now, just waiting for you.
Most of the tour groups from San Pedro bring their buses out here at the end of the day, our guides brought is midday to escape them. Not the best time of day to take pictures, but we were the only ones here.
Looks like Switzerland, but with sand.
Supposedly you can go on pre-arranged horseback rides down into the void, but I didn’t plan far enough in advance. If that’s something you do, ask your hotel guides because they only operate on certain days. But I do read that there has been a blowup in sandboarding, so if that’s your thing, easy to arrange, skimming down those empty dunes.
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Across the way is this formation, which was glimmering with all sorts of eerie salt crystals. Looking at it, you feel like you are on shrooms.
Multi billionaires are spending trillions to create a Space Travel business for mankind, years to come. For a few thousand bucks you visit the moon right now.
As part of the tour, you go up to the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), which…looks exactly like…. the moon. It is surreal. And then there’s a daytime moon reminding you of the place. The deepest blue skies you’ve ever seen (and I’m from Colorado), contrasted with the rich fine sand. Without humidity, you feel like you can reach across a hundred yards and pick up a grain of sand. It. Is. Surreal.
Our guides brought us here midday because all the tour buses come at sunset. But midday is a lousy time for photos, so if you’re into that, I’d lobby for a sunset visit, despite the crowds. Let alone experiencing the colors. Photos I’ve seen are incredible from then and the experience looks amazing. But if you don’t care about that, the guides were right… we were the only ones there to experience this incredible valley. Bring sunscreen if you need that. You’ll cook like toast.
This dune…is amazing. You can’t really tell, but it is MASSIVE, straddling the valley. Seriously, all of this stuff is mind-bending when you are there. With no humidity, distances are distorted. This dune looks like a hump of sand, but that dune is probably 1,500 feet high and miles wide. You feel like you can touch it, but it goes far away. I put myself in there for scale/not scale. That cliff drops off a couple immediately behind me, a steep gorge plunging hundreds of feet. The distance-distortion is mind-blowing when you are In It.
Took me twenty minutes to huff up to this point. It’s deceiving, but that dune is over a mile long. Thank god some drunk American kid didn’t tramp all down that and ruin its natural beauty.
It’s bizarre after all that dry desert to drive out in the middle of this huge salt flat and see flamingos noshing in the shallow water. With volcanoes in the background for dramatic effect.
Only miles from the driest valley on the planet is the Salar de Atacama, the great salt flats of the Atacama Desert, a salty oasis in the middle a great pan of caked soil…and a calm resting place for flitting, sipping and slurping Andean flamingos. At about 7,500 feet above sea level, the air is clear and the sun strong.
The Tierra Atacama guides take care of everything for you. Driving you. Guide you. Then provide a lunch or dinner. It was perfect.
This is the third largest salt flat in the world, and it sits in its own chunky basin, ringed by a great string of volcanoes in every direction. You literally can set a string line for miles and miles and the elevation barely changes — the flats are about 1,200 square miles. Out of the dried flaking cakes of mud, pops pockets of water that shimmer with the wind, flamingos going about their business and casually walking and doing what flamingos do. It is a stunning sight, their pink feathers against the pink sky, the pink ground and the blue mirror glistening water. So peaceful. So surreal.
Pinch me. The time we were there it was off season a little, so there were very few flamingoes present. The guide said at peak times, there would be thousands flocking in the shallow waters.
You definitely want a guide to lead you to the special places in this vast salt flat.
Continuing on this tour/route, most of the guides wing you around to Devil’s Gorge nearby, where you start out seeing these 1,000-2,000 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 vicuñas….
From there, you venture out into the walk to Devil’s Gorge. I tell you, we had an interesting mix of cool French people, Germans and some sun-phobic woman from NY — under the umbrella, which you wonder why someone would want to be here in the sunniest place on Earth…but she had an Apollo-rated sunshield . It was like being in a episode from Lost in Space.
Every corner turned up a different landscape
Volcanoes, volcanoes, everywhere. Something like 13 visible in a row. Some active, some not.
Along the walk there are lots of signs of people previously living here, remarkably, with not a stitch of water. We had a most excellent guide from Tierra; extremely knowledgable and a trained archeologist who took us along this hike, pointing out ancient petroglyphs in the middle of nowhere — who found these? — and described their significance, to the culture then and Us, now.
On our hike along this people-less trail, she randomly bent down and randomly stopped and picked up a ceramic pot fragment and identified it as several hundred years old. Out here, in the middle of nowhere.
Then we trudged on. It was not the most remarkable hike, visually, other than seeing ancient history.
From the high plain, you slowly descend into the Devil’s Gorge. Each twist and turn unveiling something unbelievable around the next turn.
Was this the best hike I did? No. But it was easy and brought this faceless desert alive with previous civilizations. Devil’s Canyon was cool, but it did get a bit monotonous as it wound down. But a great half day in-fill hike.
To make it all the way up to these geysers at 14,000ft, you need to wake up before dawn and take a long van ride. But the timing is perfect, just as the sun peeks over the mountains.
You get up early in the morning, when it is still dark and head out for the long drive up, the dawn sun gently rising behind the silhouettes of jagged mountains. You go from the warm desert to the early morning chill of 14,000 and just as the sun crests above the mountains, the rays open up a great, steaming, boiling field of geysers — El Tatio, the third largest geyser field in the world, and certainly the highest. It is breathtaking.
The air is thin up here, the sky clearer than I’ve ever seen.
You can see the earth forming before your eyes.
You spend hours just wandering between each bubbling hole into the earth, each with its own signature look and formation. Some in pools, some in heaps of calcified earth, built up like anthills.
Steam surrounds you in a great mist, spotlighted by the rising sun. It is eerie. Like a movie. You can see the earth forming, right before your eyes. This was one of the highlights of my trip to the Atacama Desert — a vast expanse of contradictory geological formations, from miles of rolling dry humps and hills, to deep gouges of canyons, to salt flats with flamingos, overlooked by a ring of over a dozen volcanoes. This is the Atacama Desert.
The awesome tour guides of Tierra Hotels take care of everything, including setting up a delightful breakfast…here in what feels like the center of the earth. Gurgling, seizing, right before your eyes. Amazing. Go here. Do this.
Amazing that so close to the driest place on earth in the Atacama Desert are these steaming, flumphing, gassy beasts of the El Tatio geysers. And at 14,000 feet, you’re huffing and puffing more than the geysers. And being so high up, it’s funny that you gotta dress warm to get so close to the heat. So many contradictions in one place…I got so confoosed…
You can see the earth forming, right before your eyes. This was one of the highlights of my trip to the Atacama Desert — a vast expanse of contradictory geological formations, from miles of rolling dry humps and hills, to deep gouges of canyons, to salt flats with flamingos, overlooked by a ring of over a dozen volcanoes. This is the Atacama Desert.
And the awesome tour guides of Tierra Hotels take care of everything, including setting up a delightful breakfast…here in what feels like the center of the earth. Gurgling, seizing, right before your eyes. Amazing. Go here. Do this.
On the way to the salt flats, the tour stops into this great little town (don’t remember the name) where you get a glimpse of what it’s like to live here, in the desert. The hotel wants you to help the local community and stops at a perfect little (not touristy cheesy) shop where you can by locally-made goods, of high caliber. And even meet the llamas who made them.
Here’s a link to another post I made on the Tierra Atacama Hotel.
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.
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.
From National Geographic, if you subscribe to that. This is a great article of all the top Atacama highlights from Bloomberg.
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’s a great guide on the Atacama and San Pedro from the UK Conde Nast Traveller. And another three great articles from CNT, including traveling solo to Atacama. And here’s a great guide from Departures magazine.And a brief article on self-driving in the Atacama on Suitcase magazine. Here’s a great description by the US Conde Nast Traveler of great the experience at the all-inclusive hotels and how effortless it is to go exploring every day. God, every places I’ve been Vogue has already been there. Great article.
You can book your travel through Knowmad Adventures, the top South American adventure travel company. Here’s a great article on the award winning Tierra Hotels, voted as reader favorite.
Extreme Science, Wikipedia, Britannica….because how many encyclopedias do you own?
— Last Visited November 2013, Post Updated January 2020 —
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