It’s the driest place on Earth—and one of the most beautiful. Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert has areas that haven’t seen rain for 40 million years, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most fertile tourist destinations in Chile, with cloudless skies, moderate temperatures, and brilliant rose-and-rust sandscapes that attract mystics, visionaries, and adventure travelers from the world over.
Centered around the town of San Pedro de Atacama, the desert features some of Chile’s most dreamlike natural settings, from the mirror-like salares (salt pools) visited by wandering flamingos to the mysterious geoglyphs at Cerro Unita. At El Tatio, a chorus of geysers erupts with the regularity of a hydraulic clock; in the Valley of the Moon, the sun flames out each night in a kaleidoscope of pink, red, and gold.
The Atacama Desert is by no means devoid of human habitations. In its southern reaches, ghostly oficinas—ramshackle towns abandoned after the nitrate boom of the 1930s—stand as haunting reminders of civilization’s impermanence, while closer to San Pedro, some of the world’s most powerful telescopes allow visitors to search the night sky.
Visitors to Atacama come seeking a variety of experiences: sandboarding, buggy rides, relaxation in one of the region’s many luxury lodges. What they inevitably leave with, however, is a vision of eternal beauty from one of Earth’s most extreme places.
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