Located in the Antofagasta Region of northern Chile, and bordering with Argentina and Bolivia, the Atacama Desert is full of surprises: It is the driest desert in the world, and it harbors the highest geyser field, at 14,107 feet, as well as the largest salt flat in Chile (and the third largest in the planet after Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina). The brine lake under the Atacama Salt Flat contains 25% of the world’s lithium reserves and its waters attract hundreds of waterfowl, including birds migrating from North America. With altitudes ranging from 6,500 to almost 20,000 feet and broad temperature variations between day and night, the Atacama Desert is an extreme habitat that attracts researchers from all over the globe looking to find clues to possible microbial life on Mars in its clay-rich, shallow soil layers.
Table of Contents
- 1. When to go to the Atacama Desert and how to get there
- 2. Why is this an important place to visit?
- 3. Which places should I visit in Atacama?
- 4. What to bring?
- 5. Which foods should I try?
- 6. Where can I stay in Atacama?
- 7. What other attractions can I visit in the Atacama Desert?
- 8. What other destinations can be combined with Atacama?
When to go to the Atacama Desert and how to get there
The laid-back town of San Pedro de Atacama is the gateway to the area’s greatest natural and cultural attractions. It was voted Lonely Planet’s Top 10 City as Best in Travel 2022 and its weather is pleasant throughout most of the year, although the best time to go is between October and April.
Located at an altitude of 8,005 feet and very close to the High-Andean plateaus (altiplano), the town and surrounding areas have significant variations during the day, ranging from mid-30°F at night to mid-70°F during the afternoons.
From Santiago, Chile’s capital city, a two-hour flight will take you to Calama, from where you will be transferred to San Pedro de Atacama. South American Vacations’ rates do not include airfare (international or domestic), but they will be happy to quote the cost of the tickets and travel insurance and to make these arrangements for you.
Why is this an important place to visit?
The area surrounding San Pedro de Atacama features multiple oases around which the pre-Columbian Likan Antay indigenous people developed. These oases are rich in grasslands, plants, wildlife, and abundant water in the middle of the arid Atacama Desert.
Some of the world’s highest volcanoes dominate the landscape. Licancabur volcano – no longer active – and Kimal hill are highly significant to the area’s native peoples. According to their tradition, they are two lovers torn apart by their families and Princess Kimal was forced to settle far away from Licancabur. But on the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice – in June – the shadow of Licancabur is so long that it reaches Kimal. Hence, it’s an important cultural date in the area.
The Likan Antay flourished and set up the first villages, such as Tulor, around 400 BC. They were traders and traveled in caravans as far as northwestern Argentina and the Bolivian highlands. During the 15th century, the area fell under the rule of the Inca Empire, which lasted until the arrival of the Spaniards in 16th century.
In his first attempt to conquer Chile, after a dangerous journey from Cusco, Spanish conqueror Pedro de Valdivia only got as far as Atacama. Here, he ordered the construction of his first house in 1540, in the middle of the town that was then named after him, San Pedro de Atacama (Saint Peter of Atacama). In 1541, he was able to continue further south and founded Santiago, Chile’s capital.
Which places should I visit?
Salt Mountain Range-Mars Valley-Moon Valley
If you love adventure travel, you will enjoy exploring unique geological formations and watch stunning sunsets among multi-colored hills and sand dunes. The Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range), Valle de Marte (Mars Valley), and Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) feature magnificent geological formations that create landscapes out of this world.
El Tatio Geysers
Don’t miss a visit to the imposing Tatio Geysers with their steaming fumaroles, which can reach a height of 32 feet. They are truly a sight to behold, especially at sunrise, against the backdrop of the altiplano. Bring a swimsuit if you want to enjoy the warm waters of the nearby Puritama hot springs after breakfast!
Atacama Salt Flat and High-Andean Lagoons
The Atacama Salt Flat and High-Andean lagoons are at the top of the list for wildlife viewing fans. They are part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, which protects seven disconnected sectors in the area and is co-managed by Chile’s National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) and the Likan Antay communities.
Marvel at the expanse of the Atacama Salt Flat and Chaxa Lagoon, a nesting site for all three flamingo species found in Chile – Chilean Flamingo, Andean Flamingo, and James’ Flamingo – and for several birds that migrate from North America, such as Baird’s Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope.
Enjoy walking along the Minique and Miscanti Lagoons, the Baltinache Lagoons, or Laguna Cejar. All of them provide excellent views of hundreds of birds, especially during the months with higher temperatures in the southern hemisphere (usually November-May).
If you’re interested in culture and history, you’ll love walking around the cobbled streets of the oasis town of Toconao, known for its houses made of rhyolite (volcanic) rock that is quarried nearby. The town also features the church and bell tower of San Lucas, dating from the mid-18th century.
Visit the small village of Socaire, with its ancient agricultural terraces and fantastic views of the Atacama Salt Flat. It is the last town on the road that connects Chile with Argentina, through Route 23-CH.
What to bring?
- Clothes for warm (mid 70°F) and cold temperatures (mid 30°F)
- Bathing suit
- Comfortable trekking shoes for the mountain trips
- Sunscreen and hats
Which foods should I try?
- Anything with quinoa, an Andean cereal considered a superfood for its high levels in fiber and prime-quality protein content.
- Ice creams made from desert fruits from chañar or algarrobo trees.
Where can I stay in Atacama?
What other attractions can I visit in the Atacama Desert?
Located on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert, approximately 31 miles from San Pedro de Atacama, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory is usually open every Saturday and Sunday morning to members of the public who want to visit. The only way to access the observatory is by registering on their website and riding the bus that departs from San Pedro de Atacama. Due to COVID precautions, visits have been suspended until further notice. Check their website to find out when the observatory will be once again open to the public.
From Calama, you can visit the site of the world’s largest open pit copper mine. Visits need to be previously coordinated with Chile’s national copper company (CODELCO), which manages the mine, or via a tour operator. The mine is open to the public from Monday to Friday, only on workdays, at 2:00 p.m. You will have a chance to visit the former camp, now closed, which was almost as large as a city.
Hand of the desert
This sculpture was made by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal in 1992 at the request of the city of Antofagasta to represent the emptiness of the desert. Located 46 miles south of Antofagasta, it greets tourists traveling down Route 5, also known as the Pan-American Highway. It can be visited free of charge all year round.
Tropic of Capricorn Milestone
Located approximately 17 miles north of Antofagasta, this monument was inaugurated on December 21, 2000, during the last Summer Solstice of the 20th century in the southern hemisphere. It is made up of four structures representing the Arch of Capricorn, with a bar that marks the seasons of the year; the Path of the Sun from south to north and perpendicular to the Tropic of Capricorn; the Doors of the Sun; and Circle of the World, which surrounds the monument and symbolizes the Earth. It can be visited free of charge all year round.
What other destinations can be combined with Atacama?
- Galapagos Islands
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Born in Santiago, Chile, Marcela is a freelance bilingual journalist and expert on outdoor travel who writes for several magazines and websites. She’s earned a master’s degree in tourism with an emphasis on ecotourism in Australia, operated a tour company, and co-authored a Spanish-language guidebook about Chile’s national parks. Her travel career has taken her all over South America, and she has also lived in Australia, Costa Rica, and the United States.
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