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Only if you enjoy the solitude and desolation of the desert should you venture into El Norte Grande. The Atacama Desert is barren until it explodes in a riot of color every four or five years when unusual amounts of rain awaken dormant flower bulbs. But you won't have every place to yourself, exactly. San Pedro de Atacama is one of the continent's hotspots, a mecca for outdoor-sports enthusiasts, New Age crystal gazers, birdwatchers, and sandboarders. If you miss the human touch, board a 4 am van full of fellow travelers heading out to the steaming geysers.
Resting between two giant branches of the Andean mountains is the altiplano, or high plains, where you'll see natural marvels such as crystalline salt flats, geysers, and volcanoes. You'll also spot flocks of flamingos and herds of vicuña, a cousin to the llama.
The best bases for exploration are San Pedro de Atacama, Iquique, and Arica.