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San Pedro de Atacama Travel Guide

PHOTOS: The Magic of the Highest and Driest Desert on the Planet

Prepare to be enchanted.

Perhaps most known for the impressive Patagonian Ice Field and Torres del Paine National Park, Chile is a playground for adventurers seeking wild and remote places. Yet as throngs of visitors clamber over Chile’s south, in its north lies one of the most overlooked and beautiful destinations in the world, the Atacama Desert. For the ancient Atacameños people, the desert landscape holds a deep spiritual significance and connection to planet earth. They believe its vast salt flats, thermal geysers, majestic volcanoes, and intense blue lagoons are living beings, embodying various kinds of spirits, such as those of their ancestors.

Today, people visit the desert for solitude and to see the stars. As the highest and driest desert on planet earth, the climatological and geographic characteristics of the Atacama give it a privileged position as one of the best places on the planet for astronomy. With some of the most majestic and wildest landscapes we’ve seen, the Atacama is definitely worth an extended visit. Explore it at your own pace by hiring your own 4×4 and camping out under the stars, or support local indigenous businesses by taking a guided tour. However you choose to visit, you will be changed for having experienced this magical place.

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Sun and Solitude in Salar de Atacama

Your days in the desert revolve around the movement of the sun. As the sun changes throughout the day the landscape is ablaze in a riot of color. Sunrise brings with it the sound of stirring flamingos and a rosy pink, followed by yellow, then orange and red. San Pedro de Atacama is a great place to start your desert adventure and pick up a camper. Don’t miss its pretty plaza with its adorable stray dogs and 17th-century church, believed to be one of the oldest in Chile.

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Valle de La Luna in the Heat of the Day

The daytime sun warms the ground to an unimaginable temperature but you can’t help but explore this magical landscape. The landscape of the Valley de La Luna (Valley of the Moon) has been carved by harsh winds and displays colors and textures believed to be similar to the surface of the moon.

INSIDER TIPSunset at the Valle de la Luna can get crowded, so instead visit during the day and then cool down at the salty Laguna Cejar.


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Sunset at Cañon de Guatin

When the afternoon desert winds fall quiet, you find the day trip visitors have left and you are alone; with only the soft sounds of dancing flamingos to keep you company. The landscape then turns a fiery red, followed by a velvet ribbon of blue just before the desert goes to sleep. Camp amongst the cactus at Cañon de Guatin and be sure to bathe in its warm geothermal stream.

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The Night Sky

Soon there’s a star, then another until the entire Milky Way engulfs you, and under a blanket of infinite stars, you can’t help but to sit and ponder your existence. The Atacama is blessed with what’s believed to be the clearest night skies on earth. Its high altitude, scarcity of pollution, and almost constant dryness even attracted the development of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (aka the ALMA), a network of 66 separate radio telescopes working together at an altitude of 16,568 feet to understand our universe and hunt for signs of life. With over 300 days per year of beautifully clear skies, the Atacama is unparalleled when it comes to looking at the night sky, so much so that the ALMA produces images that exceed those of the Hubble Space Telescope. The ALMA Observatory is only open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays and in order to visit, you must pre-register on their website in advance.

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The Mystery of Laguna Tuyajto

There’s no better place than the Atacama to understand the mystery of this strange rock that we live on. The desert landscape harbors a magnificent array of geological and geochemical features that make it unlike any other environment on earth. The colors in this mysterious landscape are often inconceivable to the eye.

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The Dance of El Tatio

The dance of El Tatio (Old Man Who Cries) begins at the rise of dawn with more than 80 vents sending steam and scalding hot water into the air. While El Tatio is not quite the largest or highest geyser field in the world (it comes pretty close), it is definitely one of the more spectacular with a ring of majestic volcanoes encircling it in a steaming embrace.

INSIDER TIPSunrise at the El Tatio Geyser Field can be very crowded, so instead visit during the late morning and enjoy the geysers to yourself. The drive to the geyser field is also spectacular.


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Volcanoes of Laguna Miscanti

An array of spectacular volcanoes and mountains dominate the Atacama Desert landscape, many towering over or even secretly hiding their own lagoons. In the desert’s Los Flamencos National Reserve lies Laguna Miscanti dominated by Cerro Miscanti standing proud above its heart-shaped lagoon. At an altitude of 13,779 feet above sea level, Cerro Miscanti lies at the base of Miñiques, an enormous volcanic complex complete with spectacular craters, lava domes, and flows.

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Life in Salar de Talar

Despite its resemblance to a Martian landscape (yes, NASA even test their Mars Explorer rovers here) the desert is far from just an arid, desolate wilderness. This strange and mysterious fertile oasis manages to sustain an astonishing array of life and is home to a surprising number of native flora and fauna which over centuries have adapted to the deserts demanding living conditions. The landscape supports vicuñas, vizcachas, flamingos, and foxes, along with numerous plants such as the cardon cactus.

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The Flowering Desert

Known locally as desierto florido (flowering desert), every five to seven years when the anticipated spring rains fall, color shrouds the desert as sleeping wildflowers awaken to carpet the landscape. Happening rarely, and only in years with higher than normal precipitation, the months of September to November are transformed as the flowering of native species sends the dessert into a fury of purple, green and yellow.

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The Future

The Salar of the Atacama is rich in geochemical features and contains 27% of the world’s lithium reserve base, the key ingredient required in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries. While the mining here is drawing attention for its controversial effect on the desert’s precious water source, the region’s lithium is also playing a key role to combat the current climate crisis. Lithium from Atacama Desert mines is going into batteries to power electric vehicles and to store precious renewable energy, therefore helping the planet transition to a more sustainable energy future and eradicating our dependence on fossil fuels.

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