The Atacama Desert is one of Chile’s most spectacular natural jewels. It is located in the north of the country and covers more than 100,000 km2. It is one of the driest regions in the world, and rain is sometimes absent for decades in some places. In addition, the border with Bolivia is marked by a chain of volcanic peaks rising to over 6,000 m. It is therefore a grandiose landscape, almost lunar, that awaits you on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama. Moreover, NASA has been testing in this arid place, and it is also an exceptional place to admire the stars. Discover the must-see activities and sites in the Atacama Desert.
The Valley of the Moon
This poetic name is marvelously suited to this valley where you can see only ocher rocks as far as the eye can see. Not a tree, not a river, only stone and the moon that rises and sets tirelessly. This valley was created in several million years by the elements, which gave the canyons, cliffs and sand dunes so characteristic of this extraordinary place. Luckily, it is very easily accessible from San Pedro de Atacama, and is only about ten kilometers from the city. It is undoubtedly the most popular tourist attraction in the region.
The Ancestral Caravan in the Atacama Desert
For a dive into history, and an authentic experience with the locals, the exit of the Ancestral Caravan is perfect. Guides from the desert tribes will tell you how their ancestors moved, forming a caravan. They will show you how they managed to domesticate the lamas, to help them carry their belongings. Moreover, you will have the opportunity to walk on the path of the caravan for a few hours, in the company of these woolly animals. It is an original walk accessible to all, which will delight young and old.
The Lakes of the Altiplano
“Altiplano” means high plain, and it is in this scenery at more than 4,000 m above sea level that you will have to go to admire the Miscanti and Miñique lakes. Their color is unmatched, and the volcano overlooking the landscape gives an even more picturesque touch to the place. In addition, you can cross several species of flamingos, which come to feed in these lakes. They are part of the Flamingo National Reserve, which is spread over several areas of the desert, and aims to protect these birds.
The Rainbow Valley
Get ready to see all the colors, with the valley “arcoiris” and its rocky strata with bright colors. The Atacama Desert is a geological formation that has evolved over the centuries, and the soil rich in minerals has given this succession of layers red, green, brown, beige, white, yellowish and bluish. This is due, in particular, to the presence of copper, iron and salt, which is found in large quantities in this region. Coupled with the azure sky always clear, this natural show is sublime, and will make beautiful pictures for your albums. As a bonus, you can even go and see the petroglyphs of Hierbas Buenas, a few meters from the rainbow valley.
The geysers of Tatio in the Atacama Desert
Another particularity of this fascinating desert, it has an intense geothermal activity, thanks to the numerous volcanoes of the surroundings. This gave birth to dozens of geysers spitting boiling water and fumaroles at regular intervals. In the early morning, the intense freshness of the desert night confronts the heat of the groundwater to form mysterious clouds of vapor. It is also possible to swim around the geysers, and enjoy the relaxing virtues of this incredible place.
Observe the stars in the desert
There are few places on Earth where you can observe the stars without night light pollution. The Atacama Desert is one of them, and offers an extremely dark sky, in which the stars can shine brightly. Expect to discover clouds of celestial stars that you have never seen before. By the way, astronomers from all over the world come to do research here in the observatories set up in the region. And you can enjoy their knowledge and telescopes on the spot to spend a night watching the sky, and learn more about the planets and the stars around us.
The Museum of the Meteorite
To continue on the theme of astronomy, you can also come in daylight to visit the Museum of the Meteorite. Its dome in the middle of the desert is reminiscent of a camp on the Moon or Mars. There is an exceptional collection of more than 70 meteorites found in the area. We can even touch these small fragments coming straight from space! This place is particularly conducive to the discovery of meteorites, because there is virtually no human presence, and the texture of the soil is suitable for the conservation of these bits of alien rocks that are projected at a phenomenal speed on our earth’s crust.
The Salar of Atacama
A little less known than the Salar of Uyuni, its Bolivian neighbor, that of Atacama is also worth a look. At first glance, it’s like being on a snowy plain, with a bright sun reflecting its rays on the pristine white of the ground. But it’s not snow you find on the ground, but a thick salt crust. This geological peculiarity was formed thanks to the richness of the subsoil in saline minerals, to the river which deposited water continuously, and to the very dry climate which then made it to evaporate. But the salar is not limited to its salt crust. There are also places where you can admire the flamingos, or float in the lagoons.
Go around the Lakes
They are very numerous in the desert of Atacama, and can constitute alone an exit which occupies a whole day. Around the salar, you will find the lakes named Cejar, Tebinquinche, and Ojos del Salar. They are perfect for a small weightless swim with panoramic views. A little further, the Chaxa lake may reveal its pink flamingos come looking for something to eat. The Baltinache lake, is, meanwhile, a little more hidden from tourists. Its beautifully pure water with turquoise highlights is a perfect place to watch the sunset and take breathtaking shots. There are of course many other lakes all over the Atacama Desert. It’s up to you to find them!
Thae Atacama Desert: the perfect place to climb a volcano
In the Chilean desert, it is not the volcanoes that are missing. Some of them are even particularly active, and all are located at a relatively high altitude. It is not easy to climb up one of these peaks, but the view is stunning. If your physical condition allows, do not hesitate to try to climb the Lascar, Pili or Miscanti. This is a unique experience you will remember for a long time: lunar landscapes punctuated by turquoise lakes, sand dunes and blue sky that illuminates the white salt plates. A whole range of natural contrasts, and few tourists to spoil these moments of exceptions.
Sandboarding in the Valley of Death
For an original outing that combines physical activity and unusual sport, go to the Valley of Death to hit the sand dunes with a snowboard. At first glance, it may sound strange, but we quickly taste. Just climb a sand dune with his board under his arm, and then put on his snowboard and slide down. It goes without saying that regulars in winter sports and surfing will benefit from this activity, which requires a good balance. But everyone can try his luck, even if many will finish first in the sand, under the bursts of laughter fellow travelers.
Take a walk to Pukara de Quitor
If going on expensive excursions with other travelers is not your cup of tea, here is a little walk in the nature that you might like. It starts three kilometers from the city of San Pedro, and can be done on foot or by bike. On the way, you will see Atacamen ruins, which can be used as a backdrop for photographic montages. The path will lead you to a viewpoint that gives a striking panorama of rugged terrain and volcanoes. On the other hand, do not forget to take some water with you, because to walk several hours in full sun can be dangerous and particularly hard physically.
To close the natural spectacle that is the Atacama Desert, here is one of the last visits that deserves a detour: the site of the red stones. They are rounded and deep red, which contrasts magnificently with the lake just below, the gray peaks in front, and the azure sky. This excursion also allows to combine the visit of other unmissable sites of the region, in particular the Miñique and Miscanti lakes, the Tuyaito salar, or the valley of the Moon. Whether you leave alone with a rental car, or with a tourist agency, the site of Piedras Rojas is a must see during your visit to the Atacama Desert.
In short, there are therefore many natural sites to see in this desert still relatively preserved from human activity. You’ll only have to choose from lakes, volcanoes, geysers or colorful rock formations. Do not forget to watch the setting sun, and look up at night to watch the stars. You may never come back to a desert, or at least not to Atacama. It would be a shame to miss out on these original and memorable activities, don’t you think?