by Ben Janeczko
If you’re like me, you probably haven’t had many deserts on your travel bucket list. Interested in the Sahara – sure; been to the Simpson – absolutely; but Hollywood depictions of endless sand dunes with nothing but camels or mummy apocalypses had influenced my naïve perception of deserts as nice places to visit. And then I went to the Atacama…
What is the Atacama Desert famous for?
Situated 100kms from Calama airport in Chile’s North, the Atacama Desert is spectacular region covering over 100,000 square kms to the west of the Andes mountains, bordered by Bolivia and Argentina. To say the landscape is unlike anything I had ever seen before is an understatement. With over 40 volcanoes (some active), 15,000 square kms of salt flats and the well-named Valley of the Moon and Valley of Mars (also called Valley of Death), geysers and three mountain ranges, you better make sure to pack a spare camera battery and a good pair of hiking boots.
Tourist activity in the area is centred around San Pedro de Atacama, a rustic town of around 12,500 people packed full of cafes, plenty of shops and money exchanges, travel operators and some basic services including a medical centre and a couple of ATMs. Don’t expect many people in town to speak anything other than rudimentary English outside of the medical centre and a couple of the bigger shops.
I was lucky enough to stay at the stunning Alto Atacama – an all-inclusive resort located around 4kms from San Pedro and beautifully designed around the red earth environment of the area. The photos don’t really do it justice – with six pools, a jacuzzi, massage & spa centre and a lovely dining room & bar with fire pits there is no excuse not to be rested and ready to tackle the endless hikes and excursions on offer.
My introduction to the stunning landscape was a sunset visit to Death Valley accompanied by cheese & wine… the changing colours on the Andes as the sun retreated beyond the horizon is something I’ll never forget and truly remarkable. The sheer scale of the valleys, dunes and mountains makes an immediate impression on you, exploring them all was a great adventure and it felt like we were exploring another planet at times.
Possibly the best thing about the Atacama is there is something for all levels of fitness & enthusiasm. If you want to get active you can do a reasonably challenging hike through the Valley of the Moon (my highlight) or go for a bike ride through the valleys.
Early risers are rewarded with sunrise over the Andes en route to the Tatio geysers – where you can brave the chilly air (-8 degrees when I was there) as you bathe in the hot springs created by the magma chambers below. You also get to see plenty of endemic bird life and vicuna (related to llamas & alpacas) along the way.
A scenic drive to the salt flats and into the Los Flamencos National Reserve is well worth it for another stunning sunset and close ups of Andean, Chilean and (rare) James Flamingos. Learning about the unique ecosystem and how life survives under such extremes is very interesting, but if you’re only interested in the photo opportunities you won’t be disappointed either.
One of the great benefits of staying somewhere like Alto is that all their staff & guides are exceptional. Their passion, knowledge and service really take the experience to the next level, and with all meals and up to two excursions per day included it’s a great option to get the most out of the destination. There are other more affordable options on offer of course with varying inclusions.
So, if you’re interested in nature, active exploring and seeing a truly unique part of the world, the Atacama Desert may just be the next adventure of a lifetime to tick off your list.
We can tailor make an itinerary including the Atacama to suit your budget & requirements – you can see our range of suggested Chile itineraries, or simply enquire below to have one of our destination experts get in touch.
And for those of you wondering about the use of ‘hot desert’ in the title – Antarctica is technically the driest desert on the planet, but certainly not hot.