The Atacama Desert Chile has
the title of being the driest desert in the world with
parts of the desert having not seen any rainfall since
records began. On average, the South America desert sees
as little as 1 cm of rainfall a year and supports next
to no vegetation. However, this is a diverse and fascinating
geographical region and is used by NASA to test their
lunar and Mars exploration vehicles. This South America
desert is set amongst a rich cultural heritage where ancient
remnants of indigenous human habitation are reflected
by human and animal figures that have been carved out
on barren hillsides.
Unexpectedly, at points the arid Atacama Desert nestles
alongside lagoons, springs and rich farmland busy with
Atacama Desert animals such as grazing llamas and alpacas.
This part of Chile also contains the world’s largest
open copper mine at Chuquicamata. The rich copper and
mineral deposits led to a huge natural supply of sodium
nitrate (saltpeter). While the supply has long since been
exhausted, the desert is littered with abandoned mining
towns. The Atacama Desert Chile sits at one end of neighboring
Bolivia’s vast salt plain of Salar de Uyuni, the
world’s largest salt flat. Traveling across the
sparkling salt crystals will take you into Bolivia via volcanoes and pristine lakes. 4x4 trips usually take
The gateway to exploring the sparsely populated Atacama Desert region is through San Pedro de Atacama and ecotourism friendly Lauca National Park. The village of San Pedro de Atacama lies in the middle of the desert and acts as a small cluster of civilization for tourists. This little oasis sits on the edge of the Salar de Atacama (Salt Lakes of Atacama). The town offers abundant sights and activities including sand boarding and mountain biking. There is an archaeological museum with an array of ancient artifacts and preserved Inca mummies. Interestingly the display includes a number of tools used for smoking hallucinogenic plants native to the land. There are a range of guided 4x4 day tours across the altiplano to a number of volcanoes and lakes. Due to stiff competition, prices are relatively low and bi-lingual guides can be requested. While some of the volcanoes are extinct, active geysers betray the ones that still bubble with life. At such high altitude, El Tatio contains the highest geyser field to be found in the world at 4,300 meters.
Nearby San Pedro, the Chaxa Lagoon is home to a number of Atacama Desert animals. Exploration of the colorful vegetation will often end in an unexpected confrontation with species of pink flamingos, coots and ducks.
For a beach break away from the dry desert conditions, the town of Iquique serves as a premier spot, attracting surfers and paragliding enthusiasts. The high cliffs make it one of South America’s top paragliding destinations.
The northern most region of Chile sits atop an altiplano,
some 7,500 feet above sea level and stretches into Bolivia
and Peru. The high altitude, absence of cloud cover and
light pollution make this remote desert the perfect place
for astronomical observation. The Atacama boasts two major
star gazing centers, the La Silla and Paranal Observatory’s.
These scientific installations come under the operation
of the European Southern Observatory. The clear night
skies are perfect for stargazing.
At the Tres Cruces National Park located in the Chilean Andes, there are vast opportunities for mountain trekking and climbing. The Valle del Elqui is a region most famous for producing the national drink Pisco. The valley boasts prime agricultural land and also contains a number of the world’s largest observatories.
Travelers to the Atacama Desert should be aware that
while daytime temperatures are often high, the temperature
drops dramatically at night. Precautions should be made
and time allowed for acclimatization. The region sits
well above sea level and altitude sickness can be an issue.
This impressive South America desert can be visited from
various northern Chile destinations or by crossing over
to/from Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. Most
tours take in the highlights of the region in around 5
days or you can head to the hub of San Pedro de Atacama
and book a day tour with guide.