Atacama Desert

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 3 days.

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.

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