From the air the Atacama Desert resembles the surface of Mars we have all become so familiar with. The driest place on earth, the land reflects many beautiful hues of orange, red and yellow, dotted with volcanoes and high mountains of the Andes chain. After a flight of nearly 2 hours north from Santiago, you arrive in the dusty mining town of Calama which is the jumping off point for the main tourist destination of San Pedro de Atacama, situated about 75 minutes driving time from Calama. Here in San Pedro, there are a number of excellent resorts with world class cuisine that cater for visitors wanting to explore the amazing countryside. These resorts offer a selection of sightseeing tours (included). There is no question that you should stay at least three nights in San Pedro, though I recommend four!
Top of most people’s list will be a visit to the El Tatio geyser field, 3rd largest in the world. This can be visited either from San Pedro or perhaps included in a trip to the remarkable Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. Indeed the Chilean-Bolivian border is only about 40 km from El Tatio and less than three hours drive from San Pedro. To visit El Tatio, we left the hotel early travelling through towering volcanoes, some still active, into an altitude matching the summit of New Zealand Aoraki Mt Cook. We saw herds of grazing llama, vicuna, foxes and some ‘whistling rabbits’ as well the Andean Gull and endangered Andean Geese. There are also impressive cacti that grow only in altitudes above 3000 metres, but would likely not look at all out of place in a Western movie set in the blazing hot deserts of Arizona! On arrival at El Tatio admire an extensive range of geysers before a picnic breakfast. Sunrise is the best time to visit as the area offers the most impressive displays of steam ejected into the air.
The Valley of the Moon with its impressive terracotta hued canyon etched out by millennia of wind and water, is easily accessible from San Pedro. I highly recommend the late afternoon tour, when the sun begins to sink in the desert sky, the colours are extraordinary!
Another ‘must see’ are the salt lakes with three different species of flamingo! It seems incongruous that these graceful birds should live at such high altitude but they manage to thrive on shrimp that live in the brackish water. Parts of these lakes are pure white as the build-up of salt is bleached in the sun, which shines almost all the time. Another by-product of the clear skies happens at night, a tremendous display of stars. With help from the hotel’s resident astronomy expert through a telescope I was able to see the rings of Saturn!
San Pedro de Atacama itself is a quaint and somewhat low-key tourist town with a nice vibe and an attractive church. There are some very good restaurants and excellent bars along the one main street, interspersed with tourist souvenir shops. I would recommend taking the hotel shuttle into town one evening and soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying a pisco sour, the national cocktail of Chile.
I was very impressed by the dramatic scenery this area offers, a landscape so very different from our own. Why not consider a visit to the Atacama Desert on your visit to South America? It only adds a few days to your itinerary but is quite unlike anything else in the continent. You most certainly will not be disappointed!