The Atacama Desert is one of the most popular travel destinations in Chile and it covers a large area of this country. It stretches for a total of 600 miles between the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range and the Andes Mountains. The mountains are so high that barely any or in some places no water reaches the desert landscape, which makes it the driest desert in the world. There are peaks as high as 19,000 feet in this region, and very low valleys, gorges, and flatlands. Days get extremely hot – even at high altitudes, while the nights can get rather frosty. 60 degree temperature drops between day and night are not uncommon.
If a trip to Mars has been your dream, look no further, just start planning a vacation in the Atacama Desert. Most of this region looks like you just landed on Mars. In fact, NASA has used this desert as a testing site multiple times, and numerous otherworldly shows and movies have been filmed here.
It may be hard to believe, but around one million people actually live in this desert region in Chile. Mining copper and fishing are common occupations, and people also raise alpacas or grow olives, tomatoes and cucumbers here.
Speaking of mining, the Atacama Desert was where the infamous mining accident of 2010 happened: 33 workers got trapped in a mine for a record of 69 days. All of them were rescued and made it out alive.
Where to stay and how to get around
The most central location for tourists and backpackers in this region is San Pedro de Alpaca. This famous hippie town has become the Mecca of Chile. With great scenery right around the town, it’s the starting point for countless tours and excursions.
San Pedro is lined with hostels, hotels and guesthouses of all sizes and price levels. Some of these, you will be able to search for and reserve online, others are gems you discover once you arrive and take a stroll down the streets. If you are comfortable with spontaneous arrangements, it might be worth it to wait and see what you can find locally.
The best way to get to San Pedro is by car or bus from Calama. The town of Calama is the biggest in the region; it’s about an hour away from San Pedro. You will probably fly into Calama or arrive at the large bus terminal here, depending on where you are coming from.
In Calama, there are several car rental companies where you can get a vehicle for a fair price if you like to be flexible and independent. Waiting to rent a car in San Pedro will be much pricier. Be sure to reserve a vehicle ahead of time though because cars “sell out” frequently, especially during the main travel season. For maximum fun and flexibility and minimal worry, you might want to consider spending the upcharge for a 4×4 vehicle. Certain attractions require some off road driving, and you just don’t want to be one of the cars that get stuck in the sand hoping for a rescue.
Once you’ve made it to San Pedro, there is so much to see and experience. You will need to decide if you’d rather explore on your own or if you prefer guided tours to the different places. There are plenty of agencies all over San Pedro waiting to sell you a tour package. Most of them offer the exact same deals for the same services; you might get a discount though, if you book multiple tours through the same agency. Most tours include a meal or a snack, depending on the length of the trip; they do not cover entrance fees to parks or attractions though, so be sure to inquire about that before booking anything. If you decide to rent a car, it will probably be cheaper and your excursions will be less crowded as you explore on your own. There are also a few attractions that are so close to San Pedro that you can either walk or rent a bike and check them out that way.
What to see
Death Valley is one of the most popular areas to see right outside of San Pedro. Large sand dunes and the out-of-this-world scenery make it an unforgettable stop. If you have never gone sandboarding before, this is a great place to rent a board and acquire new skills. Be sure to wear a long-sleeve shirt, pants and close-toed shoes or big socks for protection from the hot sand and scratches. You’ll have a great time experiencing the desert first-hand. Close to Death Valley are the gorge called Devil’s Throat and Moon Valley with its famous lunar rock formations. Plan to spend some time in these areas to see it all and take in the surreal sight.
It is possible to hike through these parts, go overnight camping or even join a multiday trekking adventure. Careful planning and preparation is crucial here though. Be sure to carry plenty of water for the entire trip – even if it doesn’t feel all that hot, the dryness will make you very thirsty. Let’s not forget, this is the driest desert in the world. For overnight camping, pack a sleeping bag or blankets; temperatures at night often drop below freezing even when the days are scorching hot.
There is also an old volcano hovering over San Pedro. Zapaleri Volcano forms the triple border point between Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. It is 18,547 feet high, so if you decide to hike up, keep in mind the elevation change and be sure to take your time to adjust to the desert climate and altitude. You will be able to drive up most of the way if you have a car or book a tour. If you are willing to travel a little further south, you can hike up Láscar Volcano that is of a similar height yet still active – it’s a little more of a thrill.
Many backpackers like to designate one morning to get up very early and visit El Tatio geyser field. The about 60 geysers are known to go off right around sunrise and create quite a spectacle. It can be quite cold that early in the morning, so after the geysers, you might want to stop at the thermal pools to warm up in your bathing suit until the sun comes up.
Other places to check out in the region are the Salt Flat lagoons that present a unique, quiet, deserted beauty. Some of these saline lakes are so salty that you can actually float in them. That’s definitely worth a stop. On your way, also check out the salt mines, the vast salt flats, Cactus Valley, or some of the archaeological sites like ancient villages and fortresses here.
If you love to see it all from above, you have a couple options. You can either climb Cerro Toco, the most accessible mountain in the area. It is 18,386 feet high and you’ll have an amazing view of the region. Or you can book a hot air balloon ride right in San Pedro. You’ll watch the sunrise over Death Valley and the desert, an experience you won’t quickly forget.
And last, but not least, don’t forget to look up before you go to bed at night. If you choose to drive your car out into the desert one night, away from even the little light pollution of San Pedro, you will see why this desert is home to several international observatories. The views of the night sky and all the stars are unmatched here. You can also book a stargazing tour with one of the agencies in town, or visit the observatories to take a peek through their amazing equipment.
The Atacama Desert is a unique place and a memorable destination. Backpackers who have been here once, frequently come back for more because it’s too much to take it all in on one trip. It just might be time to break that piggy bank designated for your Mars adventure and just come here instead. It will be much more affordable and just as great of a trip. See you in Moon Valley! If you want to read some interesting stories about traveling in the Atacama desert, you should check out Sun-Dried Icicles!