Why visit the Atacama Desert?
Chile’s Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world. What of interest could possibly be there? Plenty! From landscapes that resemble distant planets, to erupting geysers to some of the starriest skies you’ve ever seen, Atacama is not to be missed!
When we crossed the border from Bolivia into Chile by bus, there w ere two things that we immediately noticed – first, the border security was much tighter. In fact, our bags were x-rayed as if at an airport, and they were inspected for any contraband food that we might be ‘smuggling’ in. Second, as soon as our bus got going again, we were suddenly – magically – back on paved roads. Ah, the relief!
The town of San Pedro de Atacama
The little town of San Pedro de Atacama – the major tourist spot in the Atacama Desert – is nestled between the Andes and Pacific Coast mountain ranges, meaning that it is in a double-sided rain shadow. The terrain is so incredibly dry, parts of the desert are used to model the atmosphere on Mars. Given that, it’s amazing to find a town as bustling as San Pedro thriving in this environment.
The town is comprised of a honeycomb of adobe-walled houses, creating a bit of a maze on a grid design. Far from being a traditional settlement, we struggled to find locals who actually seemed to live in the main part of town – most of it seems to be taken up with hotels, hostels, souvenir shops and tour companies. That said, the vibe is cool and there are many of fun places to eat.
We took a half-day tour to see the geysers. Just note, those tours leave very early in the morning so that you can get to see them when they are at their most spectacular (and active) at sunrise. The geysers are a collection of mud-bubbling pools and steam-venting cracks in the earth. They may not look terribly dangerous, but falling in is no laughing matter – tourists have died when they lost their balance trying to take the inevitable selfie.
Despite being surrounded by scalding steam everywhere, it was very cold while we were there and we were grateful when our tour guide huddled us around our van for some hot chocolate and biscuits.
On our way back to San Pedro, we drove to a place that had flamingos wading in pools. It was beautiful, but to be honest, we were spoiled having seen the flamingos in Uyuni, so we took a picture of ourselves doing our best flamingo instead.
Valleys of Mars and the Moon
The following day, we took another half-day tour (this time mercifully starting in the afternoon) to see the two famous valleys of the Moon and Mars. We began our extra-terrestrial landing in Mars, first looking over the valley, then climbing down a sandy side of it that could have been straight out of Laurence of Arabia. Honestly, I’ve never been so scared as when I was faced with walking down a steep wall of sand. However, no matter how steep, the sand seems to hold your weight as you gently glide down with each step.
The Valley of the Moon looked a bit like its namesake, with white salt dustings sprinkled generously. The most spectacular part of our visit was watching the sunset from the top of a mountain ridge – the mountains in the distance are painted in array of colors as the sun slides down. Be forewarned that while the sight is beautiful, the vantage point is can be windy and cold, so do bring your windbreaker!
With its lack of pollution of either light or exhaust, the Atacama Desert is one of the premiere places in the world to go stargazing. Many tour companies offer tours in town; the only problem is that if the moon is full, most tours will not be running. We had the misfortune to be there when the moon was at its fullest, so for the three nights we had in town, we were out of luck. Thus, if stargazing is high on your list (and it should be!) then please do check the moon phases before booking your dates!
Kelly’s Top Tips for Atacama:
- Plan your visit based on phase of moon if you want to see the stars – highly recommended!
- Budget vs All-Inclusive – it is very easy to just get to San Pedro and plan your itinerary ad hoc with the various tour companies in town. However, the quality of the companies can vary greatly. If your budget permits, you may be better off going with an all-inclusive plan offered by one of the better hotels
- It can be very COLD in the desert – be prepared with wind-proof clothing, gloves, and possibly hand warmers!
- It can be difficult to get cash in San Pedro – there are not many ATMs (especially given the number of tourists!), and those that exist are often out of money. It’s good to have cash on hand that can be exchanged at one of the many money-changers there.
- You can save a good deal of money if you are willing to stay in a place slightly out of town. We stayed in a place with both yurts and cabins for a song and had a pleasant 20-minute walk into town.