Exploring the Wonders of Chile’s Atacama Desert

Located in the north of the country around 1500 kilometres from Chile’s capital of Santiago, where flights arrive and depart from all over the world, the Atacama Desert is the world’s highest, driest and oldest, having experienced semi-arid conditions for about 150 million years. This incredible world of moonscapes, turquoise lakes, steaming geysers, sand-whipped rock formations, crusty salt plains, hot springs and snowcapped volcanoes ensures that the Atacama Desert is a must visit on your list of places to see before you die – or get too old to enjoy the magic! 

Rhonda Bannister takes us on a walk through Chile’s incredible Atacama Desert.

A Fools Gold

Standing at the brink of a high cliff, drinking in the breathtaking view of the desolate plains of Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) and the majestic Andes mountain range under an azure sky so clear and bright it looks as though it’s been photoshopped into the scene, I had to wonder what the Spanish explorer, Diego de Almagro, thought as he gazed across the same desert landscape, only from the opposite direction, almost 500 years ago.

In an epic journey of endurance, he crossed the Andes cordillera from Peru with a large contingent of soldiers and slaves in search of the vast gold treasures he believed awaited him in Chile, but instead of gold he found an inhospitable desert and a native population of hostile Mapuche Indians who were less than welcoming. Adding to his woes was the fact that nearly half his men had perished, frozen in the snow and ice during the mountain crossing, so, fair to say his impression of Chile couldn’t have been very flattering. 

Poor Diego; after achieving the distinction of being the first European to cross into Chile and walk across the Atacama Desert, he ended up a few years later back in Peru never finding the treasure of gold he sought. If only he’d known about the rich deposits of copper and other minerals that lay under his feet he might have given up the adventurous life of a conquistador and become a cigar-chomping mine owner instead!

Related article: The Ultimate Travel Guide to Chile for Couples

San Pedro de Atacama -The Adventure Begins Here

It’s a two-hour flight from Santiago and just over an hour’s drive from Calama airport to the town of San Pedro de Atacama which lies In the shadow of the mighty Lincancabur Volcano. This is your hub for accommodation and food options plus where to organise half and full-day tours to the desert’s wonders.

There’s accommodation for all budgets from backpacker to luxe, and because this was a trip of a lifetime for us, we decided to go all out and stay at Explora’s Hotel de Larache, a stunning five-star property just a few minutes walk from town.

Sprawled over 17 hectares with horse stables, observatory, four swimming pools – one heated, hot tub and a spa, the hotel was designed by award winning Chilean architect, German Del Sol Guzman as a series of hacienda style buildings which radiate from a central square – the guest rooms and suites housed in the three, single storey arms. The public spaces of relaxation lounges, bar, shop, viewing decks and restaurant are located in a separate, raised structure, which provides the most exquisite views of the enchanting, snowcapped Andean peaks. We loved it!

Explora Hotels is a company specialising in five-star journeys to remote areas of South America and offers a holistic experience to all its guests with everything included in the tariff, including five-star cuisine, wine, all tours and equipment. Each day you get to choose from a wide range of explorations, from trekking to mountain climbing, bicycling and horse-riding to full and half-day tours to the surrounding geological wonders, accompanied by professional, extremely knowledgeable bilingual guides. 

Wonders of the desert

On our first night we walked into the small town of San Pedro de Atacama through its almost deserted streets of cafes and backpacker hostels, souvenir and tour shops. The town, laid out by the Spanish in the sixteenth century looked sleepy and charming with its lovely plaza and postcard perfect church. Because it was low season it was almost empty, a far cry from peak tourist season when the streets are apparently crowded and alive with the bonhomie of visitors from all parts of the globe. 

Next morning we dragged ourselves out of a warm bed at 4am, rugged up for the bitterly cold, minus-degree morning, and embarked on a trip to the El Tatio Geysers which are located 145 kilometres away at an altitude of over 4,000 metres. Watching the spectacular eruption of steam shooting from the bowels of the earth through over 80 geysers as the sun came up was pretty exciting stuff and made the early start worthwhile – even if my teeth were chattering and knees knocking with the cold. Driving back along the long, straight highway that connects Chile to Bolivia, we were stopped by a herd of llamas idly crossing the road, one in front of the other, paying no heed to us as they headed toward the mountains looking very sweet with pretty ribbons tied in their hair.  

Few places in the world could match the Atacama Desert for absolute wow factor and even though we’ve been to deserts in Arabia and Australia, driving through this landscape was like nothing we’d seen before. It really is what you would imagine the moon to be like and in fact, this was where NASA did some road tests before the moon landing took place.

Ancient Rock Carvings

The next day my husband opted for an adventurous, 20-kilometre bike ride which ended with a swim in Los Ojos de Salar – two lagoons formed by sinkholes that are saltier than the Dead Sea! I settled on an hour-long drive to see the 3,000-year-old petroglyphs (rock carvings) in the valley of Yerbas Buenas, a resetting place for herders, traders and travellers in centuries past. Little is known about the prehistoric carvings but being in the dry desert air has preserved them as though they were carved yesterday. There’s hundreds of drawings of llamas, alpacas, flamingos  and other animals so it’s worth the drive to see these ancient carvings not seen by many.

Related: A couple’s travel guide to Peru

Salt Plains, Moonscapes and Flamingos 

One of the most memorable experiences (there were so many!) was walking through a maze of canyons and giant spires in Valley de la Luna (Moon Valley) imagining we were actually on the moon, awed by the amazing rock formations and caves formed by eons of erosion.

But the best was yet to come; a stunning sunset walk through the salt plains of Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile situated just an hour’s drive from the hotel in the Los Flamencos National Reserve. This place was amazing; dried-up and very sharp salt crystals as far as the eye could see, only interrupted by a couple of shallow lakes where flamingoes danced around on their long, skinny legs. Walking through the man-made paths we could feel and hear the crackle of salt under our boots and taste it on our tongue – what a fascinating, totally unique landscape to be walking through. Our guides timed it so we would be there just as the sun went into free-fall behind the distant Domeyko mountains, creating an incredible, luminescent light show over the Andes. 

Valle de la Muerte

And so, here we are on our final day, back to the beginning of the story, standing on the peak of a cliff enjoying the incredible view across the Valley of Death and thinking about poor old Diego when our guide José says we’re going to walk – or run – down the 200-metre high sand dune in front of us. A sudden panic comes over me at the thought of tumbling head-first down this precipitous dune where I’m certain I’ll break my neck or at least a leg or a shoulder but it’s too late – he’s gone, so we have no option but to plunge down after him sliding deep into the volcanic sand so our boots and pants filled with sand.

The trek down was actually great fun and I felt like a child again, playing in a giant sandpit, sorry when it ended on the valley floor so far below.

Marvel at the starry night sky in one of the world’s best stargazing destinations

There was just time for one more activity before we left for our trip to Patagonia in the morning, so we wandered back to the hotel’s observatory where we were dazzled by the clarity and number of heavenly bodies peppered across the inky night sky and clearly visible through their Meade 16 inch telescope. With little light pollution the skies here are the clearest in the world so it’s easy to spot (and make a wish upon) Sirius and Canopus, the brightest stars in the sky – the same stars poor old Diego must have fruitlessly wished upon so many centuries ago.

Related: Why not add a foodie holiday in Chile to your Atacama Desert adventure?

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