Last updated on: May 14, 2020
With so many magnificent natural places and outdoor activities like sand boarding and stargazing, exploring the Atacama Desert in Chile should definitely be on your travel bucket list.
It reminded me of Arizona, an arid landscape ranging from beautiful canyons to dramatic peaks. But in Atacama, you’ll also find salt lakes, volcanoes, lava fields, geysers, and lagoons.
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When I first touched down at Calama airport, I was surprised to see clouds.
“Clouds in the desert?” I thought.
It looked like it was going to rain.
But as the world’s highest desert and one of the driest places on earth, it rarely rains in Atacama.
That’s because the rain shadow caused by the Andes and the Antarctic currents of the western Pacific Ocean mean there’s typically not enough moisture to produce rain.
There are a number of breathtaking valleys in the Atacama Region, most notably Moon Valley or Valle de la Luna, which is known for its moon-like landscape of rock formations.
It definitely looks like it could be a place on the moon!
The same could be said for nearby Death Valley or Valle de la Muerte with its rugged peaks and sand dunes. It’s one of the most popular places for sand boarding and watching the sunset over the Moon Valley.
Did you know that the Atacama Region and its valleys have been used as a filming location for Mars scenes? In fact, the Atacama Region has actually been compared to Mars, given similarities in the soil.
I spent a day visiting the altiplanic areas and nearby towns with a guide, first stopping at Laguna Chaxa in Los Flamencos National Reserve.
The serenity of the lake was mesmerizing, it perfectly mirroring the distant mountain and blue sky.
Laguna Chaxa was where I first spotted Chilean (all pink) and Andean flamingos (black beaks and rear feathers). They were so engaged in their routine of flying, fishing, and floating in the water.
However, what used to be thousands of flamingos on the lake has been diminished to hundreds due to nearby salt mines, which threaten the very existence of wildlife around the lake. This combined with new weather patterns caused by climate change is having a huge impact on the habitat of the region as a whole.
Not too far from Laguna Chaxa are Laguna Miñiques and Laguna Miscanti. But due to road closures, we couldn’t visit them, so we ventured on to higher elevations.
At more than 4,000 meters or 13,120 feet above sea level, we reached Piedras Rojas and Salar de Aguas Calientes, which are located in a high-plateau area characterized by red stones, marshes, and beautiful lakes.
It marked the first time I had ever reached such a high elevation. And though the winter winds were relentless, the scenery was incredible.
During a stop in Tocanao, I visited a local home where they make and sell wool products.
I had recently learned that llamas and alpacas are part of the camel family, and I got a chance to get up close and personal with my furry friends. However, I didn’t realize that the two animals in the home were different until the owner said so. LOL.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
I was told that alpacas have longer necks, and llamas have larger ears.
Can you tell the difference?
My trip to Chile coincided with the solar eclipse across South America, so it was quite thrilling to once again observe the phenomenal dance between the sun and the moon. My first solar eclipse was in the US in 2017.
I also went stargazing, since Atacama is one of the best places to do so. The night sky was lit, literally, and I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life!
I thoroughly enjoyed observing stars and planets through a telescope and learning about the solar system and constellations like the Southern Cross, which isn’t visible in much of the Northern Hemisphere.
Seeing Jupiter and Saturn was nothing short of amazing!
The base of any trip to the Atacama Desert is San Pedro de Atacama, a charming little touristy town of 2,500 people. The town felt like a throwback to the ‘Wild West’ in the US with dusty roads and modern-day saloons.
At night, the town is just as lively as the day, and you’ll often hear live music emanating from the restaurants, many of which have native decor and open-air interior courtyards with fire pits.
A few restaurants to check out are La Estaka, Adobe, and Baltinache.
Not only are there wonderful markets, shops, and restaurants in San Pedro, but there are also several lovely small boutique hotels to choose from as well as numerous hostels.
I chose Hotel Pascual Andino, an intimate well-located boutique property of 10 rooms that had the most amazing shower and spotless rooms.
All in all, I had a fabulous time and would love to come back in their summer and visit Atacama as well as other parts of Chile.
Have you visited the Atacama Desert?
What activities did you do?