It’s difficult finding the words to describe the world’s driest and most surreal desert destination; Chile’s Atacama Desert is truly out of this world, more than just sand dunes it feels like you’re on another planet. With its volcanoes, mountain cliffs, spellbinding night skies and more, there are countless reasons why you should visit Chile’s Atacama Desert. Find out why this diverse landscape and all that it offers should be on your bucket list…
Surfing Sand Dunes
Its no secret the Atacama has some of the highest and best sand dunes for sand boarding, but did you know just how high they are? There’s one area called Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), it lives up to its name with 100m high sand dunes proving a tough climb but well worth the reward when you’re on top and witnessing breathtaking 360-degree views of the desert. The best part of these dunes is that if you’ve managed to lug a board to the top, you’ll have the pleasure of the adrenaline filled high-speed journey back down.
Valley de la Luna
The Valley of the Moon is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring places to visit in the Atacama. Its name comes from its unearthly terrain resembling that of the moon. The valley consists of enormous sand dunes, and salt rocks, created entirely by erosion over time. The strong winds and stark temperature change from day to night have given this place its distinctive look.
The best time to visit this valley is in the afternoon; so you can witness the gorgeous sunset views, emphasising the white and red colours of the arid soil of the salt mountains.
Just South of San Pedro in Los Flamencos National Reserve, the Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat, strikingly mirrors the distant Andes in water that’s only a few feet deep. By evening, the thick salt deposits form large honeycomb like shapes, which you can hear cracking in the low temperatures. The seemingly never-ending Salar de Atacama salt flat extends over 8 000 km2, where you can see the contrasting pink Andean against the astounding white landscape and azure sky.
El Tatio Geysers
At an astounding 4,300m above sea level, The El Tatio geysers are the world’s highest geyser field. The best time to visit the geysers is early in the morning where the icy morning temperatures prevent the steam from the geysers from evaporating. While the temperature starts at around -11 or sometimes colder, by the time the sun rises, you’ll definitely feel a quick temperature change. Speaking of sun rises, the El Tatio Geysers is one of the most magical places to witness the sun rise; the sun’s rays cut through the clouds and shine through the steam from the geysers, creating a stunning visual.
The Atacama Desert features some of the oldest mummies and artefacts in the world. Mummies naturally created by the extremely dry climate and soil conditions dating back as early as 7020B.C have been found. In addition, the Chinchorro culture began mummifying its deceased members over 2000 years before the Egyptians; human modified mummies from 5050BC have been found.
In addition to life over 7000 years ago in the desert, there is evidence of later civilisations. Located in an ancient oasis, Tulor Village was settled 2,500 years ago where the San Pedro River once supported it. Tulor Village is believed to be the most important of a suite of ancient villages in the Atacama Desert.
Within the Atacama you can also visit the Incan fortress at Pukará de Quitor, built in the 12th century but taken over by Spain in the 16th century. Furthermore, carved into the orange rocks at Yerbas Buenas you’ll find over 1,000 prehistoric petroglyphs, many of which resemble native animals including llamas and flamingos.
While the Atacama is the driest non-polar region in the world; there is water there. Up in the highlands, you’ll find a few lagoons scattered around. The Atacama has what we believe to be some of Chile’s most gorgeous lagoons; Cejar Lagoon is one you can swim in, but 28% salinity you can just float (the Dead Sea has 34% salinity). Two more stunning lagoons are the Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons, unfortunately you cannot go in these lagoons, however they are simply breathtaking to witness.
In a place where there is zero light pollution, it’s no surprise the stars light up the sky at night. The skies are so clear, even NASA is based there. The combination of altitude, dry air, and no light pollution creates one of the best stargazing locations on earth. April through to September is peak stargazing time due to the clear skies. Darker skies are better, so if you’re there for the stars, it’s best to avoid visiting during a full moon, however that’s a vision in itself. As well as countless constellations and a couple of planets, the Atacama is one of the best places to be to witness the dazzling Milky Way.
There are countless more reasons why the Atacama Desert should be on your bucket list, and you’ll find out the true wonder of this spectacular desert when you visit. The stars, sand dunes, rock formations, lagoons and more create a desert like no other, transporting you to another planet.