Be transported to Mars in the world's driest desert
The Atacama Desert in the north of Chile, the driest non-polar desert in the world, offers a cinematic landscapes which stretch as far as the snow-capped peaks of the Andes in the distance. The Atacama is the world as you have never seen it before: brightly coloured mineral lakes, thick-crusted salt flats, flocks of Andean flamingos silhouetted on the bright clue sky, wind-sculpted rock formations, and the cavernous Moon Valley. Here, stunning sunsets tinge the land rich hues of reds, pinks and browns for as far as the eye can see. The clear, unpolluted night-time skies and powerful telescopes of the Atacama offer some of the world's very best star gazing opportunities, close to San Pedro de Atacama.
Atacama Desert - Moon Valley
Much of the cinematic landscape for which the Atacama is so beloved is found in the Moon Valley, a short drive from San Pedro de Atacama. Dramatic rock formations, vertiginous sand dunes and the distant outline of the Andes Mountains combine to create an other-worldly habitat, so dry and barren that it is devoid of all life, aside from human visitors.
The Moon Valley and the nearby Death Valley are two of the very best places in Chile to watch the sun go down, as the lunar landscape softens and is bathed in a beautiful golden light, below the purple skies above.
El Tatio Geysers
Atacama Desert - El Tatio Geysers
The sunrise excursions to the 80 active geysers of El Tatio are a popular addition to the Atacama experience. The geysers spurt huge plumes of boiling hot steam upwards before evaporating into the cold early morning air. After witnessing the awesome power of the geysers, visitors can also take a dip in the nearby hot springs, a welcome escape from the cold. At 4,320 metres above sea level, as well as being the third largest geyser field anywhere in the world, they are also the highest. The combination of the early start, high altitude and dim morning light make for a slightly dizzying and surreal, but thoroughly memorable, experience.
San Pedro de Atacama
Atacama Desert - San Pedro de Atacama
Amid all of this, perhaps most surprising is the appearance of the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. At an altitude of 2,400 meters, which should not pose a problem for visitors, although some excursions go much higher and require some time for acclimatisation. San Pedro's history starts with civilizations dating back to 10,000 years ago, and its people, traditions and culture of today descend from the Incas, Aymarás and Atacameñans. The village is a hub of tourist activity with many small hostels and shops, an excellent museum (closed for renovation until further notice), numerous restaurants and cafes, a historic church (also under renovation), and a wide variety of crafts sold by local people in the town market. Outlying streets are shaded with twisted desert trees and lined with lovely, hand-hewn fences. All seasons in San Pedro are pleasant for travel.
While San Pedro de Atacama does not have its own airport, it is served by the airport in Calama, about an hour and a half away by road. Calama has several daily flights which connect it with Santiago.
San Pedro can also be reached overland by a full day scenic drive from Salta in the north ofArgentina, or in several days through the Altiplano from Bolivia. These journeys are for the adventurous traveller, but pass through the breathtaking desert scenery unique to northern Chile.
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