The region lies at high altitudes – over 2,500 meters (8,200 ft) above sea level – contributing to very low temperatures and air humidity (about 10%). The Andes mountains run alongside the desert, acting as a natural barrier from the moisture of the Amazon basin. Amazingly, there are parts of the Atacama with no recorded rainfall since record-keeping began! Nada. Zilch. Zero.
The intense blinding sun here seems to evaporate every drop of moisture of the Earth’s surface, and the natural geo-thermal activity of the region heats the ground from below. So it’s not hard to imagine the simmering cauldron of sand and mud that literally boils before your eyes leaving behind crusty tubes of salt jutting out from the ground.
Exploring the Atacama desert on your own is slow going but easy, and we found renting a car allowed us more time to take it all in – the utter silence, the endless views that stretch out as far as you can see, and the unbelievable beauty of this desolate place. There are many landmark attractions to take in here, but here are seven must-sees to visit when you go.
The Salar de Atacama
The Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats, cover large expanses of the region and you’ll find some of the most scenic not far from the pueblo town of San Pedro de Atacama. Head south and you’ll drive through them, with craggy basins of white salt extending in every direction. You’ll hear the salt snap, crackle, and pop in the heat and walking on it is an adventure. Be sure to wear sturdy footwear as the flats aren’t really smooth at all but rather like huge beds of sharp coral.
A must-see in the Atacama, Laguna Cejar is not only impressive to see, it’s interactive as well. This tourist attraction is popular for a reason – it’s one of the only places near San Pedro de Atacama where you can get in the cold water and swim, even if you are just bobbing about. The super-salty water keeps you buoyant and won’t let you sink. But the water is refreshing and the heavy salt crust it leaves behind when you dry off is great for laughs and fun picture snaps. There are fresh-water showers and changing rooms near the entrance so bring a change of clothes.
Valle de la Luna
Everyone in town will tell you to visit the Valle de la Luna – or Valley of the Moon – and you really must experience it firsthand. For a small fee you can drive in and hike around the Valley, with its ever-changing sunlight. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to go, but you’ll compete with tour buses later in the afternoon. If you go just for sunset, head out an hour or two ahead of time so you can hike up the dunes for the best view. You won’t believe how beautiful sunset can be!
Valle de los Muertos
The Atacama’s Valley of the Dead is equally as impressive as the Moon Valley nearby, but in a very different way. Large rock formations jut out from among the sprawling sand dunes, and driving here can be tricky with rock slides and sand drifts. If you’re into extreme sports, hook up with a sand boarding tour in town and glide down the dunes.
El Tatio Geysers
El Tatio is the highest geothermal field in the world at nearly 14,000 feet. In the early morning hours, impressive steam fumaroles are most active gushing super-heated water way up high, and creating plumes of steam in the cold mountain air. The area is covered with mineral deposits and thermal ponds, and is surrounded by mountains reaching over 19,000 feet.
The road to the geysers leads through the most epic lunar landscapes you’re likely to see in the Atacama. Here and there you’ll see wetland areas teeming with nature, an odd juxtaposition against the arid desert climate. Green travel at its most spectacular.
The night sky
The Atacama desert is one of the world’s best places to see and photograph the night sky. Whether you love stargazing or astrophotography, this place should be on your bucket list. The high elevation of the Atacama desert means you’ll have a crystal clear view of the heavens year round. It’s such an attraction that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array – or ALMA – here, the largest astronomical project in existence. ALMA is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau near San Pedro de Atacama. The observatory is open for public visits during the weekends. Plan on catching a tour when you visit, or bring your tripod to capture some amazing shots of your own.
The Tropic of Capricorn & The Inca Road
Among the many roads and trails constructed in pre-Columbian South America, the Inca road system was the most extensive and highly advanced for its time. Part of the trail runs through the Atacama desert near San Pedro de Atacama, and you’ll find the trailhead easily at the Tropic of Capricorn marker south of San Pedro de Atacama. The marker alone is worth a picture, looking oddly out-of-place like a space antenna. But the trail itself leads through breathtaking landscape with ancient petroglyphs, and skirts parts of the scenic Salar de Tara.