The Atacama Desert of Chile is found in the northern part of the country and is described as one of the driest places on Earth. Some parts of the region are considered rainless, with average rainfall in the region reported to be just 0.04 inches (1 mm). The Atacama Desert reaches elevations up to 13,000 feet and contains colorful, rocky terrain, sand and salt lakes that create the perfect destination for adventure travelers.
The adventure starts by just getting to this region. The closest airport is El Loa Airport in the town of Calama. Why do we describe it as an adventure to get there? Due to the mountainous landscape, the turbulence is quite extreme as you descend. Once you land and your stomach returns from your throat, it’s about an hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama which is the main town within the desert.
The Atacama Desert of Chile: Top 7 Activities
1. Visit Salt Flats
While there are many in the region, if you want to see the largest in Chile head to the Salar de Atacama. Another interesting fact is that it is the world’s largest source of Lithium. The flat was formed by water flowing down from the Andes Mountains, since it cannot escape the basin it evaporates causing salt deposits. The combination of the terrain, mountains in the distance and water pools make this quite a unique spot. If you are lucky you may even spot a few flamingos. We highly recommend coming for sunset.
Related Article: 52 Amazing Places To Hike In Chile
2. Hike the Los Cardones Ravine
Also known as cactus valley, the Los Cardones Ravine is an area with a high concentration of cacti. It was neat to get up close and personal with these fascinating species. It is impressive that they can survive with such little rainfall. The insides of the cacti are actually composed of a wood like material that had historically been used in buildings within the surrounding area.
Since use for construction was destroying the cactus and the annual growth of only 1 cm per year, the government considers them protected and a hefty fine is given for cutting one of them down. The hike offers several beautiful landscapes through the ravine with a little flowing stream that collects water from some of the surrounding mountains allowing for a bit of green vegetation throughout the hike.
3. Experience Extreme Desert Sports by Sandboarding
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear desert? Sand is certainly a popular answer to that question. When you are in a desert region with high elevations and resulting dunes, how best to experience this than by strapping a board to your feet and sandboarding! We had experienced wake boarding and snowboarding, however testing our skills on sand was a completely unique experience. The gorgeous scenery combined the thrill of boarding made for the perfect afternoon. Beware, the sun is blazing off the dunes and there is no lift up the sand. Be prepared for a pretty physical experience as your climb to the top of the sand dune. We promise the ride down will make you quickly forget about the trek to the top!
4. Relax in the Puritama Hot Springs
There is certainly an oasis to be found within the Atacama Desert of Chile region and that is Puritama Hot Springs. The hot springs are comprised of a series of 8 pools that are filled with geothermal waters offering a natural hot spring in the desert! The adventure is getting here…..it requires you to descend down a steep cliff. Our van hugged the side of the narrow mountain road as we closed our eyes and prayed we didn’t roll off! Many people chose to park at the top and walk down due to the dangerous descent. The pools are surrounded by lush greenery and there are red wooden paths that take you to each one. The water is clear as glass and there are stunning 360 degree views of the colorful canyons to take in while you relax in the pool. Overall it was surreal to be soaking in warm waters surrounded by the dry desert atmosphere.
5. Hike the Valle de la Luna
Another interesting fact about the Atacama Desert of Chile is that it is described as the most “Mars-like” place on Earth. NASA agrees and comes to the Valle de la Luna to test out equipment, in fact a prototype of the Mars Rover was tested here! The dry environment closely mimics the surface on Mars or the Moon. The landscapes we saw during this hike were breathtaking. Over time the wind and water carved out some really unique landscapes causing amazing colors, shapes and textures across the area. A hike is the perfect way to see it up close. It was interesting to cross each hill as you never knew what was coming on the other side. Red rocks, white sand, a cliff, rugged terrain, flat sand dune? The Valle de la Luna is in our opinion one of the “must see” activities within the region. The hike really showcases the unique beauty of this desert area.
Another worldly fact on the region, it is one of the few places on Earth with 300+ clear sky days in a year. Combining their clear skies with the low light pollution and high elevation creates the perfect trifecta for stargazing! In fact, it is home to some the world’s largest and most sophisticated telescopes. We chose not to take a specific stargazing tour but that is an option in the region. Our hotel, the Alto Atacama, offered an astronomy tour each night with lay-flat beds and expert guides to point out the major constellations. The sky was just jaw-dropping each night as it was painted with countless numbers of stars. We had never seen night skies as beautiful as they are in the Atacama Desert.
7. Scout for Wildlife at Los Flamencos National Reserve
Any guesses which type of wildlife we were scouting for? Yes, flamingos! If you look closely in the photo above, you can see the dots of flamingos scattered throughout the salt flat. The reserve is made up of seven distinct areas providing different landscapes and scenery throughout the reserve. Our destination was the Salar de Pujsa to see the combination of colorful landscape with a high probability of flamingo sightings. We headed East of San Pedro de Atacama towards the boarders of Bolivia and Argentina. These salt flats are vast and span across the country borders. The beautiful yellow color did not come without consequence, the smell of sulfur definitely filled the air as we gazed at the landscapes. Yet another “wow” factor of this region was seeing this area and knowing the microorganisms found in the salt water was able to sustain the flamingos.
Overall the Atacama Desert of Chile is an off-the-beaten path area filled with unique activities. While you can plan visits via tour operators for each of these areas, staying at the Alto Atacama includes 2 activities per day. There tours include small groups and highly knowledgeable guides who are passionate about educating visitors on the uniqueness of the region.
The vast number of landscape differences to see in the region offer many options when creating an itinerary. One thing is quite certain, there is no shortage of adventure when visiting the driest place on Earth!
Related Article: 52 Amazing Places To Hike In Chile
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Brian & Amanda climb the corporate ladder by day and explore the globe by night. They can frequently be found trying a new adventure activity, exploring local cuisine and sipping on whiskey and red wine. They hope their tips and travels help to inspire others to get out of the office and maximize their vacation days!