The Atacama Desert
The Atacama desert, otherwise known as the highest and driest non-polar desert in the world. The Atacama desert is also Chile's most popular tourist destination. My trip to Chile in 2015 would not be complete without an adventure to this famed desert location.
There are several ways to reach this popular desert region including plane, tour bus, and by rental car. Part of me regrets renting a car and driving up to this location, but another part of me is glad that I did. This was the longest road trip I have ever done by myself, the trip duration just fell under 17 hours one way, or about 1600 km. It can be difficult spending 32 hours in a car round trip by yourself, in a foreign country, and in a desolate desert region. An awesome music playlist is pretty much necessary to make such road trips happen!
There were many surprises that popped up while I was en route to my end destination of San Pedro de Atacama. I met some interesting and friendly people, though it was difficult finding anyone who spoke English well between Valparaiso and San Pedro de Atacama.
I started this lengthy road trip in Valparaiso, which I have an article highlighting my experience at this wonderful city that can be read by clicking here. As I traveled north from Valparaiso, there was lots of beautiful mountainous scenery, epic cliff highways, and greenery everywhere. There were lots of road side 'shops' set up all along this route selling fresh fruit, beverages, food items, and more! I never did stop to check out any of these makeshift stores, but I wish I would have. Chile is a major exporter of fruit, it would have been great to try some stuff out directly from the source.
The further and further I drove along the coastline route I began to find myself upon more flatter land, with the mountains moving more to the east. Things started to become more arid and desert like too. Along this drive, I also began to become increasingly more and more irate with the irrational number of tollways. I swear I spent over $30-50 USD each way just for these damn tollways. I was literally swearing at every new sign for a tollway after about halfway through my road trip to the desert. I also became increasingly fond of the song "Hotel California" by The Eagles. It just seemed like a fitting song to drive through a desolate desert for many, many hours.
My first resting point on this journey was in the coastal port city of Caldera, which sits along the Pacific coastline. It is also very close to the location of the 2010 San Jose mine collapse caused by an earthquake that stranded 33 Chilean miners. Remarkably, all of those stranded in this incident survived and were rescued after 69 days, despite being 3 miles into a mountain!
The next day I took off with San Pedro de Atacama in my sights! It was another day of 8+ hours of driving. There were a few side stops along the way. The most notable stop along this final leg of the trip was a giant hand that seemed to be reaching out of the desert sand and rocks.
This infamous hand is known as Mano del Desierto and is literally in the middle of nowhere. This giant art sculpture was created by artist Mario Irarrázabal and was completed in 1992. The hand is said to represent injustice, loneliness, sorrow, and the human condition. This is symbolic remembrance of the harsh and violent dictatorship that plagued the Chilean country from 1972-1990 under the rule of Augusto Pinochet.
Moving away from the dark and violent history mentioned above relating to Mano del Desierto, I was back on my way to San Pedro de Atacama. The stretches of road during this last portion were extremely remote. I pondered what would happen if the car I was in were to break down. I knew I would have a difficult time speaking with any people passing by, and help was probably several hours away if not more. Fortunately, this scenario never played out, and I made it the entire journey without any car issues!
I reached San Pedro in the evening, just in time to catch some sunset views of the desert valley and Valle de la Luna. It was another otherworldly destination. The Atacama desert is often referred to having a landscape similar to that of Mars. The shadows from the cliffs, and the lingering light from the sunset painted a beautiful and rugged landscape around me. I couldn't wait to explore it more the following day!
It took me some time to find a place to stay in San Pedro. This a bustling tourist town pretty much year round. Try to make prior arrangements for accommodation before coming here, so you can avoid the frustrating experience I had in finding a place to sleep.
To make matters worse, driving in this city gets to be frustrating with all of the tourists wandering the narrow dirt streets. It is probably easier to just park and then explore this city.
I had the thought that I was wandering through an old western town, or even Mos Eisley on Tatooine when I was exploring San Pedro. Sadly, I did not find any spaceports containing the Millennium Falcon. There is a abundance of restaurants, hotels/hostels, shops, travel agencies/guides, and more here. A lot of the restaurants had a very unique style that made dinners here very memorable. This is a great place to find supplies if you are in need of anything. Be forewarned, prices will be higher in San Pedro. Also, I only came across one gas station in my time here, and it was very well hidden!
The following day I decided to take off south to the actual Atacama desert (the Atacama Region makes up a much bigger area). I made it a point to drive off into this world famous desert and wander around on foot. Boy, it was hot and dry! I could almost feel the water leaving my body as soon as I got out of the comfortable air conditioning of my vehicle. There was nothing but rock and sand, surrounded by mountains in the distance. It was very flat. I cant imagine how anything could survive here. Maybe this was the reason why James Bond (Daniel Craig) gave his captured enemy a can of motor oil and left him to be stranded in this very desert at the end of Quatum of Solace.
Make sure to bring plenty of extra water wherever you go here. I found myself going through a lot of water. Not to mention the higher altitude takes a cut at your hydration levels too. Just for comparison sake, the city I currently live (Minneapolis) in sits at about 866 feet above sea level, while the Atacama desert sits at about 7896 feet above sea level.
There is a lot to see and do while in the Atacama Region. This area is probably the best spot in the world for astronomy. You will see lots of observatories posted on mountainsides along the way if you drive. Its high position, lack of light pollution, and over 300+ days of cloudless nights make it a perfect spot for astronomy. Make sure to save some time late at night to go experience this great observation opportunity, or go take some stargazing tours that are offered in the area. On my second night in the Atacama I drove off into the desert to spend the night in my car in the middle of nowhere. What I failed to take notice of was that it was a full moon that night. Failure on my part! This made seeing the stars and Milky Way galaxy much more difficult with the bright moon interfering! Go figure! It definitely got cold in my car that night, I was also afraid of being kidnapped by weird desert people, like something out of the movie, The Hills Have Eyes.
Aside from my failed attempts of night photography in the Atacama region, there are salt flats in the immediate area, awesome sand dunes, a large geyser field, volcanoes, historical sights, and more. For a portion of my day I also took off on a highway up into the mountains, which was pretty much the border between Chile and Bolivia. I was doing my best to try to find the notorious mine fields that surround some of the borders of Chile and Bolivia (among other bordering countries too). My attempts were futile, though that's probably for the best. I would rather not get blown up and wind up on the news for trying to take a selfie in front of a old minefield. These minefields that are slowly being removed from the Chilean borders are another reminder of the dark, and not so distant past of the former Chilean dictatorship.
Chile is home to many of the world's volcanoes. While it is not the top country, it sure does have a ton. If you have any interest in volcano tourism, this is a good region to check out. Volcanoes are scattered throughout most of Chile's lengthy and narrow countryside.
The photo below displays the two volcanoes Licancabur and Juriques. I didn't even realize there was a second volcano until I started researching for this blog article! I also found out that in the crater of Licancabur sits the 6th highest lake in the world (19,400 feet). It would had been a great experience to reach the top of Licancabur to see this awesome crater lake, but from what I've read, its very difficult to ascend Licancabur due to its steep incline.
After this little side excursion to the borders of Chile and Bolivia, I took off towards my main goal of Valle de la Luna with aspirations to be there during the sunset. Valle de La Luna or Valley of the Moon, is exactly what it sounds like. It feels like you are in some sort of lunar valley or landscape. It was formed by rock and sand that was carved out by erosion from the harsh desert winds and water, over a very lengthy period of time.
There is a road that drives through much of Valle de la Luna, which offers many spots to park and access the many hiking paths in this alien landscape. Make sure to stop at one of the visitor centers, pay for park admission, and pick up some maps that identify all of the regions of the park. There are no shortages of hiking trails here that can be found on the visitor center maps.
Once again, bring lots of water, it gets hot! You could easily spend an entire day here and still not see everything, though a day would provide sufficient enough time to see most things. Be sure to stick around for the sunset or arrive early enough for the sunrise. The sun really creates some stunning visuals alongside the already vivid colors that are already present in the valley. The moon is also known to create some rather interesting photography moments as well!
I spent a total of 3 days in the Atacama desert and San Pedro de Atacama. I would say another day or two would have given me enough time to see everything. I missed out on some cool places. Book ahead if going to this destination in northern Chile. It is pretty busy most times of the year since the weather is often the same and predictable.
Valle de la Luna was my favorite spot up here, as I'm sure many other people find this to be their favorite as well. It reminded me of Cappadocia in Turkey and the Badlands in South Dakota, USA. All of these areas have had interesting rock formations due to wind and water erosion over a long period of time.
After I had left the Atacama desert, something rare happened, and it happened just a day or two after my departure. The desert flowers in the region blossomed, and they blossomed more vibrantly than they usually ever do. This was due to higher rainwater amounts in 2015. It would have been a surreal experience to see this rare phenomenon occur, but of course I was already on my way back to Valparaiso!
Aside from my trip to the Atacama desert, I would like to also place a spotlight on two other destinations I stopped at on my way south. The first would be Pan de Azúcar National Park. This park sits along the coastline of northern Chile. It's another one of those middle of nowhere locations. I imagine you are only going to be able to access this destination by ground transport.
I clearly went to Pan de Azúcar National Park during an off season or something as the park was oddly EMPTY. I felt like I was the only one here exploring this beautiful coastal location. I wish I would have brought food with me when I was out here, it would have been perfect place to have lunch and have several massive beaches all to myself. It truly was odd how I maybe saw 2-3 people my entire time there.
This park had a lot of beautiful scenery, and a lot of various wildlife roaming around the coastline. I didn't get to take up any of the various hiking trails in this park, but there are a bunch! This would be a great spot to spend a night camping, the amenities here looked great. There are not too many places where you can literally just camp on the beach facing the Pacific Ocean! This park is known for its diverse wildlife and fauna. There is a lot of helpful signs and information here (and in English!) that provide details on the importance of this park, and what can all be found within its boundaries. Definitely make a stop here if you drive by it!
My final destination on this trip was a small tourist town known as Bahia Ingles. It is known for its beautiful beaches and accommodations nearby.. I only spent one night in this quirky bohemian beach town, but I could see the reason for its popularity for travelers, whether it be Chileans or foreigners. Unfortunately, I did not take any photos of this neat little coastal city. If you are looking for a great half-way point between Santiago and the Atacama desert, look no further. I should also mention, the food was great here too! There are a decent amount of great restaurants, shops, and hotels in Bahia Ingles.
There is reason why the Atacama desert is the most popular tourist region in Chile. Its ease of access, lots of activities and sights to see, and great accommodation all come together to make a ideal vacation destination. The predictable dry heat climate doesn't hurt its popularity either. It's basically like a desert paradise!
I honestly think in due time Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park will eventually become the biggest draw to Chile, but for now the Atacama reigns supreme. The favorable weather in the Atacama region makes it a possible destination all year round. The same cannot be said of Patagonia and Torres del Paine.
You really should make a effort to visit the Atacama region if you travel to Chile. There is a lot to see and do. There really is a lot to take away from the world's most highest and driest non-polar desert. The beauty of this area is made by its utter desolation.
If you do find yourself in this part of the world, make sure you bring lots of water, sunscreen, and sunglasses. The sunlight here is very intense. Also, don't forget you are likely in the best place in the world to view the night sky. Look upwards during the nighttime and enjoy!
Below are a few other photos I took while I was in the Atacama region.
If you are looking for another area to explore in Chile, especially if you are in the Torres del Paine area try checking out Tierra del Fuego.