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The Atacama Desert

February 12, 2017



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.