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The legendary Matterhorn and the beautiful Swiss town of Zermatt.

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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.