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The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world. Spanning 40,000 square miles, the desert is known for its other-worldly terrain. The experience of visiting the desert feels very cosmic, thanks in large part to the scenery that gives off serious moon-landing vibes and dark skies enabling some of the world’s best stargazing. A year-round destination because of the dry climate, most visitors can easily tack on a visit to Atacama Desert following a trip to Santiago. If you’re planning a Chilean adventure in the coming months, here’s what you need to know about visiting the Atacama Desert:
What to See in the Atacama Desert
Some of the most popular sites in Chile’s legendary desert are Chaxa Lagoon, the Atacama Salt Flats, the Tatio Geyser Field, and Valle de la Luna. Most travelers visiting the desert stay in San Pedro de Atacama, which offers proximity to the desert’s most sought-after attractions. Your hotel may also facilitate tours to some of these spots, and other gorgeous desert destinations.
The must-see salt flat is Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat and the third-largest in the world. From Salar de Atacama, visitors can see the desert expanse and volcanoes in the distance.
Chaxa Lagoon is within Los Flamencos National Reserve and Salar de Atacama. Seeing all three at once makes for a quintessential Atacama Desert exploration day. Chaxa Lagoon is a stunning pool of water within the flat, salt, desert terrain.
Tatio Geyser Field is the third largest geyser field in the world with more than 80 active geysers, making it a particularly popular desert attraction.
Valle de la Luna is just eight miles from San Pedro and exactly what you’d expect of a place dubbed the “Moon Valley.” It’s awe-inspiring sand and stone terrain that will make you feel like part of Apollo 11’s landing in 1969.
What to Do in the Atacama Desert
Thanks to the clear weather and distinct lack of pollution, Atacama Desert is a prime dark-sky stargazing destination. On December 14, 2020, Atacama Desert will be in view of the long-awaited total solar eclipse. December (early summer south of the Equator) also happens to be a perfect time to visit the area.
There’s a trail for every level of hiker in the Atacama Desert, like the Cornisas-Hike, Quebrada del Diablo (Devil’s Canyon) and the Villama Fortress, or the Guatin Gatchi Valley. Tour operators and hotels can help facilitate guided hikes through the desert.
Seeing the desert on two wheels is a favorite way to experience the moon-like terrain. The most popular areas to bike are Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley), Quebrada del Diablo, Ojos del Salar, Death Valley, and the Cejar Lagoon.
Searching for the Desert Blooms
The flowering desert phenomenon is a rarity in the Atacama Desert, only occurring every five or so years between September and December. During the flowering desert bloom, Atacama hosts nearly 200 species of purple, yellow, and white flowers best seen from the Centenario Trail in Llanos del Challe National Park.
Where to Stay near the Atacama Desert
Tierra Atacama sits next to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. A 32-room boutique resort, Tierra Atacama offers views of the northern Atacama Desert and the Licancabur volcano. The lodge features high-end design, like floor-to-ceiling windows in the guest rooms and a spa pool overlooking the desert valley. The dark skies around the hotel facilitate great stargazing, and you can spend time at the lodge’s Uma Spa, where they have outdoor yoga classes.
Perhaps best of all, Tierra Atacama will organize excursions into the desert for guests. With the hotel, you can head to Tatio Geysers at sunrise and see the geothermal spectacle in the perfect light. They also offer biking tours of Death Valley or Devil’s Canyon, both of which take about half a day.
For a challenging hike, they offer a guided tour of the Lascar Volcano. It’s a full-day hike that gains significant altitude but ultimately lands you at the rim of Lascar crater.
Among other programs, Tierra Atacama has half-day excursions to the Rainbow Valley, Coyote Rock (which has views of the Salt Mountain Range), Salar de Atacama and the Chaxa Lagoon, and the Cejar Lagoon.
How to Get to the Atacama Desert
To get to the Atacama Desert, most travelers fly into Santiago and then take the two-hour flight from Santiago to El Loa Airport in Calama. From Calama, the transfer to the hotels near San Pedro is about an hour. Most hotels can arrange a transfer from the airport for you—but be sure to ask when booking your reservation.
While it’s possible to get to San Pedro de Atacama by bus or car, it’s nearly 1,000 miles from Santiago, which makes it an 18 to 20-hour car or bus ride. Flying to Calama’s El Loa Airport is definitely the easiest way to go.