The Mysterious and Majestic Atacama Desert: A Guide to Visiting this Unforgettable Place
Updated On: May 25, 2022
Which continent has the driest desert on earth? There are some compelling choices here, Africa’s massive Sahara region or the Kalahari which is a bit further South, The Arabian desert in West Asia or the Gobi in China or Mongolia Americans might point to the Mojave or the Sonoran straddling the border with Mexico. They are all good guesses still they are all not correct. However, the Arctic and the Antarctic circles have hyper-arid points that can rival anywhere on the planet but if you want to talk about true desert regions. The driest place in the world is an overlooked thousand-mile long valley in South America nestled in between two mountain ranges near the coast. It is the Atacama Desert. The Atacama Desert is proven to be the driest desert on earth.
When you discover the Atacama desert at daybreak, you can’t tell the feeling you have journeyed to another world, a world where time has become a matter. Within a second, the earth is flooded with light. Within hours these shadows will completely disappear. The salt crystals, shards of gypsum and rivers of limestones are thousands of years old. People think this desert is eternal, unchanging and immune to any form of degradation. To understand how fragile the Atacama is, you need to explore it in the footsteps of desert guides.
Famous for being the driest desert in the world, the Atacama desert attracts tourists from all over the world. People visit the Atacama to get up close and personal with the elements for this strange experience, called the desert sensation. Faced with the flowing of visitors, the Chileans learnt to get organized. All the guides are inhabitants of the village of Toconao.
Five million years ago, this spot was home to a vast saltwater lake, but the water slowly evaporated leaving behind a crust of salt that is more than 14.00 meters thick in parts. This salt flat is one of the desert’s most popular spots. It is one of the most fragile spots as well.
Where is the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama desert is located in southern Peru and northern Chile, In terms of sheer size, it is a long strip of land about 1.600 km. It is established to occupy about 105.000 square kilometres. It’s quite a coastal desert but it is extremely close to the pacific ocean falling in the valley between the Andes mountains to the east and the Chilean coastal range to the west in southern Peru. The desert areas even extend beyond the mountain range and to the coast.
How to Get to the Atacama Desert?
First, you need to fly to Calama Airport, then you go to San Pedro de Atacama. There are some options to choose from to go from the airport to San Pedro de Atacama. A bus is an option which would take about 1hour and 45 minutes. Price ranges from 16 US$ to 65 US$. You can also take a taxi which would take 1 hour and 14 minutes. It is the fastest way to go. It costs from 85 US$ to 110 US$. Another option is to drive. You can rent a car that would take 1 hour and 14 minutes. Prices range from 11 US$ to 16 US$. You can also use the shuttle bus which takes about 1 hour and 25 minutes. It is the second speedy and the lowest-priced way of transportation. Prices range from 15 US$ o 100 US$.
Best Time to Visit the Atacama Desert
The Atacama desert is an out of season destination, since it has so little rain, and temperatures are relatively constant. You are on the edge of a desert, so the weather is rather consistent: dry and hot.
Summer (December to February): Summer is the high season. However in the weeks before Christmas, San Pedro de Atacama isn’t crowded. So, you can usually have good offers for staying or trips.
Daily temperatures range from 16C to 30C. Although summer is technically the rainy season in northern Chile. rain is relative.
Autumn (March to May): May, specifically, is an ideal month to visit as it’s cooler. May and June are the low seasons when you can get good deals. The advantage of coming in the low season is you can pay a reasonable price for a shared trip. In low season, the classic spots which you need to visit at a particular time of day are a lot less busy.
Winter (June to August): Temperatures can go down to 4C at night. Although daytime temperatures can still be around 22C, It can be cold at night, but the clear winter skies make this the ideal time for stargazing in the Atacama. It is recommended to come in June or August, as July is the winter holiday in Chile, so many locals go to the Atacama.
Spring (September to November): reserve the trip ahead if you’re planning to visit Chile in mid-September, as on September 18th which is the national Independence Day, many Chileans like to move to the Atacama. The blustery months in San Pedro are October, November and December. Still, it is not a cold wind, since summer is just around the corner. And this is a perfect time to come if you’re combining the Atacama with a trip to Patagonia. Patagonia is on the other side of the country.
Is there a Life in the Atacama Desert?
Unexpectedly, in an area that receives almost no rain, there is some water. There are a few lagoons and some rivers such as the San Pedro in the Atacama desert. Where there is water, there is life. The desert is home to some, animals, plants and people. There are several natural resources in the Atacama desert. There are many copper mines where 33 Chilean miners became trapped underground for 52 days. The Atacama desert is the home of the ALMA telescope. It is the largest and most expensive telescope project in the world. All of these circumstances show that people and industry can survive in even difficult conditions.
Exploring the Atacama Desert
San Pedro de Atacama: It seems to have survived in time. There is little electricity and limited Wi-Fi, an authentic yet well-equipped place that boards thousands of guests every year.
You can enjoy the maze-like streets of San Pedro, see its gift shops and cafés, and be stunned by the history of its church built in 1557, found in the main square. You can visit the artisan’s fair as well and have some typical products from the area. There are various hotels to stay in. Then, you can go on tours of the surrounding attractions. You can also rent a bicycle, but always be aware of the features of the places you would like to visit.
Los Flamencos National Reserve: It was created in 1990. It aims at protecting wildlife species like the Culpeo fox, vicuñas and pumas, and vegetation like the Tamarugo and the Carob tree. It’s recommended to have it on your list of things to do in San Pedro de Atacama. The Los Flamencos National Reserve is separated into various sectors. It is distributed over an extended space of land, which includes some attractions like the Valley of the Moon, the Tara Salt Flat, the Pujsa Salt Flat, High Andean Lagoons (Miscanti and Miñiques), the Atacama Salt Flat, Tulor Village or the Tambillo sector, with its 370-hectare forest of Tamarugo trees.
Cycling in the desert: the best time for cycling is early morning and evening as it gets very hot during the day. You need to keep yourself hydrated, use sunscreen and wear a cap. Renting a bicycle is not expensive and it is best to do sightseeing around San Pedro de Atacama. You can get to the Moon Valley, the Death Valley and Devil’s Throat as well. There are many places available in the town to rent a bike. If you stay in the valley for the sunset just remember to get a bicycle lock and a light. You can also take photos and enjoy the scenery.
Go hiking in the Atacama: You need to carry a lot of water to keep yourself hydrated. As for the hiking route, you can go through the Death Valley. You can combine two activities; hiking and camping. The hiking experience is great. If you just want to go hiking so the Death Valley is most likely the best option.
Sandboarding: If it is your first time trying sandboarding, then do it in the Atacama. There are some nice impressive sand ridges to slide down. Most of the sandboarding tours happen in Death Valley as there are many suitable dunes of various sizes and slopes’ inclinations. Going down standing is not as easy as it seems and it’s not like snowboarding. You can go down laying on the board on your stomach or sitting on the board. it is exciting and fast unlike slow and clumsy standing going down. You need to keep yourself hydrated and use sunscreen. It is better to wear a long sleeve shirt and long pants for extra sun protection.
Tatio Geysers and Baños de Puritama hot springs: It is about 80 kilometres from San Pedro. It is one of the Atacama Desert’s most popular landmarks. They are remarkable columns of steam that spring from within the earth’s crust. It is located at an altitude of 4,200 meters, making it a unique spectacle. Around the geysers, you can see vicuñas, one of the rarest species of the lama. You can enjoy a tour with a guide. The geysers are located at a very high altitude, so it’s recommended to spend a couple of days in the desert to get used to the altitude to avoid altitude sickness. While going back to San Pedro, you can stop at Baños de Puritama. It is a hot spring oasis which is made of well-built rock pools that go down through a gorge. They extend about 60 kilometres from the Tatio geysers and 28 kilometres from San Pedro. Children under 9 years and pregnant women are not allowed. People over the age of 70 are not allowed as well. Over the age of 70 need to bring a medical certificate,
Salt Flats Route: The tour takes you to the east of San Pedro de Atacama, towards the Andes Mountain Range. The first stop is the Licancabur lookout. Then, you can stop at the wetland of the Quepiaco River, where you enjoy the contrast between vegetation and the mountain range. After that, you go to the Pacana lookout to visit the Monjes de la Pacana (Pacana Monks). They are big stone pillars that rise all alone in the middle of the desert. Then, you can visit the Quisquiro Salt Flat, at more than 4,000 m of altitude. Finally, on your way back to San Pedro de Atacama, you pass by the Aguas Calientes Salt Flat, famous for its coloured waters. The tour is about 6 hours and a half. Kids under 7 and pregnant women are not allowed.
Wild Life in the Atacama Desert
The flamingo is one of the most remarkable birds in the world. Here at the edge of the Atacama desert, you can find three of the world’s six flamingo species. The Andean flamingo is one of the rarest and most threatened of all flamingo species. Estimates show that there are only about 30.000 of these birds left in the wild. Its close rare relative the James or Puna was thought to have been extinct and was rediscovered in the mid-1950s. The third species is the Chilean with a population of over 300.000. They are more widely distributed across South America than the other two species.
On this high desert plateau, two of the most unique mammals of South America are guanaco and vicuña. The larger guanaco occupied areas from sea level up to 14.000 feet. The smaller vicuña roam at altitudes between 10.000 and 16.000 feet. In the overlap zone, we found both species. Vicuña is grazing just below the road and nearby is a small herd of guanaco. Both species are members of the biological family Camelidae. This family includes two domestic versions, the lama and the alpaca. There is a very rare bipedal lama. The viscacha looks like a rabbit but it is in the rodent family. Its habitats are in rocky areas at altitudes from 2500 to 17.000 feet where it tries to escape from the Culpeo fox.
The Culpeo fox is an opportunistic predator that feeds on a wide variety of prey and shows a high degree of adaptability to different habitats from high deserts to temperate rainforests. Turning to birds, you can find a barred sandpiper in the same lagoon as the flamingos. Its long wings cover the tail and enable one of the longest bird migrations of up to 9.000 miles. This bird nests in the High Arctic tundra and the winter as far south as the tip of South America preferring drying lakes up to 15.000 feet in elevation. The Giant coot builds large nests out of aquatic vegetation. It is so large that it is too heavy to fly. It tips the scales at around 5 pounds, compare to the American coot at one and half-pound. This is the only coot with red legs and these feet are their primary weapons for fighting for their territory.
The Atacama desert is also a good place to find the scarce Andean goose. Several research papers have revealed that this goose has developed a mutation in its haemoglobin which stores more oxygen and allows them to fly very high and live high in the Andes at altitudes between 10.000 to 20.000 feet. Next are two species that are also high altitude specialists and are also listed as scarce or not often seen. Gulls are often called seagulls which don’t apply at all to the Andean Gull. This gull inhabits the high plateau region far away from the sea. The most common song you hear in this region comes from the rufous corralled sparrow which has been studied for its diverse vocalizations.
In the Atacama desert, You can also find the most widely distributed bird in the world. Although the Atacama is the driest desert on earth other than in polar regions, life is adapted and can thrive unless man intervenes with the quest for resources. Fortunately for these flamingoes and other adaptable life forms, nature reserves have been set aside and controls are being posed on mining and development which should help limit the destruction of these habitats. Hopefully, the quest for understanding mankind’s place in the universe as represented by ALMA would also take us past the Lithium age to technologies that would have less impact on this environment and allow these animals to continue to flourish in nature.
Flowers in the Atacama Desert
The Atacama desert is the driest desert on earth. However, due to the higher than usual amount of winter rains, this desert bursts into a banquet of flowers. For years, Chilean examiners have collected plant samples from the Atacama desert and followed their DNA to understand how, against all odds, they can survive in one of the harshest places on earth. Some parts of the desert receive rain only once in a couple of centuries. Some plants have found a way to cope with extreme dryness, high altitude poor nutrient soil and excessive radiation from the sun. These are generally small deep-rooted, thorny plants that can go deep underground to get some of the moisture found there. These include the saltbush, tufted grass, ‘tola’ shrubs, rice grass, buckwheat bush, black bush, ferns, black sage, little leaf horsebrush, and Chrysothamnus.
Over 200 species of flowers inhabit the Atacama desert. Some lay dormant in the soil for years until rainfall causes them to sprout. The flowers appeared in the desert’s spring during October and November. Flowers of all colours appeared all over the desert but above all in the coastal region. One of the most beautiful types of flowers is the “añañucas” which grows in several different colours. In addition, there is the “Lion’s Foot” in tons of red and yellow which can reach 3 inches in diameter but it is, unfortunately, nearing extinction. During the long arid spells, the seeds lie patiently under the desert stones, hiding their seeds below the surface for several years and sometimes decades. If there is enough rain in the spring, the flowers emerge in extraordinary numbers even in places you would never expect to see them.
Luxury Hotels in the Atacama Desert
Nayara Alto Atacama is one of the top-rated hotels in the Atacama desert. It is a 5-star hotel. It is ideal for trendy and family trips. Alto Atacama is situated in the fertile Catarpe valley. It extends to 3.5 hectares, with a park area of 2 hectares. The Hotel features 42 spacious rooms. The hotel offers free parking, free high-speed internet, free breakfast, a pool, free airport transportation, and a business centre with internet access. The hotel features a hot tub, a bar, a spa, a restaurant, dry cleaning, a 24-hour front desk, meeting rooms, a bicycle tour, a heated pool and many more. There are 3 room types. Most of the rooms feature a private balcony, minibar and sofa. Prices vary according to the room type and the facilities.
Tierra Atacama is a 4-star hotel which is located in San Pedro de Atacama. The hotel offers free parking, free high-speed internet, free breakfast, a pool, free airport transportation, horseback riding and a business centre with internet access. The hotel features a hot tub, a bar, a spa, a restaurant, dry cleaning, a 24-hour front desk, meeting rooms, a bicycle tour, a heated pool and many more. There are 2 room types. Most of the rooms feature AC, a private balcony, housekeeping, room service, a minibar and a sofa. Prices vary according to the room type and the facilities.
Explora en Atacama is a 5-star hotel. It has 50 spacious rooms. The hotel offers free parking, free high-speed internet, free breakfast, a pool, free airport transportation, and a business centre with internet access. The hotel features a rooftop terrace, hot tub, hiking, a bar, a spa, a restaurant, dry cleaning, a 24-hour front desk, meeting rooms, bicycle tour, a heated pool and many more. There are 3 room types. Most of the rooms feature bathrobes, a telephone, a whirlpool bathtub, a hairdryer and a sofa. Prices vary according to the room type and the facilities.
Awasi Atacama – Relais & Chateaux is a 4.5-star hotel which is located in San Pedro de Atacama. The hotel offers free parking, free high-speed internet, free breakfast, a pool, free airport transportation, and a business centre with internet access. The hotel features a hot tub, a bar, a spa, a restaurant, dry cleaning, an outdoor dining area, meeting rooms, a concierge, a sun terrace, an ironing service, laundry service butler service and many more. There are 2 room types. Most of the rooms feature AC, a private balcony, housekeeping, room service, and a sofa. Prices vary according to the room type and the facilities.
Terrantai Lodge Andino is a 4-star hotel which is located in San Pedro de Atacama. The hotel offers free parking, free internet, and free breakfast. The hotel features breakfast in the room, 24-hour security, yoga glasses, a complimentary tee, complimentary coffee, dry cleaning, a 24-hour front desk, outdoor furniture, a concierge, a special diet menu, an ironing service, laundry service, butler service, walking tours, taxi services and many more. There are 3 room types. Most of the rooms feature extra-long beds, bottled water, wake-up service, free toiletries, and a sofa. Prices vary according to the room type and facilities.
Hotel Neo Casa de Atacama is a 4.5-star hotel which is located in San Pedro de Atacama. The hotel offers free, free internet, airport transportation and free breakfast. The hotel features breakfast in the room, 24-hour check-in, spa, baggage storage, sun umbrellas, dry cleaning, 24-hour front desk, pool towels, shops, kids’ meals, an ironing service, laundry service butler service, and poolside bar, a breakfast buffet and many more. There are 3 room types. Most of the rooms feature extra-long beds, bottled water, wake-up service, free toiletries, and a sofa. Prices vary according to the room type and the facilities.
Dos in the Atacama Desert
- You need sunscreen for the trips into the wide-open spaces of the Atacama desert.
- It is recommended to have warm clothes like a jacket as it is cold at night in the Atacama desert.
- You can get some medicine for high altitude sickness, headache and nausea.
- It is recommended to have a swimming suit as you can enjoy some time in the salt-water lagoons.
- It is recommended to bring cash as there are few ATMs.
- It is recommended to hire a local travel agency after you arrive.
Don’ts in the Atacama Desert
- When you are by the lagoon, you mustn’t disturb the birds or make too much noise.
- It is not recommended to rent a car and drive by yourself in the Atacama as it is not safe because of the harsh conditions of the Atacama desert.