The Atacama Desert of Northern Chile is the driest spot on earth, where rainfall is measured in millimeters and centuries. Caught up between the Andes and a string of snowcapped volcanoes, including mighty Licancabur, Atacama’s high-altitude desert-scape is utterly shielded from moisture-laden winds. Yet this extraordinary and intimidating spot, its mountainous expanse streaked with multi-hued mineral deposits, may have been the cradle of Northern Chilean civilization.
Northern Chile’s sunny coastal beaches, undulating endlessly between lush olive tree-lined rivers, are home to their share of festive coastal resort towns. Attractive Arica, with its fine golden sands, warm waves, and range of accommodations, attracts Chilean and foreign visitors alike. Explorers eager to experience one of the world’s unique deserts, however, head to scenic San Pedro Atacama, today a tiny tourist town, where an ancient oasis has nurtured fragile humanity for millennia. It is the traditional base for trips (primarily tours; public transport is inconvenient) into the unforgiving natural beauty rising from the desert all around.
Day 1: Into the Atacama Dreamscape
After sun and surf in the seaside resort town of Arica, grab a bus into the heart of the Atacama Desert, a landscape utterly unlike any other ecosystem on Earth; it has been used to test missions to Mars. Upon arrival in kitschy San Pedro de Atacama, take some time to peruse the ancient adobe town, in particular 16th-century Iglesia de San Pedro, a National Monument. Don’t wait too late to book a sunset trip into the Valley of the Moon where the incredible rock formations seem to dance in the rapidly changing golden light, only to pause beneath the silvery moon that leaves them silhouetted against the sparkling sand.
Day 2: Step Back in Time
Though this desert seems all but uninhabitable, Atacama’s oases – shielded from enemies by a parched moat of burning sands – have cradled quite advanced civilizations for millennia. One of Chile’s foremost museums, R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, displays an awesome collection of artifacts found at sites scattered just a few kilometers from today’s modern city center. Book an archaeological tour of Tulor and Quitor to see some of these ancient sites, well-preserved in the dry climate. The old stone Fortress of Quitor is formidable, but it is the ancient adobe city of Tulor, only a fraction of which has been excavated, that conjures up an idea of ancient life in the oasis.
Day 3: Natural Wonders
If you only booked three days for exploring Atacama, you’ll need to make some hard choices. With its glistening salt flats and sparkling lakes that seem so incongruous beneath the dry mountains, it is tempting to take a trip to the Atacama Salt Lake and Toconao, where three species of showy flamingos make their home. If you’re headed straight from San Pedro to Uyuni, Bolivia, (the three-day trip, offered as a scenic desert tour, is a bit more expensive from Chile to Bolivia than the other way around, but also less crowded), consider visiting one of the world’s largest, highest fumerole fields, El Tatio Geysers and Puritama Hot Springs, where plumes of steam rise into the cool morning air, and hot pools beckon those willing to brave the high-altitude chill for a soak.