Rising toward the fading stars high atop the Andes, El Tatio Geysers erupt from more than 80 vents into wraith-like plumes, which dance in the first crisp golden rays of dawn. It's not quite the largest geyser field in the world (it's the third), or the highest (it's close), but combined with those snowcapped volcanoes that encircle its steaming expanse, it is perhaps the most magnificent.
In addition to the searing-hot fumeroles and geysers, the field has a few more inviting geological features. A large 35°C (95°F) hot spring lets you soak away the Andes' stubborn chill, while bubbling mud pots offer the perfect masque for cleansing away weeks of grime from the road. Relax.
Not a single drop of water has fallen onto the Moon Valley in hundreds of years, thus the wind-sculpted salt statues inhabiting its eerie bowl have continued their slow, centuries-old dance uninterrupted. Come moonrise, when valley's light dusting of salt and metallic minerals shimmers all around, you may well see them move.
The awesome spectacle is one of the most popular excursions from San Pedro de Atacama, and at sunset the sand dunes can be covered with tourists, all enchanted by the quality of light. Fewer people visit in the morning, so sunrise may be a more tranquil experience.
Chaxa Lagoon (Laguna Chaxa) often serves as an introduction to the salt flat for visitors. The ground here is crusted with an inedible salt, and in the morning, a pinkish light comes over the horizon as the sun rises. While the crystalline ground is fascinating and curious, the wild flamingos in the area often turn heads.
And the presence of flamingos should be no surprise, as the Chaxa Lagoon is one of the easiest entry points to Chile’s National Flamingo Reserve and a great place for photographers with good reflexes (and zoom, as the birds often keep their distance).
As the pinkish light dissipates and the air warms up, packs of the birds take flight over the lake. Three different species often reside here: theChilean, Andean and James' flamingos. A variety of other birds can be seen here as well, including the Andean avocet, the puna plover and a type of sandpiper, a small bird with a long beak that feeds on small organisms in the mineral-rich water.
Located just 20 miles from the town of San Pedro de Atacama, this unusual desert sinkhole attracts many visitors. Filled with water, Cejar Lagoon is popular for the opportunity it provides to take a dip in the middle of the desert. The water can have salt concentrations up to 30 percent, which makes floating not only easy, but also pretty much impossible to avoid. For this reason, the lake is often compared to the Dead Sea and is sometimes called the “floating lake.” The top few inches of water are often warm from the sun, while there are cold currents down below, making for a mixed swimming experience.
Even if you decide not to swim in this “floating lake,” enjoy the view and how the glassy surface reflects the scenery back to you, including the Domeyko mountain range. Flamingos occasionally fly overhead and the lake is ringed white with residual salt, while the blue of the lake contrasts with the yellow tussock grass that grows all around.
The high Andean starry nights, combined with the cold Atacama winds, can chill the unprepared tourist to the bone. Happily, however, these mountains are volcanic, and pour forth the planet's heat into a series of steaming pools, the Puritama Hot Springs.
The name "puritama" simply means "hot water" in an ancient, pre-Inca tongue, suggesting that these medicinal springs have been used for millennia. With high concentrations of relaxing lithium and minerals accorded all sorts of health benefits, they are guaranteed to mellow you out. Temperatures hover around 33°C (91°F), so they aren't ridiculously hot, making daytime visits a treat. Though most pools have been left in a relatively natural state, there are changing rooms, eateries, campsites, trails, handicrafts vendors and other improvements all around.
When you see the stark, bright colors of San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings, you may wonder how much of a standout Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris) could really be. The valley, however, located 50 miles from town, is home to tremendous variety of things to see and views to gaze upon. Mineral deposits have left vibrant reds, browns, purples, greens and yellows on the rocks in this area over the course of thousands of years, and in addition, the wind and very occasional rain have carved interesting shapes, rocky spires and small canyons into the valley. At 11,500 feet above sea level, this area makes for slow but worthwhile exploring.
In addition to the bright photogenic colors, Hierbas Buenas also makes for a popular stopping spot for visitors with its thousands of petroglyphs carved into stone by early Atacama dwellers, some about 11,000 years old.
To see lakes this high above sea level, you have to come to the altiplano, the very definition of which is “high plain,” an area between the peaks of the Andes in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. These two lakes, Miscanti and Miñique, are located at about 13,500 feet and are within driving distance of San Pedro de Atacama.
The two lakes are a deep blue, backed by snow-capped volcanoes and surrounded by a large plain of yellow tussock grass that whips in the wind. This grass is one of the preferred foods of the vicuña, the shyest of the llama-like species in the area, and if you are lucky, you may see a small herd around here. It is also fairly common to see a fox or two and sometimes even quick-running rheas, an emu-like bird native to the area.The protected lakes make for a great photo opportunity, but swimming is not allowed.
The lakes are managed by an indigenous community located in Socaire, a town often visited for its handmade crafts.
The Flamencos National Reserve in San Pedro de Atacama is aptly named, as this area shelters and feeds three distinct species of flamingos: the Andean, Chilean and James flamingos. But 180,000 acres of preserved land is not just a home for flamingos; there are seven areas of interest for eco-tourists. The most isolated part of the reserve is located 15,000 feet above sea level and includes the Salar (salt lake) de Pujsa, as well as the two salt lakes of Tara and Aguas Calientes. The Atacama Salt Lake is also part of this reserve and serves as the largest of all the salt lakes in the area.
Other than bodies of water, Los Flamencos is also the home of the Altiplanic Lakes, Miscanti and Miñique, which are at 13,500 feet above sea level. These lakes and their bright blue water provide a striking visual contrast against the altiplano landscape of blowing yellow grasses and the distant snow-capped mountains.
The Pukara de Quitor National Monument overlooks the fertile Río San Pedro valley from atop a strategic bluff. Its serpentine rows of thick, stone walls have defended the verdant oasis's bounty since around 1100 AD. Today, the fortress's impressive architecture and historic significance bring in another sort of wealth, visitors eager to see what are among Chile's most important ruins.
Little is known about the Ayllu de Quitor people who originally constructed the fortress, which was used to defend the agricultural town from the Incas and later, Spaniards. Their handiwork is impressive, however, and makes a fine place to contemplate life in the fierce Atacama Altiplano.
This lagoon is often visited on a trip to see Laguna Cejar and Ojos del Salar. One might think that visiting a series of desert lakes would get repetitive, but Tebenquiche erases any thoughts of that kind with its strange, moon-like landscape. It’s a shallow lake, sometimes with as few as five inches of water, and underneath lies a mostly salt lake bed with an otherworldly landscape that is clearly visible from the surface. Since there is so little water and often so little movement, the lake acts as a mirror, reflecting the surrounding mountains and the Lincancabur volcano.
In the bright sun, this area is perfect for taking optical illusion photos in which photo subjects go far from the photographer and pretend to interact with something in the foreground, giving the impression that they are standing on something tiny. Late in the afternoon, the slow desert sunset makes for very long shadows as the reds, yellows and pinks of nature take over the sky.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, considering the harsh climate of this impossibly dry, high-altitude region, the Atacama Desert has hosted human settlement for thousands of years. The Tulor Village, as it is known, is one of the most tantalizing archaeological clues these mysterious early settlers left behind.
Only about 10% of the village, a human-sized honeycomb of square and circular adobe structures, has been excavated. The city was occupied by 800BC, and at its peak had several hundred inhabitants. There are few artifacts on hand at the site, but photographers will find the enigmatic earthworks a tempting subject, particularly in the morning or late afternoon.
The R.P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum is a good place to start time in San Pedro de Atacama, as a visit here serves as a low-stress activity while you grow accustomed to the area's altitude and extreme dryness. The museum was founded by a Belgian priest who settled in the area in 1955 and opened the museum eight years later with the help of a local university, the Universidad Católica del Norte, which currently owns and runs the site.
The museum previously housed mummified remains of a young girl, but due to pressure from the local indigenous Lickanantay (Atacameño) community, the remains have been removed and replaced with a replica. This is also the case for all human remains at the museum. The museum shows a short film that explains how the decision to change the exhibits came to be. Other than those replicas, everything else onsite is genuine, including 1,000 samples of region discoveries.
To understand the meaning of the words Ojos de Salar, you just need to know that a salar is a salt plain or lake and the ojo is its eye. In this case, the eyes of the salt plain are two small, perfectly round, freshwater lakes that open up seemingly in the middle of nowhere, about 20 miles from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. They are accessed from a sandy road, and these two freshwater lakes are commonly visited as part of a larger trip to two other lakes in the area, the Laguna de Cejar and Laguna Tebenquiche.
On still days, the Ojos del Salar act as perfect mirrors that reflect the desert. Tours to the area usually head out in the afternoon and stop here before moving on to other lakes, including Cejar, in which you can take a dip and enjoy the last bit of sunlight with with a cocktail in hand, if you can put down your camera for that long.
The world's driest desert is the Atacama, caught up at extreme altitudes within an Andean basin, shielded from the life-giving rain. There is water here, except for geyser fields and hot springs boiling up from the volcanic depths, rivers fed from snowy peaks above, and the lithium-rich Atacama Salt Lake.
The crackling salt surface of Salar de Atamaca, the world's second-largest salt flats, partially obscures the extent of this mineral-blue salt sea. Where the rich waters break through crystalline formations, flamingos and other seabirds match their plumage against the pink-and-purple painted hills.
There are several major lagoons, including Lagunas Miscanti, Chaxa, and most famously Cejar, a sinkhole boasting a salt concentration so high that "you can do yoga on the surface." While you can explore these harsh environs on your own, most visitors book multiple-day trips through the wilderness.
Seeing as it has the word “desert” in its name, the Atacama is a place you’d expect to be extremely and exceptionally dry. In this vast, arid moonscape, however, set halfway between sea and sky, there are isolated patches where a drop of rain has never—ever—been recorded, taking the world “desert” to another level. In fact, looking at the geology of what’s officially considered the driest desert in the world, researchers believe that the Atacama has gone 400 years without rain.
Just because it’s always sunny, however, doesn’t mean that this desert is hot. In fact, seeing as much of the Atacama Desert is well above 10,000 feet, temperatures can often dip well below freezing on clear and crisp nights. So—what’s the draw for visiting this desert with its famously harsh terrain? Because it’s the hands-down, best place in the world to look up and see the stars.
Toconao is a small, peaceful village with a name that means “place of stones” in the indigenous Kunza (Atacameño) language. The first settlements are thought to date back 12,000 years, and there is evidence of 10,000-year-old human presence in the area, making it an area of historical, archaeological significance. Its name seems to be related to the fact that homes in Toconao are made of a volcanic rock called liparita (pumice). Structures are of stone and mud, with wooden features installed only with natural elements rather than nails. The most well-known construction of the town is not its church as expected, but the separate nearby 1750 bell tower, located across the plaza.
The town features a few restaurants, small-scale agriculture (mostly fruit) and animal husbandry fed with water from the nearby creek. Most people, however, visit looking for locally made handicrafts such as alpaca wool weavings and reproductions of the town's bell tower.