The Atacama Desert
Almost every continent has a desert. These vast barren landscapes have always provoked a deep fascination, so why not combine a trip to a desert with a backpacking adventure? If you are traveling to Chile, be sure to include the Atacama Desert in your itinerary.
The relatively large Atacama Desert ranks as the driest of its kind in the whole world – excluding polar deserts – and boasts a well-developed tourism infrastructure. The Atacama is a so-called cold coastal desert of the subtropics. Cold trade winds and ocean currents cause dense fogs along the Pacific coast. However, these collections of water droplets are too cold to rise and form clouds at higher altitudes. Therefore, they do not return to the ground as rain. The foggy clusters simply dissipate over the desert, which causes intense dryness.
The Atacama Desert is much more than just sand and heat, though. Find out why it is worth a visit!
The Atacama Desert as a Unique Travel Destination
The Atacama Desert is one of the top sights in Chile. It covers about 105,000 km2 and reaches parts of Peru, Bolivia, and even Argentina. The desert has three main areas: the coastal mountains, the high valley, and the Andes Mountains.
The climate in Chile is remarkably diverse and full of contrasts. As the Atacama Desert is really hot and dry, travelers are certain to miss the cold temperatures typical to other regions of the country during their stay in the Atacama Desert.
The best way to get to the Atacama Desert is to start your journey in one of its major nearby cities, like Antofagasta, Iquique, and Calama. They are all accessible by bus or domestic flight from Santiago, the country’s capital. The largest city within the desert in San Pedro de Atacama, with about 11,000 inhabitants. Besides the fact that it developed around an oasis, the city’s colonial architecture and its local archaeological museum render it an attractive tourist destination. In fact, most towns and villages in the Atacama Desert have grown around oases, which make life there possible.
Oases provide enough water for agricultural development. Thus, you can gorge yourself on the local corn, rice, and beans, which are the basis of several traditional Chilean dishes. In addition, not only animals like llamas and alpacas benefit from the natural springs of water, but also plants that thrive in the Atacama Desert region. Therefore, its food, natural landscapes, and history make the Atacama Desert a must-visit for adventurers. The effects of the climate phenomenon, El Niño, are particularly strong and felt every seven or eight years. After this period, the desert blooms slightly as nature partially recovers.
Crossing the whole desert is not necessary for you to fully experience the Atacama Desert. The regions around Tacna, Uyuni, Arica, Cafayate, and Copiapó already offer glimpses of the spectacular desert scenery. Actually, most of the Atacama Desert is not accessible by road, and this also includes areas in southern Bolivia and the Los Flamencos National Reserve.
Outside the polar regions, Atacama has had the driest climate in the world for the past 150 million years. In many areas of the Atacama Desert, it has never rained, and the air is 50 times drier than in Death Valley. However, due to the average 3,000-meter altitude, the Atacama Desert is not as hot as people usually expect it to be. During the day temperatures are around 30 °C or 86 °F, and at night they can drop to -15 °C or 5 °F.
Experiences from the Past and Present
Because of its surreal and unique nature, the Atacama Desert is a real treasure trove of backpacker destinations. But the lagoons, valleys, and absolute desolation are not the only special things about this stretch of South America’s coast. There, the present and the past meet in an extraordinary way. Ancient natural formations, pre-Colombian mummies, and buildings that are only a few hundred years old characterize the Atacama Desert region.
Landscapes from Another World
Unlike the Sahara, the Atacama Desert doesn’t boast sand dunes. Instead, rock formations are more typical of the Chilean desert. Backpackers are most likely to come across stony grounds in orange, brown, yellow, and even reddish hues. Besides, salt lakes, such as Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Atacama, are characteristic of the Atacama Desert and make the air extremely salty and even drier there. A visit to Valle de la Luna is incredibly special due to the flamingos that inhabit the area and its strange lunar landscapes and outcrops that look like man-made columns.
Valle de la Muerte is also worth a visit. It is very reminiscent of the Grand Canyon and seems out of this world. Ironically, this dry valley has more water than the famous salt lakes. At Laguna Cejar and Laguna Piedra, emerald-green water laps gently at the shores of chalky white desert rocks. In addition, the geysers at El Tatio shoot boiling-hot steam out of the ground. This Atacama Desert region also has individual monoliths, which locals call monjes (monks).
Dreaming Under the Stars
Every scout knows that when you are far away from any town or city, the stars are particularly visible in the night sky. The Atacama Desert is an ideal place for stargazing. Not only professional photographers and travelers take advantage of the amazing Chilean night sky. As the Atacama Desert has many observatories, astronomers also learn about the universe there with the help of advanced space telescopes. NASA even tested its Mars probes in the Atacama Desert before sending them to the Red Planet.
Vestiges of the Past
As the area is so arid, mummies of the Atacameños, an indigenous desert people, have been naturally preserved since their original settlement, 11,000 years ago. Until recently, mummified persons used to be an attraction at museum exhibitions. However, they are no longer on display out of respect for the dead.
The Atacama Desert has a special relationship with death. Cemeteries glow in bright colors and commemorate the dead in the desolate desert environment. Moreover, the region holds a dark secret of the recent past: during Pinochet’s military dictatorship, opponents of the regime were abducted and left to their fate in the desert. Unfortunately, many were never found and never had a proper burial.
Pilgrimage in the Sand
Religious travelers can go on a pilgrimage in the desert. This otherworldly landscape is not only for believers, though. The desert chapels, dating back to Spanish colonial times, complete the picture and promise more adventure than the Way of St James in Galicia. However, a pilgrimage in such an extreme environment is only suitable for experienced pilgrims.
Sports in the Blazing Sun
It is of course possible to do sports in the desert, but not necessarily advisable, as even the shortest bike ride or walk can be a real test of endurance. The Atacama Desert’s altitude and its dry and salty air render any physical activity there a pretty tall order. In addition, earthquakes occur regularly in northern Chile, and severe landslides are common in the region. Therefore, it’s better to stay in the coastal areas near Iquique and Arica, which are very popular among surfers. If you prefer to stay on dry ground, sand surfing in the Peruvian village of Huacachina is a nice option for you. It’s super fun to slide down the dunes on boards and sleds.
Other Destinations in the Atacama Desert
It’s possible to combine your visit here with a trip across the border. From Calama, you have excellent access to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia; from Arica, a drive northwards takes you directly to Tacna in Peru; and from northern Chile to cities in Argentina, including Buenos Aires. Airports near the Atacama Desert have flights to Santiago, Lima, or back home. Other interesting tour destinations are Cusco, the Andes, Lake Titicaca, and the Gaucho region around Salta.
Who would have thought that so much stone, sand and dryness could form such a perfect combination? Surreal landscapes and gigantic salt fields offer you a look into the past in the gigantic Atacama Desert. The connection between life and death, earth and space is nowhere else as tangible as there. Hopefully, you are convinced that the Atacama Desert is a bucket list destination.
However, for all the excitement and euphoria, don’t forget that there is almost no life there for a reason! Deserts are, after all, some of the most unwelcoming places on earth. Drink plenty of water, protect yourself from the sun, and stay on the paths! Otherwise, the consequences might be fatal… If you keep all this in mind, you are in for a surreal and unique adventure in Chile’s hottest region between mirages and oases.