There’s a good reason you can visit the “Valley of the Moon” while you’re in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It’s the driest, non-polar desert in the world, and its red sands and unusual rock formations will leave you feeling out of this planet. You can go for plenty of kilometers without seeing any flora, but this isn’t to say that the region is devoid of biodiversity. On the contrary, you’ll encounter species native only to the area in a delicate balance of volcanic, highland, and pasture ecosystems.
Visiting the Atacama desert was part of the much longer road trip that spanned the length of the Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian coast before entering Chile into the desert and back north through Bolivia and the Andean region of the same countries until we arrived back to Colombia. It was a three-month road trip and the views and experiences were unbelievable, to say the least. I could never bring myself to choose a single, favorite spot but Chile’s Atacama Desert is without a doubt amongst the top competitors.
We drove from the Peruvian border, through Arica and then directly into San Pedro de Atacama. If you’re flying in, however, you can do so into Calama and then bus o rent a car into San Pedro. In Calama, you will already have noticed that all the tones up to where the eye can see range from brick-red to different shades of brown. The barren hills are covered in sand and rock, but far from dull, this combination makes for an exciting landscape that changes color depending on the time of day.
We began exploring the area with the must-see Valley of the Moon, where you can walk through caverns and photograph rock formations shaped by millions of years of wind erosion, and catch an unforgettable sunset as the backdrop of a volcano and the Andean mountain range.
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is in itself quaint and unique. Even with big brand stores and high-end restaurants, the whole town still preserves its adobe architecture, thatched roofs, and unpaved roads. You can stay anywhere from a tent to a hostel or cabins to pricier boutique hotels, and you’ll quickly notice the tour agencies all around town.
Upon considering our budget and preferences, we decided to go to El Tatio geyser on our second day. This geyser field is located at 4,320 meters above sea level and has over 80 active geysers, making it the third largest in the world. To catch a really impressive show, you’ll reach el Tatio right before sunrise and watch water and vapor blend with the beautiful colors of the background. Take a dip in the natural thermal baths, try alpaca skewers and marvel at the unbelievable purity of the air that allows you to see up to 250kms into the distance.
While exploring the Atacama Desert it is not uncommon to spot Vicuñas and Alpacas, both close relatives of the Llama, flamingoes, Ostriches and Vizcachas all running wild in this untamed region.
There’s plenty more to explore and I really wish I could have stayed for much longer. I’ll have to go back to see the famous red rocks and go float in their hidden salt lagoons, but if you’re in the area make sure not to miss them! The Atacama Desert is unrepeated; it will, without a doubt, captivate the eye and heart.