The Atacama Desert is estimated to be the oldest desert on Earth as it has been hyperarid for the last 3 million years. This desert is also the driest place on Earth (well excluding the areas in the South or North Pole). Tourists are drawn to this area in the north of Chile to see unique landscapes, stars and to adventure off into the high lying areas of the desert.
Where to stay?
We decided the best town to stay in in the Atacama Desert was San Pedro de Atacama. This town is the hub in order to explore the desert. There are A LOT of tour agencies in the town that allow you to book for the salt flats tour to Bolivia, and for tours in the desert itself. One tip I would give, is don’t book anything online! Tours are significantly cheaper to book once you reach San Pedro de Atacama. When we arrived in this town we were in awe of how arid the desert around us was. The infrastructure was made almost entirely of red clay and this gave us the feel that we were truly in the desert. Seeing that San Pedro de Atacama lies at an altitude of 2,400 m we were advised to stay here for three days to acclimatize as we would rise to an altitude of 4,200 m during our trip to Bolivia. We stayed at a hostel called Chilled Hostel. Leornard, the hostel manager, was great! He helped organize all our tours and gave us great advice on how to help adapt to the high altitude. Once you rise to an altitude of 3,700 m or higher you are at risk of getting altitude sickness. Because of this, it is best to give your body time to adapt to the changes by drinking a lot water and staying well rested.
Valley of the Moon
Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon is situated 13 km to the west of San Pedro de Atacama. This valley lies in the Los Flamencos National Reserve and has an impressive landscape that is often compared to that of the moon. The landscape has been sculptured over centuries by wind and water and therefore this has become a popular tourist destination. Our hostel organised for us to do a tour to the Valley of the Moon with Whipala Expeditions. We visited four sites in the reserve: the salt mines, the amphitheater, the three Marie’s and Mirador de Kari (Piedra del Coyote). The salt mine was a fascinating area of the valley which had a path that led through caves that had been formed over time by water. The caves were beautiful and covered in gems and salt which had formed due to a lack of humidity and high pressure. The landscape at the top of the path was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Arid, covered in salt, and breathtakingly beautiful! Our next stop was the amphitheater. We walked up a path to see a panoramic view of a rock formation that looked like a huge arena fit to host sporting matches or concerts. Again, the landscape was uncannily beautiful. The three Marie’s was a small rock formation that was made out of gravel, clay, quartz, salt and gems and had been formed by erosion over the last million years. Our final stop on our tour was to watch the sunset. Mirador de Kari (Piedra del Coyote) over looked a huge canyon and we were fortunate enough to have clouds which allowed for the most magnificent colors to appear. The pinks and reds in the sky contrasted against snow capped volcanoes and clay ground was a site I wish my pictures could accurately show how picturesque the view was. Hopefully you can get a bit of a feel from the pictures below. Whipala Expeditions were great, we had no complaints and felt very satisfied with their services.
El Tatio Geyser Field
The El Tatio Geyser Field is located in the Andes mountain range 100 km north of San Pedro de Atacama. This geyser field sits at an altitude of 4,300 m and is the highest in the world. It has 80 active geysers making in the largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere. The highest eruption from a geyser in the field is at 6 m with the average being around 0.75 m. Our tour was, again, with Whipala Expedition. We arrived at the geyesers at sunrise so that we could we get the best view of the erupting water. When the air is cold the the steam condenses making the eruption more visible, this disappears as the air gets warmer. After watching the geysers for about 40 minutes we were treated to breakfast which included egg, ham, cheese, avocado, rolls, biscuits, tea and coffee. After we had eaten, we moved location to another section of the geyser field that allowed those who were brave enough to swim. The outside temperature was -6 C and the water temperature was about 28 C. I was the only one out of our group of 6 to swim. The water was warm (I wish it was warmer!) but getting in and out was torture. But still, it was an experience I was glad to have acquired. After my swim we moved to have a look at Laguna Putuna. We could observe some bird species such as the puna teal, giant coot, Andean goose, Andean gull, Andean coot and the Black-hooded sierra finch. We were also able to see many volcanoes and their craters. The wind had picked up so we didn’t spend long at the laguna because it was FREEZING! On the way to our last stop, the Machuca village, we saw wild donkeys and multiple herds of vicuñas. Vicuñas are similar to llamas but only live in high altitude sickness. We tried to spot some viscachas (rabbit like animals) but we were unsuccessful. At the Machuca village we were able to try lama kebabs (which smelt delicious, but we decided to save this experience for another time) and use the bathroom for the last time before heading back to San Pedro de Atacama. This tour was interesting and the experience was definitely made better by our awesome guide! I would definitely recommend using Whipala Expeditions.
On our last night we went star gazing in the desert. We went on a tour with Una Noche con las Estrellas. This tour was run by an astronomer and his wife. The tour was two and a half hours and allowed us to learn about astronomy and look through telescopes. We were able to see Satan and Jupiter clearly, and we were shown half of the constellations that give the names to our horoscopes. It was a lot of fun to look through gigantic telescopes and see the planets and stars more clearly.
I would highly recommend San Pedro de Atacama to anyone visiting Chile. There was so much to do, and the tours were all terrifically organised. The landscape was uncanny and dealing with the high altitude made the experience new to both me and Courtney.