Have you heard of the Atacama desert? The Atacama Desert is located on a plateau in South America covering a 1000-km strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes Mountains.
It is the driest place on earth given that the moisture is blocked by the rugged mountains from the Amazon. It is also one of the most isolated regions due to its difficult terrain. As I mentioned in another post about Uyuni, my trip to the Atacama and Uyuni salt flats is probably one of the toughest journeys I had so far – extreme diurnal temperature, complete dryness, high altitude, and isolation. I guess what I am saying is, this is not a place that tourists can just pick up a backpack and go, one needs some planning and preparation before their journey; In return, one would have an awesome adventure that is truly one-of-a-kind.
San Pedro de Atacama is a Chilean town and the best hub to stay and explore what the Atacama Desert has to offer. The closest airport is located in Calama, a city about 100km in northwest of San Pedro de Atacama with a population of over 150,000. I had a tough time transiting in Mexico (that I shared in another post), and I got over my frustration as I was traveling to San Pedro from the airport. It was a desert, so I could barely see any clouds; every rock and every sand were visible and the scenery was epic; and because of that, it is one of the best places to view the stars at night – a cloudless canvas with minimal light pollution.
So, what do you expect to see in the desert? Surprisingly, the landscape here in the Atacama is incredibly diverse. Salt flats, rocks, mountains, lagoons, geysers, and fascinating wildlife. Since I only stay in town for 4 days before moving on to Bolivia. I selected some highlights that basically summarize what the Atacama is all about. Buckle up (well, literally), get ready for the perfect 4-day plan for the Atacama!
Day 1: Atacama Salt Flat, Toconao town, Altiplanic Lagoons, Socaire, stargazing
These places are probably less known to many. They are located in the south of San Pedro de Atacama, and they are generally skipped by tourists as most of them head to the north to Bolivia. True, these places to me, do have a lower priority compared to other places that I was about to see in the next couple of days but it gave me an overview of the desert: We passed the Atacama Salt Flat heading to Toconao, another small town nearby with San Lucas Church and its old orchards. In fact, the Atacama Salt Flat is the largest salt flat in Chile and the third-largest in the world (but still nothing compared to Uyuni). There, we walked through the trails of the Chaxa Lagoon, as the entire area is the biggest habitat for three kinds of flamingos in the world (and I will talk about that later).
After observing some birds, we headed to yet another Altiplanic Lagoons at the foot of the volcanoes – and that’s why the region is filled with geysers and hot springs. The water sources in the Atacama are also very mineral-rich, like the Miscanti Lagoon and Miñiques Lagoon, are given vibrant turquoise color, and form a picturesque picture with vicuñas (a very common animal in the Atacama).
It is a comparatively easy expedition from San Pedro de Atacama and it’s a good way to start your trip. You have some time to recover from traveling and adapt to the altitude. Explore the town in the evening, enjoy the view and the sunset, have dinner in one of the restaurants and grab an empanada; Most importantly, stock up for your upcoming journeys because many of the upcoming day trips start really early in the morning (like 5 am). While most of the guide day trips usually start before breakfast time, most of the trips include a simple breakfast (i.e. bread, fruits, tea, coffee, milk, hot chocolate, and juice) that they brought with them in their coach bus. The food is not bad at all, but I reckon it may be nice to check if your hostel or homestay owner would offer a packed breakfast or snack; or if needed to, prepare your own.
At night, go outside, find a quiet, high, and dark place. Enjoy a night with the stars. The Atacama is the best place to stargaze, capture the Milky Way, and look for the Southern Cross under the dark sky. To be honest, I have never seen so many stars simply looking up at night (and I had the same view for several nights in Atacama and Uyuni).
Day 2: Rainbow Valley, Yerbas, and Cejar Lagoon
Ojos del Salar are two deep freshwater pits that are probably a very important water source to the locals in the desert, visitors could swim there before heading to Tebinquinche Lagoon.
The trip’s highlight is the Cejar Lagoon and Piedra Lagoon. The lagoon has a unique color that deeply contrasts the surrounding dry land, and far away Andes Mountain. In the Piedra Lagoon, visitors could swim in the pool and enjoy the flotation effect similar to the Dead Sea!
Day 3: El Tatio Geysers
El Taito Geysers is my favorite site in the Atacama and the environment is simply amazing. Even if you are visiting the geyser in summer (December), and the temperature in San Pedro de Atacama is about 28°C during the day – the temperature drops tremendously to about 5°C there!
So why were we heading out so early? Because El Tatio Geysers are generally more active in the morning, most tours usually take off at 5 am in the morning. It takes about 90 minutes to ascend from 2,500 meters to 4,320 meters above sea level. Some people may not be aware of the temperature drop and change in altitude, who may get sick or throw up in the car. Remember to dress warmly with layers (like an onion); I felt much warmer later as the sun came out, plus we walked through the geothermal area. By the time we left the geysers, many took off their jackets and wore short sleeves again.
El Taito Geysers is a unique spectacle in the world. It is one of Chile’s main tourist treasures. I have seen geysers in Iceland and New Zealand, but El Taito is nothing like it. While Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone, Pōhutu Geyser in Rotorua, or the Geysir in Iceland are some of the largest and tallest in the world, El Taito outnumbers them with a total of 500 steaming surface manifestations at 4,200 meters high. When the steam and hot water come out from below the Earth to the surface, an interesting phenomenon known as surface thermal manifestations takes place. Springs, geysers, and fumaroles are its most recognized expressions. We had breakfast as we got off the bus and we were already surrounded by a number of vents steaming in the geyser field; The view was so spectacular that I thought I was standing on another planet. Everywhere I saw creates a great picture and I was completely taken away. Due to the active state of the phenomena, which temperatures reach over 86°C, visitors should be careful every step of the way during the tour. Of all the 500 geysers, the manifestation is presented in many different types, like hot spring, boiling spring, bubbling spring, hot pool, warm spring, geyser, perpetual spouter, Boiling pool, mud pool, boiling mud pool, mud volcano, evaporating soil, and fumarole.
Besides the attractiveness of the thermal manifestations, El Taito also offers the opportunity to discover the charm of its desertic landscape, as well as the delicacy of the native flora and fauna that inhabit this place. The geothermal field doesn’t have any trees, but it does not lack impressive flora and fauna. Look around as there might be a vicuña, a zorro culpeo, a Suri o Ñandú or a vizcacha grazing in the field that covered by llareta, coiron o paja brava.
Day 4: Moon Valley
The Moon Valley, or Valle de la Luna, is a well-known attraction in the Atacama. The Moon Valley consists of six communities: Coyo, Larache, Quitor, Sequitor, Solor, and San Pedro de Atacama, who together with the National Forest Corporation (CONAF), co-manage “Los Flamencos National Reserve”. The Indigenous Association is in charge of protecting the renewable natural resources of these ancestral territories, while at the same time caring for the natural and cultural heritage of the communities.
Moon Valley: This valley is famous for its resemblance to the surface of the moon, owing to its different stratifications and the salt formations that are caused by natural environmental factors. From west to east a high mountain range can be seen, known as the Cordillera de Domeyko, whose peak is called Kimal (4.278 meters above sea level). Next comes the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range), a lower area is known as the Preandean Depression (where you are at the moment), in which is located the great Salar de Atacama. Finally, the Andean Mountain Range is afar, which is made up of a plateau, known as the Altiplano, and a chain of volcanoes, including Licancabur; Aguas Calientes; Lascar, and Acamarachi amongst others, which divide this relief and create the present system of rivers and gorges.
Great Dune Path: For thousands of years strong winds have affected these reliefs, creating huge fields of sand dunes. The Great Sand Dune was probably formed by the accumulation of sand, prompted by natural barriers that constitute the base of the dunes.
Amphitheater: The Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Chain) was formed by the horizontal accumulation of thin layers of materials (sand, clay, and salt), which were subsequently destroyed by movements in the earth’s crust. The actions of wind and water upon these geographical formations have created a sequence of peaks, similar in outline to the bellows of an accordion.
The Three Maries: These formations are the result of intense erosion processes. They are composed of gravel, clay, salt, gem, and quartz, and are approximately one million years old.
The Sale Mines: Crystals of gem salt can be seen here, caused by the effects of high pressure and the absence of humidity.
The Valley covers a wide area that may take a couple of hours to explore, if you are in an active mood, you might get a bicycle and travel through the dunes and mountains.
After the Moon Valley, head to higher ground for a panoramic view of the valley as the sunlight changes during sunset.