What to visit in the Atacama Desert (Chile)

Welcome to the Atacama Desert, the oldest desert on the planet

There is a place that already existed as we know of it today way back to the time when dinosaurs walked the planet and the Earth was undergoing severe geological transformations. That place is called the Atacama Desert, the oldest desert on the planet dating back to 150 million years. Located in the North of Chile, Atacama is the driest and most arid desert on the planet, so much so, that it’s nearly impossible to rank annual rainfall in the Atacama but according to scientists and biologists, Atacama receives a scarce 44 millimeters of rain. Some areas in the Atacama have remained dry for more than 23 million years. Despite the Atacama possessing one of the most unforgiving climate and terrains in our planet, scientists and geologists have found proves that humans and other mammals inhabited areas of this harsh environment 11.000 years ago.

So, what makes the Atacama Desert Chile’s number one hotspot and draws hundreds of thousands of travelers from all over the world? If imagining a desert that was once submerged under a great Ocean, and today parts of it sit 3 kilometers above sea level wasn’t reason enough to draw you, then add to the mix the uniqueness of its landscapes; geyser fields, outstanding active volcanoes, valleys with otherworldly beauty and turquoise salt lagoons. In this article, I’m breaking down the top places for you to visit in the Atacama and experience it for yourself what has got every traveler starstruck even before they even set foot on its soil.

Garganta del Diablo

Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat in English) or also known as Quebrada de Chulacao, is a not-so-popular valley near San Pedro de Atacama. The valley homes astonishing sceneries and rock formations amid tall mountains that can be observed by going on trekking through its narrow paths or riding sand bikes. The trekking concludes on a viewpoint up a mountain that offers incredible views of the valley. Make sure you carry plenty of water because the heat can be excruciating.

VALLE DEL ARCOIRIS

Valle del Arcoiris or Rainbow Valley in English is a beautiful valley named after its unique combination of colors and elements that decorates the valley’s walls. The magical blend between the blue sky, the vegetation in the valley, the abundant concentration of clay, salts, and minerals that tints the scenery with shades of many different colors; reddish, beige, green, yellow, and white, makes Valle del Arcoiris a unique valley in whole Chile.

LAGUNA CHAXA

Located in the heart of the Salar de Atacama sits the wonderful Laguna Chaxa. Laguna Chaxa is a beautiful lagoon part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, a reserve consisting of seven different sections including Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon; see below). Chaxa is an Oasis in the middle of the Atacama surrounded by an impressive setting with a volcanic belt, mountains, and lagoons, serving as a home for countless flocks of flamingoes.

VALLE DE MARTE

Valle de Marte or Valle de la Muerte meaning Mars Valley and Death Valley in English is an intriguing valley located 2 km from San Pedro de Atacama. Valle de Marte is a clear example of how unforgiving and hostile Atacama can be due to the lack of plants and insects in the area. Its peculiar geological formations with cathedral-like peak mountains and massive sand dunes, make the valley a popular destination for sandboarding. You can rent your own sandboard in San Pedro de Atacama and slide your way down the dune. Witnessing the sunset from the viewpoint is a must. Gate closes at 6:00 pm so be sure to enter before closing time so you won’t miss the opportunity.

VALLE DE LA LUNA

Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon in English possesses breathtaking sceneries with an otherworldly beauty. The colossal evolution of the planet throughout time, molded the landscape making Valle de la Luna’s surface look like the moon itself with a bizarre combination of hard-to-believe rock formations, strange geological forms, silver-colored sand dunes, and salt hills. We won’t probably ever visit another planet but I’m pretty sure visiting Valle de la Luna is the closest we’ll get to it. Valle de la Luna is a great place to witness the sunset in the Atacama. Park closes at 6:00 pm so be sure to enter before closing time to make it in time for the sunset.

LAGUNAS ESCONDIDAS DE BALTINACHE

You won’t believe your eyes when you stand before the Laguna Escondida de Baltinache (The Hidden Lagoon of Baltinache in English). Laguna Escondida de Baltinache is comprised of 7 bodies of transparent turquoise water, 2 in which is safe to swim, is Atacama’s best kept secret and probably one of the most surreal settings one can witness in any desert in the world. Due to the high concentration of salt in the lagoons, you float naturally, just like you would in the Dead Sea.

GEISER DEL TATIO

Geiser del Tatio located at a woozy 4.200 meters above sea level, is the world’s third-largest geyser field and its active geysers represent 8% of the world’s geysers. El Tatio hosts an incredible spectacle every morning. To see the geysers at its greatest splendor, make sure to be there at 7:00 am as the impressive white columns of steam from boiling temperatures underground becomes more intense as they meet the low temperatures in the atmosphere. There’s a hot spring at El Tatio so make sure you bring your bathing suit for a warm dip after you visit the craters.

OJO DEL SALAR

Ojos del Salar located in the Salar de Atacama is probably Atacama’s most under-rated location. Ojos del Salar is the name given to two very deep freshwater lagoons located in the Salar de Atacama, very near the popular Laguna Cejar and Laguna Tebinquinche. It is safe to swim in both lagoons of Ojos del Salar so feel free to go for a refreshing dip!

MANO DEL DESIERTO

Visit this stunning sculpture on your way to San Pedro

MANO DEL DESIERTO

Mano del Desierto is an 11-meter in height sculpture erecting from the ground in the middle of the vast desert along the Panamericana Highway. The sculpture was inaugurated in March 1992 by Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal and symbolizes the vulnerability and helplessness of humankind.

HOW TO GET THERE

The best way to visit Mano del Desierto is by car. If you are in Antofagasta, drive 71 km along the Panamericana Highway to reach the sculpture. If you happen to be in San Pedro de Atacama, the journey will take up to 3 hrs. Since the location of the sculpture is completely off the common Atacama Desert’s attractions, I highly recommend to rent a car in Antofagasta or Calama and drive to Mano del Desierto before making your way to San Pedro de Atacama.

OTHER EXPERIENCES IN THE ATACAMA DESERT

  • Swim in Laguna Cejar saltwater lagoon
  • Go on a Stargazing Tour in the Atacama Desert 
  • Stroll around the dusty streets of San Pedro
  • Visit Atacama’s volcanoes Lincancabur and Lascar
  • Visit Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama

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Lipe Planells (The World Hopper)

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