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The Atacama Desert: The Frontier of the Stars

Discover the rugged Martian-like landscapes of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert with Surtrek South American Travel. The driest desert on the planet, Atacama is replete with bizarre rock formations, giant sand dunes, jagged canyons, and a surprising cultural heritage that simply must be explored during any custom-designed experience in Chile.

 

After touching down in Chile, head out — with a guide — for up to a week of luxury desert exploration and pampering at the Awasi Atacama Lodge, Explora Atacama, or Tierra Atacama.

 

For the sense wonder and magic that fills the air while in these high-Andean plains, contact us a Surtrek to begin planning an unforgettable Atacama Desert Tour!

Highlights

 

  • A breathtakingly scenic, otherworldly landscape of arid deserts, vast salt flats, volcanic geysers, and towering volcanoes
  • Fine dining, comfortable accommodations, and exceptional service at smartly designed and outfitted desert lodges
  • Flocks of pink Andean flamingoes providing a stunning contrast to the azure-blue skies and brilliant white landscapes
  • Local celebrations with animated performances of Andean music, song, and dance
  • Clear, unpolluted desert night skies allowing for unrivaled and unforgettable stargazing
  • Horseback riding through the Martian-like landscape or mountain biking down the side of a volcano
  • Visit s to local “ayllus” settlements for authentic cultural contacts with the local community

 

What you’ll experience on an Atacama Vacation

 

With flamingo-filled lakes and rainbow-colored rock formations spread out over thousands of square miles, a luxury stays in the Atacama Desert is filled with both rugged adventure and all the creature comforts.

 

Head off on an excursion to witness the beguiling geology of Moon Valley, where the light transforms rugged rocks into a rainbow of color.

 

Set out on horseback along a narrow dirt road to Death Valley, back-dropped by surreal clay formations and imposing dunes.

 

Spend a day with your private guide on a 4x4 excursion to the Aguas Calientes salt flats, whose turquoise-colored ponds are inhabited by wild ducks and pink flamingoes.

 

Experience these and so many more otherworld outdoor excursions while indulging yourself in all the pleasures of Atacama’s atmospheric lodges. The possibilities are unlimited.

 

Is it safe to visit the Atacama?

 

The quaint desert village San Pedro de Atacama serves as the gateway to the desert’s main attractions. Fortunately, this laid-back little tourist town is known for having virtually no violent crime, though an occasional bicycle theft occurs every now and then. While the desert itself harbors no major endemic hazards such as lethal diseases or poisonous animals, care should be taken when hiking, cycling, visiting volcanic geysers, or participating in any other outdoor activities; keep in mind that the Atacama is somewhat remote and possesses only a single small medical facility. This points to the fact that the most significant safety concerns in the Atacama are those related to staying healthy, particularly with regard to AMS (acute mountain sickness), alleviated with locally available infusions. In addition, the desert poses the threat of potentially dangerous levels of UV rays, easily addressed with sunblock, sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and long sleeves.

 

The best time to experience Atacama

 

To enjoy the most pleasant temperatures and the fewest tourists during your Atacama Desert adventure, we recommend the off-peak shoulder-season months of March to May (considered “fall” in South America)) and mid-September to November (“springtime”). With fewer visitors during this period, you’ll feel like you have the desert all to yourself.

 

The December to February “summer” high season also has pleasant daytime temperatures and warmer nights, though you’ll have to deal with the crowds.

 

The June to early September low season (the South American “winter”) is less ideal, as the temperatures plummet to close to freezing at night and there’s a greater possibility for storms.

 

What to pack for the Atacama Desert

 

Keep in mind at least a couple of points when packing for the Atacama Desert:

 

  • Pack in layers: Despite being the desert, Atacama’s high altitude makes its winter and nights fairly chilly. Therefore, it’s a good idea to layer your clothing, taking off or adding items as the day or evening progresses.
  • Protect your skin: As you’ll be vacationing at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, the sun will be quite strong; so, be proactive about protecting yourself. Using a sunhat, sunscreen, and protective clothing are just a few ways to take care of your skin. Also, try to stay out of the sun during the middle of the day.

 

In addition, we have compiled the following basic list of recommended items to take on your trip to the Atacama Desert.

 

[NOTE: These are the essential items to bring along from home specifically for Atacama. Once you’ve decided on your trip, including all of the other destinations you plan to visit, Surtrek will provide you a more detailed packing list.]

 

CLOTHING:

 

  • Hiking boots – Sturdy, ankle supporting, with anti-slip rubber soles, and comfortably broken in. (Note: The Atacama Desert offers some excellent hiking, especially around the Valle de Luna (“Moon Valley”) and Valle de Arcoiris (“Rainbow Valley”), both close to San Pedro de Atacama)
  • Sturdy sandals (like Tevas) – For non-hiking day-activities such as hot springs and lake visits, and horseback riding
  • Hiking socks – Moisture-wicking, lightweight, with little or no cushioning
  • Thermal underwear – For high ascents such as visits to the Tatio Geysers, especially during winter
  • Hiking pants – Lightweight and airy for the heat of the day (even unzipping pants for the desert) & shorts
  • Long pants (jeans or leggings) – For walking around town, horseback riding and the cooler evenings and mornings
  • Long-sleeve thin shirts or t-shirts – To protect your arms from the desert sun
  • Micro-fleece jacket – With a hood, &/or light sweater or sweatshirt (nights and mornings are cool, as is Moon Valley)
  • A wide-brimmed hat or sun hat – With a chin strap
  • Swimwear – Plus a long-sleeve t-shirt to wear while swimming if you sunburn easily

 

PERSONAL CARE

 

  • Sunscreen – Not only are you in a desert but in a high altitude one. This means that the sun is extremely strong here and the white sands and salt flats act of highly reflective surfaces. So, be sure to apply sunscreen (SPF 50 or higher) all over and reapply throughout the day.
  • Eye drops – For those who use contact lenses or prescription lens, the dry climate of the high desert may be a strain on the eyes, so don’t forget some eye droplets to add a little moisture.
  • Medication – If you have any prescription medication, be sure to bring along plenty for the trip, just in case the pharmacies where you’re staying don’t carry what you need. Also, keeping some Advil or Ibuprofen on hand in case of headaches caused by the altitude is a good idea.
  • Remedies for altitude sickness – Altitude sickness is a frequent problem for visitors to the Atacama. However, most symptoms are relatively mild and go away within a few hours or a day or so. Regional solutions for dealing with altitude sickness include drinking coca tea or chewing coca leaves, while medications from your home country can also be brought along. Otherwise, actions like drinking plenty of water, slowing down and taking deep breaths when feeling out of breath or fatigued, sitting down when feeling lightheaded, eating carbs, and avoiding alcohol are several ways to help your body adjust to the altitude.
  • Lip balm – with SPF protection
  • Basic first aid – Even though your guide and lodges will have first aid kits, it never hurts to bring some Band-Aids along on day trips …just in case.
  • Aloe vera lotion – In the event you do get a sunburn, keep some aloe vera lotion on hand to massage onto the burn at the end of the day. This helps soothe the burn and to speed up healing.
  • Beach towel (quick-drying micro-fiber travel type) – For use after hot-spring baths and floating in salt lagoons.

 

GEAR:

 

  • Backpack, duffle bag, or duffle-backpack
  • Day-pack – For day trips, you’ll need a comfy pack to carry your essentials: sunscreen, water bottle, hat, glasses, layers, etc. Something lightweight would be best, made with a breathable, airy material.
  • Sunglasses – The high-desert sun can cause serious eye damage, so be sure to pack some shades! For those who wear contact lenses, we recommend swapping them for prescription glasses for the duration of your trip, as the Atacama can get windy and sand can blow into your eyes, get under your contact lens, and irritate your eyes.
  • Camera – The Atacama is a visually stunning place, with volcanoes, geysers, salt flats, shimmering high altitude lakes, and diverse wildlife, and you’ll want to bring a good camera to capture those sights.
  • Binoculars – The vast distances of the Atacama Desert and excellent camouflage abilities of the animals that live here can make it tricky to notice wildlife or passing points of interest while hiking or driving, so pack a pair of travel binoculars to use in such moments.
  • Reusable water bottle – Not only is using a reusable water bottle environmentally friendly, it’s also important! Spending time in the high, arid desert of southern Chile takes a toll on your body so drinking plenty of water throughout the day, whether you’re physically exerting yourself or not, is important.

 

Getting to Atacama

 

To reach the Atacama Desert, most travelers land first in the Chilean capital of Santiago de Chile, where you will be welcomed by a Surtrek representative as soon as you touch down at the city’s Arturo Merino Benítez Airport. (Keep in mind that you will be accompanied and assisted by Surtrek staff or partners throughout your Atacama vacation).

 

Given the relatively long flight times for reaching Chile, we recommend you take a tour that includes at least one day in historic Santiago de Chile, where you can rest up for your upcoming desert adventures.

 

From Santiago, you will be assisted in taking a one-hour flight to the northern Chilean city of Calama, where you will be met and accompanied on a scenic ground transfer to your luxury Atacama lodge in the oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, in the heart of the Atacama Desert.

 

Why tour the Atacama Desert with Surtrek?

 

With over 25 years of introducing adventurous travelers to authentic, tailor-made luxury travel experiences across South America, Surtrek is adept at offering some of the best and most complete tour services in Chile’s the Atacama Desert.

 

With our experienced travel team of 25 members strong — including native speakers of five different languages — we will work one-on-one with you to custom-design an Atacama tour that perfectly suits your particular interests and needs.

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“I found Surtrek online as it proved to be an excellent, efficient company. Our 4 days in the Galapagos were expertly planned and we were never left without a guide - we were even walked to dinner each night and assisted with ordering!”Marian Lowenfish