11 Magical highlights of Chile’s Atacama Desert

With its lunar landscapes, sense of ethereal wonder, and no shortage of outdoor excursions to be enjoyed, Chile’s Atacama Desert is a truly unique adventure destination – one that is unmatched anywhere else on Earth.

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This, the driest desert on the planet, is home to ancient rock formations millions of years old, eternally clear night skies, boutique hotels, and a surprising cultural heritage that simply must be explored during any tailor-made trip to Chile.

No matter your desire, whether it be exploring otherworldly canyons and clifftop viewpoints of Moon Valley, effortlessly floating in a high-Andean salt lake, or visiting small, traditional villages that have flourished in the desert for centuries, you’ll find it in Atacama. Here, we highlight just 11 of the top experiences that don’t even begin to list all the unique experiences available.

Stargaze into the world’s clearest night sky

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world, with some parts of it not having had rainfall for over 400 years. This lack of moisture in the air means regularly clear skies, which perfectly combine with the area’s high altitude and non-existent light pollution to make Atacama one of the best stargazing locations on earth. Being an astronomer’s paradise, some of the world’s most important observatories (La Silla, Paranal, ALMA, the Llano de Chajnantor, etc.) have chosen to settle in this area.

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Travelers should keep in mind that from April through September Atacama boasts cloudless skies, making this a peak period to appreciate our Milky Way’s glittering collection of stars, in addition to Jupiter and Saturn. You won’t even need a telescope to see the breathtaking light show above.

You can also choose to go on a star gazing tour where an expert guide will lead you through the cosmos, pointing out constellations, planets, and galaxies with telescopes that reveal the wonders of the universe in astonishing detail. You will either camp in the desert and admire the stars all night long or go on a night hike to a remote place where you can gaze at the heavens above.

Stargazing tours can also visit some observatories such as ALMA, the world’s largest observatory, which is open to the public. There, you can gaze into the stars through high-powered telescopes and learn from an astronomer about constellations and other night sky features. Whatever your approach, you’re sure to see why the night sky in the Atacama Desert is said to be the best in the world.

Explore the unique lunar landscapes of Moon Valley

    A must for any trip to Atacama, the Moon Valley is a dazzling place of beguiling geology and – you guessed it – lunar-like landscapes. The openness adds to its allure, allowing you to stand and watch as the light transforms rugged rocks into a rainbow of color, particularly at sunset; without a doubt the best time to visit Valle de la Luna.

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    Valle de la Luna was formed by the accumulation of sand, clay, and salt into mountains which were destroyed by the earth’s movements but shaped by wind and water over time.

    Though dubbed Moon Valley for its otherworldly appearance, the majestic Valle de la Luna has been compared to the surface of Mars. Being so similar to our neighboring planet, NASA has even tested instruments designed for their Mars missions in this region. Most of the guided tours to the Valley of the Moon start with the Death Valley lookout. Then it’s over to the breathtaking Stone of Coyote viewpoint; a fun walk through a salt cavern; and a look at the Amphitheatre and Tres Marias rock formations. The final excursion is up to the sunset viewpoint. It’s at sunset when this part of the desert truly shines. As the sun dips below the horizon, the valley’s rocky formations cast long shadows and the colors shift from warm oranges to deep purples and blues. It’s an ethereal experience, where you feel like you’ve left Earth for another planet.

    Bathe in a desert oasis at the Puritama Hot Spring

      Though situated in the middle of the world’s driest desert, you can enjoy the subline experience of soaking in the thermal waters of the Puritama Hot Springs (Termas de Puritama). Here, you’ll find a muscle-relaxing visit to the Termas De Puritama Hot Spring a well-deserved pause after a few days of exploring the desert.

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      Located in a canyon, this oasis consists of eight large pools that are warmed by geothermal springs fueled by the surrounding volcanic Andes. The warm, mineral-rich waters have long been treasured for their therapeutic properties that are sworn to relieve rheumatism and arthritis due to the high concentration of sodium sulfate. In any case, they are sure to provide relaxation to weary travelers. This was the perfect way to rehydrate your body while having a fun and relaxing time in the water. Most will agree that the morning provides the perfect contrast of cool breezes through the canyon and the warm waters of the pools.  Plus, an early morning soak will allow you to experience the pools with smaller crowds of people. Still, at any time of the day, you’ll find the transparent water is as clear as glass and instantly inviting!

      Sand surf down one of the world’s highest dunes

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      Sandboarding down the never-ending dunes in Atacama is a great thrill and physical challenge, perfect for adventure travelers. Just outside of Atacama’s oasis town of San Pedro, you can board down massive, sandy, 100-yard stretches in the desert’s El Valle de los Muertos (Death Valley) or El Valle de Martes (Mars Valley) and enjoy adrenaline-filled fun in the sun!

      Boards can be rented in the town of San Pedro, or you can just come to the valley to watch the locals cutting it up and down the dunes. A good bit farther afield is Atacama’s Cerro Medanoso dune. Looming a quarter of a mile above the desert plain, it’s the tallest in Chile and is considered the second-highest dune in the world.  It’s not only great sandboarding but a destination in itself and a unique photographic opportunity. Here, you’ll discover a stark landscape of eroded lava and sandstone formations nestled among this and other smooth dunes of the Mar de Dunas (Sea of Dunes) that stretch for miles, making this the ideal area for thrill seekers.

      Experience the awesome Tatio Geysers

        Home to 80 active geysers, El Tatio is the world’s third largest geyser field, and — at more than 14,000 ft above sea level — it’s the world’s highest geyser field. At this geothermal field, fumaroles create a surreal image as they spurt clouds of steam up to 35 ft into the sky.

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        The best time to witness this awesome sight is sunrise, which is when the low morning temperatures also act to prevent the steam from the geysers from evaporating. The angle of the morning light casts an ethereal glow on these clouds of steam. This creates an immensely magical spectacle over the stark landscape, bathing the billowing clouds in a golden light and painting an otherworldly picture.

        In the azure clarity of this high-altitude desert, the visual impact of the geysers, thermal wells, and steaming fumaroles at dawn is unforgettable. All this requires a very early start, but no doubt it’s well worth braving chilly temperatures and the early pre-dawn start.

        Find inner peace amid the stark Atacama Salt Flats

          The eye-popping Atacama Salt Flat sprawls across a 1,200-square-mile area and is a wonder to behold. Splayed out beneath a cornflower-blue sky, this region is the star of many a guidebook cover thanks to the salt flat’s striking contrast of colors and its periodic mirror-like qualities.

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          This reflective quality appears when there’s the rarest of rain in the Atacama Desert. The salt flat fills with water and turns into a salt lake, though different from any lake you’ve seen before. The soil doesn’t absorb the rainwater quickly, so when flash flooding occurs, a thin layer of water forms, creating a giant mirror thus reflecting the surrounding mountains; a real treat for any photographer!

          Over time, the water settles in the lake bed and evaporates, leaving behind large amounts of salt, sand, and other minerals, giving this lake a look like the lunar surface.

          A few springs in the middle of this impressive salt flat give way to open areas of water with a plethora of small crustaceans upon which the Andean, Chilean, and James species of flamingos feast.

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          Take lots of pictures and play with the optical illusions of this place. Be prepared to photograph other wildlife species such as vicuñas, Culpeo foxes, Puna guinea pigs, Andean seagulls, golden plovers, pigeon ducks, and many others. As a fun fact, the salt flat is home to 40% of the world’s lithium reserves.

          Capture stunning desert wildlife on film

            In the Atacama Desert, you can view otherworldly landscapes, sight stars like in no other part of the world, engage in adventure sports, and relax in its salty waters, but that’s not all. You can also spot incredible Chilean wildlife and take home shots for family, friends, and envious co-workers.

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            Though the Atacama Desert is the driest desert on Earth, the area makes for an unexpectedly varied habitat featuring salt lakes and greener areas fed by sea mists or mountain meltwater. Therefore, most plants and mammals of the region cling to the edges of limited sources of water. These animals include llamas and llama-like vicunas and alpacas, as well as huemel deer, grey fox, viscacha (the largest member of the chinchilla family), and even penguins(!) along the coast.

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            But what about flamingos? We wouldn’t blame you if you’ve never thought to look for these tropical birds in the desert, but the surprising fact is that there are actually three flamingo species that you can see in the Atacama region. The high salinity and alkalinity of Atacama’s salt lakes don’t faze the evolutionarily prepared flamingos since the higher salinity means more of their favorite food: blue-green algae that these birds filter from the mud with their specialized down-curved bills. All of this makes for some stunning sights and shots.

            Indulge in all the amenities of a boutique desert lodge

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            Located in northern Chile’s stunning Atacama Desert – between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, on the edge of the tiny oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, you’ll find a scattering of some of the most unique, environmentally friendly, comfortable, and well-designed luxury hotels in South America.

            Within a stone’s throw of snow-capped volcanoes, shimmering salt pans, and the Andes, these lodges reflect the magical mood of the world’s driest desert. Most of these hotels are pueblo or adobe style and blend in with the natural landscape. They offer amazing service, original cuisine, and warm décor. Their spas can be described as “adventure spas,” with the idea being that guests can experience the outdoors actively and adventurously, later returning to the hotel for pampering at the spa (or relaxation on the lodges’ grounds).

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            The largest and most comfortable luxury lodges in the area have names like Tierra Atacama, Awasi Atacama, Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, and Explora Atacama. Though each has its own distinctive character, they all feature a mix of Atacameño ancient architecture blended with modern style for a chic contemporary ambiance. In addition to spacious and well-appointed guest rooms, each lodge can boast of its own 5-star restaurant where food is prepared by incorporating desert fauna and flavors, making the gastronomy an experience in and of itself.

            Be amazed on daily desert excursions

              Luxury lodges in Atacama offer any number of activities to keep you busy during the day and night.

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              Full-service luxury Atacama lodges offer activities for exploration in the surrounding desert. Guests can go on daily excursions with experienced guides or can just kick back beside terrace fire pits and lounge next to a pool with some of the finest desert views and the stunning sight of the Licancabur volcano in the distance.

              These luxury lodges specialize in tailor-made experiences in small groups as well as more private excursions with guides for each guest. This allows for privacy, serenity, and deep relaxation.

              These outings range from driving tours to Altiplano lagoons, horseback riding, hiking through stunning scenery, visiting hot springs, mountain biking, and exploring archaeological ruins. These tours range from half-a-day to full-day, and these consist of everything from easy hikes to more challenging climbs, with a variety of daily options from which you – the guest – can choose. With over 40 explorations offered on foot, bike, or horseback, you’re bound to discover the natural gems of the Atacama Desert.

              Float effortlessly in ‘a desert full of water’

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              The Atacama Desert bears no shortage of bodies of water. Oddly enough, it’s a desert full of water! One of the pools that is a favorite of travelers who wish to take a dip is Laguna Cejar, a sinkhole lake in the Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat. As the lake’s concentration of salt can reach as high as 28 percent, this allows one to float on it effortlessly. Plus, it’s the perfect way to cool off from the intense desert heat. This is the magic of Atacama pools like Laguna Cejar, a surreal salt lagoon that’s saltier than the Dead Sea.

              Discover the intricacies of living Inca history & culture

                Far from being inert stretches of rock and sand, the Atacama Desert is an area abundant in energy thanks to its welcoming ancestral cultures and the oases that are a source of life in the driest desert in the world.

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                Climb the more than 4,000 meters high of the Andean plateau to discover small towns that keep their customs intact amid extreme scenarios that are worth photographing. Discover the Pucará de Quitor, a 12th-century pre-Incan fort that clings to a steep slope or the region’s oldest village of Tulor, estimated to have been built around 800 B.C.

                And of course there’s San Pedro de Atacama. A travelers’ hotspot, San Pedro was the cradle of the Atacama people, the creators of the San Pedro Culture, which developed in the area more than 11,000 years ago. In the past, it was a sacred place for the Inca Empire as the Incas would carry out religious ceremonies to worship the sun during the zenith of their power. Still today, the town is a center of various crafts created according to the people’s traditional faith. Handed down from generation to generation, the locals have skills in making pottery, wood engravings, basketry, musical instruments, clothing, ornaments, and weaving are some of the most beautiful artifacts you’ll ever find. Even the food scene is artisan-crafted, with chefs and owners creating foods from native plants grown only in the desert to create Andean fusion dishes. From quinoa salads, artisan pizzas, and homemade empanadas with unique ingredients, to fresh juices and smoothies made from things like kiwi and coca leaves, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at every meal.

                Conclusion: Atacama beckons

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                However you choose to spend your time while in the Atacama Desert, it will be both momentous and memorable all at the same time. The natural power of the elements makes Atacama an ideal place for meditation. The striking silence and the warm desert breezes offer mystical answers to your deepest questions. Added to this is the vast emptiness that allows your mind to re-order its thoughts and bring peace to an otherwise overly intense life. The incredibly clear night skies allow you to comprehend your tiny part of the immense universe. Pondering infinity is humbling and good for the soul. Sense the isolation, wonder and magic that fill the air while in these high-Andean plains, something which can only be experienced first-hand!

                Alfonso Tandazo
                Alfonso Tandazo

                Surtrek President