Where is the Atacama Desert and Why You Need to Add It to Your Bucket List
The Atacama Desert, also known as the driest place on the planet, is squeezed between the Pacific and the Andes. It’s stretching 600 miles from Peru's southern border into northern Chile.
There are sterile, intimidating stretches where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it, according to National Geographic. “You won't see a blade of grass or cactus stump, not a lizard, not a gnat. But you will see the remains of most everything left behind. The desert may be a heartless killer, but it's a sympathetic conservator. Without moisture, nothing rots.”
So why should this astounding place be on your travel bucket list?
It offers unique look to desert life
Home to natural features like salt flats, hot springs and geysers, the region is known for its unique fruits, archeological sites and the Incan and Spanish influences that remain strong with the indigenous people who still inhabit the desert.
Exceptional flowers bloom after historic rainfall
The Atacama Desert is covered with pink flowers that were able to grow because of the crazy amount on rainfall there. The Arica, Chile has the record for the longest dry streak –173 months without a drop. But the El Nino weather phenomenon did spare the region in 2015 and it brought 0.96 inches of rain in one day in some parts. This is just another reason to visit this unusual place that is going through an even more unusual transformation.
Sandboarding is becoming more popular in the country’s central and northern regions, which offer large dunes with fine sands and majestic views, according to the official travel guide to Chile. “The best known place for practicing this sport is Valle de la Muerte, located 2 km (1.2 miles) from San Pedro de Atacama, where local agencies provide sandboards, guides and transportation to gigantic dunes of fine sand.” The slopes allow you to reach high speeds and offer the unique colors and textures of the Atacama Desert at sundown. You can also surf the dunes by starlight.
It feels like you’ve left Earth
“The plains here almost appear to have a light dusting of snow they are so covered in salt…there is no vegetation that grows through the layer of brine on valley floor. I think we’ve left the planet Earth,” writes John Schengber, co-founder of The Cove Project.
Get off the beaten path
The Atacama Desert is so remote (and dry), there is little to no human development. There is just one in the middle of it, San Pedro de Atacama, where you can stay.
Camp under the stars
Camping in the Atacama Desert can be a lonely and dangerous experience as there are no signs or marks once you get off the road. But don’t let that stop you from seeing one of the most amazing dark skies in the world. Just go on a camping/stargazing expedition. You’ll get to pitch a tent under a canopy of stars and visit the famous Paranal Observatory. The Atacama Desert is a very, very dry place, making it ideal for stargazing. There are few clouds and no pollution.
The sunset is otherworldly
The Valley of the Moon is where many people would go to see the breathtaking sunsets that turn the Andes mountain range in gold, red and pink.
See Chile’s largest salt flat
Take a tour to the Salar de Atacama, the country’s biggest salt flat and see the stunning reflections of the Andes in the huge pools with a few inches of water.
Walk through geysers
Walking through Atacama’s many geysers is a unique experience. Perhaps the most famous ones are the El Tatio. “The craters of El Tatio awake very early in the morning,” according to Chile Travel. “This geothermic field attracts hundreds of visitors a year, despite the fact that it sits at an altitude of 4,200 meters (13,780 feet). If you’re visiting San Pedro de Atacama, there’s no better way to spend a morning than in El Tatio, as the rays of sunshine pierce the columns of white steam. It’s one of the true marvels of the Andes, and is well worth the early wake-up call.”