The Atacama Desert: A Beauty of Extremes
Welcome to the Atacama Desert. To borrow a line from Dickens, this place can only be “received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Everything here is extreme, and when you describe it, that description often ends with “…in the world.” For us, it was one of the most fascinating natural places… in the world.
San Pedro de Atacama, the town from which you explore the surrounding Atacama Desert, is one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations. That’s amazing for a number of reasons. First, the town isn’t near anything. We took an 18-hour bus ride from La Serena to get here. You can fly in, but even that’s not particularly easy.
Second, the town itself looks like it was pulled straight out of the Wild West or Lonesome Dove. Dirt streets, cantinas, single-story mud huts. I half-expected a gunslinger to cheat at cards, then challenge me to a duel when I called him out. We were worlds away from the wine tours of central Chile. And yet, it is a flourishing tourist town that charges way too much for barely adequate accomodations. It’s all because of the beautiful desert.
THE ATACAMA DESERT: THE [FILL IN THE BLANK] PLACE IN THE WORLD
The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world, with an average rainfall of less than 15 millimeters a year. For our fellow Americans, that’s about 2/3 of an inch. According to geologists, the Atacama Desert has been experiencing hyperaridity for 3 million years, and it may have had no signficant rainfall from 1570-1971. In other words, it barely rained since right after Columbus discovered America until the present day.
So what’s all the fuss about? You may think the lack of rain means the landscape isn’t beautiful. You’d be mistaken. The Atacama Desert offers so much to see specifically because of that lack of rain. The Salar de Tara, the Chaxa Lagoon, the Altiplano Lagoons, stargazing, the Valle de La Luna – these are all incredible places to visit. Much like Yellowstone National Park, it looks like another world here. And, in fact, the Mars Rover was tested here.
THE BEST STARGAZING SPOT IN THE WORLD
San Pedro de Atacama piqued my interest when I heard it was one of the best spots for stargazing on earth. Some of the world’s most advanced telescopes are here, because there is no moisture in the atmosphere to disrupt the scopes. We booked a stargazing tour our first night here with SpaceOBS. It was a bit pricey at $30/person, but it was totally worth it. The host was funny and gracious as he explained all about the night sky and the dozen telescopes we would be using. The sky was so clear, we could easily see the Milky Way. Unless you live way out in the country, you have no shot of seeing that with the naked eye.
A time lapse photograph of the southern sky.
ONE OF THE HIGHEST DESERTS IN THE WORLD
The Atacama Desert sits at an elevation of about 4,000 meters, or 13,000 feeet. That makes it incredibly cold at night, so bundle up! One of the popular spots to visit is the Altiplano Lagoons – 2 lagoons formed at this high altitude. Miscanti and Minique. Even though it was brutally cold and windy on the day we visited, we couldn’t help but hang around the lagoons to take pictures. And we’re certainly glad that we did!
It gets cold at 14,000 feet!
THE BEST SPOT FOR FLAMINGOS IN THE WORLD
Ok, I made this last one up. I don’t think it’s one of the best spots for flamingos in the world. But considering how hard flamingos are to see in general, I’m comfortable with that headline. You can see 3 different types of flamingos in the Chaxa Lagoon in Los Flamencos National Reserve. You can’t get too close (unless you’re incredibly lucky and one lands right next to you), but even from a distance, it’s very cool to see these elegant, somewhat silly looking birds eating brine shrimp, aka, sea monkeys.
TWO MORE QUICK HIGHLIGHTS
One of the popular half-day tours in the Atacama Desert is the Valle de La Luna, or Valley of the Moon. It’s not bad, but a bit overrated I hate to say. You watch sunset from the ridge of the Valley. It wasn’t as impressive as it was hyped to be. That being said, the tour is only $20, so if you’re looking for something to do one afternoon, it’s not a bad option.
The other very popular tour is the geysers at sunrise. You have to wake up in the frigid cold at 4 am to see the natural geysers. We didn’t do this tour for a very simple reason. There are only a handful of places on earth where you can see geyers. Two such places are Yellowstone National Park and Geyser, Iceland. We have been to both of these places, so we slept in that morning.
GETTING TO SAN PEDRO AND THE ATACAMA DESERT
Like I said before, it’s not easy to get here. We took an 18-hour bus from La Serena. It’s actually quite a beautiful bus ride, and we didn’t mind at all. It will also save you money over flying, but that’s obviously the much faster option.
Once you’re in San Pedro, there are tour companies EVERYHWERE. It seems like every third door in town is another tour company offering to take you to the Atacama Desert attractions. Compare prices, ask questions, and read reviews. For any of the full-day or half-day tours, there isn’t that much of a difference. Just be sure to ask what meals are included so you know you’re getting fed.
Enjoy the Atacama Desert!