Atacama: the desert that looks like Mars

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The Atacama Desert in northern Chile will make even the most skeptical visitors wonder if they’re on another planet

 

Incredible geological formations, impeccable visibility, a palette of bright colors and a sky filled with stars: way beyond the stereotype of endless sand, the Atacama is comprised of a kaleidoscope of unique landscapes. The base for exploring it is San Pedro de Atacama, a small village about 62 miles [100 km] from the closest airport, in the city of Calama. All the time in the world isn’t enough to discover every corner of the desert. But it’s worth a try.

 

DAY 1

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Morning - Valle del Arcoíris

The first excursion is low altitude compared to the others, easy for the body to get acclimated to. Also known as Valle de los Siete Colores, it got its name from the minerals that compose the rocks and acquire different tones distributed in layers. It’s possible to explore the rocks up close, circulating around the main wall on foot.

 

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Afternoon - Valle de la Luna

You can reach the most traditional local destination by car or bike. The landscape is comprised of reddish rocks with salt veins, and the immense Duna Mayor can be climbed via a sandy trail. The route through the caves is punctuated by crackling sounds from salt in the rocks, which contract as the day gets colder. The sunset is a VIP experience at Mirador del Coyote, which overlooks the canyon.

 

Night - San Pedro de Atacama

In the village, backpackers mingle with families, couples and groups of elderly travelers. Caracoles is the main street, home to restaurants, shops, galleries and ice cream shops – stop by Babalú and try the coca leaf flavor. For dinner, on this and other nights, head to the sophisticated Blanco, to the more economical La Pica del Indio, or to La Estaka, which serves Andean food.

Babalú: Caracoles, 160 • Blanco: Caracoles, 195 • La Estaka: Caracoles, 259 • La Pica del Indio: Tocopilla, 418

 

DAY 2

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Morning - Altiplano lakes and Piedras Rojas

The Miscanti and Miñiques Lakes are formed by the waters of the mountains that accumulate at the foot of volcanoes, attracting vicuñas (one of the local camel species) and desert foxes known as zorras. The next stop, Piedras Rojas, has a peculiar beauty: large reddish rocks surrounding an enormous lagoon that changes colors with the seasons of the year – in the winter it takes on an icy tone, while in the spring it has a light green hue.

 

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Afternoon - Salar de Atacama or Laguna Cejar

The Salar de Atacama, with its irregular ground sculpted by salt crystals, should be explored in silence, so as to not disturb the flamingos at Laguna Chaxa. Nearby is Laguna Cejar, which features an almost beach-like atmosphere: deep and with a concentration of salt that reaches nearly 25% (the Dead Sea, to give you an idea by comparison, is 33%), it invites visitors – when it’s not too cold – to experience floating on its unsinkable waters.

 

DAY 3

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Morning - El Tatio Geysers

You need to wake up early: there’s no other way to see the geysers, being that the spectacle is only a sure thing in the early morning. In the intense cold, jets of boiling water burst forth toward the sky. At first, the scene looks like a black and white painting, but as the sun gradually comes out, the canvas takes on colors and the landscape turns more psychedelic with the forms blurred by white vapor.

 

Afternoon - Puritama Hot Springs

It’s true that Atacama isn’t the most challenging nature destination in the world, but this attraction takes tranquility to a whole other level. It’s a set of nine hot springs (only eight are open to the public) filled with volcanic water and interconnected by wood bridges.

 

DAY 4

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Morning - Salar de Tara

The Tara is one of the highest spots in the desert and it takes up an entire day – don’t follow the impulse to run out and see it all at once, because this could cause a shortage of oxygen. The scene is comprised of isolated vertical rocks at an altitude of 100 feet [30 m], lakes reflecting the volcanoes and a reddish rock wall which, in layers, gradually transforms into yellow vegetation, white salt, a blue lagoon and a carpet of pink flamingos.

 

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Night - Astronomy tour

Through one telescope you view a star. Through another, you see Saturn and its rings. Through still others, the moon, a nebula and even a galaxy. The clean, dry air, altitude and lack of visual pollution in the desert make Atacama at night a guaranteed spectacle any time of year. As he points to the sky, the guide tells stories of the Inca constellations: Yacana, a llama nursing her young; Atoq, the fox that pursues them; Mach’acuay, who commands all the serpents on Earth. And, encompassing them all, Mayu, the Milky Way, which, according to tradition, is the river that generated all life on Earth. One look at the hypnotic sky with its constellations and falling stars in motion and you’ll be convinced: the Atacama is not of this world.

 

Accommodations

Alto Atacama

Each guest is welcomed by a guide, who suggests excursions for the next day. Following the proposal of non-invasive tourism and with details like six pools and a stable of alpacas and llamas, this hotel is a reference in luxury.

 

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Tierra Atacama

All the suites have a large glass window facing the Licancabur Volcano. The décor is modern and the restaurant serves local ingredients (like quinoa) dressed up as haute cuisine.

 

Atacama on a budget

San Pedro has plenty of budget hotels. Quinta Adela has plain rooms made of volcanic rocks, and Hostal Haalar is quiet and offers free wifi.  

 

Planet Atacama

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• The highest and driest desert in the world, it receives less than 2 inches [50 mm] of rain annually

• Within a single day, the temperature can vary from 28.4 °F to 86 °F [-2 °C - 30 °C]

• On Earth, it’s the region most similar to the surface of Mars

• It’s number 2 on the New York Times’ List of places to visit in 2017

 

LATAM has direct flights to Calama departing from: Santiago and La Serena.