Traveling the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is a narrow strip of the driest land on earth. You might not expect to find much to do or see in a place where centuries can go by without a drop of rain, but this small Chilean desert nestled near the peaks of the Andes Mountains actually has quite a bit to offer to a traveler.

Atacama Desert in Chile at Sunset with Andes in the Background, Photo: plαdys, Flickr
Atacama Desert in Chile at Sunset with Andes in the Background, Photo: plαdys, Flickr

Most travel in the Atacama Desert begins in the small oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. San Pedro boasts a church built by the Spanish in 1577, and one of the best archaeological and anthropological museums in the region – R.P. Gustavo le Paige Museum. The town’s marketplace showcases the handicrafts and materials passed down from generation to generation – fabrics woven from the wool of the local herds of llama, alpaca, and sheep, figurines carved from volcanic rock, and musical instruments and baskets made from cactus wood.

From San Pedro, tourists have quite a few options. The Valle de la Muerte (Valley of the Dead) is a sand dune-filled valley that offers the adventurous a chance to try sandboarding. The geothermic fields of El Tatio boast geysers and hot springs for visitors in search of relaxation. For the inner archaeologist, the ruins of the Pukará de Quitor, an ancient fortress built by the original inhabitants of the Atacama Desert, the Atacameños, provides a glimpse into the past of 700 years ago. And anyone interested in bird watching should visit the altiplanic lagoons that can be found all over the region, showcasing one of the most vibrant birds in nature – the flamingo.

Valle de la Muerte aka Valley of the Death in the Atacama Desert, Chile, Photo: Historias de Cronopios, Flickr
Valle de la Muerte aka Valley of tthe Death in the Atacama Desert, Chile, Photo: Historias de Cronopios, Flickr

The Atacama Desert holds a special place in the hearts of astronomers and stargazers, however. Because of its climate and alien appearance, parts of the Atacama have been used to simulate space missions to Mars and the Moon. In fact, El Valle de la Luna (the Valley of the Moon) is so named because of its resemblance to the Moon – it has served as a setting for film crews looking to shoot lunar and Martian landscapes. Additionally, because of its lack of cloud-cover, the high altitude, and its isolation, the Atacama desert is a prime location for astronomical observatories. At 8,645 feet above sea level, the Paranal Observatory boasts the Very Large Telescope and La Residencia, a hotel for staff and visitors. La Residencia has also played a distinguished role as a setting for the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace.

Valle de la Luna aka Valley of the Moon in the Atacama Desert, Chile, Photo: Zootalures, Wikipedia
Valle de la Luna aka Valley of the Moon in the Atacama Desert, Chile, Photo: Zootalures, Wikipedia

Perhaps the best part about visiting the Atacama Desert is the weather – sunny, but not too hot or too cold. With winter temperatures averaging 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and summer temperatures around 80 degrees, visitors will find this desert pretty agreeable. It’s perfect for driving out to the Atacama coast and laying on the beach, or hiking the Andes in search of glaciers. Just be sure to always carry sunscreen with you!

Atacama Desert - The Driest Place on Earth, Photo: Ti.mo, Flickr
Atacama Desert - The Driest Place on Earth, Photo: Ti.mo, Flickr

Many surprises await the intrepid traveler in the Atacama. With such a variety of landscapes and impressive sights and activities, the Atacama Desert is sure to be a memorable place to visit. Afterall, it’s the driest place on Earth and who wouldn’t want to visit a place that holds a prime.

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