The Atacama is the driest non-polar desert on Earth. It is wedged between the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range and the Andes Mountains. An adventurer’s paradise, this stunning region has world class star gazing that will take your breath away, massive and beautiful salt flats and lagoons, high peaks, and a rich and vibrant culture and diverse people.
We loved our time there this past February and March and hope when the time’s right we can go back for another visit. We wanted to lay out our 6 favorite characteristics that make this region so special and get you inspired to plan your own trip.
Stay tuned for our next blog post as well where we will be talking about some things to think about as parts of the world begin to reopen. We have to think about more than just travel and be willing to listen to the people who know best how the eventual reopen should go. Until then, check out some of our reasons why we loved it in the Atacama.
The Atacama has the cleanest sky on Earth, for three reasons: altitude, the absence of light pollution, and the absence of clouds. So, it is the best place in the world to observe the stars, the moon, and other planets. There are many ways you can stargaze in the Atacama. You can sign up for a tour with an observatory, head out on your own or go backpacking and sleep under the stars like we did which was an incredible experience. Make sure that you check the weather and the moon phases charts. You want to make sure you are in the area as close to the New Moon as possible to cut down on excess light. Seeing so many stars was really an amazing experience.
Being the driest place on earth you would think that wildlife diversity would be low. Not the case at all! If you go out far enough you can catch glimpses of flamingos, burros, and vicunas. We got lucky and were able to watch a group of vicunas grazing on some grass at a beautiful high alpine lake. It was a stunning sight. Spend a few days trekking in the high mountains and you are sure to see all kinds of birds and land animals. Seeing how they adapt to such a harsh place was truly inspiring.
The Atacama has many bodies of water, which seems counter-intuitive for the driest place on earth. At a place called Lagunas Altaplanicas there is a grouping of azure lagoons which are surrounded by salt, situated at around 14,000 feet in the mountains. On another excursion we had the pleasure of exploring some of salt lakes further away from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. The colors of the lakes were amazing with soft blues, whites, and crystal clear waters. The reflection of the high peaks staring back at you while flamingos walked amongst the glassy surface making it look like they were standing on top of the water. We sat for hours, alone, in the silence just watching the shapes of the clouds change on the surface and listening to the birds speak softly on the wind.
There is never a time you should be bored in the Atacama. Adventure activities abound from mountain biking, hiking in the Moon Valley, climbing a volcano or doing some rock climbing and checking out some geysers. The choices are endless and everyday we had a new place to explore or new activity to partake in. This is why we recommend setting aside a good amount of time to explore the area, at least a week to get a real taste of everything there is to see and do.
History and Culture
The history and culture of the Atacama dates back to the Inca times, comprising of a collection of longstanding indigenous groups mixed with people from all over South America, Europe, and Central America. As with all of our experiences, we always recommend mixing in lots of time to spend in the local communities. Near San Pedro de Atacama there are many communities with varied and wonderful culture and history to learn. We were able to be guided to some caves with petroglyphs and view the amazing Rainbow Valley. We dad delicious lunches of local foods, and even got a taste of a llama caravan at sunset. The power and beauty of learning about the land and culture from the people who live it can’t be understated, and the Atacama is especially full of things to share.
The sunsets in the Atacama are otherworldly. Our first night we watched the sunset in the Moon Valley, which is very popular but for good reason. Often we try to steer away from the more visited things in a destination, but sometimes things are popular for a reason. Moon Valley is one of those. We highly recommend venturing out of San Pedro de Atacama on your own, or hiring a local tour guide to show you around. Even without a set location, being able to just walk out of town every night and watch the sunset from the many wide landscapes around us was a true gift. It really will blow your mind, and something you will be something you remember forever.
I truly believe there is something about deserts in general. Maybe it is the way time seems to stand still, or the fact that the sands and rocks of the desert have lived through so many millions of years and have such a story to tell. Especially the Atacama there is a sacred feeling, a reverence almost that you can feel when you are there. You will feel it as soon as you step foot into the quaint town of San Pedro de Atacama with its lively main street, live music, and insatiable spirit for adventure. When you go there you will be changed forever.