Pure nature is more and more difficult to find these days. Tourists invade the well-known sites and landmarks of the world making it impossible for others to discover the unknown in its privacy. This is the reason I love those destinations where I can catch a few hours alone with nature and enjoy its untouched beauty for a while. The north of Chile, better known as the Atacama desert is one of these few places. The name doesn’t do it justice! The Atacama is so much more than an arid piece of land… Volcanos, deep blue lakes, geysers, hot springs make it a super interesting place to visit.
To get there you need to catch a flight (most likely from Santiago) to Calama. It takes around 2 hours to get to San Pedro de Atacama from El Loa Airport. There are organized tours, regular buses that take you to the city, but I definitely recommend renting a car. Distances are big, and the most important sites are not near the city. My advice is to go for the miners’ pick-ups, because most places of interest are not even near paved roads. You won’t regret it as you will drive on bumpy dirt roads for looong and tiring hours. To see your options and prices just click here.
San Pedro itself is a small Andean town with lots of hostels to accomodate the growing number of tourists. It’s fun to walk around in town souvenir shopping, drinking jugos and eating ceviche in local restaurants. Discover some options here. You might feel it’s a bit overcrowded there, but once you leave town, you will mostly be by yourself on the road. The UV radiation is unusually high in this area, so be careful when you go out exploring.
Either for your first sunset or sunrise head to Valle de la Luna – The Valley of The Moon. One of the most renowned places in Atacama, this is a truly wonderful area to visit. From the top of a ridge you will be able to see the valley and bare mountains around you, shining in shades of red and grey. The feeling is unearthly – no wonder the comparison to a walk on the surface of the Moon.
My absolute favorite trip, though was to Laguna Miñiques and Miscanti. Leave right after breakfast, as it is around two hours from San Pedro. At the elevation of over 4000 meters, you will find stunningly beautiful mountain lakes by perfectly shaped volcanoes. As there are herds of llamas eating their life away by the lakes, this is an abolsutely picture perfect spot.
If you are lucky you will see foxes and rheas by the road while driving up the mountain. Also, on your way back to San Pedro make sure to visit the salar (salt flat) at Chaxa or Tebinquinche for the flamingo colonies. You can also chill at Laguna Cejar – a lake near the city where you can simply float on the surface of the water because of its salt content.
Another fantastic experience is a trip to the geysers of El Tatio, the third largest geyser field of the world with over 80 active geysers to check out. Tours usually leave extremely early (at around 4) in the morning to arrive for the sunrise. They say the steam is more visible at that time. I got there before sunrise, but regretted getting up at 3:30. It was so cold and still dark when we got there. I guess it is fine to leave a bit later. You will still be able to enjoy the spectacle a bit later. A warm coat is a must, though, even in the hottest summer days.
A good way to recharge the batteries after such long road trips is to visit the Puritama springs. The warm volcanic water forms lakes when it emerges from the rocks. Every lake is of different temprerature as the water cools off when it flows from one lake to another. If you are lucky you will be sitting in your private natural pond, surrounded by tall, dense vegetation, as in an oasis in a desert. Make sure not to arrive too late, though. The ponds are situated in a gorge where the sun won’t shine after around 6pm.
Although these are my favorite places to visit in the Atacama region, you could find several other activites interesting – stargazing at the ALMA Observatory, or visiting some archaeological sites of the region. (More info for visitors about the ALMA Observatory here.) One thing is for sure: no matter how long you stay, you will regret not having booked a longer trip.
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