It’s the highest and driest desert in the world. The Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru is a virtually rainless plateau, extending from the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The average width is less than 160 kilometres but it extends from the Peruvian border 1000 kilometres south to the Bolivian Altiplano.
At first sight the barrenness of the scenery might give one the feeling that there is nothing of interest in this inhospitable area, but this part of the world contains spectacular and varied scenery; mountains over 22,000 feet, volcanoes, geysers, salt lakes, salt basins (salars), sand and lava flows, soil that has been compared to that of Mars and the austerity of the desert makes this locale truly awe-inspiring.
Because of the lack of rain, there was a period where no rain fell in Antogagasta for 40 years; the land is virtually sterile although many locations receive marine fog, providing sufficient moisture for hypolithic algae, lichens and even cacti. For photographers the early morning and evening light can make the landscape surreal, the ideal atmospheric conditions make the Atacama an ideal place for astronomy.
There are four types of camelids that inhabit the Atacama Desert, the llamas, the largest with a variety coloured wool, the guanaco, which is nearly as big but has rust coloured wool with a dark head and tail. The alpaca has similar colourings to the llamas
but is smaller with a fatter and shorter neck. The smallest, about half the size of the llama, is the fully protected vicuna, which is found at high altitudes and has the finest wool of the camelids.
San Pedro de Atacama, altitude 2,400 metres, is an oasis village with Licancabur, a 5,900 metre extinct volcano in the background, is the best base for exploring the Atacama Desert. With a population of 1,000, dirt roads and adobes this village is another revelation for the traveller, who at first sight could be forgiven for thinking they have arrived at some “hell-hole” in the middle of nowhere. The people are very friendly and San Pedro de Atacama offers superb restaurants with incredible settings, 5-star food and service at 3-star prices. Near the village square where there is a church built by the Spanish in 1577, is the museum. Museo Arqueologico Gustavo Le Paige, is regarded as one of the best in South America. Founded by a former village priest the museum houses pre-Columbian artefacts and ancient mummies. Native ruins nearby now attract increasing numbers of tourists interested in learning about pre-Colombian cultures such as the remains of the 800 BC Tulor settlement. Tourists also visit for other popular activities including sandboarding and star gazing, with the views of the stars from the Atacama unrivalled across the continent.
There are many places to visit and it is advisable as well as timesaving to hire a local guide. Valle de Luna, close to the village is an ideal place to watch the sunset. This evocative landscape of coloured gypsum, clay and salt is so desolate it is sometimes described as “moon like”. In fact, the Atacama has been chosen as a good site to test the prototype of a future lunar rover.
The geyser show at El Tatio is not-to-be-missed excursion. The trip leaves the village at 3:30am, as the 100 geysers burst forth at dawn and by mid-morning there is no activity. These spectacular geysers thrust their columns of steam through the frozen ground in an array of shapes, sizes and sounds. At 12,000 feet and so early in the morning the temperature is below 0ºC, but that does not stop the hardy and foolhardy bathing in the hot thermal pools. Heading back down the mountain to the village there is the opportunity to see some wildlife around the Putana River.
Salar de Atacama is home to the Chilean and Andean flamingos as well as salt desert scenery. Early morning or dusk is the best time to visit this area for photographers as there is more activity amongst the flamingos and the light is incredible.
Other places worth visiting are the Indian village of Caspana, Salar Punta Negra for incredible mountain and lake scenery, Chiu Chiu Church, Socaire Cross where there is a breathtaking view of Salar de Atacama and surrounding areas.
Getting there: Lan Chile flies to Calama, if a tour has been organised, your guide will pick you up at the airport and drive the 100 kilometres to San Pedro de Atacama, as well as organising accommodation and tours. Allow at least three days to see the sights around San Pedro de Atacama.