10 Reasons You Need to Visit the Atacama Desert
Posted on 09/07/2017
When one considers the desert, what usually comes to mind are sand dunes and scorching temperatures. The driest non-polar desert in the world, however, is not known for an undulating sea of sand.
In fact, Chile’s Atacama Desert is a place where the landscape varies from colorful lagoons in the Altiplanic highlands to moon-like rock and, if you are lucky, you might even get to see snow. (2017 saw the first snow in the desert in 15 years.)
In short, San Pedro de Atacama and its environs must be on every nature lover’s pilgrimage list.
Sandwiched between two mountain ranges—the Andes and the Cordillera Domeyko—the Atacama Desert offers stunning views and unparalleled opportunities for adventure as well as relaxation. Here are 10 reasons why Atacama should be your next holiday destination:
It’s Easy to Get There
For a land so enchanting and other-worldly, the Atacama Desert is relatively simple to get to.
Air Canada has direct, non-stop flights from Toronto to Chile’s capital, Santiago. In Santiago, connect on one of LATAM’s 10-14 daily flights to Calama, the small mining town which has the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama.
Most hotels in San Pedro organize airport transfers from Calama to Atacama; It's a scenic hour-and-a-half drive that snakes through vertiginous rocks and desert plains.
Because Four Swimming Pools Are Better Than One
Travel to Atacama is not characterized by luxuriating next to a poolside. It’s more about getting off your backside and communing with nature.
That’s exactly the ethos of Hotel Explora, a favorite place to stay in San Pedro de Atacama.
Explora celebrates what they have termed “The Art of Travel”. The Atacaman incarnation of this group of South-American hotels offers more than 40 curated, customizable half- and full-day guided explorations throughout the desert’s different landscapes. But after a day of hiking, paradise is then found by relaxing by one of Explora Atacama’s four pools, the edges of which are lined with bushy fox tails and tall grasses.
What’s more, because most explorers will be out exploring, you’ll probably have the pools all to yourself to reflect on the multi-colored rocks of the Rainbow Valley or the quiet mountains of Machuca which you may have explored earlier that day.
Get a Massage In a 90-Year-Old Adobe Building
Riding bikes through rocky terrain can take a lot out of a traveler. This calls for relaxing massage. And what more idyllic place to get one than in a restored Adobe straw building?
Hotel Explora offers a number of massage options in its quaint Turi Puri massage rooms, located in a 90-year-old building that’s a picturesque stone’s throw away from the hotel's pool area.
Horseback Riding in Moon Valley
There are a number of ways to experience Atacama’s landscapes, the most iconic of which might be Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a sprawling landmass of stone and sand formations wrought by wind and water. As the Explora has stables on-site, imagine an exhilarating equestrian navigation of this lunar-resembling terrain.
But don’t worry, if you are new to horseback riding, you can also explore Moon Valley on foot, by car or bike.
Bathe in Private Hot Springs
“Puri” means water, and “tama” means hot in the now-extinct Kunza language of the Atacamenos. The words come together to form the name of a series of eight geothermal pools, located some 3,500 meters above sea level and linked together by wooden paths that carve through lush vegetation.
Explora manages the Puri Tama hot springs of the Atacama Desert and charges a nominal fee for entry. Guests of the hotel, however, have exclusive access to the first and private pool of the springs. The hotel will pack a light picnic for you to enjoy after your swim or a full lunch should you wish to pair your time at the springs with a visit to the El Tatio Geysers.
Float in A Salty Lake
The Atacama Desert bears no shortage of bodies of water. There’s the succession of azure lagoons surrounded by salt in Baltinache and the richly colored lagoons of the highlands to name just a few. It’s a desert full of water!
Not all of the pools are fit for swimming, but the Laguna Cejar is a favorite of travelers who wish to take a dip. It's a sink hole lake found in the Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat. The lake’s salt concentration can peak as high as 28 percent, which results in floating like one would in the Dead Sea—a wondrous experience indeed.
Witness Mind-Blowing Purple Sunsets
It would appear that the sun never sets in Atacama without jaw-dropping fanfare: Sunsets are spectacular phenomena. Whether from the observation deck of The Explora that affords an unrivaled view of the Volcano Licancabur and the Andes or on the shores of the grand Laguna Chaxa looking up at flamingos in flight, the symphony of pinks and purples in the skies will leave you speechless.
Pair Unique Cuisine with Unmatched Views
Explora serves multi-course lunches and dinners paired with exquisite Chilean wines in the hotel’s dining area.
But what’s the best way to enjoy one of the many treats or tea made from Rica Rica, an herb indigenous to and ubiquitous in Atacama? Why, at the Coyote Stone overlooking Moon Valley, of course.
Explora offers many opportunities to enjoy its gourmet cuisine al fresco, with heart-stopping views as an accompaniment. You can look forward to a feast table luncheon set under a canopy of trees in the small town of Cucuter that the hotel occasionally organizes for all its guests; the Quincho experience, which is a traditional Atacamian barbeque; or simply enjoying the chef’s unforgettable crème brulé on the hotel patio, surrounded by mountain views.
Champagne Breakfast After a Hot Air Balloon Ride
Few experiences will top seeing the desert from the unique perspective of a hot air balloon in the early morning light.
Balloons Over Atacama—a company that launched its air safaris in 2016—will pick you up from your hotel and transport you to the flight site where you will be lifted off to cruise the open skies. Upon landing, Chilean sparkling wine is served with a continental breakfast.
You ‘ll be hard-pressed to find a better reason than this to wake up before 6 a.m. while on holiday.
See the Stars
The skies over the Atacama Desert are clear and ripe for stargazing. Many companies offer such tours at night, and the Explora even has its own observatory which houses the largest telescope of its kind in the country.
After you’ve excavated a simulacrum of the moon’s surface in Moon Valley, you can spend an evening peering at the surface of our planet’s only natural satellite, the moon.
PHOTO: Chile's rugged Atacama Desert. (photo by Colby Blount)