Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth, a travellers dream for stunning landscapes, wildlife, trekking, stargazing and moon-like experiences. The Atacama Desert receives less than 1mm of rain each year and as a result it is almost entirely without greenery, shade, cities or pollution. Only cactuses and tough grasses can survive in the desert, though bromeliads flourish in zones prone to fogs. A few hardy mammals live here, including the chinchilla-like viscacha, the South American grey fox and Darwin’s leaf-eared mouse. Birds are in abundance, from Humboldt penguins along the coast to Andean flamingos. The humidity in the area is just 4% which contributes to a clear atmosphere with wonderful light and stunningly clear night skies.
The desert was first settled by indigenous Atacameños, who herded llamas and grew maize. Nowadays archaeological sites such as the Tulor, and the small communities of Toconao and Machua are paled into insignificance alongside the tourist hotspot of San Pedro de Atacama - gateway to some of Chile’s most spectacular scenery. The town that which lies beside its namesake salt flat at 7,900ft above sea level, morphed, in the late 20th century from a quartz and copper mining town into a picturesque, if overbuilt, resort town with tree-lined plazas, a pretty, 17th-century church, wine bars and great food. If planning a three to four-day trip to the Atacama Desert then you will be looking to stay in, or close by, San Pedro making your excursions to the nearby salt lake, geysers and observatories, at Cerro Paranal. If you have a week, hire a driver or car and cross into Bolivia or explore the northern mines and churches.
From San Pedro, it’s only an 11-mile drive south to the Salar de Atacama, a vast 3,000 sq km salt flat, and a surprise because they are not flat at all. They are fed by underground rivers and the salt sucks up the water that is rich in minerals forming uneven crunchy spikes. The warm waters give birth to algae on which tiny, clear bodied shrimps feed. In turn, Flamingos forage in the pools of salty water and eat the shrimp, giving them their bright pink hue colour and provide a startling contrast to the white flatlands.
Another popular excursion from San Pedro is to the El Tatio geysers, at 14,173ft above sea level. As these are 55 miles from town, an early 4am start is required. The drama begins when the rising sun slants across the field of some 80 geysers – which spurt highest when the cold morning atmosphere prevents the steam from evaporating.
To see lunar and Martian landscapes, take the afternoon tour to see sunset on the sculpted rock formations of the Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte and Tres Marías. As well as easy walks, there are several good day-hikes in the area, including the Kari Gorge, Puritama Thermal Springs and, for the intrepid, the nearby 19,590ft Sairecabur volcano. The 18,346ft Volcán Láscar, the most active volcano in northern Chile, is probably best enjoyed from a distance.
And on any evening just sit back and stargaze with a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc or Malbec. The crystal clean air and an absence of light pollution means the stars and planets of the southern sky are there for all to see. A startlingly bright and busy Milky Way, Saturn and Jupiter are routinely visible, and on a good night you will see the Magellanic clouds, two irregular distant dwarf galaxies visible in the southern hemisphere.
The forecast is very dry and sunny for the next century, but the best time to go is probably early autumn (October and November) and late summer (March-April) when there are fewer tourists. For stargazers, these are good times for clear skies; avoid full moons.