There isn’t a single adjective that can adequately describe the grandeur of the Atacama Desert but if you’re desperate enough, “otherworldly” could come close. That does come quite literally as soil samples from Desierto de Atacama share striking similarities with samples taken from Mars — and that’s only one of the things that makes a trip to Atacama Desert a must when on a Chile tour.
Situated between the Pacific and the Andes, the Atacama Desert is the planet’s largest showcase of mysterious natural phenomena. It is recorded as the driest desert on Earth with just an average rainfall of 1 mm a year. Still, its mountaintops are covered with snow the whole year round. Temperatures in the region are at an average of 40°C during the day and 5°C at night. Similarly, the Atacama Desert witnesses the brightest of days and the darkest of nights, making it the perfect destination for jaw-dropping romantic (and scholarly) stargazing. Atacama’s unique geography affords travelers an enriching assortment of trips and tours such as salt flats tour, sunset watching in Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), sandboarding in Death Valley, and San Pedro de Atacama tours, usually the jump-off of every traveler’s trip to Atacama.
If it’s true what they say that every destination has a cliché, then Atacama Desert’s is San Pedro de Atacama. This, however, is not a warning for you to stay away. Aside from being home to most of Atacama’s lodging and dining options, souvenir shops, and its 16th century historic church, this little oasis village brandishes cozy South American charms that are a comfort after an adventure-packed day.
A day in San Pedro usually starts with a 4am tour to the Del Tatio Geysers, the world’s third largest geyser site. It has more than 80 active geysers and at the early peak of sunrise, the geysers begin to display a spellbinding exhibition of colors. Tourists can then choose to go on an archeological tour starting with the 12th century Incan fortress, Pukara de Quitor, and then proceeding to Aldea de Tulor, Atacama’s oldest village that is like a life-sized museum of ancient artifacts and rich flora and fauna.
The Atacama Desert features some of the most beautiful natural sights, most notably — Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley, Salar de Atacama, and the star-studded night sky.
Valle de la Luna, has a hauntingly beautiful barren landscape of stone and sand formations, that gives it a moon-like terrain. The expansive, rugged white terrain of Salar de Atacama flaunts a collection of saline lagoons which are usually dotted with beautiful pink Andean flamingos. And the night sky in the desert is best for stargazing. Being high, really dry, unpolluted, and its night sky practically free of clouds, the desert offers the most visible tapestry of stars, moons, galaxies, and other heavenly bodies that even the naked eye can enjoy.
Atacama’s culture is a marriage of Inca and Spanish traditions. This is evident in their faith, food, and festivities. Locals celebrate the feast of their patron saint, Saint Peter, every 29th of June. The Fiesta de San Pedro de Atacama is the town’s most important religious festival where townsfolk parade on the streets in colorful masks and traditional clothing. This festival is comprised of a mass, a procession, dancing on the street, and ends with a celebratory drinking.
Local cuisine is designed around Atacama’s climate. One of their most distinctive native dishes is patasca, a stew of pork, beef, potatoes, and white capia corn. Other must try dishes are empanada, sopaipillas with pebre, and their local drink, pisco sour rica-rica, made from the desert herb rica-rica that is revered for its medicinal properties
Because of little vehicular traffic, it is easy to get around Atacama Desert. The most popular modes of transportation for exploring the Atacama Desert are car and bike rentals while San Pedro can easily be explored on foot.
Accommodation options in Atacama Desert vary and cater to a range of budget including hostels, boutique, bed and breakfasts, and five star hotels. Some hotels are equipped with their own observatory, a great choice for tourists who wish to end each night with a magnified glimpse of the heavens.
Restaurants in Atacama mostly feature Chilean dishes so looking for an authentic Chilean meal is not difficult. A popular spot among both locals and travelers is Inti Sol in San Pedro, well-loved for dishes such as spaghetti tres quesos, papas dorados al horno, and mushroom risotto at friendly prices.
For a holiday in Atacama Desert you can fly to Calama Airport, the nearest commercial airport about an hour and a half away from San Pedro. Public buses and car rentals are available upon arrival.