Soaring, white-capped Andean mountains, saline lakes, active volcanoes, salt flats as far as the eye can see, geysers, and flamingos (yes, flamingos!) – the geography of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest on Earth, is as varied as it is breathtaking. It’s truly an otherworldly part of the world, with lunar-like landscapes, a mysterious, isolated feel, and, with cloudless nights and wide-open skies, stargazing opportunities galore.
Atacama stretches about 600 miles from Peru's southern border into northern Chile. It's an arid, unforgiving region that receives less than .004 inches of rain each year – in fact, in some spots in the desert, it hasn't rained since humans have recorded rainfall measurements.
As dry as it is, the rugged terrain begs for exploration. Some of the most popular excursions in the area include the Tatio Geysers, the highest in the world; the Salar de Tara, miles of salt flats that boast Mars-like landscapes, vicuñas, and flamingos; El Mano del Desierto, an eerie sculpture of a hand done by Mario Irarrázabal; Moon Valley, with mile-high sand dunes and mystical rock and salt formations; and the Salar de Atacama, another expansive salt flat with peaceful, mirror-like lakes like the Laguna Cejar. Many excursions include cocktails at sunset with spectacular mountain backdrops, a sort of Chilean version of the sundowner in Africa.
By night, astronomy enthusiasts geek out on world-class stargazing in the desert. Several companies offer tours, but one highly recommended operator is SPACE Star Tours, which provides an excellent overview of the cosmos that will appeal to newbies as well as seasoned stargazers. Plus, the recent opening of the ALMA Observatory, the world’s largest astrological project, with 66 high-precision antennas and the ability to peer into the darkest corners of the universe, is sure to inspire more astronomy lovers to visit.
When to go: You’re almost guaranteed sunshine year-round in the Atacama Desert, but keep in mind that during the winter (June to August), temperatures dip down to freezing at night, especially at higher altitudes. Naturally, during the summer (December to February), it's extremely hot during the day. If you plan on stargazing – and it's highly recommended – try to make sure your visit coincides with a new moon, which offers darker nights and much better opportunities for viewing the cosmos.
What to know: The pocket-sized town of San Pedro de Atacama – also known as San Perro or San Polvo by locals because of the abundance of stray dogs and dust (hence, the words dog and dust in Spanish) – is a gritty hodgepodge of adobe homes, funky restaurants, artisanal shops, and outposts for adventure outfitters. It’s worth spending a few hours soaking up its Wild-West vibe, but you’ll want to spend most of your time exploring the beautiful desert landscape.
With the dry air and higher altitudes – some excursions require driving through altitudes up to around 14,000 feet – be sure to stay well-hydrated and reapply sunscreen often, as the ozone layer is much thinner here. Be sure to pack lightweight shirts, pants, shorts, comfortable trekking shoes or hiking boots, a lightweight fleece or windbreaker, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and a swimsuit. For high-altitude excursions, don't forget thermal underwear and pants, a down jacket, gloves, and, if you're prone to altitude sickness, Dramamine and aspirin.
Where to stay: Properties in the San Pedro area tend to be either budget or luxury, with not much in between. For a smart splurge, the 42-room Alto Atacama (pictured above), which is about a 10-minute drive from town, is an excellent choice. The architecture and décor of this eco-oasis mimic the stunning desert surroundings, with adobe walls, muted colors, and locally sourced tapestries, handicrafts, and wood elements. Six serene outdoor pools overlook the red mountains of the Catarpe Valley, and most rooms have private outdoor patios featuring spectacular views. Plus, it’s the only lodge in the area with an on-site, open-air observatory, where there’s no light pollution because of the property’s distance from town.
The property has just announced a winter discount of 15 percent off its premium, all-inclusive rates. (Another great deal for families: Children up to 17 years-old stay free for each paying adult.) Rates include all meals, alcohol, and – big bonus – all excursions, which feature superb, English-speaking guides with vast knowledge of the area. The property also has a bed-and-breakfast program, which begins at $210 per person per night, and appeals to more budget-minded travelers. All prices include transfers from the Calama airport.