Welcome to the Atacama, one of the highest and driest deserts on earth. If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to step onto the surface of another planet, this could be the closest you come. Chile’s magical desert is endlessly varied, too, home to moon-like valleys, deep canyons, salt flats and tall volcanoes, to wonderful wildlife and welcoming communities. Come along on my favourite adventures in the Atacama Desert.
Adventures In The Atacama Desert: Top 10 Things To Do In Atacama, Chile
Go hiking among giant cacti
At first glance Atacama can seem like an arid, barren environment, but there’s actually plentiful flora and fauna that call the highest desert on earth home. Perhaps the most eye-catching are the enormous cacti of the Guatin Valley, which is easily explored on foot. The trail dips into a deep canyon where the enormous cacti, known as cardones, tower overhead as you scramble over rocks, jump over deep pools and ramble your way between the soaring walls of the canyon. The gulley is so steep and narrow that when you emerge back into the desert, it’s as if it had never existed.
See the Tatio geysers at dawn
Get up at sunrise for the best view of Atacama’s geysers as they spew boiling water towards the heavens. Tatio was one of the only places in Atacama that felt full of visitors on my travels, but it’s worth joining the crowds for the weird and wonderful sight of these huge (and highly dangerous at close quarters) phenomena gushing columns of smoke high into the air. You’ll feel the altitude up here at 4,320 metres, and it can be bone-chillingly cold, but wild swimming fans can warm up by going for a dip in one of the nearby thermal pools.
Stay at Tierra Atamaca
The ultimate adventure base in the Atacama Desert is Tierra Atacama, a welcoming boutique hotel on the edge of the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Tierra means ‘earth’ in Spanish, a name that perfectly suits the hotel’s beautiful design, all warm colours and natural materials. Bedrooms look out at lofty Licancabur volcano, and there’s a wonderful communal area complete with fire pits, pool and a bar (where they serve a mean pisco sour). But what makes Tierra Atacama (and its sister hotels, Tierra Chiloe and Tierra Patagonia) really special is that you’re encouraged to design your own tailor-made adventure holiday, with all activities included in your stay. On arrival, Tierra’s expert guides will suggest guided local hikes, cycles, swims, horse rides – pretty much anything you can dream up, then help you to plan an itinerary to get as much as possible out of your stay in the desert.
Atacama’s night skies are some of the clearest in the world, and the desert is dotted with observatories ranging in size from tiny telescopes to huge international stations that look like the lairs of Bond villains. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the night sky, this is the perfect place to do it. Ahlarkapin Observatory’s guides will help you explore the far reaches of the night sky by using the observatory’s powerful telescope to spot planets and far-off stars. My favourite part was learning about the names that Atacama’s indigenous people have for the constellations – can you spot the llama and the bowl of quinoa?
Go horse riding in the Valle de la Muerte
It may have an ominous name (the literal translation is ‘the Valley of Death’) but Valle de la Muerte is actually believed to be a distortion of an earlier name, Valle de Marte, or ‘Mars Valley’, which is a very accurate moniker for this Martian landscape of striking blood-red rocks and ochre sand dunes. One of the best way to explore the valley’s trails and paths is on horseback – galloping across the rolling sands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not keen to hop into the saddle? You can also follow trails by bike.
Climb a volcano
You need to be well acclimatised before you attempt to summit any of Atacama’s high volcanoes, but if you’re feeling physically up to the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views from the peaks that crown the border of Chile and Bolivia. Licancabur is the big daddy at 5,900 metres, and is best suited to mountaineers with good experience. The trek up to its summit may be strenuous, but is totally worth it for the wonder of standing on the lip of the volcano’s crater and looking down on its hidden lagoon. There are also plenty of other hefty volcanoes to set your sights on, such as Lascar, at 4,800 metres, and lesser-climbed Cerro Toco at 5,000 metres.
Spot desert wildlife
I dare you not to be delighted by Atacama’s wild creatures, which include the vicuna, an elegant cousin of the llama, the fluffy yellow
viscacha, which is rather like a chinchilla, and birds such as flamingos and giant hummingbirds. The most magical of all on my journey was early one morning when an Andean fox casually crossed the road in front of me. You’ll also see llamas with bright tasselled earrings on your travels through Atacama – their fancy tassels denote which farmer they belong to.
Hike in the Valle de la Luna
Welcome to the Valley of the Moon. This otherworldly place is deserving of its celestial name, as it feels rather like walking on another planet – one where huge salt pillars and stone formations tower over the puny hiker. Follow the trail over wide sand dunes and then into the valley and among the bizarre brick-red stone structures. If you’re quiet, you can hear the salt pillars creak and tick as they shift above you.
Toast the sunset with a pisco sour
The Atacama Desert is most striking at all at sunset, when the fading sun’s rays soften the desert’s harsh tones and colour its volcanic peaks in pastel hues of pink and purple. It’s a mesmerising sight – and one that is best enjoyed with Chile’s national cocktail, a pisco sour, in hand. Salud.
Explore the Salt Flats
Thought that you’d need to travel into Bolivia to experience a walk on perspective-defying salt flats? Atacama is also home to miles and miles of salt fields (40,000 square miles, to be exact) in perfect hexagons spread out as far as the eye can see, dotted with lagoons where Andean flamingos strut their stuff.
Travel to the Atacama Desert with Last Frontiers
I travelled to Chile with Latin America specialists Last Frontiers. Their 13 day trip to Chile includes time in Santiago and stays at the Tierra hotels in the Atacama Desert (four nights) and on the island of Chiloé (three nights) and costs £5,420 per person, including all meals, drinks, transfers, hikes and other excursions as well as international and internal flights.