The Atacama Desert, alongside the frozen steppes of Patagonia, is an absolute must-see on any luxury trip to Chile. Offering an almost directly inverted colour-scheme to the whites, blues and greens of Patagonia, the Atacama is composed of landscapes painted in vibrant hues of red, brown and orange.
The entire Atacama region is stunning (just driving around is sure to take your breath away) but when confronted with the varied excursion menu at your hotel, there are certain landmark highlights you should certainly consider ticking off before leaving the desert. Humboldt specialist Ellie spent a week travelling the Atacama Desert and picks her Atacama highlights…
The Moon Valley
Moon Valley or Valle de la Luna is probably the top of the list for any trip to the Atacama. It is only a fifteen-minute drive (or half an hour cycle) from the town of San Pedro and is often described as a small Grand Canyon.
A tour to the Moon Valley usually includes a trip to the Tres Marias: quartz and granite rock formations that guard the entrance to the valley. The Tres Marias are surrounded by sand in which hidden salt causes the earth to glow and glisten. Shaped by floods and winds over millions of years, the Moon Valley is a riot of colours and texture in the desert, made up of glistening rock and sand formations that give this unusual region a decidedly lunar appearance.
Where to Stay? – Awasi Atacama is a high-end property located in the sleepy town of San Pedro
The Cejar Lagoon is a wonderful morning or afternoon trip for a half day excursion. The lagoon is an oasis of water in the middle of the salt desert. The high density of salt in the water causes you to float as you bathe in the water (similar to the Dead Sea in Jordan) giving you the opportunity to experience this strange floating sensation and simply to relax. The experience is complemented with the beautiful landscape of turquoise waters, volcanoes in the background and the overall grandeur of the Salar (Salt Desert).
Where to Stay? – We love the rustic chic of secluded Alto Atacama, framed by stunning copper ridges.
Salar de Atacama & the Chaxa Lagoon
As the second largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Atacama is a must-see highlight of the Atacama Desert. The reflective salt flat in the rainy season produces a mirror-like effect, reflecting the Andes mountain range and volcanoes in the shimmering surface. The best time of the day to go is at sunset, when the beautiful colours of the sky and the shadows of the towering volcanoes reflect in the water covering the salt crystals, blurring the horizon away.
The Chaxa Lagoon, in the middle of the salt flat, is home to pink flamingos who are fun to observe in their natural habitat. At the right time of year, you will also be able to see babies feeding from their mothers.
El Tatio Geysers
At 4,320 metres above mean sea level, the El Tatio Geysers are the highest and the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.
The tour typically starts very early, in order to get to the geysers before sunrise. The early start, combined with the high altitudes, means that the temperature can be very cold, usually below 0˚c (it was -10˚c when I was there!) but it warms up as the sun rises. The cold temperatures are worth it though, as the view over the geyser field, with water and steam erupting just as the sun is rising over the mountain is a unique sight.
Geothermal hot springs are available to dip into if you are feeling brave enough to initially face the cold while you are changing!
The Altiplanic Lagoons
The Altiplanic Lagoons were the highlight of my trip to the Atacama. Although those on the Chilean side of the border are perhaps not as varied or as striking as those in southern Bolivia (just across the nearby frontier), the colours are astounding.
The journey to the lagoons is almost the best bit of the tour! Breath-taking scenery whizzes past the car window the entire length of this several-hour journey. The winding roads carve their way through the previously mentioned salt flats, lunar landscapes, large active and inactive volcanoes, bright yellow patches of grass where vicuna are seen grazing next to the road and stunning turquoise lagoons.
On arrival at the Miscanti and Miñiques altiplanic lagoons, the final destination, you are yet again met by almost unfathomable natural beauty. The deep blue lagoons, surrounded by the huge snow-topped volcanoes, with more vicunas drinking from the mineral-rich water: this area is sure to enchant you.