The high Atacama desert in South America is the driest non-polar desert on Earth, and spans across parts of four Andean countries - Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and northern Chile. Exploring the entire desert alone would make a great trip to add four stamps to your passport - the Atacama is a destination in itself and rewards you with breathtaking scenery, interesting culture, and some of the world's natural wonders. But if you're just visiting Chile, don't skip the desert in the far north of the country. Hop a 2-hour flight from Santiago north to Calama and explore the region around the town of San Pedro de Atacama. These six things will make you fall in love with this funky desert town.
1. The Architecture
San Pedro de Atacama is like many desert towns you may be familiar with - a Mexican town in the Sonoran desert, an indigenous Andean town in Peru, the American southwest or many others. It's hot, dry and dusty, and the architecture reflects that. The town's adobe structures naturally absorb the intense desert heat but stay cool from the blinding sun. Crossing the street out of the sun to the shaded side of the street will literally cool you 10-15 degrees.
The use of wood and other organic materials in Chilean building design matches the native environment there - whether in the desert or Patagonia - and there are many ecosystems given its length of nearly 4,300 kilometers, or 2,600 miles! Whereas the wooden architecture in Patagonia seems bulky and massive in scale, materials in San Pedro de Atacama are native to this surrounding desert landscape. Small twigs and other less bulky items like pebbles and straw are used for things like fencing, gates, pergolas, and garden structures.
Some "wood" accents in San Pedro are actually made from dried cactus, a strong and sustainable product, even if it does look more like a loofah sponge than heavy wood.
At night in San Pedro de Atacama, when the scorching sun has set and temperatures are cool, you can take your time walking around. People linger in the square and the town seems to glow in the soft streetlight. Bring your camera and tripod too - if you love night photography, you'll be in heaven.
2. The Artisan Touch
Whether you stay in a hostel or luxury hotel, one of the things you'll notice about San Pedro de Atacama is the artisan touch. The random mosaic decorations embedded in adobe walls you'll see as you explore the town will make you stop and stare, and resolve to try making something like it when you get home.
Doors and gates are hand-carved from wood or woven from twigs, bright textiles adorn homes and hotels, and everyday items like marbles, glass bottles, and other found objects add decoration to adobe bricks used throughout the town.
Unique art installations are more likely found in everyday spaces than in art galleries.
Even the food scene is artisan-crafted, with chefs and owners creating foods (and gelato, below) from native plants grown only in the desert. I loved the fresh meals we had here - from quinoa salads, artisan pizzas, and homemade empanadas with unique ingredients, to fresh juices and smoothies made from things like kiwi and coca leaves.
3. The Desert Landscape
Being in the Atacama desert is like finding yourself on the Moon, as I can only imagine. I doubt there's much chance that I'll see the Moon in my lifetime so this experience was probably the closest thing. It's rare to see such diversity of surreal landscapes as you'll find in the Atacama. All the scenery below was shot within two hours drive of the town of San Pedro de Atacama, and most of it was within thirty minutes away.
The volcanic geysers at El Tatio are a two hour drive from town. You'll get the best view by getting there super early - by 5:00am. The silhouettes of sleepy tourists against the active geysers make for even more eerie photos than the natural landscape can provide. And by 7:00am, it's all over. The geysers quiet down to just small steaming vents and the bright morning sun flattens out any interesting contrasting topography.
Laguna Cejar is only a half-hour from town and makes a fun half-day trip. This is one of the only natural attractions where you can swim, and this body of water is so salty, you'll find yourself blissfully bobbing around and trying to stay upright. The landscape makes for amazing photos too.
The Altiplanic Lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques sit at 4,000 meters elevation and are a two-hour drive south of San Pedro de Atacama. You'll find stark desert landscape, lush lagoons, indigenous villages, and lots of guanacos along the drive.
The Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon, above) and Valle de los Muertos (Death Valley) are just outside of town and exploring them is easy on your own or with an organized tour. Be sure and go more than once during your stay, and not just at sunset. There's so much to explore and the changing light makes for ever-changing landscape photographs.
4. Indigenous History and Culture
A Chilean friend of mine told me about an indigenous cemetery to explore near the town of Coyo, just on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama. It wasn't easy to find. Coyo is close to San Pedro, but it feels like you're getting lost on roads to nowhere in the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley.
However, what we stumbled upon first was Caravana Ancestral - or at least a sign for it. This rural tour experience is for visitors wishing to discover the history of the desert and the traditional shepherd routes of the indigenous Atacameña people. The cultural tour demonstrates how the ancients shepherded llamas - their beasts of burden - and offers a glimpse into the real history of the desert and the native people who live here.
I really wish I would have known about this tour ahead of time, but it'll be the first thing I do on my next visit.
I finally found the indigenous cemetery nearby, but it didn't appear to be open to anyone. The barbed wire fence told me I probably shouldn't be there. So out of respect, I left this exploration for another time.
A ten-minute drive outside of town lies the Valle de Los Muertos - Death Valley - a sandboarder's dream. The stark landscape of eroded lava and sandstone formations sit nestled among smooth sand dunes that stretch for miles. Follow the adrenaline-pumping music bouncing off the rocks and you'll find the boarders having a great time gliding down the dunes.
6. The Night Skies
Whether you love stargazing or astrophotography, the Atacama desert should be high on your bucket list for this very reason. The extreme night sky envelopes you like a starry blanket and you won't believe your eyes. There's no need to worry about bad weather as there are parts of the Atacama which have never seen rain in recorded history. Ever!
The high elevation of the Atacama desert means you'll have a clearer view of the heavens. It's such an attraction that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (or ALMA) here — the largest astronomical project in existence. ALMA is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau near San Pedro de Atacama.
The observatory is open for public visits during the weekends, so plan on catching a tour.
Don't forget to download an app like Sky Guide (above), Sky View, or Star Rover on your smart phone or tablet before you go to help identify stars, planets, constellations, satellites, and space stations. Sky Guide even identifies space "junk" like old rocket boosters, defunct satellites, and other debris.
Have you been to the Atacama desert or Antofagasta region of Chile? What did YOU love about it? Leave me a comment with suggestions for next time or questions you might have!