We saw the pictures while planning our route through Chile: Geysers steaming during sunrise. Sand dunes that resembled the moon. Ice-blue lagoons in the middle of the driest place on earth.
We had to see it all for ourselves to believe it.
The Atacama desert, sandwiched between the Pacific and the Andes, is unlike anywhere else in the world. Within minutes, one can experience vastly different landscapes – by foot, mountain bike, car or tour bus. Here are just a few of them.
The largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere. El Tatio, located just a few feet from the Bolivian border, is especially beautiful around 6 a.m. Home to more than 80 gurgling geysers and 100 gassy fumaroles, it’s surrounded by a ring of volcanoes and spiky yellow paja brava grasses that provide striking contrast. Many tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama offer sunrise tours that are followed by a dip in the nearby hot springs.
[El Tatio entrance fee: $10,000 Chilean pesos; about $17 USD]
Chile’s largest salt flat & altiplanic lagoons. At 1,200 square miles (3,000 square kilometers), Salar de Atacama is the third-largest salt flat in the world. Located inside of it is the Laguna Cejar, a swimmable sink hole with a salt concentration that causes a floating effect similar to the Dead Sea. The salt flat also makes up part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, so visitors are likely to encounter the pink birds feeding.
[Laguna Cejar entrance fee: $15,000 Chilean pesos; about $25 USD]
About 55 miles (90 kilometers) from San Pedro de Atacama are the famed altiplanic lagoons, Miscanti and Miñique. Also part of Los Flamencos reserve, they are a great place to spot ducks, Andean seagulls and other birds native to the region.
Mesmerizing moonlike formations. Perhaps the most famous landscape in the Atacama desert is the Valle de la Luna. With its sweeping sand dunes and jagged rocks, it’s the closest the average person will ever come to setting foot on the moon. (NASA even does some of its test runs for its Mars missions there!) Many people visit by bike or tour bus at sunset, but we went during sunrise and had the whole place to ourselves. Read about our experience here.
[Valle de la Luna entrance fee: $3,000 Chilean pesos – about $5 USD]
Snow-capped volcanoes. There are a dozen volcanoes ringing the desert, but Licancabur is king. This mighty stratovolcano – a conical volcano built of lava and ash – is visible from nearly everywhere you go. With its symmetrical shape and frosty white peak, it’s easy to find yourself dreaming of cool, fresh air while gazing at it from within the hot, dusty desert. Due to its height (nearly 20,000 feet; 5,920 kilometers) and positioning on the Chile/Bolivia border, it’s also a predominant landscape in Bolivia.
Dry, rocky red canyons. This landscape is a bit more expected in the desert, but it’s no less beautiful. Several canyons throughout the desert feature rocky riverbeds with beautiful color variations and several types of cacti poking out into the sun. One of the most interesting is Quezala – located about 43 miles (70 kilometers) from San Pedro de Atacama – which features petroglyphs that have survived more than 2,000 years. There’s also Garganta del Diablo (“Devil’s Throat”), which you can bicycle to from San Pedro. During our tour of the El Tatio geyser field and Machuca, a small Andean village, we swung by Cactus Canyon, pictured below.