Chile's high-altitude desert may be one of the driest places on earth, but there's a wealth of sites to visit which all enrich the soul
When people speak of the Atacama Desert in tones of hushed awe, you wonder what all the excitement is about. How thrilling can a vast expanse of nothing be? Little mention is made of Moon Valley, or even the Tatio geysers. No, it’s something far more subtle: the way the light changes on terracotta mountains; the colour of the lagoons; the silence.
The charm of the Atacama is not easily defined. It truly is one of the most astonishing places on earth, more akin to visiting another planet. However, much depends on the way you approach it, because central to your experience of this vast desert is the breathtaking quiet, a silence so profound that at the heart of ruckled vermillion ridges you can hear the salt crack in the rocks and flamingos sip on slate-grey lagoons.
Go it alone – avoid groups. In this silence you can sense ancient history, too. Drive into the middle of the Atacama’s infinite empty space and you’ll find paintings of leaping llamas etched on hidden rock walls by travellers who crossed the desert thousands of years ago.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the Atacama. The night skies are clearer than anywhere on the planet, but above all there’s pleasure in feeling such true isolation. When the sun slips below the sculpted dunes, tingeing Licancabur volcano a deep plum-purple and turning the bright orange land monochrome, the sense of solitude is overwhelming.
The Atacama stretches for 1,255km and is the driest desert in the world. To the east it’s fringed by the mighty Andes, with volcanoes towering over 6,000m – some still smoking.
Along the western edge runs the 22-million-year-old Salt Mountain range, shaped into magnificent rugged terrain by wind and deposits of volcanic ash. The Atacama Salt Lake is the world’s third-largest salt flat; in the centre are miraculous breadths of water inhabited by flocks of pink flamingos.
It’s hard to imagine, but from 9,000BC this harsh region also sustained the flourishing tribe of Atacameño people. The town of San Pedro was then used by the Incas and was also a resting place for men driving llama caravans to the sea.
Around AD1450 the Incas subsumed the Atacameños into their efficient culture. They built roads, extended irrigation channels and organised the inhabitants into 15 ayllus (small communities). In 1540 Spanish conquistadores made short shrift of the town: 1,000 locals were defeated by 30 Spaniards on horseback.
San Pedro thrived on salt and sulphur mining, and today the Atacama is still the source of most of the world’s lithium. But now tourism has taken over as the town’s main earner. Both cause conflict for local people.
Change has come fast to San Pedro. Twelve years ago there was just one hotel
and two restaurants, now there are more than 30 hotels and almost every doorway
is a tour agency.
While tourism brings jobs – however menial – for the young, older Atacameños see soaring prices and modern culture eroding their traditions. Many original residents have moved out, feeling attacked by tourism.
The small town of Toconao expresses the central dilemma affecting the region. Agriculture is dwindling because lithium mines consume so much water, forcing more people to turn to the mines for work. However, progress is being made: your entrance fees at Chaxa Lake flamingo reserve enable Toconao’s residents
to keep it pristine and protect the flamingos.
Also, residents recently persuaded local lithium mine companies to relocate elsewhere, putting an end to harmful pollution in the desert.
San Pedro de Atacama is the only base for exploring the area’s extraordinary landscapes. This small town is ideally positioned between the Tatio geysers to the north, the Atacama Salt Lake to the south, Moon Valley to the west, and bird-filled lagoons Tara, Miscanti and Miñiques to the east and south-east. Distances are immense. The terrain is, predictably, barren and you’re obliged to take a guided tour.
Generously described by one tour operator as ‘bohemian’, San Pedro is not one of the region’s most sublime attractions. Indigenous culture has all but vanished, with the majority of the adobe buildings on its handful of dusty streets now occupied by incomers running tour companies and cafés.
However, there is a pretty church, a simple plaza and an interesting small museum, plus dozens of hotels covering the spectrum from basic to boutique.
There are two ways to see the Atacama: stay at one of the all-inclusive hotels that offer small, bespoke tours, or stay in a cheaper hotel and arrange your trips through a local company.
The first is expensive, but worth it; the second might ruin your experience of the place. The main appeal of the Atacama is silence and space: it’s hard to feel moved when you’re surrounded by 50 other people on a bus.
Moon Valley is utterly magnificent at sunset but, bizarrely, most of the town’s tour operators gather at the same sand dune and you might struggle to feel awed by the remote isolation among 200 flashing cameras and the sound of wonder expressed in seven different languages.
This is one place in the world where it’s worth shrugging off your habitual desire for ‘independent’ travel, and instead consider staying at an all-inclusive hotel. Their tours are far more imaginative and you’ll set off in comfortable vehicles with a bilingual guide.
At the top of the range, Awasi provides guests with their own guide, giving complete flexibility as to where and when you go. They’ll take you to places in Moon Valley where no one goes and visit the Tatio geysers at 8am (rather than 6am) when the place has emptied of tourists. Explora and Tierra Atacama offer good small-group tours. All three combine the famous places with little-known villages and ravines where the basic operators don’t go, as well as hikes and horse rides, which are hard to come by in town.
Guests looking for culture will be fascinated by visits to inhabitants’ houses in remote,
Wherever you stay, as well as the ‘greatest hits’ excursions above, try the following, too: ride a bicycle then float in the Cejar ponds; ride a horse into dramatic Death Valley; and hike along the lush valley of Catarpe or into abundantly verdant Guatin creek.
Strike out north from San Pedro, across the flat desert, to reach the mountainous piles of rocks at Yerbas BuenaS
Inside you’ll discover hundreds of petroglyphs – images carved and marked with red pigment. Made thousands of years ago by men driving animals across the desert, the pictures of leaping llamas are like primitive cartoons. Add a trip to the adobe village of Río Grande and return via the rainbow of rocks that make up Matancilla valley.
Take half a day to visit this beautiful valley
In the craggy Salt Mountain range, where you’ll plunge into grand dunes, sharp cliffs, and intricate formations of salt and sediment, you'll never forget a the sunset in Moon Valley, when low light heightens the textures and deepens the colours.
Avoid the big dune where tour buses congregate. Instead, our guide took us walking across an undulating ocean of rock and into a mini universe of escarpments and hollows to watch the sun sink in silence.
Driving into the middle of the Salt Lake elicits first panic at such vast open space – then relief
Distant mountains fade to a mauve sketch on the horizon and the salt under your feet is complicated coral. Then, incredibly, ultramarine-blue lagoons appear. Watch flamingos graze, mirrored in the water – it’s unmissable and utterly peaceful. Visit Toconao’s local inhabitants knitting llama wool on cactus spines nearby.
Watch the light creep up over still-smoking Putana volcano, illuminating vicuñas (llama-like creatures) basking in the golden altiplano
Leave San Pedro while it’s still dark. Arrive at the geysers early – they tend to spout highest at dawn (6am) –although you’ll still find 8m steam columns gushing above you at 8am when there are fewer crowds, as well as the hot rivers of scarlet algae. On your way back take a dip in blissful Puritama thermal baths.
In winter the deep blue lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques host many rare birds
Returning to nest, the deep blue lagoons are paradise for birdwatchers, and an idyllic place to spend the day. Even more dramatic is the journey across the Andes to Tara Salt Lake – a place that is utterly remote and staggeringly lovely.
It’s an unforgettable ride on which you will be rewarded with spectacular rock formations, hot springs and a lake filled with flamingos. Both ventures are a 200km round-trip and you will need to spend a full day enjoying each.
The Atacama’s skies are so clear that astronomers will soon be able to see the earliest galaxies in the universe from a new US$1billion (£520 million) observatory.
Examining dust particles emitted millions of years ago will reveal how earth and other planets were formed.