The Atacama Desert in Chile lies 1000km north of the capital Santiago. It’s a two hour flight to Calama then a 90 minute bus trip to the tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. It is the driest place on earth, the local joke being that the weather forecast is: no rain for the next 200 years. To the east it is bounded by the cordillera – the snow-capped Andes which separate Chile from Bolivia and Argentina.
Most sites can be reached on dirt roads. The easiest trip is to Salar de Atacama, a vast salt lake where flamingos feast on brine shrimp. Lizards and water birds abound.
Mars Valley is an easy hike through sand dunes to a sand-boarding area. The desert lies at 2,500 metres above sea level, so to become acclimatised to the altitude these are good first up trips. The strong wind whips sand into every part of your clothing.
At 3,500 metres are the thermal pools, which can be reached by bus or by hiking through a shady canyon bordered by lone cactuses and old Indian stone corrals for llamas.