THE ATACAMA DESERT

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.

The highest destination, unless you want to tackle to 6,000 plus metre volcanoes, is El Tatio – the geyers. At 4,200 metres breathing is not easy, but the guides take everything at a gentle pace. The thermal field is vast and includes not only geyers but bubbling mud pools and even smoking creeks.

Rainbow Valley is another Star Wars set, where the minerals in the rocks in the late afternoon produce beautiful colours in the eroded landscape. On the way back from the valley there is a stop at a rocky outcrop where ancient Indian petroglyphs tell of centuries of nomadic existence and survival in the harsh climate.

Traveller’s tips:

  1. Take your time to adjust to the altitude. Gradually work your way up to the higher locations.

  2. Drink lots of water and wear sun block. Wear a scarf or snood to protect against the fierce wind and the sand.

  3. Hike with a guide if you can. The views from the heights can only be seen this way.

  4. Stop and enjoy the Milky Way at night and the sunsets. The local volcano put on a great show every afternoon, even creating its own weather.


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