The driest desert in the world is not only known for its aridity – here in the Atacama Desert, volcanos, geysers, salt flats and blue lagoons coexist in one of the strangest ecosystems on earth.
No matter what time of the day I went out to explore, the Atacama Desert had a spot for me to visit. It could have been the stunning El Tatio geysers at dawn, the golden sunsets at the Moon Valley or one of the many locations for stargazing after midnight.
Atacama is a destination to stay longer than just a couple of days. Here, I was able to see some of the most beautiful sceneries of South America on a single spot.
Geological formations created intriguing and spectacular landscapes for us to discover. Atacama is such an unusual place, that even scientists come here to explore the origins of life and how it could develop in other planets.
“Atacama is an analogy for other worlds”, said scientist Jennifer Leman while explaining the importance of the ecosystems at the Atacama Desert.
Yet, in order for travelers to explore the exotic highlights of this area, San Pedro de Atacama must be your base. Here, at this small urban oasis in the middle of the dessert, Atacama comes to life and welcome travelers from all over the world to explore it´s beauty.
Hot springs and geysers at dawn
“to really see the beauty of the geysers, you will have to arrive before dawn and enjoy the sunrise”, said a tour operator in San Pedro while I was asking about visiting the El Tatio geysers. Tours to the geysers are not very expensive and start very early in the morning (usually pick up time is between 4-5 am). The tour did not only take me to see the geysers, but also the Putana river, home for two types of flamingo, and the village of Machuca at 4000 meters above sea level.
Weather in Atacama can be intimidating. Temperature differences between day and night can vary up to 30 degrees and while in the middle of the day they can reach up to 30 °C, that same night you can easily experience from 2 to 5 °C.
As a result, mornings in El Tatio are cold and visitors should arrive with proper clothing. At the entrance of the protected area I was able to get a view of the more than 80 geysers and fumaroles expelling stream up to 50 meters high.
However, the real natural spectacle happens once the sun rises. At this time of the day, the temperature difference between the air and the steam coming out of the geysers is the largest. This natural phenomenon creates the most visible and impressive steam columns of the day – a visit to El Tatio geysers gave me a glimpse on how planet earth probably was millions of years ago.
INSIDE TIP: A natural hot spring is located inside the protected area. Here I was able to get in and enjoy some minutes at the 35 °C waters, while everyone without swimming suit was freezing outside.
Colorful lagoons in the morning
Atacama is one of the driest places on earth (it receives only 15 millimeters of rainfall a year) and finding fresh waters for swimming seems rather to be an epic quest, than a reality. However, just some kilometers away from San Pedro, several lagoons are available to the public.
Miscanti and Miñiques in the highlands of Atacama, the Chaxa Lagoon, as well the Puritama hot springs are little natural oasis in the middle of an isolated landscape. While the hot springs are a good option for a warm bath, the other lagoon areas are protected and were available for simply enjoying the view.
Chaxa Lagoon is part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve and its known for being the best place in Chile to spot the Andean and Chilean flamingo.
Still, for some of us who definitely wanted to take a swim in Atacama, the hidden lagoons of Baltinache and Seven Lagoons or the Cejar lagoon are the best options. These lagoons are located in the middle of a colorful and alien landscape, which makes the whole experience even more surreal.
These lagoons are also famously known for the high content of salt in its waters, which means, while swimming l was experiencing the same flotation effect as in the Dead sea – a very interesting feeling.
However, remember to take extra clothes and soap, since at the end of your visit you have to clean the waters´ salt out of the body – it can get a little bit uncomfortable after it dried.
Craters and gorges for the afternoon
Located just 10 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama, the Moon and Mars valley are probably the most popular attractions in Atacama. Here, weird rock formations, sand dunes and signs of former salt flats create one of the most striking sceneries on earth.
While many visitors come here by bicycle and spend the day wondering around these incredible landscapes, there are several tour companies offering day or half day trips to the valleys. They usually finish at the main canyon ridge right before sunset – one of the most popular spots in whole Chile and the place for getting the best view of the Moon valley, as well a majestic view of the volcanos Licancabur and Lascar.
The Moon and Mars valley in Atacama were the locations for the movie A Space Odyssey. After wandering an afternoon in this lonely and silent landscape, I went for a moment back to my childhood and finally became an astronaut lost in a distant planet.
Stargazing at night
While in most places complete darkness means the end of a day, at the Atacama Desert it means a new world is about to appear. Atacama has the clearest sky in the entire southern hemisphere and it´s probably one of the best places in the world to do stargazing. During my stay in San Pedro, I could go simply out of my hotel, walk to a dark spot and see a beautiful starry sky.
Atacama has also one of the biggest astronomical observatories in the world and stargazing night tours are a highlight in the region. Astronomical tours will take you to the outdoors of the city and tell you more about the constelations, as well teach you how to photograph a starry sky and use a telescope to see the planets nearby.
As a tiny Saturn emerged through the telescope lens in between white insignificant dots of the dark sky, I tried to comprehend the enormity of what my eyes were seeing. After five minutes of gazing at that same miraculous spot, I realized that this was my favourite hour to explore Atacama.