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The otherworldly landscapes of Chile’s Atacama Desert

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The first glimpse of the Atacama Desert was crossing the Andes over the 4,300 m (14,100 feet) Jama mountain pass from Argentina to Chile. The ten-hour ride from San Salvador de Jujuy to San Pedro de Atacama travels through a seemingly endless stretch of no man’s land, at one point the bus worked its way up around a grueling 72 switchbacks and the last hour or two the road cuts like a straight (and steep!) downhill line all the way to San Pedro. It is here that we see the Atacama Desert ahead of us for the first time: a barren landscape at 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) stretching as far as the eye can see. San Pedro itself sits on the official border between Argentina and Chile and just a few miles from the Chile-Bolivian border.

atacama desert roadThe Atacama Desert is a 600-mile-long (1,000 kilometers) plateau in northern Chile, close to the borders of Bolivia and Argentina, barely populated, and the driest desert on the planet. It is also among the barest and bleakest sceneries we have ever seen.

atacama desert chile lunar landscape with rocksLooking at this harsh, yet captivating landscape,  I can easily picture the surface of Mars looking exactly like this. The only word that comes to mind to describe this scene is ‘otherworldly’.

atacama desert chile scenery atacama desert chileAt times, dry shrubs and bushes cover the ground, but most of the time there is nothing but rocks and gravel.

atacama desert chile with salt flatsAs the bus descended down that consistently straight, steep road, we couldn’t help but wonder where San Pedro could possibly be. There are no signs of civilization for miles and miles – just the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert in all directions.

valle de la muerte atacama desert streetWhen we finally reach the village, we are surprised to see that is actually quite green – a lush oasis in the middle of this desolated part of Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama with volcanoSan Pedro de Atacama has doubled its population to 5,000 people over the last decade, becoming more and more popular with travelers from all over the world, but also many Chileans who want to explore this fascinating part of their country.

san pedro de atacama chile with treesOver the next few days in San Pedro, we explored the desert and discovered that there is much more than barren land here: we see dark blue lagoons, vast salt flats and salt mountains, a moon-like valley, a geyser field and sand dunes.

laguna Miñiques atacama desert chilevalle de la luna atacama desert red rocksThere are smoking volcanoes, canyons and gorges, hot springs and remote desert villages with houses made of volcanic rock – for a desert, there is actually much more diversity than you might expect.

atacama desert chile volcanomachuca chile atacama desert churchOf course much of the desert does indeed resemble Mars – and not just the looks but the conditions as well. Water is extremely scarce and much of the desert is inhospitable – not even bacteria can survive in some areas!

valle de la muerte atacama desertFor this reason, NASA actually uses the desert to prepare Mars missions like testing robotic vehicles that will be used on Mars.

valle de la muerte atacama desertWhat looks like snow in these pictures, is actually salt. Parts of the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) near San Pedro are made up of dry lakes, with salt covering the surface.

valle de la luna atacama desert saltine sceneryvalle de la luna atacama desert saline landscape chileSeveral saline outcrops have been carved into naturally sculptured statues by wind and time.

valle de la luna atacama desert saltine formationThe Three Marias, one of the most recognized salt structures of the Atacama, is made of clay, salt, gems, gravel and quartz and is approximately one million years old.

valle de la luna atacama desert saltine three mariasSalt can also be seen on many of the red rocks in the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) of the Atacama Desert. Many of the rocks are coated in a white layer of salt originating from volcanic eruptions in the area.

valle de la muerte atacama desert salt mountainvalle de la luna atacama desert salt cave rocksThis part of the valley is actually called Cordillera de la Sal (Salt mountain range), and in addition to the salt-covered rocks, we spent time crawling through one of the many salt caves here.

Dani and Jess atacama desertAtacama Desert Salt CaveThe best time to visit the Death and the Moon Valley is the late afternoon, to see how the lights of the twilight hours change the colors of the mountains and sand dunes.

valle de la luna atacama desert at sunsetvalle de la luna atacama desert saltine landscapes at sunsetvalle de la luna atacama desert sand dunes at sunset chileOn one all-day tour, it was incredible to watch the landscape change from dry sand to deep volcanic lakes to the shallow waters on top of the salt flats, where hundreds of pink flamingos pecked their way across the water in search of food.

salar de atacama chile flamingo reflectionThe vast salt flats, the Salar de Atacama, are actually the third largest salt flats in the world, after the nearby Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and the Salinas Grandes across the Andes in Argentina.
salar de atacama chileThe Chilean salt flats feel very different to the other two. Here there are more animals, it seems. Like those flamingos…
Atacama Desert Flamingosand the lizards…
salar de atacama chile lizard… and also the fact that instead of an almost blinding white salt, the salt flats here are made up of big chunks of grayish salt rocks and boulders sticking up out of the ground.
salar de atacama chile salt flatssalar de atacama chileA completely different side of the Atacama Desert are Laguna Miscantes and Miñiques, two altiplano lakes at over 4,200 meters (13,800 feet).

laguna Miñiques atacama desert jessSet next to each other in a spectacular mountain setting, the surrounding yellow grass and brownish mountains create a colorful contrast to the deep blue waters and clear azure skies.
laguna Miñiques atacama desertThe lake shores are white due to the salt in the soil, adding yet another color.
laguna Miñiques atacama desertThe crystal clear skies are one of the most famous features of the Atacama Desert – on over 300 days of the year there are no clouds whatsoever. This is what makes the desert so desirable for star-gazing as well. And not just by amateurs like us. There are a number of international telescopes in the desert owned (or partially owned) by several countries from around the world.
laguna Miñiques atacama desertOn an early morning trip to the El Tatio Geyser fields, we get to see another completely different face of the desert: steaming hot springs, bubbling and erupting geysers with columns of steam surmounting high into the sky.

el tatio geyser field atacama desert chileThe geyser field is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world and consists of around 80 geysers!

el tatio geyser atacama desert chileel tatio geyser atacama desert chile sunriseIt is the third largest geyser field in the world, and the largest one in the southern hemisphere.

el tatio geysers chileOn this particular trip, we had the option to hop into the hot springs which was an inviting thought after feeling like our fingers and toes would freeze off for the two hours before and after sunrise. These hot springs are around 35C (95F), as opposed to the freezing winter air at dawn at 4,320 meters (14,174feet).
el tatio geyser field atacama desert chile hot springsConsidering that the Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world, there are actually quite a few green patches and types of vegetation throughout the entire desert, from scrub brush to green tufts of grass to astonishingly high cacti.

atacama desert chileThis leads to plenty of wildlife spottings…
atacama desert llamasFrom domesticated llamas to wild vicuñas…
atacama desert vicunasThere are lots of viscachas, which are a kind of desert bunny that are related to chinchillas…
viscacha atacama desert…and desert foxes.
atacama desert fox chileThe desert is dry as a bone, making it very hard to survive.
atacama desert chile skullThe Atacama Desert is without a doubt one of the most stunning regions we have ever been to, anywhere in the world.
atacama desert chileIf you are planning a visit to Chile, San Pedro and the Atacama Desert are a must-see stop. From Santiago, this region is a 24-hour bus ride or a short flight into the nearby city of Calama and a 60-mile bus or minibus ride from there.

valle de la luna atacama desert salt cave rocks danisalar de atacama chileatacama desert moonscape chileWhat’s the most extraordinary place you’ve ever been to? Share in the comments below!

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23 Comments

  1. Sure is fun to sit here in Nashville, rain pouring down outside, and look at these pictures. Your blog makes my life more interesting. Remember the old song, “Thinking is the best way to travel!”

  2. It seems like Atacama Desert is a bunch of national parks combined into one: you have the geysers from Iceland (or Yellowstone), the red rocks of Sedona, the salt-flats, and volcanoes. And to be able to see all of that in the span of a day?! AMAZING!
    Pauline recently posted..Lobsters and the Maritimes

    1. Pauline – yes! You’re absolutely right 🙂 It has a little bit of all these places 🙂 You can cover a lot of it in a day but really, you should give it at least three full days to see as much of this amazingly scenic place as possible 😀

  3. Stunning, and your photos are fantastic! A truly extraordinary place, and one I hope to experience at some point in the future. On somewhat of a side note, have you ladies seen the documentary “Nostalgia for the Light”? A fascinating watch, and mostly set in the Atacama desert. Good luck and safe travels!
    Lunaguava recently posted..Climbing the Pacaya Volcano (Unleashed)

  4. Wow, these photos blew me away!
    Just like it’s Bolivian neighbour- the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been- it really is like another world! I’ll always remember riding along in the jeep, feeling like I was on the edge of the universe and these photos take me back there. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jade! The south west of Bolivia is just as stunning, I agree! Well, actually this part of Chile belonged to Bolivia for a long time, so no wonder that it is equally as beautiful – it should all still be part of the Bolivian Altiplano 😀

  5. Amazing how thrilling can a vast expanse of nothing be! Must be breathtakingly quiet — I can imagine this aspect being central to any experience of Atacama…what a refreshing idea in today´s world full of hustle and bustle:)
    Julie K. recently posted..Movie Review: In Secret

  6. nice!
    pure beauty of nature, enjoying beauty of nature with your alive photos! and hoping to tour here! Thanks for sharing and making me happy!

  7. Hello Dany, many thanks for your great insight into so many places. The last time I was in San Pedro was in 1992 and it was magical. You’ve reminded me of some great experiences. I’m originally from Santiago but love the north. Your blog is very positive and really make me want to travel soon. All the best for future travel experiences

    1. Thank you for the kind words! San Pedro is still magical but I bet it is very different than the place you experienced in ’92! I hope you’ll get to return one day 🙂 And I hope I’ll get to return one day 😀

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