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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.
The 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.
As 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.
San 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.
Over 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.
Of 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!
For this reason, NASA actually uses the desert to prepare Mars missions like testing robotic vehicles that will be used on Mars.
Salt 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.
On 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.
The 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.
The Chilean salt flats feel very different to the other two. Here there are more animals, it seems. Like those flamingos…
and the lizards…
… 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.
A completely different side of the Atacama Desert are Laguna Miscantes and Miñiques, two altiplano lakes at over 4,200 meters (13,800 feet).
Set 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.
The lake shores are white due to the salt in the soil, adding yet another color.
The 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.
On 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.
On 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).
Considering 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.
This leads to plenty of wildlife spottings…
From domesticated llamas to wild vicuñas…
There are lots of viscachas, which are a kind of desert bunny that are related to chinchillas…
…and desert foxes.
The desert is dry as a bone, making it very hard to survive.
The Atacama Desert is without a doubt one of the most stunning regions we have ever been to, anywhere in the world.
If 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.
What’s the most extraordinary place you’ve ever been to? Share in the comments below!