The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is not the typical barren landscape you'd normally think of when it comes to deserts. It's unearthly, seeming more like Mars and entirely awe-inspiring— iridescent evaporated lakes, exploding geysers, moon valleys, lavender mountains and even Andean flamingos. The driest place on earth is one to add to the bucket list before you die people! Besides walking through a vast panorama that looks directly pulled off a movie set, here are 10 things you'll want do in the Atacama Desert...
10. LAGUNA CHAXA, SALAR DE ATACAMA (above & below) - Where else in the world could you see this? The sheer vastness and pastels of the landscape are enough to leave you speechless. I thought someone had pulled a fast one on me... no, those mountains are fake, it's a paper background! Alas, I was wrong. They are real. And I was surrounded by salt.
9. SUNRISE AT EL TATIO GEYSERS - You'll want to get up at around 4:00 am to catch this. Take a hat, a pair of gloves, and a very warm jacket. The geysers may be boiling but the temperature in the desert at this time of day is downright icy. I was obviously ill-prepared but the experience and vista made it so worthwhile!
8. RELAX IN THE PURITAMA HOT SPRINGS - Be warned though, once out of the warmth of the springs you will have to bear frigid morning temperatures as you dry off and have a change of clothes. There are no changing facilities or towels, etc. so make sure to bring your own. (Now you know why I'm only in up to my knees.. I was not as brave as the others.)
7. OJOS DEL SALAR - Two circular saltwater craters that when seen from an aerial view look like blue owl eyes (ojos in Spanish). No matter how far back you stand from the edge, strangely enough your reflection still shows in the water. Feel free to jump in...
6. SWIM THE LAGUNAS CEJAR - With multiple times the salt concentration as the Dead Sea, this is the place to go if you just can't quite make it to the Middle East for a lazy float around. Don't worry, that tingly skin feeling after submersion is normal.. it's just the salt.
5. WALK OR BIKE AROUND TOWN - The tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama is the base for all your activities in the desert. I won't lie though, when I got off the bus, I got worried 'cuz all I saw were dirt roads and not much else, lol... But, once you get over the initial shock of being in the middle of nowhere San Pedro de Atacama is a super cute little place, quite accommodating and offers tons of options to explore the area. There are also some really nice restaurants, go figure.
4. RENT A 4X4 AND DRIVE: Best thing to do is get your own car and see things you probably wouldn't on a tour. The land is stark, unforgiving and yet full of life— seeing animals and people thrive here is astonishing. And don't have a panic attack (as I almost did! haha) and think you're gonna run out of gas and die after looking out your car window and realizing there is nothingness as far as the eye can see. Keep driving. You'll get somewhere, lol. And it's pretty spectacular.
3. VIEW THE STARRY NIGHTS - The near-perfect visibility in the Atacama desert gives stargazers crystal-clear views of the galaxies above. Take a tour with QuasarChile Expeditions and visit the Paranal Observatory (home of the biggest telescope in the world) with the option of camping overnight under the stars.
2. SUNSET AT VALLE DE LA LUNA (VALLEY OF THE MOON) - This is what everyone makes a beeline for just as the sun makes its final exit for the night. The is probably the Atacama Desert's most well-known site. Climb up a few dunes and rocks to get a good view and prepare to see one of the most stunning landscapes in the world as it changes colors against the moon-like (or Mars-like) terrain. Ridiculously. Amazing.